It is the afternoon of June 25 and seven horses are entered in the $350,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, the richest thoroughbred race in America. J. O. Tobin has the lead at the top of the stretch in the 1¼-mile event, but is tiring and drifting out badly. Vigors, a white horse, is flying on the outside and looks to be a sure winner. Down along the rail Exceller is moving boldly under Bill Shoemaker. Inside the 16th pole he takes the lead and holds off fast-closing Text by a neck with Vigors another head behind.
The winner's purse pushes Exceller's lifetime bankroll over $1 million, but not many people east of Inglewood, Calif. take note of that or of Nelson Bunker Hunt's remarkable 5-year-old. But they did last Saturday at Belmont Park when Exceller ran against two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, in the $321,800 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This Gold Cup was only the fourth start on dirt for Exceller, who had run most of his 28 races in England and France, and a wet but fast track was not believed to be to his liking. For this reason, and because Easterners tend to be provincial about judging horses, Exceller was rated a poor third behind Slew and Affirmed.
The Gold Cup marked the first time three millionaires had ever met in a race. The three also happened to be the best 3-year-old in training (Affirmed), the best 4-year-old (Seattle Slew) and the best 5-year-old (Exceller). Obviously, it was the definitive race of the year, and when it was over Exceller was the winner by a desperate nose over Seattle Slew. Exceller thereby became the fifth-leading money-winner of all time with $1,479,003, a figure topped only by Kelso, Forego, Round Table and Dahlia. Maybe now the old dude will get some of the acclaim he has deserved for so long.
With a mile remaining, Exceller was 30 lengths behind the front-running Seattle Slew. But that is Exceller's way and Shoemaker was unconcerned. "I was so far back I couldn't really tell what was going on up front," said Shoemaker after the race, "but I didn't need to know too much anyway. With Exceller, the winning gets done in one long move."
Bill Shoemaker. What is there left to say about him? At 47 and in his 30th year as a jockey, he seems to be getting better with each furlong pole he passes. When he unsaddled after Exceller's Gold Cup his 1978 purse earnings were in excess of $4 million, the first time Shoemaker has ever reached that figure. During his career, Shoemaker has won 746 stakes, and 135 of those have been worth $100,000 or more. This year Shoe has ridden in seven races worth $200,000 or more and won four.
The Gold Cup was a race fascinating to ponder. Following wins in the Marlboro and Woodward Stakes, Slew was expected to go to the front with Affirmed just behind. To ensure that Slew would not be able to run off by himself and dictate the pace, trainer Laz Barrera entered Life's Hope as a running mate for Affirmed. Obviously, Life's Hope was going to go out and push Seattle Slew. The game plan was that Steve Cauthen would position Affirmed behind them.
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 already doomed.
"The saddle was up around Affirmed's withers and I couldn't get any balance," Cauthen said later. "I thought I was going to be pitched off. The damned thing was nearly up on his neck."
No one knows for sure what made Affirmed's saddle slip. It's conceivable that it was not tightened enough by Barrera in the paddock or that as Cauthen tried to rate Affirmed in the early part of the race, pulling hard on the reins, the saddle slid forward.
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 :45⅕ insane time for horses trying to stretch out 1½ miles.
Then, with about half a mile remaining, Slew took what looked to be a commanding lead as Affirmed and Life's Hope faded, a collapse that eventually left Affirmed next to last in the six-horse field and Life's Hope last.
With that long half mile remaining, Exceller started his rush. He was gathering ground with every stride and saving it as well as Shoemaker kept the son of Vaguely Noble on the inside rail. He was doing his Hollywood Gold Cup trick again and it was working.
The punishing early fractions and the fact that Cordero had his horse out from the rail, leaving an opening for Exceller and Shoemaker, 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.
Hunt bought Exceller for $25,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in 1974. "There was only one bid made on the horse," Hunt says. "Mine. I've always been very fond of Exceller because he tries hard and he's versatile."
Racegoers overlooked Exceller as a yearling because they thought that his legs were too straight. "The best thing that probably happened to him," trainer Charlie Whittingham says, "is that he raced in Europe as a 2-year-old." This meant that Exceller didn't have to be rushed for speed as would have been the case had he raced in this country. The 2-year-old races in Europe are longer and less frequent, so the pressure isn't as intense as it is in the U.S. That gave Exceller time to develop and let his bones set. "He is one heck of a racehorse," Whittingham says. And indeed he is.
This year he has won the Arcadia Handicap, the San Juan Capistrano, the Sunset and the Hollywood Invitational in addition to the two Gold Cups. "That's three races on the dirt and three on the grass," says Whittingham. "I would think that ought to be enough to make him Horse of the Year."
Perhaps so. Yet Affirmed won the Triple Crown, and Seattle Slew won the Marlboro Cup and Woodward most impressively and lost the Jockey Club Gold Cup by only a nose. Affirmed will not race again this year but Exceller and Slew could meet in the Nov. 4 Washington, D.C. International on turf. And wouldn't that be something.