Secretariat

The Fastest Horse of the Past Quarter Century

He had the unique distinction of defeating a Kentucky Derby winner and a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner. He ran in the Kentucky Derby and was only 11-1, yet broke or equaled the track records of three of the fastest horses of the past half century. He broke Dr. Fager’s seven-furlong track record of 1:20 1/5 at Aqueduct that had stood for 31 years. He broke Groovy’s six-furlong track record of 1:07 4/5 at Belmont Park that had stood for 12 years. He equaled Mr. Prospector’s six-furlong track record of 1:07 4/5 at Gulfstream Park that had stood for 26 years. In his three record performances he earned Beyer speed figures of 123, 123, and 124. Of the two track records he broke, both still stand, as did his record-equaling performance at Gulfstream before they resurfaced the track. This is the story of a horse who had one of the most brilliant, yet oddest careers of any horse in memory.

The Fastest Horse of the Past Quarter Century

By Steve Haskin

 

It was November of 1999. I brought my wife and my daughter to trainer Lou Albertrani’s barn at Aqueduct to visit Artax following the colt’s record-equaling performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, in which he became the first Sprint winner to break 1:08 for the six furlongs.

I had no idea what to expect as we approached his stall. After all, this was a horse who was a speed demon and a warrior on the track. Ironically, the horse who broke the legendary Dr. Fager’s longstanding track record was a great-grandson of the Doc himself. And Dr. Fager, although being one of the fastest and fiercest competitors ever seen on an American racetrack, was a gentle soul in his stall. As it turned out, Artax was just like his great-granddad. He was so sweet that we used the photo I took of my daughter petting him as our holiday card that year.

Before getting into Artax’s amazing career, I touched base with his owner Ernie Paragallo, who even after all these years is still passionate when talking about him.

”Simply put he was as fast as any horse that ever lived,” Paragallo said. “He was also about as good looking and tough as any horse that ever lived. He was a horse that just loved to run, if you gave him more than three or four weeks between races he would get pissed off. He trained harder and faster every morning than horses could run in the afternoon. I remember Jorge (Chavez) breezing him one morning at Belmont in a simple maintenance breeze before one of the last three races of his career when he was on his streak of tying or breaking track records and running over 120 Beyers. I told Jorge to let him breeze easy on his own and he did and Jorge came back and said, ‘I just sat still and never asked him and I had a ton left.’ I asked, ‘What do you think you went in?’ and he said :48 or so, but very strong. I laughed because they caught him in :44.97 and a gallop out in :57. He just did things with such ease.”

There was no owner who was more confident in his horses than the outspoken and often outrageous Paragallo. When the Breeders’ Cup Sprint drew two supplementary starters to swell the field to 14, Paragallo was asked if he was concerned about the large field and the two latecomers, and he replied in typical fashion, “Thank them for the extra purse money I’ll be getting.” After the race, in which Artax blazed an opening half in :44 flat and then dug in gamely to hold off future champion sprinter Kona Gold to win by a half length, Paragallo was asked when he was confident of victory and he replied, “When the overnights came out.”

Paragallo bought Artax as a weanling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November mixed sale, but had other things on his mind at the time. He was at the Meadowlands watching his horse He’s No Cow run in the New Jersey Futurity when he got a phone call from his bloodstock agent Buzz Chase at the sale saying he had just found the best looking baby he had ever seen. Paragallo told him to go ahead and buy him. As they were loading for the New Jersey Fururity, Chase called back to tell him the colt was entering the ring and proceeded to give him updates on the bidding while the race was being run. All Paragallo said each time was keep bidding on him. When He’s No Cow began drawing away in the stretch, Paragallo was so excited he shouted to Chase over the phone, “Just buy him!” and hung up. A few minutes later, Paragallo called Chase to tell him they had just won the New Jersey Futurity and Chase told him they got the colt for $82,000.

Paragallo actually put the colt in the Barretts 2-year-old on the advice of Chase, who thought that being the first of the Marquetrys, it would be a good idea to sell him before the Marquetrys hit the racetrack. But bloodstock agent Bob Scanlon and Paragallo’s rider Tim Gardner told him not to sell. Gardner told Paragallo that Artax was the second best horse he had ever ridden right behind Paragallo’s brilliant colt Unbridled’s Song. “If you sell him boss you are making a big mistake,” Gardner said, “And I know you don’t make mistakes.” So Paragallo scratched him from the sale and sent him to Taylor Made Farm for 60 days off.

