Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003


The Sport of Kings

Mike Resnick



There are names that conjure up equine greatness: Man 'o War, Citation, Equipoise, Secretariat, Ruffian.

There are names that don't, but they usually have more interesting origins.

For example:

Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, was named because one set of his owners had a logging camp just outside Seattle, and the other set lived next to a Florida swamp.

Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner, was named because Rex Ellsworth, his breeder, and Mish Tenney, his trainer, spent all of one night suggesting and rejecting monickers, and finally got tired of "swapping names."

The great British stallion, Ballydam, sired a colt who had colic as an infant. Named Bally Ache, he went on to win the 1961 Preakness.

Alfred Gwynn Vanderbilt was considered a master at naming his horses. The great Native Dancer, winner of 21 of his 22 races, was by Polynesian out of Geisha. Find was sired by Discovery. But it was the Dancer's and Find's stakes-winning stablemate who gets my vote as the best-named: by Shut Out out of Pansy, he became Social Outcast.

Alydar, who ran 10 memorable races against Affirmed, was named for Aly Khan, whom his owner knew as Aly Darling.

Tom Fool's greatest son was Buckpasser, but his best-named one was Dunce.

Trainer John Nerud had successful brain surgery, so he named a horse after the surgeon to thank him. The horse turned out to be Dr. Fager, the 1968 Horse of the Year.

Ponder, winner of the 1944 Kentucky Derby, sired Pensive, winner of the 1949 Kentucky Derby.

Sometime the names are so obvious you would never guess their origin. The winner of 30 stakes races, Swoon's Son was by The Doge out of (surprise!) Swoon.


To the man on the street, the most important race to win is the Kentucky Derby. Sports writers who don't know which end of the horse has teeth all become experts on the first Saturday in May, just as they become gymnastics experts every 4th years during the Olympics.

To the racing professional, there are more important races. One is the Belmont Stakes, because the 12-furlong distance is a quarter-mile longer than the Derby and requires that much more stamina (which is always a prime selling point in a stallion). Also, far more Belmont winners than Derby winners become divisional champions.

Another more important race is the Breeders Cup Classic, because it brings together the best horses in America, not just 3- year-olds but older handicap horses as well, at the Derby distance...and it's a rare 3-year-old than can beat a top-notch older horse.

In France, the Prix de l'arc de Triomphe, run at 12 furlongs on the grass about 3 weeks before the Breeders Cup, is considered by Europeans to be the most important race in the world.


The mark of a great horse is to carry weight over distance. That's been the criterion for as long as there have been horses and races.

Put in simple terms, a horse cannot be considered great until he has won -- hopefully repeatedly -- at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. Or more.

And he cannot be considered great until he has carried more than scale weight, in practical terms 130 pounds or more, and given away chunks of weight to good competition.

By this criterion, Secretariat was not a great horse -- or, rather, let us say that he was never given the opportunity to prove he was a great horse, because he retired as a 3-year-old, and hence never had to carry enormous weights and give weight away. Another horse from his crop, 3-time Horse of the Year, Forego, was demonstrably a great horse, winning more than a dozen times at 10 furlongs or more, successfully carrying 137 pounds to victory, and always giving away weight to his rivals.

Could Forego have beaten Secretariat? Possibly not. The one time they met was in the Kentucky Derby, when Forego was still a year away from his best efforts. But there is no question of Forego's greatness; there will always be some doubt as to whether Secretariat could have carried, say, 135 pounds, and given 15 and 20 pounds to good horses as Forego did so many times.

My own criteria would include not only the ability to carry weight over distance, but also the ability to win a huge percentage of one's races. Man 'o War won 20 of 21; Native Dancer 21 of 22; Personal Ensign 13 of 13; Seattle Slew 14 of 17; Dr. Fager 19 of 22; Ruffian 10 of 11. Allowances can be made for Kelso and Forego, because, as geldings, they raced at the mercy of handicappers for many years, whereas most complete horses give the handicapper a single year to slow them down and then retire with the reputations mostly intact. (Which is to say, they retire at 4, or in some cases, such as Secretariat, at 3; whereas Kelso was Horse of the Year at 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, and was still running at 9; Forego was Horse of the Year at 4, 5, and 6, and handicap champion at 7; and old Find, a stablemate of Native Dancer and Social Outcast, was still winning stakes at 9 and placing in them at 11.) Thus, I'm less impressed with Secretariat, who lost 5 times to very ordinary horses in 21 starts, than I am with Seattle Slew, who lost two photo-finishes to year-end champions, and lost only one other race when he clearly wasn't fit.

I can also make allowances for injury. Citation won 32 of his 45 starts, hardly a percentage for one of the 3 or 4 greatest American race horses -- but he won 27 of his 29 starts at ages 2 and 3, missed his entire 4-year-old season due to injury, and was hardly the same horse when he came back at 5 and 6.


The Yankees and Dodgers. The Lakers and Celtics. The Cowboys and Steelers. Great rivalries are essential to any sport, and horse-racing has had its share of them.

The most famous rivals, of course, were Affirmed and Alydar. They met 10 times in 15 months. Affirmed won 7 of them, 5 in photo finishes, and was second 3 times. Alydar won 3, and was second 6 times. At the end of 10 races and almost 11 miles, they were something less than 2 lengths apart.

But they weren't the only ones.

Back in the late 1950s, there was a trio of outstanding horses, all of whom had been born in 1954 -- Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, and Round Table. When the dust had cleared, Bold Ruler and Gallant Man had met 8 times, splitting 4 apiece. Bold Ruler and Round Table had met twice, splitting one apiece. Gallant Man met Round Table three times and won all three.

