Late of a Tuesday night in July 1974, in the crescent-shaped pavilion at the Keeneland Summer Sales, Nelson Bunker Hunt was studying the sales catalog when the pedigree of a yearling filly caught his eye. He leaned over to Ted Curtin, one of his Irish trainers.
"Did you see this filly?" asked Hunt, one of the world's leading thoroughbred breeders and owners.
"No," said Curtin, scanning his list. 'I haven't got her marked."
"Slip out and have a look at her."
March 19, 1979
Curtin was gone—up the staircase and out the door, to where the yearlings, coming from the barn, are marshaled for the sale. Curtin spotted the filly. "A possibility on paper," he recalls thinking, "but too big, a big, plain filly. Not our type."
He was about to return to the pavilion when, by chance, he spotted a bay colt that attracted him at once—a son of Vaguely Noble, Hunt's own stallion. Curtin liked him in spite of a flaw: the youngster's pastern bones, extending from hoof to ankle, were set too high.
Still, the colt filled Curtin's eye. "It's like you go to a dance and see a woman you like," he says. "She appeals to you. You can't say why, but there's something about her, the way she carries herself, that appeals to you. He was like that. To me an ideal type of horse—compact, athletic-looking, beautifully balanced."
Curtin slipped back into his seat in the sales pavilion.
"There's a colt coming in that we buy," he said.
Hunt was puzzled. "What about the filly?" he asked.
"Ah, we won't have her. Not our type."
"Well, who's the colt?"
"By Vaguely Noble."
Hunt laughed. Six years before, he had purchased a half interest in Vaguely Noble. A champion in France, he was turning out to be a whirlwind at stud. Hunt had Vaguely Nobles everywhere; they were coming out his stalls.
"That's all I want and need," Hunt said, "another Vaguely Noble. What's his number?"
"It's 294," said Curtin. "He's out of Too Bald."
Hunt lit up. Too Bald was a good race mare, and Hunt likes nothing more than racing class in the dam. "He'll bring 75,100 thousand," Hunt said.
He wasn't close. The colt had the pastern problem, as the prospective bidders at the sale were well aware. Set properly, at the preferred 45 degrees, the spring-like pasterns absorb shock optimally, minimizing concussion as the hooves strike the ground. American surfaces, hard and unyielding, tend to accentuate the flaw; European surfaces, softer and more yielding grass, tend to forgive it. And Ted Curtin was working for Hunt, who was sending his yearlings to Europe to be trained.
The bidding opened at $24,000, Hunt would recall, and stalled immediately. Hunt waited. Still silence. Finally, afraid Hunt would lose the colt, Curtin nudged him. Then again. Hunt nodded. "$25,000." The colt was his.
"There must be something wrong with the horse," said Hunt. "He must be lame."
"There's nothing lame about him," Curtin said.
All that was lame, as things would turn out, was the judgment of those who sat on their hands as the bay moved about the walking ring. This was the select yearling sale at Keeneland, and this was the night a son of Graustark, later to be named Whirlawhile, brought $330,000; when a son of Hail to Reason, to be called Milova, brought $197,000; when 79 yearlings brought $57,342 on the average, making the son of Vaguely Noble a fire-sale special. "This isn't a very exact business," Hunt says. Whatever his misgivings at the time, wondering what manner of horse he had bought, Hunt would never name a horse better. He called him Exceller. It is somehow fitting, given what happened in the intervening four years, that the colt should have raised so little notice in his first public appearance and gone almost entirely overlooked.
Since 1975 Exceller has won more money than any racehorse ever sold at public auction. Through March 4, when, in his first race since last fall, he finished in a dead heat for third in the Santa Anita Handicap, he had won a total of $1,599,003, placing him fifth on the list of alltime money-winning thoroughbreds. He is $10,315 behind Affirmed going into this week's San Luis Rey Stakes, a $150,000 race Affirmed will miss. No horse in memory has ever performed so consistently or accomplished so much on both sides of the Atlantic as Exceller. He won $528,231 racing in Europe and almost twice that much here. Yet, when time comes for his induction into the Racing Hall of Fame—if, that is, someone remembers to nominate him—he may be recalled as the greatest racehorse in history ever to be ignored. Fact is, Exceller has spent most of his life ducking out of one shadow and into another, beginning in Europe and continuing through last year in the U.S., when he got lost in another shuffle.
In Europe, in 1975, he was third fiddle in Maurice Zilber's barn of Hunt 2-year-olds. One of his stablemates was another colt by Vaguely Noble called Empery, and another was a son of Ack Ack named Youth. Around the tracks Europeans do things a bit slower than Americans, and Zilber raced the three colts lightly at two. But, by fall, Zilber was already making his plans, and they did not include Exceller.
"With a little luck," he said, "we'll win both derbies."
"What derbies?" asked Hunt.
