Saturday, December 23, 2017

Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s Top 10 Horses of the Half-Century

If betting were allowed on any poll where respondents were asked to choose the best horse of the modern era, the price that Secretariat would be chosen #1 would be: $2.10—out—out.

I fell in line like all the rest. Just conjuring up the presence of this magnificent beast; the power, beauty, regal bearing, the whole package. And the fact that he was the most handsome chestnut we’ve ever seen adds to the allure.

When I began my career at Newsday, it was after the magnificent Bill Nack had chronicled “Big Red of Meadow Stable.” My first column assignment for Newsday was published on the Sunday of Derby week, 1977.

In the piece, only a few years after the great Charles Hatton wrote that “Secretariat’s only frame of reference is himself,” I predicted that Seattle Slew would become the first Thoroughbred to sweep the Triple Crown while undefeated.

Back in the day, I knew everything there was to know about horse racing. Which is to say that it wasn’t until about two decades later when I recognized that my breadth of knowledge needed a lot of work.

Handicapping horse races teaches one humility. If you’re not learning something new every day, the game will pass you by. One must learn to adapt--and quickly. What worked very well last year doesn’t today. Why, I don’t know, that’s just the way it works.

I truly was enamored of Slew. My first “big horse” was black beauty incarnate. His speed was ferocious; his will indefatigable. Unequivocally, his nose defeat to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup is widely recognized as the greatest performance in defeat ever.

Ironically, it was this losing effort that convinced remaining skeptics that Slew truly belonged in a conversation about the greatest horses of all time. His Jockey Club? Here’s the great, late Bill Leggett’s Sports Illustrated account:

“Little went according to plan. First, Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start and Angel Cordero had to yank hard on the horse to avoid being thrown into the infield. When the race started, Slew got away first, and Life's Hope and Affirmed rushed to join him.

“But as they entered the first turn, Cauthen felt his saddle creeping forward and was unable to fully control his horse. Cordero, meanwhile, had momentarily lost his right stirrup. Slew, Affirmed and Life's Hope swept the first turn like comets with Cauthen in trouble and Craig Perret, on Life's Hope, knowing that Barrera's plan was doomed…

“The first quarter mile of the 1½-mile race was run in 22 3/5. Too fast. At the half mile Slew had a head in front of Affirmed with Life's Hope another head back. But that first half was run in 45 1/5, insane time for horses trying to stretch out 1½ miles…

“The punishing early fractions and the fact that Cordero had his horse out from the rail… should have set Slew up for the kill. And Exceller did get to the front—but he could not widen his lead. Slew battled back. The finish camera showed Exceller the winner with the third-place horse, Great Contractor, 14½ lengths back, and Affirmed 20.”

I argued back and forth with my Newsday colleague and friend about which horse was superior, Big Red or Slew? With time I’ve come around to Nack’s way of thinking, even if I can’t envision Secretariat beating Slew in a match of speed.

I believe Slew would have had a much tougher time with Dr Fager, for obvious reasons. But I won’t belabor either point; enough digression.

And so I didn’t include Triple Crown winner Affirmed, or Buckpasser, Cigar or Curlin. Easy Goer or Native Dancer. Then neither did I include personal favorites Ta Wee and Rachel Alexandra--who I believe would have beaten Zenyatta--yet I included Zenyatta and left Rachel off the list.

Again, it was enormously difficult to come up with only 10 names in 50 years of racing, a virtual impossibility to be fair to every great horse I’ve been privileged to watch race.

While no fillies made the official Thoroughbred Racing Commentary list, I included three, all of which beat males in prestigious open events.

As an aside, 40 of the 45 pollsters were men. Voting was confidential unless a pollster chose to go public post-publication.

Thoroughbred Racing Commentary Poll of Top 10 Thoroughbreds of the Last 50 Years
(points awarded on sliding 10-through-1 scale, first place votes in parentheses)
1. Secretariat—423 (31)
2. Seattle Slew--287 (3)
3. Dr Fager—278 (7)
4. Spectacular Bid—240 (2)
5. Forego—224
6. Affirmed—183
7. American Pharoah—125
8. Cigar—102 (2)
9. John Henry—101
10. Buckpasser—97

Completing the TRC Top 20 were, in order: Zenyatta, Ruffian, Damascus, Personal Ensign, Alydar, Ghostzapper, Sunday Silence, Arrogate, (tie) Rachel Alexandra and Ack Ack

HRI’s Top 10 Thoroughbreds of the Last 50 Years
(criteria was representation from different eras, sexes, and subjective handicapping methodology)

1. Secretariat: The often used sobriquet “Mighty Secretariat” says it all
2. Seattle Slew: How many other horses are recognized as “great” following a defeat?
3. Dr. Fager: Record holder, weight carrier; arch rival needed a rabbit to beat him
4. Spectacular Bid: What if they held a horse race and no one came? Breezing, his Woodward 1-1/4 miles walkover was timed in 2:02 2/5.
5. Forego: Carried huge imposts from 7 furlongs to 1-1/4 miles; powerful relentless finisher
6. Ruffian: Book title tells the tale: “Burning From the Start”
7. Personal Ensign: Simply perfect
8. American Pharoah: Kindest “great horse” ever; his remarkably efficient action is more gazelle than race horse
9. Zenyatta: Swear I thought I saw the San Gabriels quake when she returned to the Classic winners’ circle; transcendent.
10. John Henry: Dirt, turf, weight, distance, age? None of it mattered.


Written by John Pricci

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