No horse has ever done what Exceller did 30 years ago when he defeated two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Given the unlikelihood that the sport will ever see two Triple Crown winners racing at the same time again, it's hard to see how Exceller's accomplishment will ever be matched. The son of Vaguely Noble may be the greatest horse never to win a year-end championship in the United States. He was an accomplished runner in Europe and in the U.S., winning 15 of 33 starts for Nelson Bunker Hunt (including seven of 10 starts in 1978), and earning in excess of $1.6 million — when million-dollar winners were rare.
Take a few minutes and enjoy this video of the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was a fascinating contest. Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start. Then, Affirmed's saddled slipped, compromising his chances. Seattle Slew was pushed to unbelievably fast fractions for a mile and a half race, yet he fought as gamely as any horse has ever fought, right to the finish. And Exceller, under Bill Shoemaker, rallied from 22 lengths off that rapid pace to get the win.
Sadly, neither the Jockey Club Gold Cup nor the many other outstanding victories are why Exceller is known to a generation of racing fans who never had the good fortune to see him run. This grand Thoroughbred, who gave so much for our pleasure, wound up in a slaughterhouse in Sweden in April 1997, less than 20 years after his greatest racing achievement.
Exceller's crime? Failure to succeed as a stallion?
(Read more about Exceller's racing career and his death in a Swedish slaughterhouse. Elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, two years after his death, Exceller's biographical information and Hall of Fame plaque fail to state his cause of death.)
Whether you believe that slaughter is a viable alternative for unwanted horses or are sickened by the thought that thousands of Thoroughbreds are led to slaughter for human consumption every year, the story of Exceller is a tragic one. No horse who did for the sport what Exceller did should have such an undignified death.
The same is true of the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, who is believed to have died in a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002 after not living up to expectations as a stallion.
Exceller became a cause célèbre for some racing fans who were frustrated that the Thoroughbred industry and its leaders were doing next to nothing for so many former racehorses who failed to generate revenue for their owners and ended up being slaughtered. A group of them decided they would do something about it, forming the Exceller Fund, pooling their own resources and raising additional funds, and volunteering their time to save horses from slaughter and help them transition to a second career off the racetrack. The Exceller Fund is one of many such organizations struggling to make a difference on behalf of the horses and the Thoroughbred industry.
This Saturday, to honor Exceller's Jockey Club Gold Cup victory, a number of racetracks across the U.S. will host a “Toast to Exceller Day,” in order to raise awareness and donations for the Exceller Fund and many other equine charity groups. A special cocktail, “The Exceller,” is being sold at several tracks, including Mountaineer, Finger Lakes, Laurel Park and Presque Isle Downs, with proceeds benefting the Exceller Fund.
“I cannot thank our partner tracks enough for their support with this and I wish to especially thank the New York Racing Association for their commitment to the Exceller Fund that will be a lasting relationship for many years to come,” said leading New York trainer Gary Contessa, who in August was named president of the Exceller Fund.
Exceller did a great deal for Thoroughbred racing — then and now.
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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