The Best Horse in the Country Hits the Mark

Who is the best horse in the country? That is always open to interpretation. Sometimes Horse of the Year may decide that, but there will always be difference of opinion. As we get closer to the Breeders’ Cup, which may help us find the answer, I am going to give my opinion who right now is the best horse in the country. ~ Steve Haskin

The Best Horse in the Country Hits the Mark

By Steve Haskin


Let’s cut right to the chase. Who is the best horse in America? The obvious favorites for Horse of the Year right now are Cody’s Wish and Arcangelo and perhaps White Abarrio, but Horse of the Year does not always equate to best horse. We have had several Horses of the Year over the past decade who have won the award due to lack of competition.

But to me there is one horse this year who has stood out from the rest based on several factors. He is the most explosive horse seen in a number of years, and I’m not referring to winning by huge margins. His victories have been jaw-dropping, with a turn of foot we have only seen from some of greatest European horses. When he sets his sights on another horse he hones in on him like a surface-to-surface missile. He can blow by horses in a flash on the far turn or in the stretch. He throws in :22 and change to :23 final quarters and :11 final eighths for fun. He can blow by you at a mile or a mile and a quarter, whether it’s at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, or Gulfstream Park. He even romped in his career debut at six furlongs in the slop at Saratoga. And finally he has won three straight Grade 1 stakes at three different distances at three different racetracks.

His name is Up to the Mark, and to me he is must-see entertainment. I first became enamored with European racing watching Sir Ivor and Dahlia blow by horses like they were standing still in the 1968 and 1973 runnings of the Washington. D.C. International, respectively. I have not seen that kind of acceleration on an American turf course until now.

If you’re looking for goosebumps, somehow find a way to watch Up to the Mark’s first two starts on grass this past winter at Gulfstream. You will be convinced just from those two races you are looking at something special. Now with three mind-blowing Grade 1 victories under his belt he is on the verge of competing for Horse of the Year, and even if one of the bigger names beats him out, he still, in my opinion, will be the most gifted horse seen this year.

But before we get to his last three races and what he accomplished let’s find out who this colt is and where he came from.

The year 2020 was a strange one at the yearling sales for Vinnie Viola. It was the Covid year with many horsemen buying online. J.J. Crupi, Viola’s eyes and ears at the sales and the main person he depended on to pick out horses, had died in May, 2019. Crupi’s longtime assistant, Monique Delk, who had quite an eye for a young horse herself, was crushed by the loss and decided to take a year off from the sales.

Shortly before the Keeneland September yearling sale, Viola called Delk and asked her if she would mind helping out at the sale. This was “unchartered territory” for Delk, especially in such a strange year, but she agreed to help.

There was one yearling she wound up falling in love with. That was a son of Not This Time, out of the Ghostzapper mare Belle’s Finale. “He was a beautiful well-balanced colt with a great walk and a great mind,” Delk recalled. “He’s so easy on himself and likes his quiet time just laying down in his stall and relaxing. Vinnie partners up with Mike Repole and fortunately he landed on both our lists and we got him for $450,000.”

Shortly after the sale, on October 16, 2020, Viola asked Delk to join the team full-time and she accepted. “Mo is one of my favorite people and I pushed for her to join the team,” said John Sparkman, who does the pedigree work for Viola. “She is a lifer. Her dad was a trainer so she grew up on the racetrack and was Jimmy Crupi’s assistant and lead looker for years.”

Named Up to the Mark, the colt was sent to Todd Pletcher where he outworked arguably Pletcher’s fastest 2-year-old Wit, but he came down with a lingering virus followed by a minor injury that prevented him from racing until July 21 of his 3-year-old campaign when he romped by 4 1/4 lengths goings six furlongs in the slop, earning a strong 88 Beyer figure. But his next several races were disappointing as he battled with several issues.

That’s when Pletcher decided the grass would be easier on him and put him in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on January 28 for his 4-year-old debut. Far back early in the 12-horse field, there was no way of telling whether or not he was handling the new surface. Then on the far turn he unleashed a sudden and explosive move, blowing by seven horses in less than 10 seconds and then drawing off with powerful strides to win by four lengths, flying home his last two quarters in :23 and :22 2/5 to complete the mile in a blistering 1:33 flat. As Gulfstream track announcer Pete Aiello called, “That was a power move on the turn.” Was this the birth of a major turf star?

