Saturday, December 3, 2016

10 Top Thoroughbred Champion Athletes of All Time

Many don’t think too much of the horses in racing being athletes but to watch them with personal trainers, caretakers, diets to provide maximum nutrition and a performance that is absolutely an athletic achievement it’s clear they are the epitome of an athlete.

A case can be made for many horses but here’s a short list of exceptioinal equine athletes.

1.Secretariat romped onto the racing scene in 1972 and as a big, beautiful colt it was said maybe he wouldn’t run. Some say older mares are past their prime for producing but his dam, Somethingroyal, was in her late teens when he was born. Secretariat was quite possibly a horse for the ages. We’ll likely never see another like him. He broke the record for the Kentucky Derby, a 1:59.2 mark that still stands 36 years later. Sham would have been outstanding any other year save for being born in 1970.

The Preakness Stakes saw Ecole Etage leap to the front but it didn’t last long. Torsion, Deadly Dream have been pretty much forgotten by the masses but Secretariat shut down any bid from those three on the backstretch as Sham launched a red at the red tail. Sham and Secretriat again left the field behind in the stretch and a timer malfunction denied Secretariat an official record of 1:53.2 which also has never been topped in the last 36 years.

In the Belmont Stakes a small but good field – Sham and Secretariat rolled to the front and raced down the backstretch with Sham slightly leading the way 10 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Secretariat rolled ahead on the turn as Sham tried to close the gap but the big red horse widened almost effortlessly. Secretariat ran a monster race that day sizzling through the race and opening up by 18 lengths on the turn, wearing Sham down to where he was too tired to close it. Secretariat demolished the field by 25 lengths and shattered the record stopping the clock in 2:24 for the mile and a half. A full 2 3/5 seconds was sheared off the record and he did it without feeling the whip, without being challenged. Many good horses have run in the last 36 years but none have come close to the legendary Secretariat. Sham was the only horse to get close to him which really should elevate the dark colt to a much higher level of respect than merely second to Secretariat in the Derby, actually stopping the clock in record time too but 2nd place time doesn’t count.

Long after he left the race track Secretariat would run for the sheer celebration of running in his paddock. Laminitis stilled the big heart and lightning fast feet of Secretariat 20 years ago but his legend lives on in the memories of those who witnessed his amazing launchinto history and those lucky enough to visit Claiborne and see him after his retirement. Tributes have been done and a statue looms at Belmont’s site of his bid at history.

When Secretariat approached there was a swagger in his walk – he’d make eye contact with you and had that stamp of “I’m important”. The first click of a camera and he’d pose as if to say “how ’bout this shot”? and with fans crowded around he was amazingly tolerant for a breeding stallion. He sired Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret and the almost-Triple Crown winner Risen Star. The latter won the Preakness and Belmont after a disastrous trip in Kentucky. This was the year of Winning Colors, Forty Niner, Brian’s Time and a good number of other nice horses. Risen Star took command much like his sire in the Preakness. The game filly Winning Colors pushed Risen Star to drive in the Belmont for a winning effort, coming out of the turn 4 lengths and drawing away in the stretch romping by nearly 20 lengths. Despite this and Secretariat’s phenomenal success as a broodmare sire some consider him a failure at stud as he didn’t do the impossible – reproduce himself or better.

2.Seattle Slew remains today the biggest bargain of all time and if we’re talking athletic achievement he needs to be there. He was and is the only horse to enter the Kentucky Derby undefeated and win and go on to win the Triple Crown. Purchased for $17,500 by a couple from the northwest he was 2 year old champion and easily won his Derby prep. In the Flamingo he was 10 lengths ahead but was slowed to not burn up, winning by 4 easily. He was the overwhelming favorite and was a disastrous strart but in ¼ mile had woven through horses and by the end showed he was a professional race horse. Preakness day Slew was the 2nd fastest official time. On to Belmont on a muddy track but he took the lead and easily did what he had to do.

Health problems bothered Slew as a 4 year old and he ran a second before being pointed towards the Marlboro Cup where Kentucky Derby winners would meet for the first time. Slew with Angel Cordero up would battle Affirmed with Steve Cauthen and on the turn Slew was solidly in the lead with Affirmed giving a gallant chase. Two weeks later Slew beat Exceller and won that race. The Jockey Gold Cup would see Affirmed and Exceller challenging with sizzling fractions until Affirmed’s slipped and he dropped out. Slew and Exceller were head to head, stride for stride down the land and Exceller won by a nose.

At stud first at Spendthrift farm he was a contrast to Secretariat, as if wondering why all the people continued to come. He had a quiet confidence about him and was an incredibly intelligent horse.

He later was moved to Three Chimneys and was continued to be ridden daily well into his teens. For all he had done on the track he was a bargain but Seattle Slew’s value increased to priceless when he began siring the likes of Swale, Landaluce, A.P.Indy Slew O’Gold, Capote and a long list of other legends in their own right. He battled health problems that threatened his race career, breeding career and very life and had surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck to reduce pain from pressure on the spinal cord. He returned to breeding, getting 90% of his mares in foal.

