What Truly Defines Greatness

With Flightline still a major source of conversation and speculation, I thought it was a good time to talk about some other horses who did extraordinary things, but on a much wider scale. Not to take away from Flightline’s amazing feats, but just imagine if the horses listed below did today what they did back then. ~ Steve Haskin

What Truly Defines Greatness

By Steve Haskin


All the talk these days has obviously been about Flightline and his remarkable, but brief, career and where he fits in the history books when it comes to great horses. Can he really be considered one of the greats or a potentially great horse who never got a chance to exhibit the qualities we saw from many of the legends of the past, mainly versatility and the ability to win under all conditions over a period of time?

There is no doubt that Flightline did things that horses just don’t do, or at least have never done and likely will never do. We know we have never seen anything like him for what he accomplished in only six career starts. But how will his extraordinary feats stand the test of time?

For now I put him in a classification all his own. After all, how can you compare him to horses who proved their greatness and their versatility over a much longer period of time? If you notice, these first few paragraphs contain a number of questions, to which there probably are no answers. But it did get me thinking about the great horses going back to the fifties who did extraordinary things and raised themselves to a different level. Their feats stamped their greatness by showing something other than just huge winning margins and fast times.

Here then are some of these remarkable horses who come to mind.

FOREGO – Like many of the great geldings, Forego raced for a number of years and lost his share of races. But the longer you race and the more amazing feats you perform the more those defeats are forgotten. Forego in his own way may have been the most extraordinary horse I ever saw, especially considering his constant physical ailments over the course of his career. Yes, his heart-pounding Marlboro Cup victory under a staggering 137 pounds will forever be his signature performance, but I remember the first time I saw him race in the 1974 Carter Handicap and realized this was no ordinary horse.

Forego was just developing his reputation as a top-class horse by winning the 1 1/4-mile Widener and Gulfstream Handicaps. He then came up to New York and was entered in the seven-furlong Carter. It was clear this was merely a prep for the prestigious Met Mile and that there was no way he was expected to carry topweight of 129 pounds, drop back to a sprint, and defeat arguably the fastest horse in the country, Mr. Prospector, who had already set a track record of 1:07 4/5 at Gulfstream in 1973, a track record of 1:08 3/5 at Garden State Park in ’74, and had won two other races in ’74 in 1:08 1/5 at Gulfstream and 1:09 flat at Aqueduct. And he won each time by big margins.

Also in the field was Tartan Stable’s Lonetree, who had defeated Mr. Prospector that year in the seven-furlong Poinciana Handicap at Hialeah in a blazing 1:21 flat, breaking the track record by almost three-fifths of a second. Add to those two speedballs, Timeless Moment, who had equaled the six-furlong track record of 1:08 3/5 at Aqueduct the year before, just missed the 6 1/2-furlong track record at Belmont by two-fifths of a second, and had won a pair of seven-furlong allowance races at Aqueduct that spring in 1:22 1/5 and 1:22 2/5. Still another in the field was William Haggin Perry’s Forage, who was coming off a second-place finish (disqualified to third) in the seven-furlong San Simeon Handicap at Santa Anita in 1:21 1/5. He would go on to break the track record for a mile at Aqueduct two months later, winning an allowance race in 1:33 1/5 before capturing the Du Pont and Atlantic City Handicaps.

I realized we were looking at something very special when Forego, a 17-hands giant who looked nothing like a sprinter, made a big run around the turn and just cruised by Mr. Prospector with a quarter of a mile still to run, as jockey Heliodoro Gustines sat motionless in the saddle. Under no urging at all he drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:22 1/5.

This to me was the beginning of the Forego dynasty, when we first realized what a truly remarkable horse he was. He would later prove that by becoming the only horse to win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and be voted Champion Sprinter that same year. In the span of six weeks in 1974, Forego won the 1 1/2-mile Woodward Stakes, the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap, and the two-mile Gold Cup. That is a feat we will never see again.

SECRETARIAT – As spectacular as Secretariat was in the Triple Crown, setting new stakes records in all three races that still stand 50 years later, running each quarter faster than the previous one in the Kentucky Derby, and turning in arguably the greatest performance in the history of the sport in winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths while breaking the previous record by two and three-fifths seconds, it was not these feats alone that put him on this list.

Secretariat did something extremely rare by being named Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, and he did it in a year that saw future Hall of Famers Riva Ridge, Cougar II, and Susan’s Girl and top-class champions like Key to the Mint. Although it is often difficult for a 3-year-old who goes through the rigors of the Triple Crown to maintain his form through the end of year, what Secretariat did after the Triple Crown was remarkable. After bouncing back from a serious illness in August, Big Red was rushed back to make the inaugural Marlboro Cup against the best horses in the country. Not only did he set a new world record, he would be rushed back again two weeks later in the slop to substitute for stablemate Riva Ridge with little or no training in the 1 1/2-mile Woodward Stakes, finishing second to the brilliant older horse Prove Out in the second-fastest mile and a half ever run at Belmont. He then came back nine days later making his grass debut in the 1 1/2-mile Man o’ War Stakes and broke the course record defeating proven grass horses Tentam and Big Spruce by five lengths. Imagine a horse today doing all that in the span of 23 days, and then traveling to Canada to romp in the 1 5/8-miles Canadian International to close out his career with two major victories on grass.

When people 50 years later think of Secretariat, they naturally think of his unprecedented Triple Crown sweep. But what has gotten lost are his amazing accomplishments later in the year that not only justify the greatness we saw in the spring, but how truly extraordinary he really was under all conditions, all surfaces, and all distances, and against the best dirt and grass horses in the country.

ROUND TABLE – I’m going back a bit, but this horse’s greatness and what he accomplished has gotten a bit lost over the years. He is the horse who not only revolutionized grass racing in America, he also became the first horse who was equally as great on both surfaces while traveling all over the country.

