Aug 27, 2007

A Tribute to...Exceller

So, in keeping with the depressing theme of today, I'm going to introduce you to the great racehorse Exceller. Racing fans are probably already quite familiar with him, but for those of you who aren't, let's delve into his history.

Foaled in Kentucky in 1973, his owner thought he might be better-suited to racing in Europe, based on his bloodlines. He stayed there until he was 4, winning some pretty impressive victories in France and England, especially during the 70s, when many of the breed's finest were racing. Some of those victories include the Prix Royal Oak, run at a whopping 1 mile 7 and a half furlongs (For those of you who are furlong-inept, that's nearly two miles. The Belmont is one of our most grueling races at 1 and a half miles.); the Grand Prix de Paris; and finished third behind The Ministrel (a pretty phenomenal racehorse that ploughed over his rivals in England and Ireland) in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Before his final destination in California, he was stabled in Canada for a short period of time and won the Canadian International. But luckily for him and for American racing, he ended up in the training and care of Charlie Whittingham as a 4-year-old in 1977.

1978 was his best year. As a five-year-old, folks. How many greats are around at 5 anymore? He won 7 out of 10 starts that year, including the Hollywood Gold Cup, Hollywood Invitational Turk Cup, etc... But for my money, his greatest victory (at least, his most spectacular) was against the great Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This race was a killer. Slew broke through the starting gate before the race was started and had to be reloaded. Affirmed's trainer didn't want the Slew to get an early lead and romp to victory so easily, so he entered a 'rabbit' into the race (a horse he knew couldn't win, but who would set a breakneck speed to either force the Slew to slow down comparatively and give Affirmed a fairer chance or make him match it and be too tired to win at the end). It is also said that the jock on the rabbit was instructed to scream at the Slew to upset him and wear him down. Affirmed, Seattle Slew and the rabbit all broke fast and started an unbelievable pace on a muddy track. Affirmed's saddle slipped, which essentially took him out of the running. And Slew continued to run a killer breakneck speed with the rabbit. It looks completely out-of-control on the videos. Of course, the rabbit fades fast, but as Seattle Slew came down the homestretch, Exceller, hidden so far at the back of the pack some - 22 lengths back (that's horse-lengths) - barrels suddenly down the stretch and powers through, barely winning by a nose. That type of come-from-behind victory is legendary. (Though don't knock the Slew - the fact that he was barely beaten after the suicidal pace he ran earlier in the race, well...that's a master at work.) Exceller defeated 2 Triple Crown winners with that race - the only horse in history to accomplish that, regardless of the mitigating factors. Enough said really. That's a legend. He should have spent the remainder of his days coddled and spoiled.

Instead, (yes, here it comes) he was retired to stud like most racehorses, but he wasn't a very successful sire. His babies just weren't very good. So, a Swedish breeder managed to buy out the syndicate that was standing him at stud and shipped him to Sweden. He disappeared from stud duty for while, due to some undisclosed infection and shortly afterwards his owner went bankrupt. For a year he was allowed to stay on a smaller farm until his owner made the quiet decision to have him taken to a slaughterhouse in 1997, the same year he was nominated to Horse-Racing's Hall of Fame.

I don't even think anything needs to be said here. That a horse of his caliber ended up in a slaughterhouse....well, what do you think happened to the scores of lesser-classed horses over the decades? How could we, as humans, treat these animals so poorly? These horses to whom we owe all the money, fame and power. And to anyone who says this is limited to horse-racing, think again.

At least his case, along with that of fellow racehorse Ferdinand (slaughtered in Japan), brought awareness to the racing industry and adoption foundations galore for all those unwanted ex-racehorses.

Interesting sidenote: Charlie Whittingham, Exceller's California trainer, was also Ferdinand's trainer. What a weird, sad coincidence.