"The French Derby with Youth and the Epsom Derby with Empery."
Hunt asked about Exceller. "He's very good, but we'll save him until later." said Zilber.
It was a long later, but Youth and Empery were long shadows. Hunt decided to split his stable, giving Youth and Empery to Zilber while sending Exceller to Francois Mathet. Making a prophet of Zilber, Youth won the French Derby, Empery the Epsom Derby. Exceller went elsewhere, to softer spots. He won the Grand Prix de Paris and the Prix Royal-Oak, both major races, winning four of five and $299,101 before he floundered in the soft-going of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, finishing 19th in a field of 20.
Youth and Empery both went to stud at the close of their 3-year-old seasons, and it was Exceller who made most of the dances in 1977. "One of the top middle-distance horses in Europe," Time-form, the periodical that evaluates European racehorses, would say. "Genuine and consistent." And as traveled as Gulliver, hopping from country to country and course to course—France to England to France and back to England again, to America and Canada and back to America again.
He won $376,279 in four countries and raced on eight different courses in 10 starts, never on the same one twice in a row. He beat the best in three countries, winning the Coronation Cup in England, the rich Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France and the Canadian International at Woodbine. At season's end, he staggered home seventh in the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, beaten by 22 lengths. Following that debacle, he was flown to California, where Trainer Charlie Whittingham was waiting for him.
"Oh, no," Whittingham's vet said. "What have they sent us now?"
"I gave a 'Hail, Mary, Mother of God,' " says Whittingham.
What they had was a racehorse wrung out by the rigors of his itinerary and troubled by a fungus on the heels of his feet, apparently contracted in one of the Eastern swamps over which he had been running—he had hit three soft racetracks in a row. "A horse traveling, when he comes from Europe, it takes a lot out of him." says Hunt. "I'll never forget seeing Nijinsky right after he got off the airplane in Kentucky. My Lord! He looked so bad you'd have thought he was sick or something. I didn't realize anything was wrong with Exceller's heels. I thought he'd just tailed off."
He had done that, too. Exceller is 16 hands tall, but he is put together like a watch, projecting a sense of balance, which conveys the illusion that he is smaller. He carries no excess flesh; so, drawn and thin when he arrived in California, he looked particularly humble. "You could see his ribs," Bill Shoemaker says. "A tired racehorse." What caused the most wincing, though, was the way he walked. The straight pasterns make him step in a brittle, choppy motion, as if on eggshells. He paddles when he gallops, slapping at the ground, and he hammers at it when he runs.
"Like he's driving nails," Whittingham says. "He lowers his head when he gets under pressure and digs in. We've got some in the barn that are built better in front, but they ain't got any money in the bank."
Exceller had won $689,113 when he went to California. More, he had Whittingham, the most successful trainer on the West Coast and for years one of the nation's premier horsemen. Whittingham won his first stakes race with champion Porterhouse in 1953; by last fall, he had trained 111 different stakes winners. No other American trainer has yet reached 75.
"I've known Charlie 20-odd years." Hunt says. "Along with Horatio Luro, his old mentor, they handle these imported horses probably better than most American trainers in this respect: their style of training is very European—longer, slower gallops and longer, slower works. They don't try to give a horse much early speed; a lot of horses, when they come from Europe, aren't used to that. Horses hurt themselves; it changes their whole regimen."
For Exceller's style, running long and coming from off the pace, Hunt could not have put the horse in better hands. He is Whittingham's kind of horse as the patient Shoemaker is his kind of jockey. Patience is the veteran trainer's game. He does not lean on 2-year-olds, preferring to allow a horse's bones to knit before he turns the screws. "You won't have any 4- and 5-year-olds if you run them hard at two," he says. "There are exceptions, but the odds are against you." And he has never much fancied the Kentucky Derby's mile-and-a-quarter cavalry charge in May. "I had a couple of mediocre horses I went with—not top horses—and both got hurt, and I never won anything with them," he says.
From Luro, with whom he worked before and after serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, Whittingham learned how to wait. "He taught me a lot of patience," Whittingham says.
That is what Exceller needed. And that is what he got, in the way of two months off. The horse prospered, gaining weight and blooming through the California winter. He came back bouncing. By February, Whittingham was cranking him in earnest, preparing him for the long 1978 season—for what, in the end, would turn out to be a racing tour de force, one of the most searching, diversified and successful campaigns undertaken by an American thoroughbred in years. It was a bold, neatly handled enterprise during which Exceller put in his claim as the best grass horse in America, as among its ablest on the dirt and as its most accomplished, consistent performer. And it all culminated late on an October afternoon at Belmont Park, with Exceller battling Seattle Slew in the final yards of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
By then, Exceller had established himself as the preeminent racehorse in California. He had won four major stakes on the Coast, three of them on grass—the 1¾-mile San Juan Capistrano, beating Noble Dancer II by a neck; the Hollywood Invitational in near-record time, beating the good grass horse Bowl Game; and the 12-furlong Sunset Handicap, under Shoemaker's superb ground-saving ride. In the 1¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup, he came bounding off the pace to beat Text and Vigors, an exceptional handicapper, in his first serious race over the dirt. So Whittingham had himself a dirt horse.
