There is a certain type of Thoroughbred racehorse that has come to be known in the business as an "excuse horse." He almost always runs well but hardly ever wins; and each time he loses he seems to have a good excuse. So the owner keeps hoping and bettors keep losing as he piles up a string of second-and third-place finishes. The archetypes of such horses are All Hands, Guadalcanal and Dapper Dan, each of whom earned more than $100,000 without winning a stakes race. Until last weekend, a regally bred 2-year-old named Successor seemed destined to become this kind of horse.
Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, who owns Successor, gave him his name in the hope that he would emulate his full brother, Bold Lad, the 1964 juvenile champion. Unfortunately, Successor does not look or act like his brother and—until the last 200 yards of the $208,325 Champagne Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday—had not raced like him, either.
Successor had managed to win one minor stakes race earlier this year. Then he lost three in a row—with excuses. He might have won the Great American Stakes if he hadn't hurt his shins in the race; he would have won the Futurity if he hadn't lugged in during the stretch drive; he could have been closer to Dr. Fager in the recent Cowdin if he hadn't been blocked when he began to make his move. But "woulda, coulda, shoulda" is the horseplayer's classic lament. You can hear those words after any race, on any day, in the Aqueduct or Santa Anita grandstands. The fact remains that Successor did not win those races, and some people were understandably wondering if he ever would manage to win a big one.
"I still believe in him—to an extent," said Eddie Neloy, his trainer, before the Champagne. "Even with the various troubles he's had, he's only been beaten by a total of a few lengths in all his races. But let's face it, some horses will spend their whole lives giving you excuses. At some point you have to wonder about them."
On Saturday, Neloy sent out Successor—with a pace-setting stablemate, Great White Way—to challenge the unbeaten Dr. Fager in the Champagne, a one-mile race that has produced the 2-year-old champion in five of the last eight years. When he trounced Successor in the seven-furlong Cowdin, Dr. Fager had an excuse of his own—one of Bill Shoemaker's weakest riding performances. But he won anyway. Since horses that can overcome trouble will generally beat those that make their own trouble, Dr. Fager was an even-money favorite last week, with Successor the second choice at 3 to 1.
An hour before the stakes, Neloy sat in his third-floor box and studied The Morning Telegraph. Although he has proved that he is one of the very best trainers of all time, Neloy has never been ranked with history's great handicappers. The first race he studied was the fifth, an allowance sprint he planned to bet on. He predicted that a filly named Sulenan would win it. She didn't, and he lost $150. Then he turned to the Champagne. He predicted that four horses would set a fast pace and Successor would catch them. They did, and Successor did, and Neloy won 10% of the winner's purse of $148,325. It may not have been his finest day as a trainer, but it was surely the height of his handicapping career.
One of the colts setting the fast pace was Great White Way, with Eddie Belmonte hustling him according to Neloy's orders. The others were Bold Hour and Diplomat Way, both running the way Neloy had predicted, and Dr. Fager. Actually, Shoemaker held the favorite about a length behind the three leaders for the first half mile; then the colt forced Shoemaker to commit himself.
"He was a little rank," Shoemaker said, "and I had to let him run, although I didn't really want to get the lead as early as we did." Dr. Fager reached the front midway on the turn, just as Braulio Baeza was beginning his move with Successor. The other contenders were tiring, and it became a two-horse duel—and a tactical match between two of the country's premier riders.
"I thought Successor would come at me on the rail," said Shoemaker. "So I dropped my horse to the inside as soon as I was clear in the stretch."
"I did want to take the rail," said Baeza. "Then the leaders bore in and I had no room there. I was blocked for just a second, while Shoemaker was taking the lead. Then I saw an opening between my stablemate and Bold Hour, and went between them."
"That's one of the great things about Braulio," said Neloy. "People think he always hugs the rail. But what he does is get a position from which he can go either way. Then he looks around and picks the best spot."
Successor rushed up outside Dr. Fager in the stretch and moved past him to win by a length, in the good time of 1:35. Typically, the cool Baeza did not whip him at all once he saw that he would catch the leader. "He's not as willing as Bold Lad was," the jockey said. "You have to convince him to run for you." In the final 16th of the Champagne, Successor apparently got the message for the first time. He finished like a horse that will go farther—certainly far enough to win the mile-and-a-sixteenth Garden State, his next objective, and possibly far enough to be a major contender in the 3-year-old classics next year.
The latter possibility will be a prime topic of debate among horsemen over the winter. Successor's sire, the prolific Bold Ruler, has produced few sons that have won at a mile and a quarter. Bold Lad never won a race longer than a mile, and some still characterize him as merely a brilliant sprinter. Still, this evidence is not conclusive. Bold Lad never got a fair chance at a mile and a quarter. He ran in the Kentucky Derby after a series of injuries, and a hectic effort to make the race left him far below his best condition. He finished 10th. As a 4-year-old, he entered the Suburban Handicap under a crushing 135 pounds and ran sixth. It still seems reasonable to assume that, in good shape and at scale weights, he would have had enough speed and class to beat top horses at the distance.
Regardless of the verdict on Bold Lad, Successor's chances over a distance look promising. He lacks his brother's speed, but this may be an advantage when Baeza wants to rate him off the pace in long races. And he will be carefully handled. "We plan to race him through the fall," Neloy said. "Then we'll skip the winter races at Hialeah and start him again next spring. He's had a tough campaign and can use a long rest. Anyway, we've got some other colts that should be ready for the winter races." (The others include Great Power and Bold Monarch, both injured this season and both rated even higher than Successor by the trainer.)
Dr. Fager, hardly disgraced by his first loss in five races, probably will not get another shot at Successor until next year. Trainer Johnny Nerud plans to pass up the fall races and point the colt for the Florida campaign. The son of Rough 'n Tumble is not bred to be a distance horse, and his tall, narrow-bodied conformation has been criticized by purists. "His breeding and his looks suit me fine," said Nerud, "as long as he can run the way he does."
In the winner's circle Baeza, who doesn't drink at all, and Neloy, who hasn't had a drink since he started training the Phipps stable in January, posed with a large beribboned bottle of champagne (a New York vintage). "We're a real testimonial to clean living," said the trainer. He went on to engage in some facetious analyzing of Successor. "He must have watched his brother go out and try his best all the time and end up with a bad knee, so he figured that from now on he'd run only as hard as he had to. And that's not necessarily bad." He smiled as he thought of another colt that runs that way—his millionaire Horse of the Year, Buckpasser.
Neloy, although he already has set a new record for money-winning this year, was openly exultant over his 36th stakes victory of the season. "You know, our 2-year-olds have been very frustrating," he said. "They've finished second in the Spinaway, the Hopeful, the Matron, the Futurity, the Frizette—all the big ones. It's been tough."
"Very tough," someone said. "What has the stable won this year? A million and three-quarters?"
"Actually," said Neloy, "it's closer to two million now."