Secretariat

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What Truly Defines Greatness

Monday, November 28th, 2022

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Horse Racing Movies for the Holidays

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2022

Rather than rank the best or my favorite racing movies, because of their diversity let’s just break them down in categories to cater to people’s tastes and what they are looking for, whether it’s movies about racing in general, a famous horse, or betting. You have gut-wrenching, heartwarming, comedic, and gritty films and it’s difficult lumping them together and ranking them. So, whatever your pleasure, here are the movies I recommend, although many are hard to find. ~ Steve Haskin

Horse Racing Movies for the Holidays

By Steve Haskin

 

If you thought it was tough finding Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo dolls back in the ‘80s and ‘90s good luck trying to find horse racing movies. Once in the proverbial blue moon they’ll show up on TCM or some offbeat channel, so you will have to search Amazon and hope you find what you’re looking for.

With the holidays coming up, if you know a racing fan you want to surprise with a good racing movie here is a list you can choose from, depending on where their interest lies. Let’s start with the broadest category of them all.

ENTERTAINING:

50-1 – This should go in the horse bio category, but I am taking it one step farther because of its characters and pure entertainment value. I have been critical of most modern racing movies, and this film did take a few liberties. But having lived through and chronicled the story of Mine That Bird, I feel this film captured the amazing journey of the second-biggest longshot to ever win the Kentucky Derby at the time, and did it in an entertaining manner, combining actual footage of the Derby with recreations, and using a horse who looked exactly like Mine That Bird. Many times, you can’t tell the actual footage from the footage shot for the movie. Although they used Bob Baffert as the heavy or the foil, which was just a bit over the top, the actor who played Baffert had his mannerisms (and his hair) down pat. And the colt’s jockey, Calvin Borel, who played himself, was a pure joy. The biggest deviation from the truth was using a female exercise rider to accompany Chip Woolley on his trek across the country instead of Charlie Figueroa, who was in reality the exercise rider and his travel companion. But it actually worked, and I enjoyed the platonic and at times hostile relationship between the two, which helped make the journey more interesting and bring out Woolley’s character. This film should have received bigger exposure, but it is well worth looking for and once in a while can be found on TV. While this movie would rank no higher than No. 3 or 4 in the horse bio category behind two or three extremely well-made and beautifully filmed movies I always watch it when it’s on TV and it’s just as enjoyable every time.

KENTUCKY — This is the granddaddy of all horse racing movies, the formula that was used in many of the films that followed. It even resembles the story of Secretariat — girl (played here by Loretta Young) returns home to save the family farm and wins the Kentucky Derby. Centered around a longstanding family feud, the opening scenes during the Civil War are gut-wrenching. But that is followed by magnificent color footage of greats such as Man o’War, Gallant Fox, Fair Play and other top stallions at stud that look as if they were shot today. It brought those horses to life. One of the great racing characters of any racing film was portrayed by Walter Brennan, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as a crotchety old hardboot, even though, in reality, he was only in his 30s. One of the classic scenes was when the manager of the rival farm was trying to hide their top prospect from Brennan, who was there to collect on a wager, in which he could pick out any 2-year-old he wanted. We see a black groom dancing down the shed row singing, “Postman worked in :48, goin’ to the races, goin’ to the races.” Brennan dancing alongside him, goes, “Where’s he at? Where’s he at?” And the groom sings back, “Over in the tack shed, over in the tack shed.” You’ll have to get past the black stereotypes and the equine star Bluegrass’ improbable and implausible path to the Derby, but have to remember the film was made in 1938 when the entertainment value usually overshadowed reality and political correctness. All in all, this was great fun and includes footage of Lawrin winning the Kentucky Derby, which was Eddie Arcaro’s first Derby winner.

IT AIN’T HAY – You can purchase this with one of Abbott and Costello collection packages. It is without a doubt the funniest racing movie ever made, starring Bud and Lou, who unleash a barrage of racing bits that are hysterical, especially one that takes place in a betting parlor that is a classic. I won’t ruin it for you. The movie has an assortment of characters, including several Damon Runyon characters (it was based on a Damon Runyon story), and shows you brief scenes of old Saratoga in front of the majestic Grand Union Hotel and has a star racehorse named Teabiscuit. It also has a botched horsenapping due to mistaken identity, as Abbott and Costello steal Teabiscuit by mistake, and even throws in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s just crazy fun, with a feel of Saratoga and Runyonesque characters, and with a gripping emotional scene that really tugs at the heartstrings and ignites the main plot of the film. I never get tired of watching this movie, as it makes me laugh every time.

CASEY’S SHADOW – I’m venturing away from Thoroughbred racing to include this well-made film that takes place in the world of Quarter-Horse racing. It stars Walter Matthau and is loosely based on the Romero brothers (Randy and Gerald). It is an extremely realistic look at the Quarter-Horse world, well acted, and beautifully photographed, especially the sequences of Casey’s Shadow growing from foal to full-grown racehorse that can easily induce goosebumps. The plot got a little too formulated in the second half of the film, with the obligatory gangsters. But all in all it was a wonderfully made and highly entertaining movie.

NATIONAL VELVET – This is the movie that has created more female horse lovers than any in history. It is the story, beautifully told and photographed, of a 14-year-old horse-crazy Velvet Brown, who falls in love with a wild horse named The Pie, and winds up substituting for his regular jockey and riding him to victory in the Grand National, only to be disqualified. But that doesn’t matter. This film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, is the standard by which all movies and books about young girls who love horses is measured. So many young girls have aspired to be jockeys after having watched this film. Yes it is a typical Hollywood plot for its time, but who cares. As mentioned it earlier, it hits you on an emotional level, and is well-written, well-acted, and beautifully photographed.

GLORY – Don’t confuse this 1956 film with the more modern Civil War film. The plot is totally far-fetched about a filly who was born during an electrical storm and somehow makes it to the Kentucky Derby off one six-furlong claiming race. But the reasons to watch it include the excellent acting and biting dialogue between Walter Brennan and Charlotte Greenwood and the film footage of Swaps defeating Nashua in the Derby. It portrays racing in general in an intelligent way, but you just have look past the crazy plot.

HORSE BIOGRAPHY:

PHAR LAP – Although I haven’t seen it in ages, having taped it on VHS, which is long gone, it is simply the most faithful biography of a racehorse of all time; beautifully told and beautifully filmed, and extremely well acted. To add to the realism, the horse who played Phar Lap was the splitting image of the legendary Australian champion. The film even used actual newspaper pages reporting his controversial death in California. It is visually stunning, portrays no stereotypes, and is not afraid to expose the human frailties of its main characters. The only noticeable flaw is the film’s insinuation that Phar Lap was killed by mobsters, while failing to offer the alternative possibility that he was accidentally poisoned by ingesting pesticides sprayed on a field where he was grazing. But if you love horses and racing, this is a must see.

CHAMPIONS – Jockey battles back from cancer and is reunited with his horse, who has simultaneously returned from a serious career-threatening injury, and the pair team up to win the Grand National Steeplechase. Had the story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti not been true, it would have been considered too unrealistic and too Hollywood. But it was true, and what separated Champions from other equine biographies was Aldaniti playing himself. That was a stroke of genius and you kept thinking of that as you watched him re-enact the events of his life. Many objected to the depiction of Champion’s battle with cancer in agonizing detail, taking up a great deal of the film, and while it was tough getting through it, its candor only helped to enhance the story’s emotional, fairy tale ending. And the filming of the Grand National was nothing short of spectacular.

DREAM HORSE – Made in 2020 it is to me the best racing film made in several decades and shows that you can still make a great one without any noticeable deviation from the facts. It depicts the people and the place as well as any racing film and having established actors such as Toni Collette and Damian Lewis who fit right in with a collection of actors makes it look as if they were taken right out of the small Welsh town where the story takes place.

This is an inspiring story of Dream Alliance and bartender Janet Vokes (Collette), who became interested in bloodlines and decided to buy a potential broodmare named Rewbell, who had been injured on a barbed wire fence and had a bad disposition, for 350 pounds. When she produced a colt by American-bred stallion Bien Bien in partnership with a racing breeder from the town, Collette sets off on her quest to have the townsfolk chip in their meager earnings to help raise the colt. With opposition from many of the spouses she succeeds to get 23 people who put up 10 pounds a week to help raise the colt and pay his training bills. Bottom line is that Dream Alliance suffers a serious tendon injury that required stem cell treatment, which was new at the time. He recovers and goes on to win the Welsh Grand National. This is a heartwarming, well acted, and magnificently filmed move that is a must for all racing fans.

SEABISCUIT – This was a relatively high-budget film that was very well made and filmed in dramatic fashion, from the bush track match races to the match race with War Admiral. The movie focused quite a bit on the back stories of the humans behind the horse and the struggles during the Depression. But as a pure horse racing movie and biography it took a very long time before Seabiscuit was even introduced. And to make up for lost time, they turned him into a national celebrity after only a few victories in lesser stakes, and then embellished the David vs. Goliath theme by making War Admiral some 18-hands behemoth (which was a joke) when he was actually the same size as the much smaller Seabiscuit who measured 15.2 hands. They did a super job filming the match race, Gary Stevens was excellent, and all in all it was a good movie, even if it did take forever to get to Seabiscuit. I probably would have ranked this movie higher if I had never read Laura Hillenbrand’s epic biography. In the book, the backdrop was an integral part of the story, but it is difficult to condense everything in the book into a two hour and 20-minute film. I watched it recently and it still seemed long and drawn out. Then it appeared to rush through the second half of the movie. There are gorgeous scenes filmed at picturesque Xalapa Farm in Paris, Kentucky. If you haven’t see it it still makes for an excellent gift.

SECRETARIAT — As many major faults as this movie has, I am going to give it somewhat of a pass because of how much the budget was cut by Disney. And they made it way too Disneyesque, with odd location choices and several nonsensical scenes. But I did like the beginning when Penny Tweedy is called from her home in Colorado to come back to Virginia and help save the farm. The problem with making a movie about a horse that looked like Secretariat is that you can never find a horse physically worthy of portraying him and depicting the incredible larger than life aura he had. The same went for the very disappointing RUFFIAN (No one disliked this movie more than her trainer Frank Whiteley). Neither of these films came close to doing justice to the actual horse. But at least with Secretariat it brought Big Red to the big screen and stayed loyal to the legend, which is why a lot of young people enjoyed it, even if it only gave them a hint of what they missed. The film also seemed miscast in places. Diane Lane as Penny was believable, however John Malkovich was laughable as Lucien Laurin, and Pancho Martin was unfairly portrayed as the film’s primary villain. If you’re young and have no recollection of Secretariat and can ignore the fabricated, fictional scenes you will likely enjoy it for providing a look at an equine superhero that previously existed mainly on video and YouTube, and to younger fans in their imagination. For racing aficionados who saw the movie and lived through Big Red’s reign, you just have to put the scalpel away and resist the temptation to dissect it.

THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT – Not to be confused with Seabiscuit, this purely fictionalized biography stars Shirley Temple and an excellent Barry Fitzgerald, and is actually pretty entertaining for what it is. Just don’t believe that this is in any way the story of Seabiscuit. But if you want to see great actual film footage of the Seabiscuit — War Admiral match race, you definitely want to see this movie.

BLACK GOLD – One of the great stories of the Turf, this movie, starring Anthony Quinn, takes a lot of liberties and greatly embellishes the story of Rosa Hoots and the improbable Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, but it’s still a fun movie. 

MOVIES ABOUT BETTING:

LET IT RIDE – There are a number of movies that feature scenes of betting horses, some with small racing plots, but it is not at all what the movie is about. When it comes to betting on horses one movie stands alone. People either loved or hated this film about a degenerate gambler, brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss, who normally is your typical loser, but has the one day every horseplayer fantasizes about. It is a never-ending day, shot at Hialeah Racetrack, in which Dreyfuss leaves the track several times to go to the bar across the street to hang out with his cronies or goes home to his frantic wife, who has had it with his gambling…and losing. But no matter what he does, he can’t lose. And it all starts with an insider’s tip overheard by Dreyfuss’ dim-witted friend in his taxi cab that has nefarious implications. But for Dreyfuss it is the one big break he has been dreaming about. That sets off one incredibly and surreal day at the track. The people who disliked the movie and found it far-fetched don’t see it for what it is – the fantasy of every horseplayer. If you look at it as pure fantasy you’re more likely to enjoy it. It captures the frenzy of the racetrack and every type of crazed horseplayer imaginable. There is an overhead scene with Dreyfuss in the bar’s rest room stall realizing he doesn’t belong with his clique of “losers” and appears to be pleading his case to God that is hysterical.

GRITTY MOVIES:

BOOTS MALONE – This 1952 film starring William Holden pulls no punches and depicts life on the backstretch with stark realism. It is as well acted and as well written as any racing movie, and has an excellent and thought-provoking plot that moves along at a swift pace and takes you to places most people have never been to, focusing on a young jockey and his down-on-his-luck agent. Holden is terrific as usual, going from successful agent, living high in the fanciest hotels, to living in a tack room and trying to scrape up a few dollars after his star jockey is killed. He gets enough to buy a cheap horse and then discovers a green aspiring young rider who has run away from his rich family. This is unlike any racing movie in that it does not glorify the sport and is not afraid to show you its underbelly.

