The Race of the Century – According to the Computers

May 3, 2020

Photo Credit: NBC Sports

Saturday afternoon. NBC punished us with pre-race coverage of a horse race we’d already seen (Really, NBC? That cost  you less than airing episodes of “Mama’s Family.” Would it have killed you to produce a documentary on AP or Justify? Replay the last 20 derbies?). I grew tired of watching something with all the drama of an Alabama – Western Carolina football game. I painted my fence instead. 

I came in just moments before the Triple Crown Challenge started. Before the race, I had tweeted that there was no way they wouldn’t give it to Secretariat. Even computers with their advanced algorithms could look at the times for his Triple Crown races and say, “Huh. This one’s better than all the others.”

But there’s still something about a horse racing involving the legends of the sport that excites us, mainly because there are so many we’ve never seen. Did Whirlaway really have that big of a kick at the end? Was Citation that good before his injury?  It’s as if we’re debating Babe Ruth vs. Albert Pujols, or Johnny Unitas vs. Tom Brady.

I begrudgingly accepted the rules, knowing that letting Spectacular Bid in the race would open a Pandora’s Box of “what about”s – Dr. Fager, Swaps, Native Dancer, Armed, Discovery, Exterminator – the list could divide the race into five heats. So I watched as the fake horses went into the computer-simulated starting gate, wondering if Sir Barton had gotten any training in the gate beforehand. 

The Race

But when they went off, I was transfixed. As he had always done, Seattle Slew got out to an early lead, followed closely by Count Fleet and Omaha. So that’s how Count Fleet would have run, I thought. Justify got out to a slow start – his fate was sealed early so no one would question his placing (They did, anyway). Assault took an awkward but nevertheless impressive dash toward the leaders a la Secretariat in the Preakness, then stopped mid-pack.

I was expecting those animated horses from the horse racing computer games, but the simulators seemed to take footage of the stands from a regular Derby and superimpose against the racetrack. The horses looked real, despite the fact that there were no blinkers on horses such as Count Fleet and Secretariat. I assumed that despite that mistake, the programmers had done their job. I was all in

Like Assault, Secretariat shot into the backstretch and took fourth as if he were out for a stroll, and then he waited. American Pharoah and Citation both began to move up from the back of the pack as Affirmed sneaked into contention along the rail. It was breathtaking to watch all those silks in full color, all the horses from yesteryear running alongside the likes of Justify and AP. 

The Homestretch

They entered the far turn with Slew stubbornly holding onto the lead, American Pharoah and Citation making their move. The two split, Citation heading for the inner rail and American Pharoah opting for his traditional outside move as they rounded the turn and headed for home.

Then, BUMP.

What the hell was that? Whirlaway just veered out and bumped American Pharoah by at least one lane. “Foul!” I cried, pointing at the TV. “Foul!” There was even going to be controversy in this simulation. I guess Whirlaway, without his blinkers, was looking for the outside rail to run against.

Then, BUMP again. Secretariat nuzzled AP – not as badly as Whirlaway did – as they straightened up, and the two made their run at Seattle Slew, who seemed in control. The horses were all over the track – the only non-realistic thing I saw. Affirmed continued to make a move, this time on the far outside (What was he doing out there?). Citation was still in it, as was AP.

But there was no denying Secretariat. The beast simply knocked it into a higher gear and brushed by Citation to win by a length. Seattle Slew was third.

Again, this was no big surprise, and as I thought about the top Thoroughbreds of the 20th century, the programmers got it just about right. Count Fleet, generally thought to be in the Top 5 all-time horses, finished a disappointing seventh, all but forgotten. Poor War Admiral, the son of the great Man O’ War and winner of 21 of 26 races, was never mentioned and finished 10th. 

But those are my only objections. We had our showdown, despite its flaws. And we can all agree that Secretariat was indeed a beast.

Here’s the order of finish. Argue about it over a few beers with your friends.

  1. Secretariat
  2. Citation
  3. Seattle Slew
  4. Affirmed
  5. American Pharoah
  6. Whirlaway
  7. Count Fleet
  8. Justify
  9. Assault
  10. War Admiral
  11. Omaha
  12. Gallant Fox
  13. Sir Barton

Contributing Authors

Peter Lee

Peter is a  former journalist and  a horse racing historian. He is also the author of Spectacular Bid: The Last Superhorse of the Twentieth Century.

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