Most Memorable Finishes 1967 – 1985

There have been many memorable finishes over the past half century, so trying to pick out just a handful is a daunting task, but I am going to continue to tackle this challenge that began with my Seattle Slew/Exceller column in October. The selections here are based on historical significance and the emotional impact they had on me, so call it part historical and part personal. ~ Steve Haskin

Most Memorable Finishes 1967 – 1985

By Steve Haskin

John Henry and The Bart – 1981 Arlington Million


When it comes to memorable finishes there is no way I can rank them in any order, so here is my list in chronological order. Part 1 will cover 1967 to 1985 and Part 2 next week will cover 1986 to the present.

1967 Gotham Stakes (Dr. Fager) – When people think of the Damascus – Dr. Fager rivalry the last race that comes to mind is their first meeting in the Gotham Stakes, but that was the race that launched one of the most intense rivalries in racing history and the only race in which these two champions actually were close at the finish. Damascus was coming off an allowance victory at Pimlico and impressive score in the Bay Shore Stakes, while Dr. Fager was making his first start of the year. Bill Shoemaker had been the rider of both horses, but following a narrow defeat in the Champagne Stakes Dr. Fager’s trainer John Nerud felt Shoemaker was too intimidated by the big rugged and strong-willed colt and replaced him with the stronger and more aggressive Manny Ycaza. Going a flat mile, Damascus had the advantage breaking from the far outside 9 post with Dr. Fager in post 5. Damascus, who was extremely quick out of the gate before taking himself back, broke on top and was head and head briefly with the 50-1 shot Royal Malabar before the latter spurted to a three-length lead. Ycaza was able to steer Dr. Fager to the outside of Damascus and put him in a perfect stalking position all the way around the far turn. The pair made their run at Royal Malabar and easily put him away at the quarter pole and the battle was on. With Dr. Fager in the more advantageous outside position, the two matched strides the entire length of the stretch and when Ycaza saw he was unable to shake free of Damascus he went to the whip twice, but Dr. Fager hated to be whipped and threw his tail up in defiance both times. When Ycaza put the whip away and went to a hand-ride, Dr. Fager gave a final surge nearing the wire to win by a half-length. Shoemaker took the blame for the defeat and told Damascus’ trainer Frank Whiteley that Dr. Fager would never again beat Damascus as long as he was on him. Dr. Fager and Damascus would go on to become two of the all-time greats, with both taking home Horse of the Year honors and being elected to the Hall of Fame. Between them they won eight championships, carried weights of 134 pounds and higher to victory and set track records that have not been broken in 55 years. And it all began in the Gotham.

1968 United Nations Handicap (Dr. Fager) – The year 1968 looked like a battle to the wire for Horse of the Year honors between the defending champion Damascus and his archrival Dr. Fager, with the pair splitting victories in memorable runnings of the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps. The logical showdown looked to be the Woodward Stakes, but Dr. Fager’s trainer John Nerud had a more important goal in mind other than championships, which was to show the racing world that his horse could do anything. So, following the Doc’s world-record romp in the Washington Park Handicap under 134 pounds, Nerud opted to change course and run the colt on the grass for the first time against the best turf horses in the country in the United Nations Handicap, in which he would again have to carry 134 pounds and give substantial weight to the likes of future Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Fort Marcy and Australian superstar Tobin Bronze. An earlier rain had begun to dry out, but left the course wet and slippery. As a result, Dr. Fager was slipping and sliding the entire race, losing the lead three times to Advocator, who was in receipt of 22 pounds. Every time Dr. Fager gave up the lead he battled back to regain it. When Advocator re-took the lead inside the eighth pole he looked like a sure winner, but Dr. Fager dug deep and again stuck his head back in front. Advocator gave one last thrust nearing the wire, but this time Dr. Fager would not be denied. He refused to give up the lead when it counted, winning by a neck. By defeating the nation’s top grass horses, Dr. Fager became the first and still the only horse to ever win four championships in one year – Sprinter, Handicap Horse, Grass Horse, and Horse of the Year.