THE KILLING – One of Stanley Kubrick’s early films that is as close as you’ll get to racing film noir. It is filmed almost like a stage play, with surreal backdrops, and is not for the faint of heart, as it is pretty violent at times, especially the end, with the plot focusing about the attempt of a bunch of hoods to make a killing at the track…literally, by shooting the favorite during the race and disguising the crime so that no one knows just what happened. It is like watching the proverbial train wreck – disturbing, but you can’t take your eyes off it, either despite of or because of the simplicity in the way it is filmed. And what better actor to star in a ‘50s film noir movie than Sterling Hayden, who plays his part to perfection.

THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER – Not a true racing movie, but one of the really great films and with an unusual storyline, about a young boy in England who rides his rocking horse frantically, and the faster he goes he reaches a point where he has seems to escape the real world and can predict the winners at the track. There is a lot more to this innovative plot. It has superb acting and is extremely thought provoking. Not an easy film to find.

JOCKEYThis is the most recent racing movie about an aging jockey looking for his one big break to ride a top-class horse, and is as realistic as you can get. It is more of a cerebral movie with actually no real racing scenes, and it doesn’t try to tug at your heartstrings. What makes this movie work so well is the brilliant, but low-keyed acting of Clifton Collins Jr., who as his bio says, “Was born short, lean, and mean on June 16, 1970.” And that is exactly the character he plays to perfection. It’s still around on TV and worth looking for.

OTHERS TO REMEMBER IN CASE YOU COME ACROSS THEM:

THE BLACK STALLION – This isn’t categorized because it isn’t a horse racing film in the true sense. It is more about a horse and a boy and a desert island, with the last part of the movie focusing on a horse race. If you do consider it a horse racing movie, then it definitely belongs under entertaining, as it is absolutely stunning, with another excellent performance by Mickey Rooney and a spectacularly filmed horse race. The scenes on the desert island of this magnificent black horse and the stranded boy slowly interacting are truly brilliant, and you won’t find more beautifully filmed scenes than the ones of “The Black” running through the water.

PRIDE OF THE BLUEGRASS – This is an outlandish plot that is actually based to some extent on a true story, just don’t ask me how much, because I laughed at this movie when I saw it. It starts with a mare giving birth to a colt. The barn is struck by lightning, killing her owner, but his seventeen-year-old son escapes with the colt, named Gantry the Great. A young girl gets the boy a job on the horse farm owned by her father. The boy, Danny, trains and rides Gantry, who becomes a good horse, but after being abused by his regular trainer he goes blind in the Kentucky Derby, as the favorite, and is pulled up by Danny. No one knows he went blind so Danny is banned for a year and Gantry is to be destroyed. But instead Danny trains him to jump and enters the blind horse in Grand National Steeplechase in England. Before you start laughing just know that in the description of the movie, Gantry the Great, whose actual name was Elmer Gantry, is played by the real Elmer Gantry. I won’t tell you if he wins the Grand National.

RIDING HIGH – This was an excellent vehicle for racing lover Bing Crosby, and the end of the movie will tear your heart out. But this film was a remake of the 1934 movie titled Broadway Bill. Frank Capra was so dissatisfied with the original he remade it in 1950 with plenty of songs. The only problem was that for some reason Capra left in a number of scenes from the original movie, and it was so obvious these scenes were from an older movie with different actors.

SPORTING BLOOD – This is a real oldie made in 1931 starring a young Clark Gable. Not only is it very well made, with an interesting plot, it contains the most remarkable footage ever shot at the Kentucky Derby, in this case the 1930 running, with the movie interacting with the footage. You have to see it to believe it. It occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies.

A DAY AT THE RACES – Typical Marx Bothers wackiness that wasn’t that much about racing. But there was a classic line when Groucho, playing a horse doctor, was treating a horse in his office and gave him a bottle of pills and told him, “Take two every half mile.”

DOWN THE STRETCH – Mickey Rooney is terrific playing a jockey with an attitude named Snapper Sinclair. It is a pretty interesting plot with your typical race fixing, but with loyalty, good conscience, and clearing your father’s name added to the mix.

SARATOGA – This was a pretty high-profile movie in 1937 starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlowe and Lionel Barrymore. It is a witty and intelligent movie, more about betting and high rollers, with Gable playing a bookie. I remember finding it quite enjoyable. 

THE STING – Although this is not a racing movie, it has a great racing flavor when the action takes place at a makeshift bookie parlor, and they even mention Mo Annenberg, who invented the wire and owned the Morning Telegraph. The greatest movie tip of all time — “Place it on Lucky Dan.” Even if it’s not a racing movie, it is one of the great movies of all time and definitely worth watching more than once. 

THE LEMON DROP KID – This is another Damon Runyon story about a racetrack tout, played by Bob Hope. Again, there isn’t a lot of racing in it, but it did become famous for introducing the classic Christmas song Silver Bells.

MY OLD MAN – Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story, this was a pretty decent made-for-TV film with an excellent performance by Warren Oates.

DREAMER – Many people liked this film, but I had a major problem with Dakota Fanning, who I found annoying enough to not enjoy it. So I can’t judge this film fairly.

THE HOMESTRETCH – This little known film starring Maureen O’Hara and Cornell Wilde is pretty entertaining, taking you from Argentina to Saratoga to Churchill Downs, and has a solid enough plot. It’s not your standard fare and well worth looking for, if it even exists anymore.

WALL OF NOISE – Even lesser known than The Homestretch, I did enjoy it. Starring Suzanne Pleshette and TV star Ty Hardin, it is far from a classic, but Hardin is excellent and has flaws in his character, which you don’t see too often from the star of the movie.

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

A Terrific Trio of Finalists for 2022 Vox Populi Award

Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

Secretariat Vox Populi Award voters have three distinct paths to take in determining this year’s most popular horse and can make a compelling case for each one. The three finalists all have extraordinary stories, both on and off the track, and it is up to the voters to decide which one affected them the most. ~ Steve Haskin

A Terrific Trio of Finalists for 2022 Vox Populi Award

By Steve Haskin

Despite the limited number of horses on the ballot, this year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award finalists give the voters a chance to decide just what their criteria is in determining the sport’s most popular horse.

Although the nine-person selection committee listed a number of horses in their top four, many of them certain Eclipse Award winners, of the three who received enough votes to be placed on the ballot, two have little or no chance of being named champion in their division. As Penny Chenery had intended when she started the award in 2011, that puts the emphasis on popularity more than just accomplishments.

Here is a rundown of the three finalists, with voters having the option to write in their own selection.

FLIGHTLINE – How can a horse be considered the most popular in the country when he ran only three times in 2022 and didn’t make his first start of the year until early June, with gaps of 5 ½ months, three months, and two months between races? That normally spells out of sight, out of mind. But there was nothing normal about Flightline, who despite his extremely limited campaign was never out of mind.

Because of his unprecedented domination over his opponents in every one of his six career starts and the mystique that followed him from Santa Anita to Belmont Park, to Del Mar, and finally to Keeneland and his unique ability to decimate his rivals from six furlongs to a mile and a quarter, his popularity never waned during his time between races. Never before had racing fans seen a horse win every race by such huge margins and in near-record times while doing it mostly under wraps in the stretch. But by keeping such a low profile and making himself so scarce to the public, how does that translate to popularity over the course of an entire year?

We have to go back to the word mystique, because no one had ever seen anything like him, and when he wasn’t racing there was the memory of his most recent annihilation and the anticipation of his next start, wondering what new amazing feats we were about to witness. And in each one of those starts he would be venturing into uncharted territory, attempting to do something horses simply don’t do.

Horses with only three sprint races in their career do not win the grueling Met Mile, which tests one’s speed, class, stamina, and toughness, in their first start of the year and win by six lengths despite breaking poorly and having to steady twice. Horses who have never run two turns and with only four career starts do not beat a field of Grade 1 and Grade 2 winners by 19 ¼ lengths going a mile and quarter in near-record time and winning eased up the length of the stretch. And horses with only five career starts do not make their second cross-country trip, running at their fourth different track in their last four starts, and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic defeating the best 3-year-olds and older horses in the country by 8 ½ lengths, despite stalking a brutally fast pace that took its toll on the pacesetting Life is Good, who would have been the ovewhelming favorite for Horse of the Year if not for the presence of Flghtline.

Yes, he raced only three times and had long intervals between races, but he was so unlike anything the racing world had ever seen he had become a horse that lived in our imagination even more than on the racetrack. It is rare to have imagination and reality become one, but Flightline was able to achieve that.

With each mind-boggling performance his balloon grew larger and larger and we began wondering if that next inflation would finally cause it to burst. But amazingly it never did. Many were disappointed when it was announced the day following his Breeders’ Cup Classic tour-de-force that he would be retired. But with him already being four years old, having likely reached his peak physically and mentally, and being worth a king’s ransom, his owners couldn’t afford to keep inflating that balloon, knowing that if it did burst for whatever reason the sound would be deafening and the entire sport and its fans would be deflated as well. Many of those fans deep down wanted the fascination surrounding the horse to never end so they could tell their children and grandchildren about that “winged” horse who for a short period of time did things not even the greats were able to do.

And so we now can continue to ask ourselves if he indeed was the fleetest, most exceptional horse in modern history. He will never replace legendary equine heroes like Secretariat and Man o’ War, who transcended the Sport of Kings, but you can be sure that people will always wonder if Flightline would have beaten them and there lies the mystique that will follow him throughout the years.

CODY’S WISH – We’ve learned how a horse can be popular despite rarely being seen on the racetrack. Now in the case of Cody’s Wish we see how popularity is attained through a single story rather than through a fan base over a period of time. In fact, not many people knew much about Cody’s Wish despite the colt rattling off six wins in seven starts beginning in maiden and allowance races and then winning a pair of Grade 3 stakes and a listed race.

When he moved up to Grade 1 company in the seven-furlong Forego Stakes at Saratoga and defeated the defending Sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior, the story behind the colt and his name began to leak out. But it wasn’t until the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile that the story was told in depth by NBC and hit an emotional chord with the millions watching on TV. It was a gut-wrenching and heartwarming story of how a horse could change the life of a 16-year-old boy afflicted with a rare genetic disorder at birth that affected his entire body. It was four years ago, through Keeneland’s Make-A-Wish program, that Cody Dorman, wanting to meet a racehorse, was taken to Godolphin’s Gainsborough Farm near Midway, Kentucky where Cody met and fell in love with a six-month-old weanling colt by Curlin, who came up to him and put his nose in the boy’s lap.

Godolphin later named the colt Cody’s Wish. Over the next few years, Cody Dorman overcame several medical crises, fighting to stay alive, and it was decided to bring him to the track and reunite him with his namesake. As soon as Cody saw the colt come over to him he let out with a big belly laugh, something he normally never did. Cody felt as if his friend had found him.

When Cody’s Wish lost his first three races, Cody, although unable to speak, was able to communicate with his parents that it was because he was not at the track to see him. From that day on, Cody attended his races and his 4-year-old namesake won his next three starts. By the time of the Breeders’ Cup the colt had won six of his seven races, including the Forego at Saratoga, with his only loss a tough neck defeat in the Grade 3 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Anyone who watched NBC’s feature prior to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and saw Cody’s Wish outduel the multiple Grade 1-winning 3-year-old Cyberknife with Cody Dorman’s entire family cheering him on near the rail had to be moved, many to tears.

So in the matter of the Vox Populi Award, do you vote with your heart after being touched by this remarkable story that did not come to light until November or do you go with a horse that connected with the public over most of the year? That is why this award is different from all other awards. It was meant to pay tribute to the most popular horse, but people have the choice of interpreting it any way they wish, even if that popularity is through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy who found a special friend and was able to share him and their story of courage on racing’s biggest day.

RICH STRIKE – You have read about two types of possible Vox Populi Award winners, and with Rich Strike you have a horse who is somewhere in between. He has a terrific back story filled with tragedy, perseverance, and family bonding and because of his shocking victory in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 80-1 he entered the public’s consciousness.

Although he hasn’t won since, he did enough to convince skeptics that the Derby victory was not the fluke most thought it was. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of the most bizarre and egregious rides by Sonny Leon, the jockey who gave him such a brilliant ride at Churchill Downs, he most likely would have defeated last year’s Vox Populi winner Hot Rod Charlie in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic, giving him a major victory over older horses.

As it is he still managed to finish a solid fourth in the Travers Stakes off a 2 ½-month layoff, beaten a nose and a neck for second, and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race in which he appeared to be overmatched and could have easily passed to point for the Clark Handicap. But his connections showed the kind of sportsmanship that racing fans admire. With those two fourth-place finishes he increased his 2022 earnings to over $2.1 million. Not bad for a horse who was claimed for $30,000.

What looked to be one of the most unlikely and unsatisfactory Kentucky Derby results in memory, right up there with Mine That Bird, whose story became a full-length motion picture, turned out to be one of the most inspiring stories in years, with his trainer Eric Reed having lost 23 horses in a barn fire in 2017 that nearly put him out of business, then losing his top two assistants to cancer a month apart in 2020 and his 2-year-old grandson in a tragic accident shortly after, followed by the death of his wife’s parents. But through all the heartbreak the family bonded together and kept forging ahead looking for that one big horse. Amazingly they found him in a claiming race after Reed had unsuccessfully tried to claim another horse who had eight other claims in on him. So he decided to put in a claim on a Keen Ice colt running later in the card. Because Rich Strike had run so poorly in his only start, finishing 10th  and last in a maiden turf race at Ellis Park, there were no other claims for him. Reed then watched the colt win that day by a mind-boggling 17 ¼ lengths.

