The Greatest Race That Never Was

Jun 12, 2020 | ASD History

Man O' War. How good was he?

Man O’ War. How good was he?

by Bob Gates

For as long as most of us can remember, the first Saturday in May is reserved for the Kentucky Derby, but not this year. The “Run for the Roses” was rescheduled to the fall because of COVID-19.

You just knew NBC wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this go to waste, especially with a captive TV audience ready for any sporting event that wasn’t a replay from yesteryear. So, what to do?

If you can’t show the real deal, why not create the greatest horserace of all-time.  Take the 13 winners of the American Triple Crown and pit them against each other in a virtual event.

1919   Sir Barton                           1948   Citation

1930   Gallant Fox                         1973   Secretariat

1935   Omaha                                1977   Seattle Slew

1937   War Admiral                       1978   Affirmed

1941   Whirlaway                           2015   American Pharoah

1943   Count Fleet                         2018   Justify

1946   Assault

Secretariat. Pat Bayes photo.

Secretariat. Pat Bayes photo.

The sad part is, someone has to finish last and who in this group deserved that?  Experts and novices alike came to the consensus that this was Secretariat’s race and the only thing left to sort out was the order of finish of the other entrants, all of whom were champions.

The final order of finish:

  1. Secretariat
  2. Citation
  3. Seattle Slew
  4. Affirmed
  5. American Pharoah

Also ran (in order of finish): Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Justify, Assault, War Admiral, Omaha, Gallant Fox and Sir Barton.

The race nourished our imagination for the impossible. How can you compare these equine legends? Decades of variables separated these foes of the turf with arguments coming down to matters of opinions.

Who knew? The mighty Forego, Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Older Male Horse in 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977, Eclipse Award winner for Horse of the Year in 1974, 1975, ranks 8th on Blood-Horse magazine’s Top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century. He ran in only one triple crown race. In 1973 he finished 4th in the Kentucky Derby to “The Horse God Built” – Secretariat.

At first blush it looks like runners from the 1930s and 40s have the Rodney Dangerfield thing going on. You have to feel for the bluebloods of that period. It seems this group doesn’t get a lot of love. Secretariat aside, were Seattle Slew and Affirmed truly superior to the 1930s’ Gallant Fox, Omaha and War Admiral or the 40s’ Whirlaway, Count Fleet and Assault?

The 30s and 40s boasted seven Triple Crown winners in 18 years. It took 50 years for the five most recent Triple Crown winners to accomplish a sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. I can’t help but feel there is a certain lack of respect for the champions from 80-90 years ago.

The list of Triple Crown winners has many of us wondering how it was that other racing notables failed in their appointed task. The horse topping that list has to be Man o’ War, whose Triple Crown quest came a full century ago. Only beaten once in his career, Man o’ War is often touted as the “acknowledged standard of thoroughbred excellence.”

Man o’ War’s issue was simple. He wasn’t entered in the 1920 Kentucky Derby.  Owner Sam Riddle did not believe in racing babies 10 furlongs, especially early in their careers. Some of the other familiar names that finished short in their bid for the revered triple are: Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince, Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and California Chrome.

Who Knew? Multiple award-winning thoroughbreds Kelso, John Henry and Cigar never started in a Triple Crown race.

Did you know that there was at least one other “Race of the Century?” It too looked to answer the question, who was the greatest horse of all-time? The race was hosted by Miami radio station WIOD (Wonderful Isle of Dreams) in 1968.  The horses that made it into the race included:

War Admiral (1937)*      Count Fleet (1943)*        Citation (1948)*

Exterminator                    Man o’ War                       Nashua

Tom Fool                            Kelso                                  Buckpasser

Equipoise                           Swaps                                Native Dancer

*Triple Crown winners

Citation. Photo courtesy of Keeneland Library.

Citation. Photo courtesy of Keeneland Library.

The 1968 race featured three of the then eight triple crown winners. Before reading on, who do you like, remembering that Secretariat and the four subsequent triple crown winners were some 25-50 years into the future?

The final order of finish:

  1. Citation
  2. Man o’ War
  3. Buckpasser
  4. Exterminator
  5. Kelso

Also ran (in order of finish): Swaps, Nashua, Tom Fool, War Admiral, Native Dancer, Equipoise and Count Fleet.

Imagine the Downs running its own “Fantasy Gold Cup.”  Who would you favour among this fanciful dozen, all healthy and in their peak Assiniboia Downs condition going 1 1/8-miles on a fast track?

Balooga Bull                       Monsoon Rain              Island Fling

Rough Catch                      Kalfaari                           Prime Time TV

Turn to Rule                       Plenty Chilly                 Merry’s Jay

Intercontinent                     Macale                          Smoky Cinder

The race would be called by Darren Dunn, sorry Kirt. Trainers having a stake in the race would include Bert Blake, Glenn Ball, Don and Clayton Gray, Ardell Sayler, Emile Corbel, Gary Danelson, Brian Palaniuk, Tom Dodds and others.

Jockeys making themselves available to ride would include Ken Hendricks, Bobby Stewart, Dickie Armstrong, Todd Kabel, Jimmy Anderson, Irwin Driedger, Tim Gardiner, Frank Licata, Rohan Singh, Tommy Stadnyk, Brian Bochinski and Alan Cuthbertson.

My pick in the Fantasy Gold Cup? Island Fling!

My pick in the Fantasy Gold Cup? Island Fling!

My pick for the top five finishers would see Balooga Bull, Monsoon Rain, Island Fling, Kalfaari and Prime Time TV in a drive to the wire, the likes of which we have never seen, with the edge going to, and this might surprise you, Island Fling! Yours?

It may not be the “Run for the Roses,” but it’s fun to wonder which Downs’ champion would be the…

G.O.A.T (Greatest of all Time)!