Monday, February 4, 2013

Great Races of the Past 60 years: Part 3

You may read part 1 here, and part 2 here. Part 3 will focus on the 1980s--a decade of tough, gritty horses.

John Henry--1980 San Juan Capistrano

Small, ornery and not pretty to look at, John Henry was the very epitome of the tough blue-collar Thoroughbred. A late bloomer, he didn't begin reaching the pinnacle of his long career until 1980, at the ripe age of five. This lofty peak continued through 1984, and along the way he garnered 39 wins in 83 starts, seven Eclipse Awards--including Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984--and over $6.5 million in earnings, a then-record.

John Henry was also one of my personal favorites for sentimental reasons. A longtime mainstay at the Kentucky Horse Park, he was often one of the first stops of the day during my family's many visits to the Horse Park in the 1990s. I never tired of seeing him try to sneak nips and bites with his patient handlers during the Hall of Champions shows--he knew he could never get away with it, but the stubborn streak within him never gave up. Even as a young girl, I knew I was catching glimpses of the same willful attitude that had carried John Henry to the winner's circle.

John Henry at the Kentucky Horse Park, 2000

As an Arlington Park 'native', I am particularly familiar with John Henry's narrow win over The Bart in the running of the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981.

Against All Odds: John Henry and The Bart duke it out eternally at Arlington Park

 But I have to choose his win in the 1980 San Juan Capistrano as my favorite. Taking place early in 1980, John Henry had just begun establishing himself as one of the top turf males in the country. The 1-3/4 mile San Juan Capistrano was a hurdle, distance-wise, for John Henry to conquer. Carrying a highweight of 126 pounds, John Henry seized the lead out of the gate. Defying challengers handily, he maintained the lead for the entire distance of the race with his ears pricked, as if leading the field for the simple fun of it. For a horse to wire a marathon race is impressive; for a horse to wire a marathon race despite early fractions of :46, 1:09 and 1:59 is a feat that should be impossible. But for John Henry and his stubborn streak, it was anything but.

Landaluce--1982 Hollywood Lassie

Like Ruffian seven years before her, Landaluce was a flash of brilliance that shone so brightly yet was gone so quickly, so soon. In December 1982, after one of the most dazzling two-year-old seasons in racing history, Landaluce died in the arms of her trainer after battling colitis for three weeks. That the filly fought the highly fatal disease so valiantly was a testament to her fortitude. She was posthumously awarded the Eclipse Award for juvenile filly of 1982.

From the first crop of the great Seattle Slew, Landaluce did not disappoint the expectations that went with her famous sire's career at stud. Undefeated in five starts, the crown jewel of her wins was her 21-length victory in the Hollywood Lassie. It wasn't merely the margin of victory that was astounding, but also the blistering final time--1:08 flat--one of the fastest in history for a two-year-old filly going 6 furlongs.

Trainer Wayne D. Lukas knew he had a very special filly in his hands with Landaluce. Of her, he said, “You search and you look, and then all of a sudden, it comes, that star, and you know you have been blessed with something special.”

This video is a rare look at a beautiful win from all camera angles, so do take the time to watch it in its entirety, if possible.

Personal Ensign--1988 Breeder's Cup Distaff

The mid to late-80s was a time for fillies and mares. Among the greats were Lady's Secret, Miesque, Bayakoa, and Go For Wand. From this rich pool came two standouts. Winning Colors and her wire-to-wire win the Kentucky Derby was one. Personal Ensign was the other.

A racy-looking, regally-bred filly, by post time of the 1988 Breeder's Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, Personal Ensign was undefeated in 12 starts--the Distaff was to be the final race of her career. In late 1986, she fractured a hind pastern during a morning breeze. Surgery was quickly scheduled; the filly's life was not in danger, but her soundness was. She recovered from surgery and against all odds, made a successful return to the races nearly a year after her injury. That she had already exceeded expectations by making a return to the highest level of graded stakes was special--being undefeated to boot was phenomenal.

On the day of the 1988 Distaff, constant heavy rains made the Churchill Downs track sloppy. It was a surface that Personal Ensign loathed. Furthermore, she had never before run at Churchill. Horses either love or hate Churchill, and rival Winning Colors clearly adored it. The final insult were the weight assignments--Personal Ensign carried 123 pounds to Winning Colors' 119. Such weights matter little on most days, but not on this one.

When the gates opened, Winning Colors flew to the lead, as expected. With no regard for the sloppy surface, she led the field through easy fractions, keeping control of the lead. She was primed to win going away! Meanwhile, Personal Ensign wasn't handling the surface well. She struggled to find her footing and was unable to do so until the top of the homestretch. By then, Winning Colors had a lead of several lengths on her. As Personal Ensign's jockey Randy Romero asked her with everything he had, Personal Ensign dug in and closed the gap, bit by bit, stride by stride. Of the stretch drive, Romero later said, "I never did give up on her. I always believed she was a champion, and I rode her that way. But I was very scared. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't."

Like the champion she was, Personal Ensign never gave up, either. She won by mere whiskers over Winning Colors, thereby being the first horse since Colin in 1908 to retire undefeated.

Sunday Silence and Easy Goer--1989 Triple Crown Races 
1989 Kentucky Derby
1989 Preakness
1989 Belmont 

 History has a way of repeating itself, and the saga of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer was no different. Within this last great rivalry in horse racing, one can find the ghosts of history past. Blue-collar versus blue-blood, as with Seabiscuit and War Admiral. West versus east, as with Swaps and Nashua. And last but not least, echoes of the 1978 Triple Crown, in which Easy Goer’s very sire, Alydar, battled Affirmed.

Sunday Silence was the colt no one wanted. Out of a relatively obscure female family and awkward-looking as a youngster, he did not sell at auction as a yearling and was later bought back by his breeder as a two-year-old in training. In contrast, Easy Goer's female family was glittering with quality--his dam was only four generations removed from the great breed matriarch, La Troienne. Bred and raced by the Phipps family, Easy Goer was the cumulation of decades of careful Phipps breeding. 

As Sunday Silence was in California and Easy Goer was on the east coast, the two horses didn't meet for the first time until the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Easy Goer was the odds-on favorite but Sunday Silence reached the wire first, finishing 2-1/2 lengths ahead of a late-closing Easy Goer. Two weeks later, Easy Goer was again the favorite for the Preakness. There was no late surge this time--he passed Sunday Silence in the backstretch and took the lead. But Sunday Silence wasn't ready to give up. Guided by jockey Pat Valenzuela, he moved to the outside and closed the gap created by Easy Goer. At the top of the Preakness homestretch, the two horses locked horns and--in a move reminiscent of the 1978 Belmont Stakes--dueled side by side down the stretch. Like his sire in the '78 Belmont, Easy Goer lost by a nose. 

Made the favorite for the 1989 Belmont Stakes,  Sunday Silence's Triple Crown hopes were swept away by Easy Goer as he easily passed the black colt at the top of the Belmont homestretch. Opening to 8 lengths, Easy Goer won the Belmont in 2:26, the second fastest time in the race's history after Secretariat's world record 2:24. The two colts would later meet again in the 1989 Breeder's Cup Classic, which Sunday Silence won by a neck over a fast-closing Easy Goer.

Up next: Part 4, the 1990s through mid-2000s.

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