One can say that Artax had two distinct careers: one when he was trained by Randy Bradshaw in California and was a familiar presence on the Kentucky Derby trail all winter and spring, and the other when he was turned over to Lou Albertrani in March of his 4-year-old campaign after going sour having raced 10 times in two-turn races. In his 12 races under Albertrani’s care he never raced farther than seven furlongs, turning into the fastest horse in the country and one of the fastest horses in memory.

But backing up a bit, Artax began his journey on the Derby trail by finishing second to eventual Derby winner Real Quiet in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity. At 3, he wired his field by 5 1/2 lengths in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes earning a whopping 109 Beyer speed figure, before defeating Real Quiet in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes, earning a 108 Beyer. But as he stretched out, things began going downhill, beginning with a well-beaten third in the Santa Anita Derby and a dismal 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, in which he got shuffled back to 10th early and never got closer than that. Despite a solid second-place finish later in the year in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, run in 1:21 2/5, he was stretched out in distance again and totally lost his form. That is when Paragallo decided to bring the colt back East, turning him over to Albertrani, and the new super sprinter emerged.

After finishing second in the Bold Ruler Handicap to Allen Jerkens’ blazingly fast Kelly Kip, who had to run the six furlongs in a track-record 1:07 2/5 to beat him, Artax defeated the brilliant and top-class Affirmed Success by 3 1/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, in which he sizzled the seven furlongs in 1:20 flat, breaking Dr. Fager’s track record. Unfortunately, Artax had one weakness that cost him several races after that. With so many distance races behind him, he had a tendency to break slowly in sprints, and when he couldn’t get the lead or at least be fighting for the lead he wasn’t quite the same horse. 

During this period, his one race that stood out and had the entire racing world talking was the Maryland Breeders’ Cup Handicap run on Preakness Day.

As the field passed the eighth pole, a deranged fan jumped the chain link fence in the infield, climbed over the rail and stood on the track crouching slightly in a threatening position. He seemed focused on one horse, and that was Artax. As Artax approached him he wound up and threw a punch at the horse, who swerved sharply to his left to avoid trampling the burly guy, who was shoved to the ground by police and taken off to jail. The punch grazed the side of Jorge Chavez’s leg, but any chance of Artax finishing in the money was gone, as he wound up fifth, but his evasive actions did save the life of this lunatic.

By late September it was time to start thinking Breeders’ Cup. Artax’s best distance had proven to be seven furlongs and the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont looked to be a good spot to end his losing streak, during which Chavez’s agent had booked him on another horse. Now, after three starts in which Artax was ridden by Mike Smith and once by Chris Decarlo, Chavez returned back aboard the colt for the Vosburgh. But, as he had done in previous races, Artax broke last in the field of six, was rushed up to challenge for early lead and then pulled away to win by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:21 3/5 for the seven panels.

After the race, Albertrani put it simply: “He’s a magnificent animal. I’m just blessed to be around him.”

Albertrani and Paragallo knew he could not get away with a poor break in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint going only six furlongs, especially since he had never won going that short. A slow start and he would have little chance of winning. So, Albertrani worked on that in the mornings and decided to run him in the six-furlong, Grade 2 Forest Hills Handicap at Belmont three weeks after the Vosburgh to see how he would break. The strategy was simple. When Artax got the early lead he was a monster, but he was not nearly as effective coming from off the pace. Chavez knew he had to gun him out of there if he was to have any chance in the Sprint over the quick Gulfstream Park surface.

“It’s up to Georgie now,” Albertrani said before the race. “I’m just going to turn the reins over to him and hope for the best. Once he takes off he’s like a rocket. But he just doesn’t have that sprinter’s push out of the gate. If he does break well this time I don’t think they can beat him.”

As the field loaded in the gate for the Forest Hills, all eyes were on the No. 1 stall. Everyone would know in an instant whether Artax would have a shot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. They could see Artax’s beautiful black head and white blaze peering through the starting gate. Chavez could feel the colt’s muscles coiling beneath him. Albertrani and Paragallo knew they had the fastest gun in the East, possibly the entire country, but if only he didn’t misfire at the break every race.