Rich Strike would go on to place in a couple of stakes on the all-weather track at Turfway Park. Although no one paid any attention, Reed had so much confidence in the colt he pointed him to the Kentucky Derby, which seemed like folly at the time, especially considering the colt, with so few points, had little chance to get in the Derby field. But the Derby gods no doubt were at work as Rich Strike made it into the field the day before the race after the late scratch of the Wayne Lukas-trained Ethereal Road. The history books were now open and Rich Strike would go on to write his own chapter with one of the most dramatic runs ever seen in the Derby, leaving the racing world in a state of shock, as most people had no idea who this horse was.

From that day on the public continued to follow Rich Strike to see if his story would continue. Time will tell, but Rich Strike has established himself as a top-class colt who most likely will continue racing next year and at an even higher level with the way he has been progressing. With the departure of so many of this year’s major stars, racing fans still have the Kentucky Derby winner to look forward to, giving them hope that in a world made up of mostly unfinished stories fairy tales can endure.

CLICK HERE TO PLACE YOUR VOTE

Photos courtesy of Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire, NBC Sports and Pat McDonogh/Courier Journal

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Seeing Pegasus in Person

Sunday, November 6th, 2022

It was a longshot, but while in Kentucky a week before the Breeders’ Cup to visit breeding farms with friends we had a very slight chance of getting to see Flightline close-up, at least in the light. Read on to see if our quest proved to be a success. ~ Steve Haskin

Seeing Pegasus in Person

By Steve Haskin

This is a story spanning all of one day about my attempt to meet the horse they say can sprout wings. Unlike other people I am not here to compare Flightline to Secretariat or Man o’ War or Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s trusty steed who became one of the most famous horses in history. As Big Red’s owner Penny Chenery once said, “Each era had its great horses and we are simply privileged to have had the opportunity, past or present, to share in their greatness. They were all great.”

But the reason no comparisons of Flightline can be made with these equine immortals is because Flightline after only six starts exists alone in his own sphere. He is the stuff of dreams; that unbeatable, untouchable shining star that is beyond the reach of others, no matter how talented they appear to be. In short, we have never seen anything like him, and I am sure that Thoroughbred owners often lie in bed at night and try to picture themselves owning a horse that in the past has dwelt only in the imagination. After all, these horses are still flesh and blood and cannot be expected to decimate their foes with such total domination every time they step in the starting gate.

But Flightline couldn’t help it. He simply was born with more octane in his tank than other horses and could outdistance them race after race while barely stepping on the accelerator. A high-octane person or in this case horse is one who is “effective without wasting time or effort or expense.” Flightline, simply said, is great without even trying.

When I think of Flightline and what he has accomplished in every one of his starts, not just the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic, two sayings come to mind as well as the lyrics from a song.

Back in the mid-18th century there was a horse who was looked upon in Great Britain with the same reverence we look upon Flightline. His name was Eclipse and the phrase that followed him wherever he went was “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.” That has been Flightline.

In the 1960s there was a song made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary and also by Joan Baez about a fictitious horse named Stewball. When I think of one line from that song I can envision Flightline coming down the stretch in isolated splendor. “And a-way up yonder, ahead of them all, came a-prancin’ and a-dancin’ my noble Stewball.” Flightline in every race has been prancin’ and dancin’ a-way up yonder ahead of them all.

And finally there is Ernest Hemingway’s line from “For Whom the Bells Toll,” which I used once describing the scene at American Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes: “But did thee feel the earth move?” That is up to each person to decide how they felt following the Classic, but I am sure there were many like myself who could feel some sort of jolt watching Flightline draw away yet again from a field of talented, classy horses.

All this is a somewhat hyperbolic preface for the events of Saturday, October 29. But with Flightline hyperbole is more truth than embellishment.

Before we proceed let me go back to the 2021 Kentucky Derby trail and my regular text messages with Kosta Hronis, owner of the Derby favorite Rock Your World. In one of his texts, Kosta threw this often used cliché at me: “We have one in the barn that is unbelievable.” That would be the seed from which the legend would grow. Before he ever ran, Kosta said after watching him work, “Wow, this colt is different. His talent seems limitless.” Those turned out to be the most prophetic comments I have ever heard. To read about those early discovery days and the story behind Flightline you can visit my column of September 6.

But getting back to my trip and the Saturday before the Breeders’ Cup, here I was preparing to leave Connecticut for Lexington, Kentucky to visit breeding farms from October 27 to November 1 with my wife Joan and our friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg, whose magnificent home located right on the Oklahoma training track has become our second home during the Saratoga meet for the past decade or so. The Freedbergs had bid on and won two nights in the now famous rustic “tree house” (which has been made into a B&B) on Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm, known as the Biltmore of the Bluegrass where a good portion of the movie “Seabiscuit” was filmed. Among the stallions residing there are Curlin, sire of three Breeders’ Cup winners this year, and Violence and Ghostzapper, who each sired one Breeders’ Cup winner.

But in addition to visiting top stallions such as Flightline’s sire Tapit, Into Mischief, Medaglia d’Oro, American Pharoah. Justify, Uncle Mo and many others, there was a chance to finally see Flightline in person for the first time. A text from the colt’s co-owner Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds the day before we were to leave told me all I needed to know. “Steve, Flightline is working at 7:30 on Saturday.”

That was great news, but the bad part is that it doesn’t get light in Kentucky until 8 o’clock. But at least we would be able to get a glimpse of him. With my old pocket-sized Canon Sure shot camera there was no chance of getting a photo in the dark, as any slight movement would render the shot a blurry mess. With the Breeders’ Cup horses stabled who knows where behind Keeneland on Rice Road and coming on to the track by the seven-eighths pole I wouldn’t even be able to see the horse enter by the gap leading to the main stable area.

I made arrangements to meet Terry on the apron by the gap just to say hi and see how he was holding up a week before the race, and also to hopefully see some familiar faces I haven’t seen in years since my semi-retirement from Blood-Horse in 2015, although I did write for them freelance for the next five years continuing my Derby Dozen, which I now do along with the weekly Askin’ Haskin column for Secetariat.com.

We were out of the hotel before 6:30, expecting a throng of visitors to “see” Flightline and other Breeders’ Cup horses train. Sure enough they came out in number, even with small children, some of them wearing their Halloween costumes.

As I had hoped. I met several people from the “old days,” catching up on things, especially how the sport and the media have changed in recent years. At 7:30, waves of horses, many wearing Breeders’ Cup saddle towels, could be seen galloping or working through the darkness. We realized that even if we caught Flightline going by it would be a five-second blur. We did see a horse with the saddle towel number 102 signifying a Classic horse whiz by. Was that Flightline? All we saw was the light shining from the exercise rider’s helmet and a horse with four bandages striding out beautifully. By the time I raised my camera for whatever futile reason he was gone. No one else knew if that was Flightline. It didn’t really matter. It was like trying to recognize someone going by you in a speeding Amtrak express. Soon we came to the realization that the Breeders’ Cup works were over. Oh, well, at least we were in the presence of Flightline…we think.

Soon after, we saw Terry and he told us that Flightline was one of the first horses on the track and the blur we saw likely was him. We didn’t get to really see him or photograph him, but at least we had a date the following morning to visit his sire Tapit at Gainesway Farm and would be going to Ashford Stud later Saturday afternoon to see Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. And we hadn’t even gotten to Xalapa Farm yet for our two nights there. So we put Flightline behind us and moved on knowing we at least gave it a shot.

As I spoke to Terry, he said, “Why don’t you drive out to the barn? You go out the back gate. He’s in Barn 60.” The chances of him still being out and getting his bath were practically zero. He had been back for a while and we still had to walk the length of the grandstand, get in our car and figure out where we were going. I had a rough idea where the back gate was, but finding our way past all the vans and winding roads it took up more valuable time.

We finally found the back gate but had no idea where Barn 60 was, so Avi asked every person we saw on the road. It probably didn’t matter, as none of us had Breeders’ Cup media credentials. We finally saw the small barn area and Barn 60 and Avi calmly drove in and flashed his owner’s badge and we were in. The great writer Bill Nack, who was a master at getting in places, always told me just act like you belong and avoid eye contact. There were plenty of media there waiting to talk to trainer John Sadler. As expected, Flightline was finished with his bath and back in his stall. We saw Terry and he told us they would bring him back out to wash his feet.

You mean there was still a chance we would get to see Flightline close up? Like the old days I listened to Sadler talk about the work. Thank goodness the days of shoving a tape recorder in front of a trainer’s mouth and then having to transcribe his words were over.

I heard him say that Flightline had worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 under assistant trainer Juan Leyva, which was exactly what Sadler was looking for. “I told Juan to go in a minute and change and out (seven-eighths) in 1:26, and that’s what he did,” Sadler said. “Juan’s a great work rider. It was not about going fast today, just getting around there happy. He’s had a good week and gotten settled in, and the track is a little similar to Del Mar. He’ll go to the track to jog Monday, gallop Tuesday through Friday and won’t go to the track the morning of the Classic.”

Sadler then went back in the barn. OK, now we wait for the horse to make another appearance. As the time went by I started getting antsy. Terry was still there being interviewed by a few reporters, but most of the media had departed by now, with only a few remaining, which was not a good sign. Soon there was hardly anyone left. Rhoda had approached someone who supposedly was close to the horse and he told her that Flightline was in for good and not coming back out. So close yet so far.

We figured we had stayed long enough and it was time to move on. Just then the doors to the barn opened and there he was in all his magnificence. No, he didn’t have wings, but Pegasus was there right before our eyes. And we had him pretty much all to ourselves. Yes, he indeed was getting his feet washed as Terry had said. As soon as he stepped out and on to the wash mat his head and his ears went up and he started looking around, either posing for the few of us that were left or wondering where everyone had gone.

Class exuded from every pore. Not once did his ears or his head go down. This was as alert a horse as I have ever seen. It was as if he was born to pose. Like the great ones, he knew he was special. After a while it seemed like my camera was shooting on its own. Now it was time to get Joan in the pictures, while Avi shot Rhoda with his phone. Still he posed. It was as close to a private photo session as you could get. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

What seemed all morning like an unsuccessful attempt to see Flightline and get close to him had turned into an unforgettable experience, thanks in good part to Terry Finley, who I have followed through the years going back to the early days of West Point Thoroughbreds, which now occupies hallowed ground in the annals of the sport.

Flightline returned to the barn and we finally left, with all of us beaming inside and out at the unforeseen turn of events. The rest of our trip was memorable as well spending the following morning alone with Tapit for a good half hour and the recently pensioned Afleet Alex, then going to Ashford Stud and historic Airdrie Stud, and then the following day to see Curlin and company at Xalapa, and finally Lane’s End Farm, future home of Flightline, to see Quality Road, one of my favorites, and Candy Ride, the sire of Avi and Rhoda’s Westchester Stakes winner Nicodemus.

While at Lane’s End, although not a word was said, we all got the feeling they were about ready to roll out the red carpet. You could feel it and you could see it in their faces. There was no doubt in our mind that Flightline was going to be retired…and quickly. The day after the Classic the announcement was made. We had the narrowest of windows and the slimmest of chances to see Flightline up close and personal as a racehorse and we somehow managed to do it.

Even with all the great stallions we saw we will never forget our morning at Barn 60 getting to see Flightline, who one week later would once again be dancin’ and a-prancin’ a-way out yonder ahead of them all, finishing first with the rest nowhere. But most important, we like most everyone felt the earth move.

Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire and Steve Haskin

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Book Your Flight to the Breeders’ Cup

Thursday, November 3rd, 2022

It is time once again for horse racing’s version of Rubik’s Cube with bettors laying down their money with every twist. The Breeders’ Cup has proven to be the sport’s most enjoyable way to lose your money. It’s a strange feeling hitting a couple of longshots or exactas and still losing money over the two days. I’m not here to offer trifectas and superfectas, only some live horses and potential longshots and you can put them together to form an exotic bet if you wish. But no matter how you do, you still have Flightline to look forward to and then we’ll know just what kind of freak this really is. ~ Steve Haskin

Book Your Flight to the Breeders’ Cup

By Steve Haskin

We all know the 2022 Breeders’ Cup goes wherever Flightline takes it, and everyone will be waiting with bated breath for the Classic to see if the skies of Lexington will be filled with rockets, flares, and fireworks following the race. And no matter what is said or not said, most people know deep down inside that this very likely will be the final flight of this extraordinary horse and that Lane’s End Farm already is starting to roll out the red carpet. As the old song goes, “Johnny, we hardly knew ye.”

But we’ll have to deal with that another time. Right now, let’s see if there is anyone who can put an end to this unprecedented reign, as brief as it’s been.

And there are plenty of other races in which bettors can sink their teeth. And that’s why we’re here. My previous Breeders’ Cup handicapping columns and analyses have focused on finding longshots and potential overlays. I will continue in that vein to an extent, but will try to diversify a little this time.