1969 Vosburgh Handicap (Ta Wee) – If you thought Dr. Fager’s U.N. Handicap finish was exciting you should have seen his little sister Ta Wee’s victory in the Vosburgh Handicap the following year. It must be noted that this was the only time in history a major race designed mainly for males had three future Hall of Fame fillies in the field. In addition to the swift 3-year-old Ta Wee you had that year’s Filly Triple Crown and Alabama winner Shuvee, future back-to-back winner of The Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the defending female handicap champion Gamely, back-to-back winner of the Diana and Beldame and runner-up to Dr. Fager in the Californian Stakes and to Nodouble in the Santa Anita Handicap. This turned out to be the wildest cavalry charge anyone could remember. With most of the entire 11-horse field storming down the stretch with a chance to win, it was a dogged Ta Wee turning back all challenges to win by a head, with Rising Market and Plucky Lucky dead-heating for second, a half-length ahead of Jaikyl, who was a head in front of the speedy King Emperor. Shuvee and Gamely came flying too late, with Shuvee finishing sixth, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths, and Gamely finishing eighth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths. Ta Wee’s victory was all the more impressive as she battled head and head on the lead the whole way though blazing fractions of :44 2/5 and 1:08 3/5 and stopping the teletimer in 1:21 3/5.

1972 Hollywood Derby (Riva Ridge) – The only historical significance of this race is that it was the first of several mistakes made by Riva’s connections that could very well have cost the Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner a championship. And it showed how much grit and determination the colt had — so much so that it likely gutted him for the rest of the year and prevented him from winning another race. It was decided following the Belmont Stakes, which Riva had won by seven lengths, to not only run him back in three weeks, but ship him cross country for the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby, where he would have to carry topweight of 129 pounds against the best 3-year-olds in California. Five years later we would see what that same decision did to Seattle Slew, who was beaten 16 lengths at Hollywood Park for his first career defeat. Riva Ridge not only won, he hung on tenaciously to defeat the top-class Bicker, who was getting 15 pounds, Finalista, and eventual world-record holder Quack. Riva refused to be beaten, winning by a neck with the third and fourth-place finishers each separated by a half-length in 1:59 3/5. The race took so much out of Riva Ridge he didn’t even come close to winning another race the rest of the year, losing his remaining five starts by an average margin of 14 3/4 lengths. Given a well-deserved six-month vacation he returned the following year and broke or equaled two track records, broke a world record, and was voted Champion Older Male Horse.

1976 Marlboro Cup (Forego) – The mighty Forego has left many indelible images over the course of his remarkable career, but none stands out more than his iconic victory in the ’76 Marlboro Cup. Turned over to trainer Frank Whiteley at age 6 following the retirement of Sherrill Ward, Forego was a major project for his new conditioner, who had his hands full trying to keep the 17 hands gelding sound after three years of wear and tear on his fragile legs that had been plagued by sesamoid problems and calcium deposits. Whiteley said it was the worst legs he had ever seen on a horse and noted veterinarian Alex Harthill told him, “Frank, you haven’t got a chance with this horse.” It took several hours a day hosing down his legs to keep him racing. But Forego actually peaked at age 6 while carrying staggering weights ranging from 130 pounds to 135, which he carried to victory in the Woodward Handicap, run in a near-track record 1:45 4/5. Then came the 1 1/4-mile Marlboro Cup, in which Forego was burdened with 137 pounds. His main foe was the 3-year-old Honest Pleasure, who he had beaten in the Woodward. But in that race Honest Pleasure set a blazing pace of :45 3/5, 1:09 1/5, and 1:33 2/5. Going 10 furlongs Honest Pleasure would be able to slow the pace down and take control as he had done two races back in the Travers, which he had won by four lengths, shattering the track record by four-fifths of a second. As expected, Honest Pleasure opened a clear lead while slowing down the pace with a :47 2/5 half over a track labeled as sloppy, which Forego never cared for because of his bad legs. In Forego’s only start over a sloppy track he finished third, beaten four lengths. In the Marlboro Cup he dropped back to eighth in the 11-horse field as Honest Pleasure was out there winging on an easy lead. On the far turn, Bill Shoemaker swung Forego to the outside where he liked to run and he began picking off horses. But turning for home, Forego had to go very wide and still had about seven lengths to make up. As usual, he never changed leads in the stretch but still began closing into Honest Pleasure’s lead with every stride. Everyone knew it was going to be a nail-biter at the wire. Forego was relentless and kept coming, despite running over a track he disliked and giving 19 pounds to Honest Pleasure over a track he disliked. The Belmont crowd went wild as Forego hit the wire a nose ahead of Honest Pleasure, missing his own track record by a fifth of a second. That victory nailed down Forego’s third consecutive Horse of the Year title. His owner Martha Gerry said she had no idea if he had won and called it the most exciting race she ever saw.