Up to the Mark came right back in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, and once again he dropped far back. But this time he was still ninth turning for home. Before you had a chance to think upset, he swung to the outside and in the proverbial blink of an eye he was in front, seemingly taking one stride to two for the others. He stopped the clock in a swift 1:40 flat and again stunned Aiello with his move. “Up to the Mark surges; look at this turn of speed!” he bellowed.

Pletcher then moved him way up into Grade 1 competition in the Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland, but this race did not set up for him, as the field got strung out and he found himself with way too much ground to make, as the winner flew home to equal the stakes record. Up to the Mark had to go five-wide turning for home and just missed by a neck of catching Eclipse Award winner Modern Games for second.

That was the last time Up to the Mark would lose, as he blew his opponents away in the Grade 1 Turf Classic going 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs and the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap going 1 1/4 miles at Belmont. In the Manhattan he came home his final quarter in a spectacular :22 2/5 to cover the 10 furlongs in 1:59 1/5. In both races, he actually laid closer to the pace and just inhaled the leaders in the stretch. I can’t remember seeing a horse open up so quickly. It was obvious we were looking at one of the most exciting grass horses seen in this country in years.

After the Manhattan, Pletcher put him away for four months following a minor physical setback, bringing him back in the Grade 1 Keeneland Turf Mile against Godolpin’s top-class European miler Master of the Seas, fresh off a dominating 3 3/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile. Dropping back to a mile from 10 furlongs was not an ideal situation, but he needed to get a race in before the Breeders’ Cup, so even a good second to Master of the Seas, who was the 6-5 favorite, would have been considered a successful return.

Down the backstretch, Up to the Mark and Master of the Seas were side by side in seventh and eighth with Up to the Mark on the outside. Around the turn, Master of the Seas suddenly took off along the inside and quickly left Up to the Mark three lengths behind him. As they turned into the stretch Up to the Mark looked out of it, as Master of the Seas bore down on the leaders inside the eighth pole.

Irad Ortiz on Up to the Mark, had to cut sharply to the inside, then came off the rail and set his sights on Master of the Seas, who had taken the lead inside the sixteenth pole. This was a European closer taking the lead late in the race, and European closers do not get caught by American horses. But Up to the Mark is no ordinary American horse. Apparently beaten, he gave one amazing surge fifty yards out and suddenly was right alongside Master of the Seas. Both horses lunged for the wire but it was Up to the Mark who just got his nose down.

Up to the Mark (left) wins 2023 Coolmore Turf Mile

To come off that long a layoff, drop back to a mile against one of the world’s best milers, and pounce on him with such quick and powerful strides while he was making what looked to be a winning move was something you rarely if ever see. To me this was the best performance of the year because it was something horses just don’t do.

The question now is do you keep him at a mile, which probably is no longer his best distance, or venture into unknown territory and stretch him out to 1 1/2 miles? You never know if that devastating turn of foot will be there at the longer distance with the possibility of a slower pace. And the Turf is likely to attract several Derby and Arc horses who specialize in 12-furlong races. Co-owner Mike Repole has already stated emphatically on TV that his next start will be the Turf, which would give him a better shot at Horse of the Year.

Having seen what this colt is capable of at three different distances and over different racetracks I am never going to doubt him regardless of the new distance, the stiffer competition, and a far different grass course than he’s been running on. Perhaps the firmer course at Santa Anita will help him get that extra furlong and enable him to use that turn of foot. We saw what he did over the firm Gulfstream course.

In the meantime I am going to keep thinking of what Up to the Mark has accomplished this year and the excitement he has bought to the normally humdrum grass division and proclaim him in my opinion the best horse in the country.