But let’s start with the Classic and get that out of the way. As I alluded to in a recent column about whether Life is Good is capable of upsetting Flightline, I am going to keep that same thought, but spread it out a little. There is an excellent chance that Flightline cannot be beaten, barring something unforeseen like a horrendous trip or him simply not having his best day. But from a Thoro-Graph perspective he could regress 10 lengths and still win.

To me, there is only one question mark with Flightline and that is, what will he do if someone looks him in the eye at the quarter pole or eighth pole and makes him actually run down the stretch for the first time. He has never had a horse anywhere near him from the five-sixteenths pole to the wire and has won all his races geared down, winning most of them with ridiculous ease.

Life is Good’s trainer Todd Pletcher well aware what he’s up against, but he also knows how fast his horse is, as evidenced by the way he made the front-running Horse of the Year Knicks Go look slow in the Pegasus World Cup. We just don’t know if he is as effective at 1 ¼ miles. But Flightline has nver faced an opponent with Life is Good’s speed, combined with class. As for Epicenter, his Travers was visually one of the most impressive races of the year, and we have all watched him grow into a man since the Triple Crown. But his Thoro-Graph number in the Travers was surprisingly slow, so make of that what you wish. If Life is Good and Hot Rod Charlie can stick around long enough to make Flightline know he’s in a race then we could have some drama in the stretch.

But to me this is a race to watch and not get too hung up on trying to beat Flightline. Sure anything can happen in a race, so for the sake of providing some kind of action I’ll throw Life is Good and the vastly improving Taiba in a trifecta box. There would be zero value putting Epicenter in there. But if you get past Flightline then anyone is capable of winning or placing. Yes, even Rich Strike, whose only start at Keeneland was a fast-closing third after a troubled trip. He could sneak into the superfecta.

OK, I guess it’s best to go back to the beginning.

JUVENILE TURF SPRINT – With the speedy English filly THE PLATINUM QUEEN drawing post 12 it opens the door to a number of other fast juveniles, mainly the Wesley Ward-trained LOVE REINS, Queen Mary Stakes winner DRAMATISED, and my longshot pick, Godolphin’s MISCHIEF MAGIC, who could be coming late under William Buick in a race loaded with speed.

JUVENILE FILLIES – In a wide-open race with no standout I’m going to take a shot with ATOMICALLY, who was sent to Pletcher after romping in the My Dear Girl division of the Florida Stallion Series, her first try going two turns.I have been very impressed with the Chad Brown-trained RAGING SEA, but good luck breaking from the 14 post. For my bomb, if you’re looking for a 20-1 shot trained by Bill Mott you have to take a look at AMERICAN ROCKETTE, who had a bad trip when fourth in the Spinaway Stakes, and I will forgive her fourth in the Frizette Stakes in the slop. This will be her first two-turn race and I think she could improve stretching out in distance.

JUVENILE FILLIES TURF – I don’t know if anyone can beat MEDITATE if she handles the two turns, but I give a big shot to the Jessamine winner DELIGHT, who loves the Keeneland turf and the two turns and is improving with every start for Jonathan Thomas. My longshot pick at 20-1 is the Canadian invader LAST CALL, who is improving with distance and won the Natalma Stakes last time out at 21-1 with first race blinkers off and first time racing without Lasix. And I like the move from the big Woodbine turf course to the tighter Keeneland course.

JUVENILECAVE ROCK could be a world beater and you can’t knock what FORTE has accomplished and the courage he showed winning the Breeders’ Futurity over the Keeneland track. Remember though that Forte got a faster Thoro-Graph number last out than Cave Rock. But there is no value here with either one and I’m not sure about BLAZING SEVENS, so I will take a shot with Pletcher’s other horse LOST ARK, who looked sensational in his first two starts, including the one-mile Sapling Stakes, then had the trip from hell in the Breeders’ Futurity, where everything went wrong early, putting him at the back of the 14-horse field. This is a horse with good tactical speed and having to come from so far back he had no shot to do much of anything and at least closed to be a respectable sixth. I’ll give him a shot at 20-1, breaking from post 8 and getting the services of Luis Saez.

JUVENILE TURF – This is another wide-open race with a European invader, Godolphin’s SILVER KNOTT, a major threat with the ability to win from on the pace or far back. ANDTHEWINNER IS and REALLY GOOD are both coming off excellent efforts in their 1,3 finish in Keeneland’s Bourbon Stakes and could be the second and third choices, right there with California’s best 2-year-old turf horse PACKS A WAHLOP riding a three-race winning streak. Really Good is running second race with blinkers on and did not have the best of trips last time out and should improve. Brendon Walsh has a 20-1 shot who may outrun his odds. RECKONING FORCE had a rough trip last out when seventh in the Bourbon Stakes, but won a stakes at Kentucky Downs in his previous start and has a good enough closing kick to make his presence felt in the stretch.

FILLY AND MARE SPRINTCE CE, ECHO ZULU, CHI TOWN LADY, and GOODNIGHT OLIVE look to be the standouts, but I never throw out the classy OBLIGATORY, coming off 11 straight graded stakes, six of them at seven furlongs. With a contentious pace she should be coming strong in the stretch at 8-1 morning line odds.

TURF SPRINT – The usual crap shoot with the exception of GOLDEN PAL, I am intrigued with the decision to drop CASA CREED back to 5 ½ furlongs two starts after he won the Grade 1 Fourstardave at Saratoga going a mile. But he did win the Grade 1 Jaipur Stakes going six furlongs the race before and I am convinced this 6-year-old warrior can come home fast at any distance up to a mile and I’ll bank on him going off higher than his 6-1 morning line odds. For a real bomb I love the way CAZADERO is improving and is beginning to look like the brilliant 2-year-old we saw win the Bashford Manor Stakes by open lengths in 1:09 3/5 and romp in his career debut going five furlong in : 57 3/5.

DIRT MILE – There are some tough, classy horses in here who are going to be tough to beat, including one of my early Kentucky Derby favorites SIMPLIFICATION, but there are also some live longshots like SENOR BUSCADOR, who looked like a potential contender early on the Derby trail. He returned from California and looked good winning the Ack Ack Stakes. I am looking for a big effort from SLOW DOWN ANDY, who made his mark on the Derby trail, is a graded stakes winner on grass and dirt, is tough as nails, and game as they come. His solid third in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes sets him up for a big effort here.

FILLY AND MARE TURF – I plead ignorant in this race. I can’t separate the American horses, none of whom are standouts, and I don’t know if any of them can handle the second and third-place finishers of the Prix de l’Opera, NASHWA and ABOVE THE CURVE, and the Epsom Oaks winner TUESDAY, who was beaten by the aforementioned two fillies in the Prix de l’Opera. But at 20-1 we have the Irish Oaks runner-up TOY, winner of a listed stakes last out in Ireland at a distance of one mile, which is too short for her. No strong feelings here.

SPRINT – The bizarre scratch of Jack Christopher with an equally bizarre explanation was a crushing blow to this race. Things appear to go a lot deeper than what is on the surface, but we have no choice but to move on. JACKIE’S WARRIOR, ALOHA WEST, the vastly improved ELITE POWER, and the filly KIMARI all look strong. For a price, AMERICAN THEOREM looks like a new horse since returning to sprint races and could be tough here at 10-1, as could former Derby trail star O BESOS, who is coming off two excellent sprint efforts. Those two would be my longshot picks.

MILE – The top choices all look strong and deep and I’m not seeing any longshots I like to beat ANNAPOLIS, DREAMLOPER, MODERN GAMES, KINROSS, REGAL GLORY, and ORDER OF AUSTRALIA. But there are still prices out there. Who knows how DOMESTIC SPENDING is going to come back off such a long layoff? And you have to give 20-1 BEYOND BRILLIANT and 15-1 MALAVATH a shot. The latter just missed winning the Juvenile Filly Turf last year, flying at the end, and is coming off a powerful second to Kinross in the Group 1 Prix de la Foret, the race Goldikova used as a prep for two of her  three Mile victories.

DISTAFF – I’m sitting back and enjoying this one. Just too many top-class fillies who can win. SEARCH RESULTS and BLUE STRIPES look like the logical longshots, but to beat all three of the Curlin fillies, Nest, Malathaat, and Clairiere is a daunting task.

TURF – Again no standout, which is why WAR LIKE GODDESS has a huge shot to win this race. The Euros are sending some solid horses, such as NATION’S PRIDE, REBEL’S ROMANCE, and MISHRIFF. But for a big price you never know when the inconsistent BROOME is going to have a big day, as he did in last year’s BC Turf and this year’s Sword Dancer. And there were victories in the group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and group2 Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. That Broome can win this, especially considering his worst races have come on soft and heavy ground, and he has shown he likes the firm courses in the United States. I must also mention CHANNEL MAKER making his fifth start in the Turf. Although he’s been inconsistant throughout his career it has to be noted that he’s made five starts at Keeneland and has never finished worse than fourth (a win, second, third in the BC Turf, and two close fourths). Watch for him at 30-1.

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Exceller, Seattle Slew Gold Cup Battle Among the Greatest Ever

Tuesday, October 25th, 2022

I recently wrote about my favorite jaw-dropping performances, confining it to Eastern tracks. Now it’s time to start thinking about my most memorable stretch runs. This will be presented in three parts over the next couple of months. In this first column I have chosen one race to highlight, based on its dramatic content, quality of competition, and its historic impact on the sport. That race is the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the second column I will rank my top 12 favorite races with comments about each race. Finally, I will have a column listing the balance of my top 25 stretch runs, all the while enjoying the picks of any additional favorite races submitted by the readers. ~ Steve Haskin

Exceller, Seattle Slew Gold Cup Battle Among the Greatest Ever

By Steve Haskin

 

I have chosen to begin with the epic stretch duel between Seattle Slew and Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup that included Affirmed. This race, which pitted the 1977 and ’78 Triple Crown winners against each other had more drama and was more eventful than any race I can remember. And it was the first time in memory a horse the caliber of Seattle Slew, with all his victories, gained more accolades and respect in defeat. Many still regard it as the greatest losing effort ever.

October, 14, 1978 was a great time to be in New York if you were a sports fan. At Yankee Stadium the Yanks were defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 in the fourth game of the World Series to tie the Series up at two games apiece. At Belmont Park that afternoon racing fans got to witness the rematch between Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in The Jockey Club Gold Cup.

For most of the year everyone was looking forward to Affirmed and Alydar continuing their epic rivalry through the fall, but when Alydar beat Affirmed by disqualification in a controversial Travers Stakes before sustaining an injury that sidelined him for the year all thoughts turned to Affirmed facing the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who was still on the comeback trail after suffering a life-threatening illness at Hialeah that January.

Backing up a bit, following the 1977 Triple Crown Slew had suffered a bad defeat in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park only three weeks after the Belmont Stakes despite trainer Billy Turner vehemently protesting his running back that soon and traveling cross country. He had already removed Slew’s shoes and planned on giving him some time off.

Slew did not run again that year after the Swaps debacle. The Slew team of Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill started to come apart at the seams, following a lawsuit and the dissolving of the partnership, and the subsequent firing of Billy Turner. The Hills and Taylors considered retiring Slew after his illness, especially having syndicated him for $12 million, double the then record syndication price of Secretariat. But they decided to give him another year of racing to confirm the greatness he showed at 2 and through the Triple Crown.

Seattle Slew finally returned to the races in ’78 and following two easy allowance sprint victories for new trainer Doug Peterson Slew was entered in the 1 1/8-mile Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands and was beaten a neck by Dr. Patches, the eventual Vosburgh and Meadowlands Cup winner who would be named 1978 Sprint champion. When jockey Jean Cruguet criticized his owners and trainer for running Slew in that spot, carrying 128 pounds, giving 14 pounds to Dr. Patches, and having to break from the far outside 10 post, he like Turner was fired by the Taylors and Hills. It was three years earlier that the “Slew Crew” pulled off the steal of the century when they bought Seattle Slew as a yearling for a mere $17,500 and became the darlings of the sport during the colt’s historic Triple Crown run. But now their feel-good story was starting to unravel.

With Angel Cordero named to replace Cruguet it was time for the Marlboro Cup and the first ever meeting between Triple Crown winners. No one was quite sure what to expect from Slew against Affirmed and the always tough 3-year-old Nasty and Bold. Was this the same brilliant horse who had become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner in history?

Here was Seattle Slew, eight months after almost dying, going into his historic meeting with Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup, which was run at 1 1/8 miles around one turn back then. Affirmed, despite a narrow score and desperate finish in the Jim Dandy and being disqualified in the Travers, was made the 1-2 favorite with Seattle Slew at 2-1. It was the only time Slew was not the favorite and the first time in 10 starts he was not odds-on. Steve Cauthen, who nearly got Affirmed beat in the Jim Dandy Stakes and then had to miss the Travers with a leg injury, allowed Seattle Slew to open a three-length lead early through a leisurely :47 half. In all essence the race was over at that point if Seattle Slew was even close to the same horse he was the previous year when was running :44 and :45 and change half-miles. Slew just kept going, coming home his final five-eighths in a torrid 58 4/5, and although Affirmed closed just as fast he was unable to overcome that three-length advantage. Seattle Slew stopped the teletimer in 1:45 4/5, which equaled the second fastest nine furlongs ever run at Belmont. Only Secretariat ran faster and only Forego ran as fast. It looked like Slew was not only back but better than ever.