In February 2002 the lack of coordination returned and another surgery was performed. He was recovering nicely but stressed at hearing the mares and not breeding so was moved to Hill ‘n’ Dale farm for what turned out to be his final journey. Slew died with his long time groom and owners at his side 25 years to the day of his Kentucky Derby win. He was 28.

3.Tiznow was the first horse to win back to back Breeders Cup Classic. His owner saw her dream realized when, battling cancer, she watched her colt win. A very talented field including the Irish horse Giant’s Causeway, Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid, Albert the Great and Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus as well as many more talented colts. Coming down the stretch Tiznow had put away Albert the Great but Giants Cause wan challenged hard. Head to head and Tiznow won by the bob of a head in what was a true test of champions. Three days later Ms. Straub lost her battle with cancer.

An incredibly talented, intelligent horse Tiznow won the Classic and in 2001 returned to do battle again. To set the stage it was a couple of short months after 9/11. Several talented horses shipped over from Europe to challenge including Arc d’Triomphe winner Sakhee.

He was facing a talented field of Galileo, Aptitude, Include, Albert the Great, Guided Tour, Sakhee and a full field of talent. Tiznow settled comfortably in third allowing Orientate and Albert the Great to battle in front on the back but in the tour Tiznow loomed large. Albert the Great made a bid on the turn and looked ready to roll to a win but…not so fast.

Coming out of the tour Aptitude was rolling in full stride, Tiznow set down to run. Sakhee rolled on the outside mid track to challenge with Tiznow just inside and seeming to relish the challenge. As one Sakhee and Tiznow battled to the front. In full stride he crossed as “TIZNOW WINS IT FOR AMERICA!! echoed over the track. Largely overlooked in the preshow as no one had won back to back Classics, Tiznow surely made his belated owner beam from above.

Today Tiznow has sired the outstanding race horses Well Armed and Colonel John as well as several other stakes winners. His dam is a granddaughter of Seattle Slew. He is, still, the only horse to win the Classic twice.

4 and 5 will be linked forever as in the same breath they were mentioned on the track. Affirmed and Alydar, separate horses with a single challenge. Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner, with Alydar pushing him every step of the way looking for a mistake to turn 2nd into a win.

In the Kentucky Derby Affirmed split horses on the turn and Alydar closed on the outside desperately trying to cut the gap and coming on like a freight train but running out of room. In the Preakness Affirmed made a race from the beginning, leading down the backstretch as the field closed the gap on the turn. Coming to the stretch Alydar charged to the challenge with both horses driving hard and giving everything they had with Affirmed the better by a short lead at the wire.

The Belmont Stakes some predicted an upset. The longer distance would give the hard running Alydar more time to grind out a win. Only Darby Creek Road, Judge Advocate and Noontime Spender showed up to chase the chestnut pair. On the backside Affirmed and Alydar started a speed duel heads apart. The gap between them and the field widened but between them was tight. Neither horse would back down with Affirmed remaining in front but Alydar challenging every stride. Alydar put a head in front for a moment down the stretch but Affirmed battled back with a head margin separating them at the finish.

In one of the greatest rivalries in racing history Affirmed won 7 of the 10 meetings. As a stallion after retirement Affirmed was personable horse with a quiet confidence as fans gathered to ooh and ahh over him. As a sire Alydar proved a better sire but both continued their battles through their sons and daughters, as they do today 22 years later with grandsons and granddaughters. Both are gone now – Alydar to suspect circumstances and Affirmed to age.

Along with these top 5 there are others who deserve a mention to the top list.

6.Afleet Alex deserves mention not only for his wins but for an athletic exhibition that is almost unbelievable. In the 2005 Preakness Scrappy T was a speedball set to challenge and was leading coming out of the turn but as they came out of the turn Alex rolled to challenge when Scrappy T veered sharply and suddenly. Without time to shift or blink Afleet Alex was on his knees in full stride with the rest of the field looming behind. Not only did Alex not go down but he gathered himself back on his feet without losing the jockey and drove on, undeterred to win by daylight. He went on to win the Belmont and champion 3 year old colt.

7. Citation was said to be the greatest three year old ever. Winner of the Triple Crown he was so dominant many refused to even race him.

8. Pharlap absolutely deserves a mention for athletes. His accomplishments made a movie. He won under extreme conditions that would cripple most horses. Could he have rolled through America? That is forever a question but there I no doubt he’s an international superstar.

9. Roseben is documented in an article of his own here and review of that certainly puts him at a athlete level.

10. John Henry not only expected respect but outright demanded it. Temperamental and talented he became one of America’s most beloved champions.

There are certainly many achievements that come to mind as equine athletes. These are among Thoroughbred horse racing’s brightest.

Labels: 10 Top Thoroughbred Champion Athletes of All Time

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