Probably the two greatest horses to engage in a top-drawer rivalry in the past half-century were Dr. Fager and Damascus. They met twice in 1967, each winning once; and twice in 1968, splitting again. In 1968, neither ever carried less than 131 pounds.


There's a lot of money in racing and breeding, far more than there used to be. I can remember when a Hyperion colt named Rise 'n Shine set the all-time yearling auction record by selling for a then-unheard-of $87,500. These days yearlings sold at the Keeneland Summer Auction _average_ more than half a million dollars apiece. The record, for a half-brother to Seattle Slew -- remember, this was a yearling who'd never even had a saddle put on him -- was for more than $13 million.

And never won a race.

In fact, of the first 100 yearlings to sell for more than a million dollars, only 4 earned back their purchase price, and only one -- A. P. Indy, a son of Seattle Slew -- became a champion.

Stud fees have also skyrocketed. These days the leading sire in the country is Storm Cat, and a date with him costs $800,000 -- _if_ you can get to him. He's usually booked years in advance.

(Cheer up. If he's busy, maybe you can get a date with Danzig. He's only half a million per service.)

You can also run up a tidy profit if you pick right. People talk about Seabiscuit and Stymie, former claiming horses (horses that were for sale for a set price on the day of the race) who were bought for peanuts and went on to win hundreds of thousands of dollars. John Henry sold for $25,000 in 1979 and went on to win more than $6 million.

But for a _real_ success story, look no further than Seattle Slew. His "call name" around the barn as a yearling was Baby Huey, because he was so clumsy. He was rejected for the Keeneland Summer Sales, because neither his pedigree nor comformation were perfect enough, and the team of Mickey and Karen Taylor, and Jim and Sally Hill, bought him for $17,500. What did they get for their investment?

Well, to begin with, they got the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history, who went on to win over a million dollars on the track.

Then they syndicated him for $12 million, keeping 20 shares ($6 million worth) for themselves and selling 20 shares.

By 1986, 8 years after his initial syndication, he had been so phenomenally successful at stud that a share in Seattle Slew sold at auction for $4 million, making the horse's value $160 million -- more than any skyscraper in downtown Cincinnati, to put it in some perspective.

But that wasn't all. The Taylors and Hills entered into a foal-sharing arrangement with major breeders like Claiborne Farm and others of that ilk. It worked like this: Claiborne, to take a concrete example, got two free seasons to Seattle Slew. They would flip a coin, and Claiborne got one foal and the Taylors and Hills got one. In this particular case, Claiborne got Derby and Belmont winner Swale, who died tragically only eight days after winning the Belmont; and the Taylors and Hills got champion Slew o' Gold, who in turn was syndicated for $15 million (and again, they kept half the shares and sold half the shares.)

Between his owners, and his syndicate members, and the breeders who sold his yearlings, and the people who raced his offspring, it's estimated that this one $17,500 yearling created more than 100 millionaires. Hard to do if you're not franchising MacDonald's.


Probably because binoculars are a relatively recent invention, horse-racing is an incredibly colorful sport. Not only do the horses come in a number of colors, but every owner has his own silks, and some of the designs are truly eye-catching (as they were meant to be, since they originated to help an owner spot his horse as a cluster of them raced down the backstretch half a mile away).

The most famous colors?

Probably Calumet's devil's red and blue -- a red jersey, with two blue bars on each sleeve.

Then there's Claiborne's pure orange, and Odgen Phipps' pure black.

The Vanderbilt silks are cerise and white diamonds, with red sleeves. (When I was 10, and already a fanatic, I wrote a number of owners and stables, asking for their silks. Only two -- Brookmeade Stable [white with blue cross sashes] and Vanderbilt -- sent them to me. One of the most mournful days of my life came two years later when I realized I had outgrown them forever.

There are currently more than 5,000 colorful designs registered with the Jockey Club. Makes baseball uniforms seem even duller than they are.


The most common equipment for a racehorse is a set of blinkers. It keeps his attention straight ahead, and stops him from getting distracted by movements in the stands or the infield.

Then there's the shadow roll, about two inches thick and cylindrical, which goes over his nose, and prevents him from seeing (and jumping) shadows.

From time to time you'll see a horse with a tongue-tie; this stops him from trying to swallow his tongue in the heat of the race (or not trying and doing it anyway).

Some horses will wear protective bandages on front or rear legs.

On off tracks, some horses will wear mud caulks, the equivalent of spiked shoes, which gives them better purchase.

None of these things should give you any concern; none imply that a particular horse is at anything less that his best or fittest.

On the other hand, a bar shoe – the program book will tell you if he's wearing one – is a protective device for horses with quarter cracks (cracks on their hooves). The track vet won't let the horse run if he's lame, or in any way unfit, but a bar shoe is an indication that he's had problems in the past and may again.


Almost every horse runs on Lasix these days. When a horse makes an extreme effort, he may occasionally bleed -- which is to say, capillaries burst in his lungs, the blood comes up through his nostrils, and he can't breathe easily. Lasix used to be outlawed in New York, but now it's legal everywhere in the country, and used as a preventative far more than a cure. (If a horse does bleed, he is forbidden to race again until the track veterinarian is convinced the problem has been solved.)

Many horses run on Bute – short for Butazolidin, a brand name for phenylbutazone. (I used it once myself, when I tore some tendons in my foot and my doctor prescribed it.) Bute doesn't cure anything, but if a horse is sore – and sooner or later, most athletes get sore if they stay in training – the Bute will mask his pain. Again, it used to be outlawed at about half the tracks – the one disqualification in the history of the Kentucky Derby came in 1968 when it was discovered that Dancer's Image had used Bute – but today it's legal everywhere.

Again, if you find a horse is running on Bute and/or Lasix, it's absolutely standard. He probably doesn't even need it, but as long as it doesn't hurt and might help, trainers will use it.

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