1978 Belmont Stakes (Affirmed) – I have to admit I was one of the few people who did not see this race live, as I was in England at the time to see the Epsom Derby and attend Royal Ascot. Staying at the home of my good friend and top racing journalist George Ennor, I looked at the Daily Telegraph on Sunday morning and at the bottom of their racing story there was a short graph that read: “In America, Affirmed beat Alydar to win the Triple Crown.” I knew little of the race until I returned home and watched it for the first time and learned I had missed arguably the greatest race of all time. So while it surely was not my favorite or most memorable finish I must include it here after the fact, as it still takes my breath away 44 years later. I had seen all of the previous Affirmed and Alydar showdowns, so I wasn’t surprised how the Belmont turned out. There is no use describing a race the world has seen so many times. What I did take from it was that I was a bit surprised that John Veitch decided to take the blinkers off Alydar after he was again unable to get past Affirmed in the Preakness, but understood his thinking as he no doubt wanted to try something to help Alydar get by his tenacious foe and figured being able to see him might turn the tables just enough. With Affirmed able to set a sluggish pace of :50 and 1:14 everyone knew he would be tough to pass once again. Alydar was forced to hook up with him early and it turned into a match race for the final mile. In the stretch, Alydar, who like Forego never changed leads in the stretch, looked to be slightly the stronger of the two nearing the eighth pole, and although track announcer Chic Anderson bellowed, “And Alydar’s got a lead!” that is still open to debate. Once again, Alydar was not able to get by Affirmed, falling a head short in what is still regarded as the most epic battle of all time and the greatest race I never saw.

1980 Maskette Stakes (Bold ‘n Determined) – This was the ultimate dream field with three future Hall of Famers, as well as the Alabama and Test Stakes winner going a flat mile at Belmont Park, which actually wasn’t the best distance for any of them with the possible exception of Love Sign, who had won that year’s seven-furlong Test Stakes before romping by five lengths in the 1 1/4-mile Alabama. But as strong as Love Sign looked, the three headliners were 3-year-olds Genuine Risk, who had won the Kentucky Derby before running a powerful second in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, in which she had eventful trips in both, and Bold ‘n Determined, who had rattled off victories in the Santa Susana Stakes (now the Santa Anita Oaks), Fantasy Stakes, Kentucky Oaks, Acorn Stakes, and the mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks, in which she came again to win by a head after dropping back to third at the eighth pole. Only a head defeat in the Mother Goose Stakes prevented her from sweeping NYRA’s Filly Triple Crown. The third star was the 4-year-old Davona Dale, who the year before became the first filly to sweep both Triple Crowns for fillies – the aforementioned and more recognized NYRA Triple Crown comprised of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and CCA Oaks, and the more traditional and less recognized Triple Crown made up of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and CCA Oaks to coincide with the male Triple Crown. She was late getting started at 4, but was coming off a victory in the seven-furlong Ballerina Stakes. It turned into a two-horse race, as Love Sign tired and Davona Dale wasn’t herself and never threatened in what was to be the final ace of her career. That left the 6-5 favorite Genuine Risk and Bold ‘n Determined, a huge overlay at 10-1, to battle it out down the stretch. Genuine Risk, sitting in fourth, five lengths off the pace, made her usual big run and stuck her head in front of Bold ‘n Determined at the eighth. But the latter lived up to her name by battling back, with the two great fillies fighting it out to the wire while pulling away from the rest of the field. It was a bob either way, but the decision went to Bold ‘n Determined by a nose. It was a heart-throbbing finish between two superstars that sadly has gotten lost over the years.