Unlike Affirmed, who waited for the mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew came right back two weeks later (bounce you say?) in the mile and a quarter Woodward Stakes. Here he had to face the international sensation Exceller, winner of Grade/Group I races in France, England, Canada, and the United States. In the U.S. Exceller showed his versatility that year by winning three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, two on the grass and the Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt, in which he rallied from 16 lengths back to win in a sprightly 1:59 1/5 for the mile and a quarter, defeating the top-class multiple stakes winner Text and Vigors, winner of that year’s Santa Anita and San Antonio Handicaps.

In the Woodward, once again, Seattle Slew controlled the pace right from the start and kept pouring it on, defeating Exceller by four lengths in 2:00 flat, one-fifth off Forego’s track record.

That set the stage for the big rematch between Slew and Affirmed, with Exceller back for another try, as his trainer Charlie Whittingham realized circumstances would be much more in his favor this time than in the Woodward.

There was no way trainer Laz Barrera was going to let a repeat of the Marlboro Cup happen again. As fast as Affirmed was out of the gate he did not have Seattle Slew’s speed. On his own his only chance of beating Slew was to look him in the eye early and try to outgame him as he had done so many times against Alydar. But a battle of that magnitude could set it up for the late-running Exceller or even the distance-loving Great Contractor, an inconsistent horse who on his two best days was able to defeat Forego by 11 lengths while getting 25 pounds in the mile and a half Brooklyn Handicap and was beaten two necks in the Belmont Stakes behind Bold Forbes.

So the cagey Barrera summoned help from his barn, entering a speedball sprinter named Americanized, who had never been farther than six furlongs, wanted to be on or just off the lead, and could rattle off opening half-miles in :45 and change consistently. He seemed like the perfect “rabbit” who could possibly soften Slew up before making his retreat. A week before the race, Barrera worked him a half in :45 4/5 over the deeper Belmont training track and with the dogs up.

As a security blanket, Barrera also entered Life’s Hope, who had shown some early lick on occasion, but was mostly a horse who wanted to come from off the pace. He did, however, win the mile and a quarter Amory Haskell Handicap three races back coming from just a length off the lead and earlier had won an overnight handicap going head and head the entire race. Barrera had put a lot of speed into the 5-year-old gelding, breezing him a half in :47 1/5 and then giving him a bullet five-furlong work in :58 4/5 four days before the race.

Affirmed hadn’t run in a month, so Barrera worked him a bullet five furlongs over the training track in :59 2/5 and followed that up with two strong mile works, the last one a week out in 1:39 3/5 over the training track.

Seattle Slew, meanwhile, was coming back once again in only two weeks, which actually was fairly normal back then, so Peterson only gave him one half-mile blowout two days before the race and Slew showed he was as sharp as ever working in a bullet :46 3/5. Exceller worked his half that same morning in :47 flat, which followed a mile work over the training track in 1:43 2/5 five days earlier and only a week after his second to Slew in the Woodward.

So everyone was razor sharp going into the Gold Cup. Seven were entered, but Barrera wound up scratching Americanized, leaving a lot of the dirty work to Life’s Hope. The strategy was that Affirmed, breaking from post 2 just outside Seattle Slew, would come out running as usual, putting enough pressure on Slew. Affirmed was the kind of push-button horse who was fast out of the gate, but would allow the jockey to take a hold of him and ease him back. Once Affirmed put enough early pressure on Slew, he would back off and let Life’s Hope take over.

Sounds simple enough, but that’s where the drama began. With the track coming up sloppy, Seattle Slew broke through the gate and fortunately was grabbed right away by the assistant starter. But breaking through the gate is never a good thing and not a lot of horses win after doing so.

When the gates opened, Slew broke sharply, as did Affirmed, who went right with him eyeball to eyeball. But Barrera’s plans went awry immediately after. When Life’s Hope came charging out of post 4 and joined in the fray from the outside, Affirmed found himself the proverbial meat in the sandwich. We all knew how competitive Affirmed was from his battles with Alydar. Cauthen tried to grab hold of Affirmed, but with little success. With the three horses locked together going into the first turn, Affirmed found himself battling not only Slew on his inside, but his own stablemate just outside him, which got his competitive juices flowing. He was in the battle to stay, which obviously was not what Barrera wanted.

As they went into the first turn, they were so close together, Affirmed and Slew bumped each other, which knocked Cordero’s left foot out of the stirrups. Slew was now basically running on his own as Cordero tried to get his foot back in the irons. There was no stopping him now. So hot was the early pace they went the opening quarter in :22 3/5. Cauthen, meanwhile, was pulling back so hard on Affirmed trying to get him away from Slew and his own stablemate his saddle slipped and he found himself bouncing up and down. The saddle had slipped so far forward he was now way up on the colt’s withers at the base of his neck and had lost all control of the horse.

By now the three had opened some 25 lengths on Exceller and had scorched a half-mile in an excruciating :45 1/5, which was insane for a mile and a half race. Life’s Hope was done soon after they hit the backstretch, his mission a complete failure. Soon after, it was obvious that Affirmed was a rudderless ship going nowhere but backwards. It was all Seattle Slew, who began to draw away. His only threat, Exceller was still in another zip code. But Slew had run his six furlongs in a suicidal 1:09 2/5. Cordero finally was able to give him a breather and slow down the pace heading into the far turn. But everyone at once saw the green silks of Exceller getting closer and closer and it looked as if the damage had been done. Slew’s gas tank had to be close to empty after those mind-boggling fractions and Exceller was cutting into his lead with every stride.

1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup official finish photo – Purchase photo to benefit the Exceller Fund, the non-profit equine organization assisting in Thoroughbred horse rescue and re-training.

Cordero had given Slew enough of a breather to at least have a little something left for the onslaught that was to come. As they neared the head of the stretch with Slew racing several paths out, Exceller came flying through the vacated rail and in a flash was alongside Slew, having all the momentum. It was only a question now of how many lengths he would win by. Bill Shoemaker, riding Exceller, said “I thought we’d win it easily.”

Cordero knew Exceller was coming fast and when he saw him on his inside he immediately starting pushing on Slew, trying to keep Exceller pinned down close to the rail. Slew, despite the unheard of early fractions, fought back and wouldn’t let Exceller get away. They battled eyeball to eyeball for an eighth of a mile, but leaving the eighth pole Exceller finally began to assert himself, getting a good half-length advantage. It looked over. Slew had given it all he had. But unbelievably, he wasn’t finished. He dug in again and started coming back at Exceller. With every stride. a relentless Slew was inching closer to Exceller, but his gallant effort fell a nose short. Andrew Beyer, reporting in the Washington Post, bluntly described this amazing performance in his opening line: “Exceller was the winner of yesterday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew was its hero.”

It was 14 lengths back to Great Contractor, who was pretty much handed the show spot with Cauthen being unable to ride Affirmed and Life’s Hope backing out of it early in the race. The only other starter, former claimer One Cut Above, was totally overmatched and was never in the race.

The brief Seattle Slew – Affirmed rivalry ended as disappointingly as the Affirmed – Alydar rivalry. But after the 1978 Gold Cup Seattle Slew in defeat became recognized as one of the all-time greats. He ended the year with a 3 ¼-length victory in the Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct carrying 134 pounds, putting the finishing touches on a turbulent, but sensational career. But that was just the beginning, as he went on to create a dynasty at stud.

Affirmed would return the following year, and after Laffit Pincay took over from a badly slumping Steve Cauthen he closed out his career with seven straight victories, six of them in Grade 1 stakes, earning his second straight Horse of the Year title by defeating Spectacular Bid in The Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Exceller followed up his Gold Cup victory by winning the Oak Tree Invitational on grass, but went winless in four starts the following year. In 1991, his syndicate was bought out by a Swedish breeder who brought him to stand in Sweden. After being diagnosed with a mysterious infection he was removed from stud service for several years. When Exceller’s owner went bankrupt, the horse was moved to a small farm where he remained for a year before he was sent to a slaughterhouse and killed for meat. That created an outrage across the world, especially in the United States, where the Exceller Fund was started, which, along with other organizations, campaigned for the protection of horses following their racing career.

All three horses now reside in the Hall of Fame, but they will also be remembered for the drama they created in one of the greatest races of all time and arguably the greatest losing effort of all time.

 

Please note the Askin Haskin blog will post next on November 3 with Steve’s 2022 Breeders’ Cup Analysis.

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Life is Good, But Good Enough to Beat Flightline?

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Many people are wondering what Flightline’s margin of victory will be in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Very few are wondering who can beat him. But are most people underestimating Life is Good? That’s what we’re about to determine. ~ Steve Haskin

Life is Good, But Good Enough to Beat Flightline?

By Steve Haskin

 

Life is Good finished fourth in his only start at a mile and a quarter. He was only workmanlike to beat a small subpar Woodward field by 1 1/4 lengths in his last start at odds of 1-20. His highest Thoro-Graph number by far has come at seven furlongs. His fastest two-turn Thoro-Graph number in a two-turn race is six points, or the equivalent of 12 lengths, slower than Flightline’s fastest number. His total margin of victory in his last five wins is 17 ¼ lengths; Flightline’s total margin of victory in his last five wins in 62 ¾ lengths.

So, how in the world is Life is Good expected to beat Flightline in the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic? How is a horse who narrowly defeated Law Professor, beaten almost 30 lengths in his last two graded stakes, going to now defeat a horse people are calling a freak and the next superstar? Why is the Classic being billed as a showdown between the two top older horses in America when one seems far superior visually and in every statistical category?

Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of horse racing where anything is possible and not everything is as clear and cut and dry as it seems. It has to be that way or else longshot bettors would go broke in a month. The late Allen Jerkens made a Hall of Fame career out of knocking off sure things, often with former claimers and rejects. And in our two most prestigious races, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, the names Arcangues, Volponi, Wild Again, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, and Rich Strike would mean nothing if races were a foregone conclusion.

Not that Life is Good can be compared to those megabombs. After all, in any other year he would the solid favorite for the Classic; the horse whose brilliant speed would make him the horse to catch and certainly the horse to beat. So, why paint such a bleak picture in the opening paragraph? Because this isn’t any other year; this is the year of Flightline, a horse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before at this stage of his career.

So, now let’s return to the second paragraph and the gist of this column. How can Life is Good, with his impressive nine-for-10 record in the United States, his $4.3 million in earnings, and his four Grade 1 victories beat a horse who is so much faster, so much more dominating, and so much more explosive than he is?

There are several ways of going into battle against such an overwhelming opponent. You can be David against Goliath and do something so unconventional it catches the far superior foe off guard. You can be the unheralded Buster Douglas, who went into the ring with the fearsome, intimidating, and seemingly invincible Mike Tyson and showed no fear, going for the knockout and again catching the bully off guard. And then of course, you can be Michael Spinks, who went into the ring with Tyson with so much fear you knew the fight was over before it started and that a first-round knockout was a sure thing. Many of Flightline’s opponents will go in the race praying for a miracle, but realistically hoping for second.

You can forget that last scenario with Life is Good. His trainer Todd Pletcher fears no one and will instill plenty of confidence in his colt and just has to figure out whether to utilize the David or the Buster Douglas strategy. As Tyson used to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So will Life is Good use the surprise approach and do something he’s not supposed to do or does he stand up to Flightline? Douglas got knocked down, but kept getting up and exchanging blows until he destroyed his opponent’s will. The result was a shocking knockout.

Both of those strategies are easier said than done, but Pletcher is a great tactician and will have a plan of attack. He is well aware of Life is Good’s main weapon, which is speed. Before we get into what those plans may be, let’s look back at Life is Good’s so-called disappointing effort in the Woodward that national TV commentators said was unimpressive.

Pletcher has never been one to unload in prep races and you don’t want to see a horse with exceptional speed who is still a question mark at a mile and a quarter use his biggest weapon against inferior competition when he is going to have to come out with guns blazing against Flightline, as well as Epicenter, Taiba, Olympiad, and possibly several others. If you follow Thoro-Graph or Ragozin the thinking is you don’t want to run some extraordinary number before the biggest race of the year and then have nowhere to go but down. So while Life is Good has a ton of catching up to do before he gets anywhere near Flightline’s numbers he at least has given himself a big shot at an upward move. And he’ll need it. Yes, Flightline’s last Thoro-Graph number of negative-8 ½ in the Pacific Classic is the fastest number ever recorded, but he has been given a lot of time between races to recover from that performance. All Life is Good can hope for is a huge move forward and for Flightline to take a major step backwards. There is such a big gap between the two even that might not be enough, but at least has put himself in a position to take advantage of any significant regression by Flightline.

As for the Woodward, let’s just say that Law Professor ran out of his skin, as evidenced by the 10 ½-length gap back to the third horse and the fact that Life is Good had to come home his final three-eighths running on a heavy wet track for the first time in a swift :36 1/5 and final eighth in :12 1/5. You can’t close much faster than that, especially setting all the pace.