Artax was standing perfectly still. Starter Bob Duncan sprung the latch. Chavez pushed forward, and this time Artax gave a surge he hadn’t shown before. The gun had finally fired cleanly. Artax rocketed to the lead and after a half in :44 3/5, he turned back the challenge of 3-year-old speedster Bet Me Best and set sail for home, opening up on the field with a sizzling eighth in :11 1/5. Even with Chavez hand-riding the colt and looking back over his shoulder, Artax still came home his final eighth in :11 4/5 to complete the final quarter in an eye-catching :23 flat, winning by 6 1/2 lengths.

As he crossed the finish line, track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “Artax looking like a sprint champion today.” Durkin then glanced over at the tote board and announced to the crowd in a slow and precise manner as if to drum it into everyone’s head, “The time of the race 1…0…7 and 3. He’s faster than Groovy!”

Frank Alexander, trainer of runnerup Good and Tough, walked down to the track and uttered just two words: “Jesus Christ!”

Paragallo in typical fashion, said, “If Georgie didn’t wrap up on him he would have gone in six and change.”

Back at the barn after race, Artax was pawing at the ground looking for his dinner. The following morning he was tired, but never left the front of his stall except to wolf down a mound of alfalfa. “I don’t know how he does it,” said Albertrani’s wife Denise, a former jockey and exercise rider. What I want to know is where does he keep getting it from? To run that fast, it’s almost kind of scary. And he loves people and loves animals.”

As if on cue, one of trainer Ramon Hernandez’s cats came in the barn and strolled into Artax’s stall. The colt looked at him and allowed the visitor to wander about the stall for a while before going on his way. “Nothing fazes him,” Albertrani said. “He’s just a phenomenon. I love this horse.”

The important thing was that Artax was now ready to take on the nation’s top sprinters in the Breeders’ Cup, especially after turning in a blazing half-mile work over the deeper Belmont training track in a bullet :46 flat five days before the Breeders’ Cup.

One morning at Gulfstream, there was talk around the backstretch about Artax refusing to train. But no one knew the horse and how he wanted to do things his own way. When exercise rider Dale McKeown would take him to the track the colt would stand at the gap and look around at everything and watch the other horses train. McKeown knew there was nothing to do but sit back and relax and wait until Artax was ready, which could take 15 to 20 minutes. Then he would go out there and gallop like a tiger or turn in bullet works.

Fortunately, he broke fairly well in the Breeders’ Cup and was able to establish the lead after a brief battle, rattling off fractions of :22 and :44 before opening up in the stretch and holding off the late charge of Kona Gold, who would go on to win the Sprint and the championship the following year. Artax had put his name in the record books with three of the fastest horses in history. With his victory over such top-class California sprinters as Kona Gold and Big Jag, Artax nailed down the Sprint championship. When he returned to New York, I had to bring my wife and daughter to see the fastest horse in the country.

Artax was retired after the Breeders’ Cup and had a most unusual stud career. He didn’t prove to be much of a sire, but his offspring did include six stakes winners, including Grade 2 Alfred Vanderbilt winner Diabolical and Grade 1 winner Friendly Michelle, winner of the Prioress Stakes and third in the Acorn.

What made his stud career so unusual was that he was retired to Clermont Farm in New York and then was brought back to the track the following year, but never started. He then went to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky before being sent to Diamond G Ranch in Oklahoma. He eventually wound up at Haras Santa Tereza do Bom Retiro in Brazil, where he died of complications from colic in 2012 at age 17.

Artax was named by Paragallo’s daughter after the beloved horse in “Neverending Story,” whose death, sinking into the Swamp of Sorrow, traumatized many a small child. Paragallo’s daughter was not one of them, as she only saw part of the movie and simply loved the horse’s name.

As for the real Artax, his death at a young age and so far from home also was tragic, but anyone who watched this extraordinary horse break the records of legends can only hope his will also be a neverending story.

(If you enjoyed this column you will have an opportunity to bid on Artax’s halter as one of the many items to be auctioned off on eBay from November 1 to November 8 to support Old Friends Retirement Farm. The auction features original racing memorabilia such as shoes, halters and saddlecloths from famous horses and Breeders’ Cup champions including A.P. Indy, Afleet Alex, Giacomo, Kona Gold, Rags to Riches, Tiznow, War Front and many more. Next week, I will be sharing more about this diverse array of items and the horses and racing performances they represent).