A Few of The Greatest Losses in Horse Racing

September 17, 2020

If you read Past the Wire regularly you’ll know there are two things I like to do in my column. I love using great quotes. I also like sneaking in lines and references from movies that are sometimes easy to pick up, and sometimes not so much. When it comes to losing, or second place, there are a lot of quotes that come to mind, and they all seem relevant to horse racing. Some are about winning, but make you think about losing. Remember 50% of this game is 100% mental.

Hopefully I get these right, I’m not much for research.

“Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing.” Vince Lombardi, Henry Russell Sanders.

“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Wide World of Sports.

“When you win, nothing hurts.” Joe Namath

“Second place is the first loser.” I have no idea who said it but I know I’ve heard it.

“Losing feels worse than winning feels good.” Vin Scully.

“Winning solves everything.” Tiger Woods.

“Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.” Babe Ruth.

Winning is probably the most celebrated thing in sports. Horse racing is certainly a game where so much is about winning. Owners, trainers, breeders, riders, bettors, just about everyone is judged on winning. While whose picture gets taken in the winners’ circle is what it’s all about, sometimes a losing effort is as noteworthy as a win. It may not go in the record books, but for us students of the game there are some gallant defeats we just can’t forget and I’m going to take a look at a few if you care to join me.

If you asked Angel Cordero Jr. the Hall of Fame rider who is arguably one of the best to ever grace the saddle what was the best race the great Seattle Slew ever ran he’d tell you when he was second to Exceller in the then mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup. How do I know he’d tell you that? I asked him. Second, the first loser you might say. Well, yes, all you have to do is watch the race.

Seattle Slew ran sprint fractions early and put away Triple Crown winner Affirmed. That left the door open for Willie Shoemaker and Exceller to capitalize and go for the upset. Shoe knew how to take advantage of a situation in a race and drove Exceller up the rail turning for home and put away a tired and spent Seattle Slew. Ah heart, that thing you either have or you don’t. You can’t train for it. It is there or it isn’t. Under aggressive urging by Angel, Slew sensed the wire was coming and he was not about to throw in the towel when 95% of other horses would have. Angel knew he was on a special animal and would give Seattle Slew his chance. They started almost inexplicably coming back at Exceller and if the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a mile and a half plus 10 yards it might have been the most impressive victory ever. Instead it was the greatest loss I ever saw at the racetrack.

This came in from Robert Duncan, a starter on the NYRA circuit who handled Seattle Slew:

Just read your recap of Seattle Slew’s Jockey Club Gold Cup “adventure “ against Exceller. You may or may not be aware that there were a few more elements to support your argument, the obvious one being Slews crash through the gate doors just prior to the start. But what followed adds much to his credit. Slew and Affirmed broke sharply but going into the first turn Angel’s toe slipped out of his inside stirrup. Slew responded by exploding like a runoff on the inside of Affirmed while Angel was reacquiring his perch. Cauthen tried to steady Affirmed who was keeping pace with the accelerating Slew but his saddle began to slip forward. The half went in 44 and change, 6 furlongs in 1:09 and change! They continued together to the 5/8 pole when Cauthen, with saddle over Affirmed’s withers, had to give up the fight. Exceller entered the fray and passed Slew as they straightened for home. Slew, running on pure heart, found the will to dig in and close to within a shrinking nose of Exceller at the wire. Slew won most of them but he was never more valiant than on this day. But I’m not an impartial observer. I handled Slew in the NY gate for all but his first start.
Thanks for the memories.

Take a look and tell me what you think:

“the pace is very fast” “a very unbelievable 1:09.2”

If that doesn’t give you goose bumps close the article, this game just isn’t for you.

I always though the Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta argument was silly. They never raced each other, but Zenyatta was indeed the one who showed up at Oaklawn when they were supposed to. We won’t hold that against Rachel Alexandra, she had a monster campaign and it took its toll. If you really understand the sport you know a horse who comes from off the pace is at more of a disadvantage naturally than a horse with speed. Off the pace horses have to overcome pace, traffic and the trip a lot more than a speed or stalking type of horse does. Zenyatta did all of that many times and it makes her run of victories all the more impressive. So many times she was expertly handled and guided by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, another in the conversation of the best to ever ride a race, to get up in the shadow of the wire. Some say she was a synthetic horse. Nonsense I say. In my opinion her best race ever was her second place finish to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic under the lights at Churchill Downs. If they ran that race 10 times she’d have probably won 9 of them. She won two Apple Blossoms on the dirt, and that “classic” Breeders’ Cup Classic was on the dirt.

What made the race so great was that because of how things unfolded Zenyatta had almost no chance. None. If you could bet into the first turn, on the backstretch, or turning for home most would not take 100-1 on Zenyatta. Many don’t understand that heart thing we talked about though. That thing you either have or you don’t. Zenyatta had it, Mike has it and they showed it together.

A few years back Mike was gracious enough to walk me through the entire race. A priceless conversation. He explained something quite interesting, and something you really wouldn’t notice without him pointing it out. The field fell into two groups with her being behind the second group. She could see the group in front of her, but not the group in front of them. While we were all worried, Mike included, that she had too much to do, she wasn’t. She saw the group in front of her, and she knew she could get them. Mike said when she got past that first group and saw the next one he could feel her react, take a breath, and get right back into the fight. She went after the second group that surprised her and just needed one more jump to get them all. That is the heart of a champion.

You tell me if you’d bet Zenyatta going into that first turn or on the backside.

” and Zenyatta is dead last” “Zenyatta was slow into stride” “Mike Smith doesn’t want to be too far back and is asking Zenyatta to pick it up” “Mike Smith trying to find somewhere to run”

One more jump. That is all they needed. I don’t think any other rider could have made that race as close as it got the way things unfolded.

Affirmed got the better of Alydar more times than Alydar got him. Alydar really brought it though when it came time to try and deny Affirmed a Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The pace was slow that day, and Affirmed was making it giving him an advantage. Jorge Velasquez went after him and Steve Cauthen early with Alydar and it looked like it was the right play. The thing about this race was both the horses in this epic battles had a champions heart. Neither gave in, and neither stopped fighting. Saying Alydar is a loser is like saying the Buffalo Bills were losers after getting beat in four straight super bowls. You either understand or you don’t.

“Alydar puts a head in front” “They went the first quarter slow” “Those two letting out all stops” “Alydar is challenging again”

I could have included more, but these were about as much as I could take for one day. Many will remember the Test Stakes when You beat Carson Hollow a nose and Tom Durkin said:

“a race so good it doesn’t deserve a loser.”

Ah the Sport of Kings. So many reasons to love it.

NYRA Photo, Coglianese Photos

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Jon Stettin

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