So, now he has to go up against Flightline. The last time Life is Good was in a similar showdown was in this year’s Pegasus World Cup when he squared off against the brilliant Horse of the Year Knicks Go, who had decimated his opponents with his early speed. In his previous eight victories he won them all on the lead by an average margin of almost five lengths and defeated the best horses in the country in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. No horse could stay with him early and he went out there controlled the pace each time. But Life is Good possesses such brilliant sprint speed he took it to Knicks Go right from the start. He burst out of the gate, quickly opened a two and then three-length lead in a stiff :46 1/5 and 1:10, and Knicks Go never knew what hit him. He never got close to Life is Good and was beaten 3 ¼ lengths.

What helped Life is Good was not only his natural speed, but the ability to turn it on or off. In the seven-furlong Allen Jerkens Stakes he outran Sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior early off an almost six-month layoff, blazing though fractions of :21 4/5 and :44 flat. In the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile he went in :44 4/5 and 1:08 3/5. That is the only kind of speed that could bring down a horse like Knicks Go and perhaps a horse like Flightline, who has had the luxury of strolling down the stretch in isolated splendor every race. He has no idea what competition looks like once he turns for home. Life is Good’s objective must be to stay with him long enough to look him in the eye down the stretch.

This year Pletcher has been focusing more on having him relax early, knowing he is going to have to go a mile and a quarter. Some of the experts have felt Pletcher has been dulling his main weapon, but it was only three races back in the seven-furlong John Nerud Stakes that Life is Good tore through fractions off :22 and :44 3/5 and drew of to a five-length win in 1:21 3/5. He has already proven he can pull out that hole card anytime he wants. So don’t’ go by his workmanlike victories in the Whitney and Woodward on off tracks. That sprint speed is there whenever Pletcher and jockey Irad Ortiz feel it’s needed. The question is how far can he carry it with Flightline in hot pursuit? Remember, Flightline has won his last two races sitting just off the leader so I wouldn’t expect some torrid speed duel up front.

No, I am not ignoring the other Classic contenders. Epicenter has improved in leaps and bounds and now possesses a lethal closing kick he didn’t show earlier in the year, but his fastest Thoro-Graph number is a negative-1, as is Taiba’s, both in their last start, so it appears at least on the speed sheets that they are not nearly fast enough at this point in their career to beat Flightline and Life is Good. The lightly raced Taiba still has tremendous scope for improvement, and hopefully we will see a major star emerge next year. Olympiad and Hot Rod Charlie are in the same ballpark speed-wise as Life is Good, but I just don’t think they are as talented and would need a pace meltdown to have any chance. The fastest 3-year-old with the exception of Charge It’s negative-4 in his 23-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes actually is Rich Strike with a negative-2 in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs against Hot Rod Charlie and other top-class older horses, but as this point it would seem more logical to wait for the Clark Handicap at his favorite track.

So, now we return to the original premise of this column. Can Life is Good beat Flightline in the Classic? I’ll let you know at the quarter pole.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association: Janet Garaguso, Dom Napolitano

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

 

Remembering Jaw-dropping Performances of the Past

Monday, October 3rd, 2022

Following Flightline’s remarkable victory in the Pacific Classic, Jay Hovdey wrote a column about the most memorable performances he had seen in California that pretty much blew him away and left a lasting impression on him. That inspired me to do the same from an Eastern point of view. So here are the moments over the past 55 years that left me awestruck.~ Steve Haskin

Remembering Jaw-dropping Performances of the Past

By Steve Haskin

 

With the final Breeders’ Cup Classic preps in the book, most everyone has to be wondering if any of the top horses are capable of posing a threat to Flightline. Life is Good’s expected romp in a depleted Woodward Stakes at odds of 1-20 never happened as he could only manage a workmanlike 1 ¼-length victory over 26-1 shot Law Professor while America’s favorite bridesmaid, the gutsy but unlucky Hot Rod Charlie, winner of last year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award, showed his gameness by battling back to nip Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs.

Although racing fans across the country were hoping and expecting to see Life is Good blow his field away, there were a number of positives to take from his effort, which we will get into in a future column. In the meantime, Flightline looks more imposing than ever coming off his fifth spectacular victory in as many starts in the Pacific Classic, which brought back memories of races over the past half century that were so eye-catching they left yours truly stunned and still do after all these years. It is tough ranking these races and the thrills they provided, but we’ll give it shot. So here are those races that left me in awe. I’m sure everyone has their own list, so feel free to share them.

Exciting close finishes such as Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classics, Forego’s Marlboro Cup, Personal Ensign’s BC Distaff, and the Sunday Silence — Easy Goer battles in the Preakness and BC Classic and many others are for a future column.

1—Secretariat, 1973 Belmont Stakes – It would be a great injustice to Big Red’s performance to waste mere words on it. This is the one race in history where only three words are needed – “Secretariat” and “Belmont Stakes.” That will be followed immediately by “31 lengths” and “2:24.” All you have to hear are racecaller Chic Anderson’s words “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine” for all the memories to come flooding back and the goosebumps and tears to begin all over again. In short, we will never see anything like this again. It is truly racing’s one moment that will forever remain frozen in time.

2—Damascus, 1967 Travers Stakes – Even though this was a perfect setup for Damascus with only four entered and two of them speed horses, who dueled through fast fractions, this race was visually spectacular with Damascus coming from 16 lengths back midway down the backstretch to win by 22 lengths eased up and equaling the track record in the mud. I can state emphatically that no horse ever went by two leaders as quickly as Damascus did. When he caught Tumiga and Gala Performance on the far turn, if you blinked your eyes once and then opened them, you would have seen Damascus already six lengths in front and just coasting along with Bill Shoemaker sitting perfectly still on him. Like Secretariat’s Belmont it mattered little who he beat. It was something you never saw before and would never forget. When Damascus did face a Hall of Fame field in the Woodward Stakes, dubbed “The Race of the Century,” he again demonstrated that explosive move and cat-like quickness, and rabbits or no rabbits he still was able to annihilate two of the greatest horses of all time, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager, by 10 lengths. Considering who he beat, and with such disdain, this performance certainly could easily have been ranked in the Top 10, but we’ll just mention it here.

3—Dr. Fager, 1968 Vosburgh Handicap – If you never saw this race live, sadly you will never see it, as NYRA personnel in charge of the video department admitted that the race somehow was lost or destroyed and was gone forever. So one of the most remarkable performances in the history of the sport has not been seen for 54 years and never will be seen other than through the eyes of those who were at Aqueduct on November 2, 1968 or watching at home on TV. A week before the seven-furlong Vosburgh, NYRA winterized the track (this was before the inner track was built), which made the surface some two seconds slower than normal. This was Dr. Fager’s farewell and trainer John Nerud asked racing secretary Tommy Trotter to put 145 pounds on Dr. Fager. Trotter said he couldn’t do that but did burden him with a staggering 139 pounds. He was also going against the brilliant sprinter Kissin George, who had just romped in the six-furlong Sport Page Handicap after being sent east and turned over to Allen Jerkens. To watch Dr. Fager run Kissin George into the ground through blazing fractions of :43 4/5 and 1:07 4/5 over a track that slow and with that much weight and then go on to romp by six lengths in a track-record 1:20 1/5 was simply mind-boggling. That record would last 31 years before being broken by sprint champion Artax, who ran a fifth of a second faster carrying 25 pounds less than Dr. Fager.

4—Dr. Fager, 1968 Washington Park Handicap – Although Dr. Fager’s world record mile in 1:32 1/5 arguably is the most iconic record second only to Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, I am putting it just below the Vosburgh because almost everyone was expecting a world record over the lightning-fast Arlington surface, which was the scene of the previous three world record miles. But what blew everyone away was how easily Dr. Fager won carrying 134 pounds and being eased the length of the stretch, drawing off under wraps to win by 10 lengths. This was after running his second quarter in :20 3/5, believed to be the fastest quarter ever run within the body of a race, and six furlongs in a scorching 1:07 3/5. It is now 54 years later and no one has run a faster mile on dirt. Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson said after the race, “Hell, if he had been asked he could have done it in 1:30 and change.” As Dr. Fager was pulling up, out of the silence came a single faint word from track announcer Phil Georgeff: “Wow!”

5 and 6—Arrogate, 2016 Travers Stakes and 2017 Dubai World Cup – Because both victories were so completely opposite it was difficult deciding whether to put Arrogate’s victory in the Dubai World Cup or the Travers Stakes at No. 5, so I am putting them both here because both were equally jaw-dropping in different ways. No one had a clue who Arrogate was when he came to Saratoga for the Midsummer Derby off a so-so 1 ¾-length allowance victory at Del Mar and wasn’t even the more highly regarded Bob Baffert two horses in the Travers field. No one could have imagined the performance that was follow, as Arrogate went to the front and absolutely demolished his opponents, winning by 13 ½ lengths in a spectacular 1:59 1/5, shattering General Assembly’s 37-year-old track record by four-fifths of a second. So the following year when Arrogate got left badly at the start in the Dubai World Cup and dropped back to a distant last in the 14-horse field, everyone felt the race was over for him. But those same people were awestruck when Arrogate charged past the entire field and blew by the top-class Gun Runner in the stretch to win going away by 2 ¼ lengths. When I started to write my column on the race I was literally at a loss for words until I just let my feelings pour out reflecting my amazement at what I had just seen.

7—Canonero II, 1971 Preakness Stakes – There are several degrees of shock when watching a horse race. You can be shocked by a huge margin or a record-setting time or a sensational stretch run. But Canonero set a new standard in the Preakness. It would seem nothing could top the shock of his Kentucky Derby victory when this ribby, crooked-legged Venezuelan import, who had sold as a yearling for $1,500, rallied from 18th, 20 lengths off the pace to win by 3 ¾ lengths. If he hadn’t been in a six-horse mutual field he surely would have gone off at odds nearing 100-1. So going into the Preakness with a classy Calumet speed horse in Eastern Fleet appearing to be the fastest horse in the field and the one to catch, there seemed no way that the plodding Canonero could rally from that far back at a shorter distance and come even close to catching Eastern Fleet or out-close the plucky little Derby runner-up Jim French, who was tough as nails and always right there at the finish. Canonero also was breaking from post 9, which was not ideal at Pimlico. I cannot remember being more shocked than I was when Canonero went right after Eastern Fleet approaching the clubhouse turn and dueled head and head with him through testing fractions of :47 and 1:10 2/5. Turning for home they were still eyeball to eyeball, but Canonero would not quit. He finally put Eastern Fleet away inside the eighth pole and not only drew off to a 1 ½-length victory he broke Nashua’s track record by three-fifths of a second. To this day that performance astounds me and I still can’t believe he was able to do what he did coming off the Derby. That convinced me this was no ordinary horse.

8—Secretariat, 1973 Preakness Stakes – This is the one race that left me awestruck by something that did not occur in the stretch, but earlier in the race. Remember, at the time Secretariat had established himself as something special, especially after his record-breaking performance in the Kentucky Derby, but visually he hadn’t done anything we’d never seen before. When Secretariat was running last early on in the Preakness everyone assumed we would see the same type of race he ran in the Derby, which was gradually moving up and picking off horses before unleashing his closing kick. I was watching the race from the roof, so I got a great start-to-finish look at a move I, and everyone else, had never seen before. As he approached the clubhouse turn Secretariat decided it was time to move and when Secretariat decided it was time to move you just gave him his head and held on, which is all Ron Turcotte could do. In a flash, Big Red blew by horses so fast on the turn he was in front by two lengths before anyone could comprehend what they were seeing. Jockey George Cusimano on the front-running Ecole Etage said he was going along easily and had plenty of horse when he heard what sounded like a freight train coming up behind him. Then he looked over and saw Secretariat, who went by him with such force he blew the number off his sleeve. Everyone was stunned, but as Sham moved out and took up the chase many wondered if Secretariat had done too much too early. But he went on to win comfortably, which pretty much assured everyone that a Triple Crown sweep was imminent, as they now knew this was a horse who could do things other horses were incapable of. And that was before they found out years later he had shattered the track record. This was another moment frozen in time that still leaves people stunned every time they watch it.

9—Rachel Alexandra, 2009 Mother Goose Stakes – I could have put any one of three of Rachel’s victories in this spot, including her 20 ¼-length laugher in the Kentucky Oaks or her six-length drubbing of top colts Summer Bird and Munnings in the Haskell Invitational in near track-record time in the slop. But the one that really took my breath away was the Mother Goose even though she faced only two opponents. But those two opponents, Flashing and Malibu Prayer, were coming into the race off impressive winning streaks and both would go on to be grade 1 winners. Here was the speedy Rachel Alexandra sitting five lengths off the lead before pouncing on the two leaders, coming between both of them. In a flash she was gone and even though Calvin Borel eased her to a mere gallop nearing the sixteenth pole while looking back twice, she still won by 19 ¼ lengths in a blazing 1:46 1/5. The only horses I can recall who ran a faster mile and an eighth at Belmont were Hall of Famers Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Forego, and Precisionist, and champion older mare Riboletta. And none of them won anywhere near as easily as Rachel did. This victory was very reminiscent of Flightline’s 19 ¼-length romp in the Pacific Classic and even his 13 1/4-length score in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, the way they both extended their leads with every stride despite being eased up in the stretch. I can only imagine how fast Rachel would have gone had she been asked to run even a little in the final sixteenth.