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, Coady Photography


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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95 Responses to “The Best Horse in the Country Hits the Mark”

  1. David Harris says:

    Someone who sees clearly. Up to the Mark should be Horse of the Year. Anyone who votes for White Abarrio lacks imagination. Among other factors, the best male dirt routers are retired early, while horses in other divisions are not. I don’t like continuing to make horses Horse of the Year from a shrinking pool.

  2. Lynda King says:

    Year end status of multiple Lane’s End stallions.

    McCracken- new location unknown
    Creative Cause- unknown
    Lost Treasure- unknown
    Cupid- to Maryland
    Alternation- unknown
    Lookin at Lucky- export on record
    Early Voting-breeding issues
    Classic Empire-unknown
    Cloud Computing- Pa
    Mor Spirit- Indiana
    Free Drop Billy- Iowa
    Gormley- Louisiana
    Unified- Louisiana
    Lexitonian- to Calumet
    Honor Code- Japan
    Prontonico- unknown

    • Discopartner says:

      Can you follow up with where these guys are? If you can? This is a nice list of “old friends” from the racetrack, and it’s not a surprise they couldn’t all succeed as stallions.

      • Lynda King says:

        Do you mean the unknowns?

        • Discopartner says:

          Yes. I thought you might keep looking for info on them. But then again they’re probably marked “unknown” for a reason. Thanks for the list and for responding.

          I’ve noticed many of these sires in pp’s lately. Creative Cause has cropped up quite a bit over the years and is probably the most established sire on your list. Mor Spirit had a runner on Sat. Cloud Computing and Classic Empire had offspring on the Derby trail this year.

          • Lynda King says:

            Sad thing is that sires are dropped off of the news releases about this time every year for the stud fees for the upcoming season that starts around the middle of February and often there is no explanation as to why.

            Outside of the pension of a stallion due to infertility or advancing age or a death or euthanasia “for infirmities” of old age many of the farms are just not forthcoming with information.

            I agree with you about Creative Cause and Mor Spirit.

            At least the stalions do seem to fare a little better than the broodmares. Many of the the mares end up in the slaughter pipeline.

            Steve pretty much nailed it in his comment about American Pharoah. His foals are just not selling at the auctionsand not accomplishing much on the track either. His fee has dropped to 50,000 at Ashford. He did not shuttle to Australia this past season. I saw a photo of him last year shortly after he returned from his last shuttle. He looked awful; dull coat, poor muscle tone and weight loss. Ashford announced that he was going to take a break from shuttling. In recent photos he looks great. Shuttling is in my opinion hard on these stallions. They have full books almost year round with little rest. Some years ago I visited a large Arabian farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky. The farm owned a percentage of an important racing Arabian. He was shuttled between Poland and the United States. The difference was that he spent a year in the US, then went back to Poland for a year and then back to US for a year, etc.

            Most of the sires do stand in Kentucky and with all these colts retiring at age 3 the farms, in my opinion, have become revolving
            doors. They have to make room for the latest wonder horse with high expectations that the horse will become the next Tapit.

            There is also matter of the continually decreasing registered foal crops. The Jockey Club has estimated that the crop in 2024 will drop again.

            Regarding Justify who is being called the next “red hot sire”, I was curious as to how his crops were doing. To date most of named progeny have either not raced or have not earned much on the track other than handful. Not one of Zedan’s purchases have come close to earning what he paid for them. Another revolving door in my opinion. Spend millions on colts and fillies with a very low win percentage or do not make it to the track. Have to hand it to Coolmore, the organization is a master when it comes to marketing.

            On a side note, many of the stallions that have landed in Japan are ridden including Animal Kingdom and Carravaggio. Godolphin is another organization that keeps their stallions in tip top shape with exercise.

            And finally, daw the list of mares bred to Flightline. Talk about a list of Who’s Who in broodmares, Flightline got them. Secret Oath is booked to Flightline for 2024. Flightline’s book was limited to 152 mares. HA, if he had landed at say Coolmore, you can about guess his book would have been in the 225 to 250 range and possibly a candidate for shuttling in a couple of years.