1981 Arlington Million (John Henry) – If you want to know how close the finish of the inaugural Arlington Million was, all you had to do was be watching on NBC after John Henry and longshot The Bart hit the wire together and saw several minutes later The Bart’s name posted on the screen as the unofficial winner. But then the numbers went up on the tote board showing that John Henry was the winner. The Arlington Million, America’s first million dollar race, was off and running, and to commemorate the race that got it all started, a statue was erected above the paddock of the finish, with John Henry and The Bart both lunging at the wire. What people weren’t aware of was that 10 days before the race John Henry, the headliner of this great international event, had returned from a gallop noticeably off in his left front foreleg, which was extremely sensitive to the touch. X-rays revealed no fracture and cortisone was injected into his ligament along with Depo-Medrol to treat the pain and swelling. The following morning John Henry was walking perfectly and all the sensitivity was gone. All trainer Ron McAnally needed was a good firm turf course. But as he and his wife Debbie were set to leave California they were informed that a heavy rain had turned the course soft. McAnally took it slow with John, just galloping him for a couple of days to see how the leg progressed. Soon it was as if the injury never happened. John was ready to go. But the soft turf course worried McAnally. This was to be a tough test with the previous year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Argument entered along with the previous two French Oaks winners Mrs. Penny and Madam Gay, who had also finished second in that year’s English Oaks. No one paid much attention to The Bart at 40-1. Going by the stands the first time, McAnally could see John was in trouble on the soft going, as there was no rhythm to his stride. His jockey Bill Shoemaker could also feel John wasn’t handling the course, so he just left him alone hoping he would settle and find his best stride. And that’s just what John did passing the half-mile pole. He was back in stride and moving with authority, but still had six lengths to make up. The Bart took the lead and kicked for home. John Henry closed in, but The Bart was not coming back to him, so John had to dig deep. The two hit the wire together with John’s number finally going up. He was now a bona fide superstar and the Arlington Million was to become one of America’s most sought after prizes.

1985 Jersey Derby (Spend a Buck) – This was the race that would change the structure of the Triple Crown thanks to an unheard of bonus instituted by Garden State Park’s new owner Robert Brennan and a new owner like Dennis Diaz who had retired from business at age 38. Brennan had announced that any horse who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and then the 1 1/4-mile Jersey Derby would earn a staggering $2 million bonus. The odds of that happening seemed astronomical, especially considering that the leading 3-year-olds would not be running at Garden State except for a speedball named Spend a Buck, who would romp in the Cherry Hill Mile by 9 1/2 lengths and the Garden State by 10 1/2 lengths in a blazing 1:45 4/5. When he ran his field off their feet in the Kentucky Derby in the third fastest time in the race’s history it set the wheels in motion. Rather than run back in the Preakness, Diaz decided to go for the big bonus in the $1 million Jersey Derby on Memorial Day weekend. With the winner’s share from the race it meant a potential $2.6 million payday for Spend a Buck. That left the Preakness wide open and it was won by the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Tank’s Prospect. With a legitimate contender now for the Belmont, Lukas decided to run a speed horse named Huddle Up in the Jersey Derby to soften up Spend a Buck in case he won and came back in the Belmont. Huddle Up did force Spend a Buck to run a half in :45 2/5 and three-quarters in 1:09 flat. That softened him up for the late charge of Crème Fraiche and El Basco. Spend a Buck looked spent turning into the stretch, but he would run his final quarter on guts alone. Despite staggering home he was able to hold off Crème Fraiche by a neck with El Basco another head back in third. The race knocked him out and he passed the Belmont, which was won by Crème Fraiche. As for the Triple Crown, to prevent this from happening again the three tracks were forced to unite and form Triple Crown Productions. That eventually resulted in sponsorship, major purse hikes for all three races, a $5 million dollar bonus for sweeping the Triple Crown and a $1 million bonus for the horse who competed in all three races and accumulated the most points. Diaz said years later, “It’s really a shame that no one gave Spend a Buck credit for what he did and how he affected the racing industry. They had it all their own way for so many years and he forced their hands. He shook up the business. It took a horse like him and a maverick owner like me to do it. We were just bulls in a china shop and weren’t bound by tradition and indoctrination. Likewise, Spend a Buck’s trainer Cam Gambolati, who himself was only 35 when the colt won the Kentucky Derby, later reflected, “People don’t remember him as the horse who unified the Triple Crown and was responsible for the creation of Triple Crown Productions. We created a great thing.”

Next week we will cover 1986 to the present and more memorable and historical finishes.

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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