Secretariat

Great Racing Stories: A New High for Ack Ack

This is the first installment of a new feature, titled “Great Racing Stories,” in which we will take a look at major stakes results over the years and uncover the untold stories of which most people are not aware, but add color and odd twists to the events behind these races. We begin with Ack Ack’s victory in the 1971 Santa Anita Handicap, which helped propel the 5-year-old to the first ever Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. ~ Steve Haskin

Great Racing Stories: A New High For Ack Ack

By Steve Haskin

 

It was autumn, 50 years ago. The sensational 3-year-old crop of 1969 was all but gone from the racing scene. Defending Horse of the Year Arts and Letter suffered a bowed tendon in the Californian Stakes and was retired. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince was retired after the Belmont Stakes. The 2-year-old champion and Flamingo and Florida Derby winner Top Knight was retired in July of ‘69, but would return in 1972 and wound up his career in ignominious fashion, running in allowance races at Lincoln Downs and Narragansett until the age of 9. The brilliant Reviewer was retired, as was Gotham and Wood Memorial winner Dike.

But there was one horse from that crop who was still around, and he was about to make an astounding transition in his career unlike anything seen in many years. His name was Ack Ack, who had been considered nothing more than an excellent sprinter and miler at 2, 3, and 4 who wanted no part of classic distances. In 18 career starts, only three were two-turn races and he was beaten in all of them. But he did set a track record winning the one-mile Derby Trial by seven lengths in 1:34 2/5 and won the one-mile Arlington Classic by 4 1/2 lengths, also in 1:34 2/5.

Bred by Captain Harry Guggenheim, who raced under the name of Cain Hoy Stable, Ack Ack went through an uneventful 4-year-old campaign, but was about to undergo a complete metamorphosis at the age of 5.

In 1969, Guggenheim, whose uncle Benjamin died aboard the Titanic, held a dispersal of his racing stock, but kept Ack Ack and sent him to California in 1970 to be trained by Charlie Whittingham, who replaced the colt’s previous trainer Frank “Downy” Bonsal. Whittingham continued to run Ack Ack at short distances, his only stakes victories coming in the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap via disqualification, run in a blazing 1:20 3/5, and the 6 1/2-furlong Autumn Days Handicap on the grass.

Put away for three months, he returned at age 5 to finish second in the six-furlong Palos Verdes Handicap and win the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap in 1:21 flat. Six days after the San Carlos, Harry Guggenheim died of cancer and the majority interest in Ack Ack was sold to E.E. “Buddy” Fogelson, who was married to actress Greer Garson. Fogelson, who raced under the name Forked Lightning Ranch, kept two-thirds of the colt, with Whittingham purchasing the other third.

With the new ownership, Whittingham decided to try to stretch Ack Ack out and ran him in the 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual Handicap, which he barely held on to win by three-quarters of a length under 129 pounds. Not daunted in the slightest, Whittingham stretched him out even farther in the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio Stakes, which he won by 3 1/4 lengths is a swift 1:47 flat.

Now it was time for the real test. Could Ack Ack stretch out to a mile and a quarter in the Santa Anita Handicap, especially carrying 130 pounds? Only four other horses had won the Big Cap with as much as 130 pounds and two of those were the great Seabiscuit and Round Table. Back in those days, many of the great horses carried 130 pounds, and often much more. But March 13 was early in the year to carry that much weight.

Now is where the story gets really interesting, as witnessed by former trainer Bill Hirsch, son of Hall of Fame trainer William J. “Buddy” Hirsch and grandson of the legendary Max Hirsch.

On the morning of the Big Cap, Bill was on the backstretch walking hots for his father in order to earn some money to bet with that afternoon. Bill, who was friendly with Ack Ack’s groom, who we shall call jim, walked over to Whittingham’s barn to wish everyone good luck in the Big Cap. And that is when Jim, who rubbed Whittingham’s best horses and lived in a tack room at the end of the barn, four stalls down from Ack Ack’s stall, told Bill what had happened the night before.

Jim, you see, had a rather dubious side job, which was selling marijuana on the backstretch, keeping his stash in his tack room. Because so many people knew what Jim was doing they would break into his tack room and steal some of the marijuana.

