By Ed McNamara
Playing the horses is a game of the day, with races over in the time it takes to brush your teeth. The entire Triple Crown doesn’t even last 6 1/2 minutes, and a place in history can ride on luck or a jockey’s split-second decision. In racing, the future always is now, and for perspective it’s rewarding to ponder the past.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is giving us the chance to go back in time and rank our top 10 Eclipse Award champions of the past 50 years. A panel of 42 racing executives, writers, announcers and handicappers selected 10 horses from each of the past five decades.
You can vote at ntra.com and find out the results Jan. 28, when TVG, Racetrack Television Network and other outlets will show the Eclipse Awards virtual ceremony.
Settling on my top 10 was challenging but fun. Undoubtedly, you’ll disagree with some of my choices. Well, that’s the essence of the sport. It’s all a matter of opinion, whether you’re judging today’s past performances or those from back in the day.
I think Secretariat will top most ballots, but I went with The Mighty Forego, the only three-time Horse of the Year (1974-76) of the past 50 years. He won from 6 furlongs to 2 miles and earned 14 Grade 1 trophies in a 34-for-57 career that lasted six seasons.
The great gelding never won a Triple Crown race (he finished fourth in Secretariat’s Derby), but he did just about everything else. He was a slow starter, failing to take a graded stakes until his 16th race late in his 3-year-old year. He was a force of nature at 4, 5 and 6, accumulating eight Eclipse Awards, a record that will stand forever.
Forego endured and excelled despite being unsound.
“It was the constant hosing of his legs that helped get him to the races,” trainer Frank Whiteley said. “Sometimes we’d do it for two or three hours at a time. His ankles were horrible to look at from such wear and tear. He was an amazing horse to do the things he did.”
Big Red became a national hero in 1973, when he set speed records that still stand in each Triple Crown race. He stepped into another dimension in the Belmont Stakes, where his 31-length coronation in 2:24 seems as otherworldly now as it did then.
To his lifelong chronicler, the late, great Bill Nack, Secretariat embodied a national archetype.
“I think the horse is part of the American DNA, because America was settled on the back of a horse,” Nack said. “I think when a horse like Secretariat comes along, he reignites our love of the horse. I think that’s one of the reasons his popularity endures.”
The five-time Eclipse champ was as beautiful as he was gifted, a huge chestnut with matchless charisma. If it’s possible, he may have been even better on grass than on dirt. His final two races were on turf, runaways in the Man o’ War and Canadian International. Too bad he was retired to stud after his 3-year-old season. The “what ifs?” will always linger.
Like Secretariat, this all-time great gelding was a world-beater on grass and dirt. Like Forego, John Henry got better with age, and “The People’s Horse” is the only 9-year-old ever named Horse of the Year, three years after he got his first one, a unanimous selection.
The seven-time Eclipse honoree won two Santa Anita Handicaps and a Jockey Club Gold Cup (main track), two Arlington Millions (turf) and four grass championships. The obscurely bred son of Ole Bob Bowers was 39-for-83, including 25 graded-stakes victories, from 1975-84, sitting out 1979 and most of 1982 and 1983 because of injuries. Like Forego and Secretariat, there will never be another one like him.
Tom Levinson, the stepson of John Henry’s owner, Sam Rubin, said: “John always had fire in his eyes as he circled his opponents in the paddock, his eyes glazed with the determination to win. Certainly the mighty, cantankerous champion we all loved was the people’s hero.”
The leading man of the 1978 Triple Crown was as courageous as he was talented, and watching his three classic duels with archrival Alydar still gets the blood pumping. Affirmed broke Alydar’s heart by a combined margin of less than two lengths that spring, and their Belmont has gotten more than half a million hits on YouTube.
“Two great horses came along in the same year,” jockey Steve Cauthen said. “It was great for racing. It was a Joe Frazier-Ali fight every time. I’ve never had a more exhilarating experience all around than that Belmont.”
The two-time Horse of the Year earned five Eclipses and climaxed a 22-for-29 career on a seven-race winning streak, six of them Grade 1s. Cauthen told me that if Affirmed had been a human and played basketball, he would have been Michael Jordan.
The first horse to sweep the classics while undefeated was a front-running Alpha male. His $17,500 yearling price made him one of the greatest bargains in history, because not only did he win 14 of 17 starts, he also excelled in his second career. The 1977 Horse of the Year was the greatest sire of all the Triple Crown winners.