10—Ruffian, 1974 Spinaway Stakes – Good luck trying to choose only one Ruffian victory that blew you away. How about all of them? I could even choose her career debut when no one knew much about her and she was sent off at odds of 4-1. I remember being at the track and my friend assuring me Ruffian would stop after setting a blazing :45 1/5 half. Well, all she did was win by 15 lengths equaling the track record at Belmont Park. In her stakes debut, the Fashion Stakes, she equaled her own record winning by 6 ¾ lengths over Cragwood Stable’s highly regarded Copernica, who had also romped in her debut. She then blew the doors off a very fast filly named Laughing Bridge in the Astoria Stakes, winning by nine lengths in a stakes-record 1:02 4/5. But after stretching out to six furlongs, Laughing Bridge won the Schuylerville Stakes by 13 lengths in 1:09 4/5 and the Adirondack Stakes by five lengths and seemed ready for a rematch with Ruffian in the Spinaway Stakes. That turned out to be her misfortune as Ruffian burst out of the gate and quickly opened a two-length lead. She just kept pouring it on, winning eased up by almost 13 lengths in a blistering 1:08 3/5, just three-fifths off the track record. And we’re talking about a 2-year-old filly. To win that easily going that fast and by such a huge margin and crushing a brilliant filly like Laughing Bridge it confirmed that we were looking at some sort of freak.

11—Ghostzapper, 2003 Vosburgh Stakes – At the beginning of Ghostzapper’s career he looked destined to be a sprinter, as trainer Bobby Frankel started him off in seven straight sprints. But it reached a point that Frankel felt compelled to stretch him out in the 2004 Iselin at Monmouth and two races later he wound up winning the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic in stakes-record time  But the race that sticks out in my mind was the 6 ½-furlong Vosburgh Stakes. That’s when everyone came to the realization that this was a very special horse. Before making the transition to becoming a horse who wanted to be on or just off the lead Ghostzapper had been a closer who had come from the clouds with an explosive stretch run to be beaten a half-length in the seven-furlong King’s Bishop Stakes. Then came the Vosburgh, dropping back in distance against older horses, and Ghostzapper was so far back, racing in 10th and last, 13 lengths off the pace, no one could imagine him even finishing in the money. He began to kick in on the far turn, but nearing the top of the stretch he was still seventh, 10 lengths back. Then came an explosion very few had seen before. At the eighth pole he had already collared the leaders and was moving with such momentum he just kept pouring it on and opening up on the field, eventually winning by 6 ½ lengths in a blazing 1:14 3/5. To show how special Ghostzapper was, despite making only 11 career starts, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.

12—Frosted, 2016 Met Mile – I still would like to know where this performance came from. Frosted was always regarded as a good horse who unfortunately came along the same year as American Pharoah. He did win the Wood Memorial and Pennsylvania Derby by two lengths and the Maktoum Challenge in Dubai by five lengths before finishing fifth in the Dubai World Cup. Many horsemen feel it takes several months to recover from a trip to Dubai. Frosted was in Dubai for two races and then returned to the U.S. where he had eyes popping with a performance in the Met Mile that defies all logic. Despite not having run in a one-turn race since breaking his maiden two years earlier and having won both his mile and an eighth stakes in a mediocre 1:50 and 1:50 1/5, he somehow demolished his field by 14 ¼ lengths in a blazing 1:32 3/5, two fifths off Dr. Fager’s world record on dirt. In his final three career starts following the Met Mile he did manage to win the Whitney by two lengths and then was beaten at 2-5 in the Woodward before getting beat over 19 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to close out his career. How he did what he did in the Met Mile I have no idea.

13–Arazi, 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — This is a last-minute addition that I definitely overlooked and deserves to be higher up. All I can say is “And Arazi runs right by him!” as Tom Durkin frantically called as Arazi blew by Bertrando so fast after making the most amazing and explosive move ever seen by a 2-year-old. “Bertando stunned by the move of Arazi. Just incredible!” And coming off sprints in France no less. No one had ever seen anything like this and surely no one was expecting it. So began the most unusual Derby trail ever, with Arazi training in France after undergoing knee surgery following the Juvenile.

There have been a number of other brilliant performances with horses winning by huge margins, such as the Belmont Stakes victories by Risen Star, Point Given, and Bet Twice or Alydar’s demolition of the Whitney Stakes where he crushed top-class older horses by 10 lengths in 1:47, which made people wonder once again how this colt could get beat so many times by Affirmed. And has any young 3-year-old ever run as fast as Alydar’s son Easy Goer. who romped by 13 lengths in the Gotham Stakes in an unreal near world record 1:32 2/5, eased up? No one could have expected such a performance by 3-year-old in March. There was Arts and Letters’ 15-length score in the 1969 Blue Grass Stakes in which he won eased up and still missed Round Table’s track record by only two-fifths of a second. On the Derby trail, who can forget Bellamy Road’s other worldly performance in the Wood Memorial, in which he won by 17 ½ lengths in a swift 1:47. And this was coming off a 15 ¾-length allowance victory at Gulfstream Park.

Although his margins weren’t as big, there are few back-to-back performances I can remember that left me as amazed as Prove Out’s dominating victories over Secretariat and Riva Ridge in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. As surprising as it was winning both races, it was how he did it that boggled the mind. You will have to read my column on both races to fully grasp the enormity of what Prove Out accomplished.

And then this year we had Charge It’s stunning 23-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes. Unfortunately a foot abscess forced him to miss the Travers. There was Gamine’s jaw-dropper in the Acorn Stakes, and I must also mention the spectacular runaway victories by Autobiography, Borego and Waquoit in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Inside Information in the Ruffian and BC Distaff, Bertrando in the Woodward Stakes, and the dominance over top-class older horses by Holy Bull in the Woodward.

And finally I must mention the shock of seeing Mine That Bird not only win the Kentucky Derby at 50-1, but come charging through the entire field like a horse possessed to win by 6 ½ lengths. That is another baffling performance that will never be explained by rational thinking.

I’m sure I’m overlooking several other jaw-dropping performances that escape me at the moment, so please feel free to add your own and share them in your comments.

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Taiba’s Climb to Stardom Has Begun

Monday, September 26th, 2022

With his stunning victory over a top-class field in Saturday’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, it looks as if the much heralded Taiba finally is ready to launch his career to the highest of heights with a solid enough foundation under him.~ Steve Haskin

Taiba’s Climb to Stardom Has Begun

By Steve Haskin

 

Did you ever get the feeling you are on a journey and everything seems to be falling into place and the farther you get the clearer the picture around you gets? But in the back of your mind there is something lurking behind you just waiting to disrupt the clarity of that picture.

Of course in this space, journeys and picture clarity often refer to the Kentucky Derby trail, which then expand to the Triple Crown trail, then to the road to the Travers Stakes, and finally to the 3-year-old championship.

In 2022, we began the journey with a deep and seemingly talented group of 3-year-olds who spent the winter sorting themselves out only to have a megaton bomb land on Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May in the form of an 80-1 longshot named Rich Strike, throwing everything into disarray and leaving the Derby trail in shambles.

That continued when the Preakness winner Early Voting failed to duplicate that form, Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal was injured and retired, and the 23-length Dwyer winner Charge It was sidelined with a foot injury. Cyberknife looked like an improving horse winning the Haskell Invitational by a head, but the picture finally became clear when the Louisiana Derby winner and hard luck Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Epicenter asserted his superiority by winning the Jim Dandy and Travers, easily defeating Cyberknife in the latter. Finally we had a clear-cut leader of the division and a sophomore threat for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But since the spring, you just had the nagging feeling that the division was not going to become clear until a late-developing lightly raced colt named Taiba caught up with the others. So he just lurked behind the pack all through the late spring and summer, popping up occasionally just to take another step forward and let everyone know he was still around and a force to be reckoned with once he found some stability and got the experience he badly needed. You just got that feeling he was going to storm onto the scene by late summer or early fall, so in the meantime you praised the consistent, hard-knocking Epicenter, who had vaulted to the top of the division, but with one eye on that brilliant chestnut who was biding his time traveling around the country, while popping up sporadically.

Following his breakout performance in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby it is time to take a look at the exceptional, odd, and extremely brief career of Taiba. You knew right from the start this was a colt capable of making startling transformations. As a yearling, he sold for $140,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October sale. So there was nothing to suggest he was anything special. But only five months later he sold at the Fasig-Tipton March 2-year-old sale for a whopping $1.7 million, which was more than $1.3 million over the average price of the sale.

Bob Baffert, who would eventually become his trainer, put it simply saying, “He worked fast and moved beautifully.”

Baffert was given the colt by Zedan Racing Stables, who also had Medina Spirit with Baffert, as well as Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer in partnership.

Taiba didn’t make his career debut until this past March 5, winning by 7 ½ lengths in a swift 1:09 4/5 for the six furlongs. As Baffert said, “He was very immature as a 2-year-old, so we turned him out for a couple of months.”

In an extremely bold move, he jumped all the way up to a mile and an eighth in the Santa Anita Derby, while being turned over to trainer Tim Yakteen during Baffert’s suspension for a drug positive. In only his second career start he blew past his more accomplished stablemate Messier to win by 2 ¼ lengths in 1:48 2/5. It was an unprecedented move, winning a prestigious Grade 1 stakes in such impressive fashion with only one six-furlong race behind him and doing it with a new trainer.

As bold a move as that was, it was unheard of to then run him in the Kentucky Derby with only two career starts. Based on history and common sense he had no chance to win, and although he finished 12th you could not fault him in any way, especially since he was running three lengths off a suicidal pace of :45 1/5 for the half that claimed every horse running within six lengths of the lead and set it up for Rich Strike, who rallied from dead-last in the 20-horse field.

When Baffert’s suspension was over, Taiba was sent back to him, but he wouldn’t run again for another 2 ½ months. Still a work in progress with only three career starts and having to travel cross-country, he ran a super race in the Haskell to be beaten a head by Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, who got through on the rail to just nip him on the wire in a track-record 1:46 1/5 for the mile and an eighth.

By now, most people could only imagine what this colt would be capable of once he built some sort of racing foundation while continuing to progress and improve with every race. They found out two months later when he made his third trip back east last Saturday and drew off to a dominating three-length victory over the hard-knocking Zandon and Cyberknife in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. That prompted Baffert to call him “the best 3-year-old.”

It wasn’t the margin or the solid time of 1:48 3/5 that was most impressive. It was that big stride of his that gobbled up the ground and allowed him to blow by top-class horses in the stretch with little effort. It was clear the real Taiba finally was emerging.

He still has to get past Epicenter to earn the title of “best 3-year-old,” but for anyone who has seen him run and work and how lightly raced he still is with only five career starts, they are well aware it is going to take a super effort by Epicenter in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to hold on to the top spot in the division. Of course with older horses Flightline and Life is Good squaring off for Older Horse and Horse of the Year honors there should be two separate battles going on. Epicenter has the advantage of having already won at 1 ¼ miles impressively in the Travers and has also matured into a top quality horse, but with Taiba we’re talking about a colt with untapped talent who has turned in outstanding performances while still basically a baby who is still learning.

While Taiba has speed in his female family through the sprinter Phone Trick, he is by the white-hot sire Gun Runner, out of a mare by Flatter, a sire of top-class distance horses. Taiba’s fifth generation tail-female sire Grand Rights is a half-brother to French Derby winner Caracolero, whose dam Betty Lorraine is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince.

So, will Flightline still look like a freak against Life is Good? Is Taiba close enough to superstardom to wrest control of the 3-year-old division from Epicenter? Does he or Epicenter actually have a chance to be competitive against Flightline, something no horse has been able to do? It doesn’t seem to matter who else runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The chances of someone beating all four of these horses seem extremely remote.

From what we’ve seen so far from Taiba and how much room there still is for improvement who knows what we’re going to see next year when he actually has some experience and a foundation under him. It certainly should be something to look forward to.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Andrew

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.

Bid, Book, and Beyond

Monday, September 12th, 2022

It was 43 years ago on September 8 that Spectacular Bid won the Marlboro Cup in his first start against older horses. If you thought you knew the complete story of Bid and those who guided him through his Hall of Fame career you were mistaken. Jack Gilden’s new book “The Fast Ride” provides both the memorable and sordid details in revealing the untold story of one of the all-time great Thoroughbreds. Bid’s true greatness also is detailed here by yours truly through stats and recollections.~ Steve Haskin

Bid, Book, and Beyond

By Steve Haskin

 

I lived through the Spectacular Bid years. I covered his Preakness for Thoroughbred Record as a photographer and was at his Belmont, Marlboro Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup vs. Affirmed, and walkover. I hung out with Buddy Delp after the Belmont, interviewed him on the phone at his home, and wrote several columns about the colt. I even visited Bid at Claiborne Farm and years later at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, New York.

Yes, I knew jockey Ronnie Franklin was a raw immature street kid with no experience and was being thrown into the fire too early. And I knew that trainer Buddy Delp’s braggadocio and occasional outbursts knew no limits. And I knew owner Harry Meyerhoff’s second wife Teresa was much younger than him and that they made for quite an odd couple in outward appearance.  But they were all supporting players to the horse Delp called “the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle.”