Now, faced with options, he aimed Exceller toward New York—toward Affirmed and Seattle Slew. "That was more Charlie's idea than mine," says Hunt. "He was more keen to take on those horses than I was. Usually, it's the owner who is anxious to throw his horse into the battle. I said, 'Let's run in the United Nations at Atlantic City and places like that.' But Charlie wanted to save the horse and meet Seattle Slew and Affirmed in New York. I said. 'Well, O.K. Do it that way if you want to.' "
Whittingham wanted to, certain now he had the horse to beat them with. "We were going to make money with him," Whittingham said, "and we thought we had a very good chance for the championship."
In the Woodward Stakes, Exceller had no chance—not with Slew the only speed, with Slew running loose on the lead through an easy half in :47[3/5]—but he gave determined chase, finally losing by four. The Jockey Club Gold Cup would be different, Whittingham knew, because Affirmed and his rabbit, Life's Hope, were running, assuring some kind of a pace to help wear the speed horses down. Whittingham could not contain his confidence. The night before the race, the editor of The Blood Horse, Kent Hollingsworth, was musing to a group of friends over which of the Triple Crown winners, Affirmed or Slew, was going to win the Gold Cup.
"Exceller's going to win it," Charlie said.
"Charlie, please stay out of this," Hollingsworth kidded.
"I'm going to win it," the trainer said. "Exceller's a lot better horse than people think."
The next day, after the rains had turned the track into a mire, Hollingsworth approached Whittingham in the paddock and asked him if Exceller could handle such a stew. "I don't know," Whittingham answered.
Exceller handled it like grass. When Affirmed's saddle slipped, the 1978 Triple Crown winner got away from Steve Cauthen, and at once Affirmed and Slew were at each other, dueling at a torrid clip—the half in :45⅕ three quarters in 1:09[2/5]. As they rounded the turn, Affirmed excused himself, and Slew took a breather on the lead. Shoemaker was 22 lengths back. "I saw Seattle Slew get away from Affirmed around the turn and knew he was getting a breather," the Shoe says. So he began asking Exceller for what he had.
He closed the gap to 15 lengths, then 12, then to seven at the 3/8ths pole. Slew's breather had become a sabbatical by the turn for home—he was covering the last three quarters in 1:17[4/5] and coming off the turn Exceller appeared to have him. But he didn't—at least not yet.
The two battled through the stretch. Slew hung on tenaciously. At the eighth pole, Exceller had him by half a length. But Slew fought back. From the pole home, Slew whittled at the margin—a neck, a half a neck, a head. Just as he seemed about to swallow Exceller, they hit the wire, Exceller winning by a nose. It had been, by both horses, a tremendous performance.
The inevitable followed, as if fated at Keeneland four years before. The charismatic Slew, the Triple Crown winner who had come back—from illness and adversity in 1978, from the eighth pole to the wire in the Gold Cup—stole the hour that was Exceller's. "Darnedest race I ever saw in this respect: Seattle Slew got more credit for running second than my horse did for winning," says Hunt.
Nor was Exceller called upon when they passed out Eclipse Trophies for 1978. Affirmed was voted Horse of the Year, off his Triple Crown, with Exceller a distant third. Seattle Slew was named the champion handicap horse. Not wanting to risk catching a soft-turf course in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel, Whittingham took Exceller back to California following the Gold Cup and won the Oak Tree Invitational with him. "Charlie wanted to come back," Hunt says. "He'd been two months in the East. I really didn't have the heart to say, 'Well, let's stay another month for the International.' That was part of it. The other reason is I own half of Trillion and I thought she really had a shot to win. She ran fourth."
And the winner, Mac Diarmida, was named grass horse of the year, though he spent it largely in the company of fellow 3-year-olds.
But Exceller had himself a year. He won seven of 10 on two coasts, six of them major stakes against the best horses in America, and earned $879,790. And he is back again. "Economically, it probably would have made more sense for him to go to stud," says Hunt. "But I enjoy seeing him run—he's a hard-battling horse. Dahlia's the alltime money-winning filly, she's by Vaguely Noble. And I'm anxious to see if Exceller can become the alltime money-winning horse, being by Vaguely Noble."
And the first to win $2 million. All that is in the year to come. Charlie Whittingham, scratching his pate, still wonders what happened last year.
"He won six major races," he says. "He won on the grass. He won on the dirt. He won in the mud. He carried his weight in all his races and coast to coast on three different tracks. He did it all. And he did it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. What do you have to do to be Horse of the Year?"
You try again.