Jim needed to find a safe place to keep his stash and there was only one place he could think of. Ack Ack, who stood only 15.3 hands, was a diminutive demon who would try to savage anyone who got too close to his stall, preying on unsuspecting visitors who came to visit him. They finally had to put up a yoke screen in front of the horse’s stall to protect passersby. Also, instead of hanging his hay rack in the front of the stall as is the custom, they put his hay in a chain hay rack in the back corner of his stall where he couldn’t pose a danger to people.

Jim thought what better place to keep his marijuana than in the back of Ack Ack’s hay rack, wrapped in paper and plastic. This way even if anyone knew where it was they were not about to endanger their lives going in there.

On the night before the Big Cap, Ack Ack for some reason went on a rampage in his stall. Jim hurried over when he heard it and helped calm him down. The next morning Jim got up and went to work. The first thing he did was check on Ack Ack to see how he was. If something was bothering the horse that would get him so worked up they better find out what it was with the big race that afternoon.

When Jim went into Ack Ack’s stall he noticed that during his rampage he had ripped the chain rack from the wall. Jim went to get his pot stash and saw something that caused him to panic. Ack Ack had tore into the plastic and had eaten a large amount of the marijuana.

Jim was now faced with a dilemma. If he told Whittingham about it he figured he would have no recourse but to scratch the horse for fear of coming up positive. Jim had no idea if the horse would come up positive. After all, he was a horse, not a human being, and he had no idea how much pot Ack Ack had consumed. That’s when he saw Bill Hirsch and told him what had happened and that he didn’t know what to do. How do you tell your boss on the morning of the biggest race in Ack Ack’s life that the horse had eaten marijuana the night before?

He fretted about it all morning and then decided not to tell Whittingham and just hope for the best.

Ack Ack was sent off at 4-5, with his main threat, stablemate Cougar II, carrying 125 pounds, at 7-2. Cougar was coming off seven straight grass races and Whittingham was trying to take advantage of the Chilean-bred’s stamina to get him a piece of the Big Cap’s rich purse.

Overnight rains had made the track much slower than usual, and more testing. As expected, Ack Ack went to the lead under Bill Shoemaker, and after battling head and head for almost a half-mile he began to open up on the strung-out field. Two top-class horses, Figonero and Terlago, winner of the previous year’s Santa Anita Derby, made their runs, but could not get anywhere near Ack Ack, who opened a six-length lead at the eighth pole, with Shoemaker riding him vigorously with a series of right-handed whips. Out in the middle of the track came Cougar, making up ground quickly. But at the wire it was Ack Ack the winner by 1 1/2 lengths. He had lasted the 10 furlongs over a very slow track, but it wasn’t easy at the end, especially for a horse who never been 10 furlongs and was considered a sprinter/mile all his career.

Now came the moment of truth. Jim was a nervous wreck as he led Ack Ack to the test barn. All he could do now was wait and hope that there was no positive result. As it turned out there was none. Although getting high on marijuana was commonplace in the early ‘70s, pot was not exactly a drug anyone would associate with being in a horse’s system after a race.

Years later, Hirsch was having a drink with Whittingham and told him what had happened. As Hirsch put it, Charlie just shrugged his shoulders and said, “He would have won without that s–t!”

Ack Ack went on to do something you rarely if ever see. He dropped back to 5 1/2 furlongs and won the Hollywood Express by three lengths in near track record time, again carrying 130 pounds. Stretching back out, he won the 1 1/8-mile American Handicap on grass by four lengths breaking the course record, once again under 130 pounds, and then closed out his career by winning the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:59 4/5 under 134 pounds.

After the Gold Cup, Whittingham felt there was little left for Ack Ack to achieve, especially having just carried 134 pounds to victory, so it was decided to retire him to Claiborne Farm, where he sired 40 stakes winners, including the classy and hard-knocking Broad Brush and international star Youth, winner of the French Derby in France, Canadian International Championship in Canada, and Washington D.C. International in the U.S.

Ack Ack captured three Eclipse Awards in 1971 – Horse of the Year, Champion Older Male, and Champion Sprinter. In 1975, he was enshrined into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. He died at Claiborne in 1990 at age 24.

Ack Ack had many “highs” in his career, but nothing quite like the Santa Anita Handicap.