However, I recently found out I only thought I lived through the Spectacular Bid years. Author Jack Gilden in his book “The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing” convinced me I hadn’t. So now after reading the book I amend that statement by saying I existed through the Spectacular Bid years, witnessing only the performance of the lead character on stage and not knowing the full extent of what was happening behind the curtain. Yes, I cheered, marveled, and stood in appreciation at each bravura performance by this magnificent superstar. But offstage, the human frailties of the supporting cast went unnoticed, until now, more than four decades later. Although the book did not alter Spectacular Bid’s accomplishments in any way, it certainly altered the narrative of his story that is now being told for the first time.

“The Fast Ride” is not a typical biography of a horse, as was Peter Lee’s well-chronicled book on Spectacular Bid a few years ago, as it skimmed over a number of Bid’s races. What it is is a riveting book about how a horse with a fairly modest pedigree and price tag, ridden by a young inexperienced jockey not equipped emotionally for such a big stage and trained by a brash Maryland hardboot, can go on to become one the all-time greats despite the shortcomings and self-destructive actions of those around him.

Gllden went behind the scenes of “The Spectacular Bid show” and revealed the dark side of one of the greatest shows in racing history.  He did make a number of detours, spending several pages on the background of supporting players like jockeys Angel Cordero and Jacinto Vasquez, which most racing fans are already familiar with. But this book is geared toward both racing fans and readers in general who would be interested in their backgrounds, as well as the backgrounds of many of the horsemen and horsewomen who had Bid pass through their hands and helped guide him toward his place in racing’s pantheon. In the end, we know who all the characters are, minor and major, and the roll they played in telling the complete story.

Gilden was fortunate that those close to Ron Franklin, who died in 2018 at age 58, were so revealing, especially Delp’s son Gerald , who is in poor health and was willing to strip away all the layers and disclose his own weaknesses and years of addiction, as well as the struggles of a vulnerable and immature Franklin. This refers to his and Franklin’s excessive drug use during and after the Bid years, which shockingly was supervised by Buddy Delp, who often partook in the rapidly growing ritual. This was a son by telling his story after all these years was freeing himself of his demons at the expense of his own father and an “adopted” brother who was taken into the family’s home.

Delp also was said to be a heavy drinker who could get mean while intoxicated. As Gilden wrote, “It got to the point where Gerald, who arrived at work at 5 a.m. every day, dreaded his father’s stumbling appearance at 8 or 9 because the old man was already reeking of booze and paranoia.”

Another invaluable voice in the book was Cathy Rosenberger, who was Gilden’s eyes and ears into Buddy Delp’s organization. She was able to reveal a great deal about Franklin when he first arrived at Pimlico, knowing very little about working around horses. She also introduced him to a number of key sources in the book.

Gilden comes at you with machine gun-like swiftness, shooting holes in all the misconceptions we have had about Spectacular Bid’s career in regard to the people who helped orchestrate it. However, none of their failings affected Bid’s performances on the track.

The author takes us to Belmont Park on the morning of the Belmont Stakes after Delp was informed by groom Mo Hall that Bid had stepped on a safety pin in his stall. He attempts to put the puzzle together as to what transpired that entire day and the uncertainties that followed regarding whether they should run the colt. We still can’t be 100 percent sure to what the extent the infamous safety pin incident affected the colt’s performance and Franklin’s fragile psyche in the race, but Gilden paints as clear a picture as possible. Bid would wind up going after an 80-1 longshot early in the race and never looked like the horse who won the Derby and Preakness, as he had little left in the stretch, finishing third to Peter Pan winner Coastal.

Let me interject here my own discussions with Delp regarding the race and its aftermath: I remember when Delp eventually broke the news of the pin to the press he was pretty much branded a liar, and, while he understood their skepticism, he said his mother “cried like a baby” at the accusations. Even long after the race Delp would tear up and become emotional when discussing his decision to tell Franklin about the safety pin, which he felt affected his ride. However, many still scoff at the safety pin excuse.

Delp did tell me that after returning to Maryland from the Belmont, he called noted Kentucky veterinarian, Alex Harthill, who told him what to do about the foot, and said if there was no improvement in seven days he’d have to come to Maryland. Seven days after the Belmont Bid seemed fine, but the next day the colt was dead lame.

When Harthill arrived, he used a miniature plane to remove little bits of the hoof at a time. When he noticed a black spot embedded deep in the hoof he bore into it with an electrical drill.

Delp recalled, “Suddenly this thick black stuff starts shooting out of there like a fountain. It was completely infected. Doc looked up at me said, ‘Hey Bud, where are all those sonofabitches who called you a liar?’ He told me if we had left it alone much longer he likely would have lost the foot, and possibly worse.”

According to the trainer, after Harthill’s drilling procedure, he then had blacksmith Jack Reynolds fly in and fit Bid with a special piece of aluminum on his shoe. Delp said he fed him gelatin to build up the bone and medicated the coronet band to stimulate blood circulation and help the hoof grow back.

A little over two months after the Belmont, Bid returned to the races, winning an allowance race at Delaware Park by 17 lengths in track record time with new jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard. A great horse was about to grow into a legend.

One other note about the controversial and often volatile Harthill, who is vividly portrayed in the book — according to Gilden he had treated Bid before the Belmont, but had to sneak into the track in the trunk of a car because he was banned from the premises.

One of the most compelling parts of the book was the ongoing feud between Franklin and Cordero that resulted in fisticuffs in the jocks room. Cordero knew how to get into your head, and Franklin, still an undisciplined teenager, opened the door wide for him and then tried to close it the only way a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood knew how.

We also learn a great deal more about Harry Meyerhoff than we knew, especially in regard to replacing Franklin following the Belmont. According to Gilden, Meyerhoff blamed Franklin for Bid’s defeat, feeling he was too fearful of Cordero during the race, and his reluctance to be associated with a jockey who was a known drug abuser, even though Meyerhoff and Teresa were recreational drug users themselves. The last thing Meyerhoff wanted was for the scrutiny into Franklin’s use of drugs to eventually trace to him and Teresa.

But the main storyline of the book in addition to Bid was the self-destruction of two human beings, one of whom had the skills to be one of the top riders in the country, but followed those he trusted into the deepest abyss and was never able to get out. As a result he faded into obscurity, as did Gerald Delp, who might have become a top trainer following in his father’s footsteps. Instead it was those footsteps that led him astray, resulting in continued drug use, two failed marriages, and serious financial trouble. Gilden described it as “the father who had engineered the son’s metamorphosis from child to addict.”

I don’t know Gilden, but in addition to his crisp writing style, it is obvious he has the knack of making people comfortable enough that they are willing to open up to him and tell him things even he wasn’t prepared for. You could almost feel the book coming to life for him as he sat there listening to them ripping off the band-aids exposing the under belly of the Spectacular Bid story.

For those who don’t know or cannot appreciate the true greatness of Bid, let us deviate from the world of literature and into straight fact, with a personal touch added.

Spectacular Bid won Grade I stakes on the lead and he won coming from 10 lengths back. He was the ultimate racing machine and proved it at ages 2, 3, and 4. Following two defeats early on at age 2, he won 24 of his next 26 starts, with his only two defeats coming at 1 1/2 miles, which included the safety pin incident. He ran seven furlongs in a near-world-record 1:20 flat and 1 1/4 miles in a world-record (on dirt) 1:57 4/5, a time which has not been equaled in 42 years. He broke seven track records and equaled another at seven different tracks and at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. In addition to the World’s Playground Stakes, in which he ran seven furlongs in a blazing 1:20 4/5 over a dead racetrack, believed to be the fastest seven furlongs ever run by a 2-year-old, he ran 1 1/8 miles in a track-record 1:45 4/5 at Hollywood Park and a track record 1:46 1/5 at Arlington Park, both carrying 130 pounds, and 1:46 3/5 at Belmont Park as a 3-year-old, defeating older horses. He also ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 2/5 over a slow track at Hollywood Park carrying 132 pounds.

In all, Spectacular Bid won at 15 different racetracks in nine different states, and carried 130 pounds or more to victory five times, while rattling off 12-race and 10-race winning streaks. It is the only time in memory that has been accomplished. In his only other defeat at 1 1/2 miles, he was beaten by the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup after being forced to miss his prep in the Woodward Stakes due to a virus and getting a questionable ride from Bill Shoemaker, who broke a step slowly and allowed Affirmed to crawl on the lead in a four-horse field. After being passed by Coastal on the inside, Bid battled back and tried hard to catch Affirmed, but was beaten three-quarters of a length.

As his coat lightened as a 4-year-old, he was like a ghostly figure hurtling down one stretch after another in isolated splendor. With his head held high and his powerful legs stretching across the racing universe he not only went undefeated in nine starts in 1980, there was never a horse in front of him at the eighth pole.

Bid, however, had been suffering from a nagging sesamoid problem that was discovered after the January 5 Malibu Stakes and was present throughout his entire undefeated 4-year-old campaign. Daily tubbings and Butazolidan helped, but following his victory in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 132 pounds, Shoemaker noticed he didn’t feel 100% right. Delp just wanted to get him to the Jockey Club Gold Cup to close out his career, and continued treating him and making sure he was walking sound. But first came the Woodward Stakes, which wound up being run in a rare walkover when Bid was the only horse entered in the race. Delp instructed Bill Shoemaker to just have him cruise around the track and let him get a good work no matter how long it took him. His priority was protecting the horse in order to make the Gold Cup.

But Shoemaker, despite never fully asking him to run at any point, still allowed Bid to close each of his final two quarters in a mind-boggling :24 1/5. Horses rarely come home their last quarter that fast in a normal race going 1 1/4 miles, never mind closing their last two quarters that fast running against no one. By running his mile and a quarter in 2:02 2/5, faster than previous Hall of Fame Woodward winners Buckpasser, Kelso, and Sword Dancer, Bid re-aggravated his sesamoid injury, which forced his retirement.

Bid remained a major part of Delp’s life until the day he died, as he would retreat to his den, sit in his easy chair, and look up at a vision that would brighten his day. There above him was the face that became the focus of his life for three years. Wherever Delp went, from Florida to California to Illinois, he would take the painting of Bid.

“It’s a head shot of him looking out of his stall, and he’s pricking his ears,” Delp said 20 years later back in 1999. “I look at that painting every day and see that familiar left eye looking back at me. That’s just the way I remember him every morning when I got to the barn. It’s as if it was 20 years ago and he’s looking at me, waiting for his morning donut. He wanted that donut and in fact demanded it. He loved the powdered sugar.”

Reading the book sparked my own memories…

I remember photographing him at the Preakness on assignment for the Thoroughbred Record. With my future wife Joan positioned on the outside rail and me on the photographer’s stand in the infield, we watched him striding out so powerfully as he whizzed by us.”

I also thought back to being in Joan’s office (when she was public relations coordinator for NYRA) overlooking the finish line at Belmont Park watching Bid complete his historic walkover. Eight days later we were married.

In 1998, Joan and I went to visit The Bid at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, N.Y., along with our then 14-year-old daughter, Mandy. He no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to that charcoal gray 3-year-old with the star on his forehead. But he still held his head high with pride, and when he looked at you, that fire and spirit of his youth still shone through. He was Spectacular Bid, and he still knew it. And you knew it.

Milfer Farm owner, Dr. Jon Davis, told us at the time, “I still get goose bumps standing next to him.”

As did I that day at Milfer Farm, seeing him interact so playfully with my daughter. I have a photo album I can open, with photos of Mandy and Bid, and show it to her. And I can tell her, “You remember these pictures of you with this magnificent white horse named Spectacular Bid? Well, his trainer once called him the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle. It was quite a preposterous comment at the time.  But who’s to say he wasn’t right?”

Yes, Delp could be outrageous in some of his comments and some of his actions and those close to him knew it all too well.

As Delp said, “I never once blew my own horn. I only blew the horse’s horn. But, hell, he ran a lot faster than I talked.”

But Delp also knew how to listen, just as he had listened to Spectacular Bid. What the horse told him can be found in the pages of the history books.

In Gilden’s new fascinating book Delp is portrayed in many ways and you can make of him what you wish — a Hall of Fame trainer who was blessed with the horse of a lifetime, someone who could be brazen and insolent, or someone whose actions in his own home were darker than anyone knew.

“The Fast Ride” also strips Ronnie Franklin clean to the bone, unveiling a troubled, vulnerable, immature, but talented young rider who like many children in their fantasies had hopped aboard a beautiful rocking horse and was able to make it go faster and faster until it seemed out of control. But in Franklin’s case that rocking horse was real and it was Franklin who would be out of control.

Secretariat died in 1989, then Alydar in 1990, Forego in 1997, Affirmed in 2001, Seattle Slew in 2002, and The Bid in 2003. Just like that they were all gone, and with them the end of racing’s golden era. We will never see the likes of Spectacular Bid again, in what he accomplished at 2, 3, and 4.

Franklin, Delp, and Meyerhoff are also gone, but thanks to Jack Gilden and his quest to unlock the true story behind an equine legend we were able to find a silent voice waiting to shout to the world in Gerald Delp, who could have uttered Ishmael’s closing line in Moby Dick: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

 

Photos courtesy of Maryland Jockey Club, Milt Toby/Blood-Horse, Bob Coglianese, and Steve Haskin. Steve will be on vacation next with the Askin Haskin column returning Sept. 26