A complete horse who would go on to become one of the great sires of his time, he raced 66 times, equaling or breaking 16 track records – 11 on dirt and five on grass. He broke the 2:00 mark for 1 1/4 miles five times and twice broke 1:59, yet was fast enough to break his maiden going four furlongs and ran a mile in a record-equaling 1:33 2/5.

He was put on the grass for the first time after 24 dirt starts, winning his first three starts, including the American Derby and United Nations Handicap. After 14 straight starts on dirt, he returned to the grass, winning his first five starts, increasing his unbeaten streak to eight races. He would then win six of his eight remaining starts on grass. To demonstrate his brilliance over both surfaces, he won the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt in 1:58 3/5 and the 1 1/4-mile San Marcos Handicap on grass in 1:58 2/5. He also won carrying 130 pounds or more 17 times, including 136 pounds in the United Nations Handicap in his final start on grass.

And unlike Forego, Round Table was a small horse, yet was able to win 43 races over all types of racetracks and all distances and look like a giant.

JOHN HENRY – When you mention the name John Henry to most people they automatically think grass horse. And why not? This incorrigible rags to riches gelding began his career at tiny Jefferson Downs and Evangeline Downs in Louisiana and rose from the depths to become one of the most beloved horses of all time and was named Champion Grass Horse in 1980, 1981, 1983, and 1984 and voted Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984 at the age of 9. Cantankerous and obscurely bred, he sold as a yearling for $1,100 and went on to become the first horse to earn $3 million, the first to earn $4 million, the first to earn $5 million and the first to earn $6 million.

But John Henry was more than an all-time great grass horse. He was the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap twice (once carrying 130 pounds) and also captured The Jockey Club Gold Cup and San Marcos Handicap on dirt and placed in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Meadowlands Cup, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He also is the only horse to win Grade 1 stakes at age 9, and in fact won four of them. That is certainly something you will never see again.

But like Forego’s Marlboro Cup and Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, John Henry’s best known victory came in his dramatic nose score in the inaugural Arlington Million, so his dirt triumphs often are forgotten.

DR. FAGER – While Dr. Fager raced only 22 times over a three-year-period, what he accomplished as a 4 year-old in 1968 will go down as the greatest and most versatile campaign in racing history. If you’re looking for the extraordinary let’s begin by saying that Dr. Fager became the only horse to win four divisional championships in a single year. So exceptional was he on all surfaces and at any distance, at least up to a mile and a quarter, he was named Horse of the Year, Champion Older Horse, Champion Grass Horse, and Champion Sprinter.

At seven furlongs he easily won the Roseben Handicap in his first start of the year, carrying 130 pounds and covering the distance in a sprightly 1:21 2/5. He closed out his career winning the Vosburgh Handicap eased up in a track-cord 1:20 1/5 over a recently winterized and far slower surface by six lengths carrying a staggering 139 pounds. Never again will we witness such a demonstration of speed, dominance, and weight carrying ability.

At one mile he set a new world record of 1:32 1/5 that still has not been broken, winning eased up by 10 lengths carrying 134 pounds.

At 1 1/16 miles he traveled to California and beat 13 opponents in the Californian Stakes, winning in hand from post 11 carrying 130 pounds.

At 1 1/8 miles he cantered to an eight-length victory in the Whitney Stakes carrying 132 pounds while being kept very wide by jockey Braulio Baeza, who pretty much just sat on him motionless the entire race.

At 1 3/16 miles he made his grass debut in the United Nations Handicap against a star-studded field of grass horses and despite slipping and sliding the whole race while lugging 134 pounds and losing the lead several times to a classy horse carrying 22 fewer pounds, he dug deeper than he ever had to before to score a gutsy neck victory.

At 1 1/4 miles he defeated his arch rival and future Hall of Famer Damascus in the Suburban Handicap, covering the 10 furlongs in 1:59 3/5 carrying 132 pounds and equaling Gun Bow’s track record. In his only defeat that year he finished second to Damascus after chasing his rival’s rabbit through suicidal fractions and still equaled his own record of 1:59 3/5 under 135 pounds, giving five pounds to Damascus, who set a new track record of 1:59 1/5, which still stands.

KELSO – We have another gelding on the list, and who is ever going to come even remotely close to Kelso’s feat of winning five consecutive Horse of the Year titles and five consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cups? Not only did he set a world record for two miles in one of those Gold Cups he also set a world record for 1 1/2 miles on the grass, nailing down his final Horse of the Year title with a 4 1/2-length victory over arch rival Gun Bow in the Washington D.C. International, defeating some of the world’s best grass horses.

What made his DC International victory so special was that he had previously finished second in the race three times. So as great was Kelso was on the dirt, let us not forget his four big performances on grass against the best of the world and his strong second-place finish in the Man o’ War Stakes.

ACK ACK – Although he is not in the same class as the aforementioned horses, having only one strong year, it was a year we had never seen before and certainly qualifies as extraordinary. After being sold and sent to Charlie Whittingham in California, Ack Ack, as a 5-yar-old, won seven straight stakes at seven furlongs, then 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 5 1/2 furlongs, 1 1/8 miles on grass, and finally 1 1/4 miles carrying 134 pounds.

Prior to that he concluded his 4-year-old campaign with consecutive victories at six furlongs, seven furlongs, 5 1/2 furlongs, and 6 1/2 furlongs on grass. To make that kind of leap from dirt sprints and grass sprints to victories in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup was pretty exceptional.

There obviously are a number of other great horses who did exceptional things, but I thought I would just list these to give you an idea what the truly great ones are capable of if given the opportunity.

Photo courtesy of Edwin Whitaker

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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