His trainer, Billy Turner, knew Slew was special early on, so it was no surprise when he won the 2-year-old Eclipse.
“After the Champagne Stakes, I told a couple of friends that if he didn’t win the Triple Crown, then I wasn’t doing my job,” Turner said this spring. “So I set the bar pretty high. After the Wood Memorial, all we needed was to avoid bad luck in the Triple Crown.”
Slew and Affirmed split two cosmic battles at Belmont Park, with Bid taking the 1978 Marlboro Cup and Affirmed getting even in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup. I put Affirmed one spot ahead because he had a longer career and faced tougher rivals at ages 2 and 3.
As he splashed to victory in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, race caller Tom Durkin immortalized him as “the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!” That’s what he was during a 16-race streak from the autumn of 1994 until the summer of 1996. The former mediocre turf horse tied the record of all-time great Citation.
“He was a very charismatic and cool horse to be around,” Jerry Bailey told Tom Pedulla, who collaborated on the Hall of Fame rider’s autobiography. “Other than race day, Cigar was soft and gentle, as warm and fuzzy as you could want.”
Cigar had the killer instinct in 1995, going 10-for-10 to earn his first of consecutive Horse of the Year trophies. He finished 19-for-33 after a 2-for-13 start and fell short of $10 million in earnings by only $187.
After the Triple Crown went unclaimed for 36 years, many thought there would never be another sweep. Then Pharoah came along and thrilled the racing world on a glorious June Saturday at Belmont Park. His wire-to-wire cruise unleashed a celebration that made you feel everybody in the place had won.
“It was a beautiful moment,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’ll never forget that sound.”
After so many near-misses by “sure things” — Smarty Jones and Big Brown come to mind — what American Pharoah did in 2015 was magical. His Breeders’ Cup Classic romp capped a Horse of the Year campaign and a 9-for-11 career.
Baffert shared his superstar in many meet-and-greets with fans. “To see him means a lot to people,” he said. “It’s the Pharoah tour, and it’s pretty incredible. I feel like I’m bringing the Beatles to town.”
The title of Jane Schwartz’s 1991 biography, “Burning From The Start,” captured the essence of this freakishly fast filly. Sadly, she is remembered more for her fatal breakdown in a 1975 match race than for her brilliance. She was 10-for-10, most of them routs, before that ill-fated duel with Derby hero Foolish Pleasure.
Her greatness inspired a subsequent book, “Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance,” by Bill Nack.
“She was huge and black and elegant,” Nack said. “I’ve seen a lot of wonderful fillies running over the years, but nobody ever had her charisma, her presence, and that unbelievable gift of speed. She was just a freak of nature.”
It had been 85 years since a filly had won the Preakness, but Calvin Borel thought so highly of Rachel Alexandra that he jumped off Derby winner Mine That Bird to ride her at Pimlico. The Amazon princess followed her 20 1/4-length Kentucky Oaks procession with a length victory over Mine That Bird.
Rachel beat the boys again in the Haskell and the Woodward to complete an 8-for-8 season that made her the 2009 Horse of the Year. She was pushed hard all the way up front in the Woodward, which I watched in Saratoga’s wooden grandstand. The rafters vibrated as fans desperately cheered on Rachel as if she were a child swimming away from alligators. She escaped, but she never was the same.
In 2016, Rachel Alexandra entered the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs with her trainer, Steve Asmussen. “I have a lot of feelings today about Rachel,” he said. “I remember all those mornings at Saratoga when people lined up to see her. To be here today brings back a lot of memories.”
No top-class horse in North America had retired unbeaten and sound in 80 years. Entering the stretch of the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, there seemed no way that odds-on Personal Ensign would head to the breeding shed 13-for-13. She was bogged down in the mud at Churchill Downs, and trainer Shug McGaughey was bummed out. “At the three-eighths pole, I thought she was hopelessly beaten,” he said.
Then her class and courage kicked in, and she surged to nose out Derby winner Winning Colors in the final jump. Many shed tears of joy when Personal Ensign made the impossible come true.
“She wasn’t handling the track at all, but I’m so glad I didn’t give up,” Randy Romero said. “She gave me the greatest thrill of my life. She was the greatest horse I ever rode.”