      • Lynda King says:

        I read about a week ago I guess that Lookin At Lucky was sent to Chile. He had been shuttling there. Guess he was sold to Chile.
        Know for sure Cupid is in Maryland. FB friend visited him a new farm and shared photos.
        Honor Code is in Japan. Lots of fans very upset over this.
        Disposition of Early Voting is not known. Fans are hoping he lands at Old Friends or Kentucky Horse Park or has a second career.
        McCracken supposedly had fertility issues. Not known where he landed. Possibly pensioned.
        Gormley is in Louisiana.
        If I read or hear some sort of conformation on the unknowns and others I will post.

        • Matthew W says:

          Lynda I’m interested in Pioneerof the Nile…he started out great, as a sure …but I do not see many graded stakes winners lately…..I agree with you about Nest, she dominated vs her own age but couldn’t handle older, she might just not be as good as we thought….

          • Lynda King says:

            If I learn anything about Pioneer of the Nile, will be sure to let you know.

          • Lynda King says:

            Sadly Pioneer of the Nile passed away in 2019. He became uncomfortable after covering a mare and died a short time later.
            The necropsy result was that he had a “heart attack”.

    • Lynda King says:

      Prontonico, Medina Spirit’s sire is still owned by Caselton-Lyon and has shuttled to Chile.

  3. Lynda King says:

    Nest retired, not running in BCD. Will be run through the Night of Stars Auction November 07.

    • Discopartner says:

      Not retired but will be sold to race or be a brood mare. There’s more detail in DRF story.

      • Lynda King says:

        LOL, well that story flipped quickly.
        Read the DRF…Pletcher said Repole could buy her back??
        Makes no sense to me.

        • Todd Vaughn says:

          Probably should be retired. I’m sure there is an exception, but i can’t recall a top filly going off form and coming all the way back. They seem to lose the will.

          • Lynda King says:

            Not sure I agree with you.
            This whole theory that when a filly reaches a certain age she loses interest and wants to become a mama does not sit well with me.
            Many fillies continue to race beyond age 3 and often until age 5 or 6; not only Thoroughbreds but mares engaged in other horse sports. There was a mare, do not recall her name, a few years ago who competed in a Grand National whike carrying a foal.

            Actually a filly starts heat cycles at age 2 and can be bred, carry and deliver a foal.
            I know this to be a fact, have an Arabian mare, a rescue. Her previous owner allowed her stallion to get to her when she was 2 and she had a foal before she was 3.

            For some reason the sport of horse racing in the United States treats fillies amd mares like delicate little China dolls.

            I did read that Nest is owned by a partnership that includes Repole. Pletcher said that Repole might buy the other partners out and return her to racing.

            Actually think this has more to do with Pletcher and his training style than anything…unless of course she has been injured. She has not had a work her last race in which she ran 4th…the Spinster Stakes I believe.

            Running 4th is not, at least in my opinion, going totally off form and I am reluctant to say that she cannot come back from that.

            At any rate, she has raced 14 times which is at least double the number of times most colts do today.

            This whole idea of lightly racing any horse ( colt or filly) then shuttling them off to the breeding shed has gotten to be a joke. It is one reason among many that horse racing is on its way out in the United States.

  4. Davids says:

    Atrocious conditions at Ascot resulted in a host of upsets but the conditions couldn’t stop the fairy tale ending of Frankie Dettori’s dazzling career as the wizard drove King of Steel on to finally achieving a Group 1 win in the Champion Stakes. The curtain came down while the fans chanted “Frankie, Frankie, Frankie.” More a rock star than your usual deprecating jockey. It’s been a fun time, with Frankie.

    It’s a pity that Paddington and Tahiyra weren’t kept safe for the Breeders’ Cup instead of perceiving with them on a track that was against them while enabling a mud lark to steal the race from the get go. Without Frankie’s glorious end the day was pretty miserable really and that’s being kind.

    Meanwhile, we had the storied Caulfield Cup run and won by Without a Fight yesterday, next Saturday the most prestigious race in Australasia, the Cox Plate, will be run at Moonee Valley. With all roads leading to the Melbourne Cup on November 7.

    • Lynda King says:

      He will be riding Zandon in the BCC.
      Comments floating around that he is coming to US to ride and only semi-retiring.