Prompted by a post on Facebook, I've taken on the enjoyable challenge of naming my favorite horses from A to Z. The tricky part of this challenge was not coming up with a horse for each letter, but rather narrowing it down to only a single one. Many letters were difficult, and the letter “S” proved downright painful. But in the end, I have a list of which I am happy about.
Perhaps showing my age just a little, many of these horses raced decades ago. From Alydar through Zenyatta, I hope you enjoy reading about many of my personal favorites, and I invite you to try the exercise yourself.
(A) Alydar - He was not the best horse in his foal crop, but he was still one of the best horses I’ve ever seen. Often narrowly on the losing end to the great Affirmed, Alydar was the one I rooted for in every single meeting. When there was no Affirmed to deal with, he often annihilated his foes in races like the Arlington Classic, Blue Grass and Whitney. He also was one of America’s premier sires until his untimely death.
(B) Before Dawn - Not as well known as many on this list, she was something special as a juvenile filly. I had the pleasure of seeing her second career start in person, and I was hooked. She dominated her competition in a series of 2-year-old stakes in New York. Her only loss in her first 10 starts was a runner-up finish against the boys in 13-horse edition of the Champagne.
(C) Christmas Past - My rooting for this champion began with a memorable and spirited rivalry with Cupecoy’s Joy in each leg of New York’s filly triple crown of 1982. A winner of more than half of her lifetime starts, the gray filly always came running, all the way through her career finale when she beat the boys in a Grade 1 event at Gulfstream Park.
(D) De La Rose - A good filly on the dirt who almost upset her stablemate in the Kentucky Oaks, she really became something special when she switched to turf. She was so good during an incredible 3-year-old season for Woody Stephens, in fact, that she defeated the males on four different occasions.
(E) Eillo - The inaugural Breeders’ Cup of 1984 will always have a special place in my heart, and this speedball is one of the reasons why. Straight from seeing him win the Chief Pennekeck at the Meadowlands, he won the first ever Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In ‘84, he was the quickest thing on four legs.
(F) Free House - Like Alydar, he will best be remembered for running well but losing out to Silver Charm in the Triple Crown series. Still, this leggy gray, with beautifully expressive eyes, managed quite the career, winning major races in each of his four seasons on the track. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him, and I was upset for days when he lost the Preakness by a whisker.
(G) Groupie Doll - Another one near and dear to my heart, I picked her out as a talent very early in her career at Ellis Park. Even so, who could have guessed she would rise to the multiple Eclipse Award-winning heights which she did? Seeing he win two Breeders’ Cup Sprints in person later, she became my all-time favorite sprinter.
(H) Hansel - A big win as a juvenile in Chicago put him on my radar, but seeing him in person light up Turfway Park’s Jim Beam Stakes two races before the Kentucky Derby turned me into a fan. A romping win in the Preakness was vindication of his talent, but his gutsy Belmont and Travers runs showed what he was really made of.
(I) Invasor - A horse from Uruguay is never supposed to become a Hall of Famer in the United States, but that is exactly what this one did. In fact, he never lost in America, winning all five Grade 1 races he entered here, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A true international star, he also went out with a bang, winning the Dubai World Cup in his final race.
(J) John Henry - I’m not sure that I ever saw a horse run in person more than the great John Henry. As he got good on the turf in his 3-year-old season, becamega multiple champion of the Arlington Million, beat the best on dirt in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finally closed it out one night at the Meadowlands, I was lucky enough to see this true racehorse run for seven seasons.
(K) King Glorious - The Haskell has always been one of my favorite races, and this is one of the forgotten stars of the big race at Monmouth. I wish he could have stuck around longer, but that Haskell turned out to be his final race in a career which amassed eight wins and one second from nine lifetime starts.
(L) Lady's Secret - One afternoon in the paddock of Saratoga a stunning gray filly stopped and stared me in the eye. She could not have looked any better. She beat Mom’s Command in the Test a few minutes later and went on to become one of the most durable champions of modern racing. Her speed and class were undeniable.
(M) Majestic Light - As good as he could be on the dirt, as demonstrated by his blitzing of the Haskell field, he was even better on turf. A bit inconsistent on the main track, he ran nothing but big in every single start on the grass. He narrowly missed out on a championship but he was my first great love of the turf.
(N) Naskra's Breeze - Naskra was a favorite sire of mine, and Phil Johnson was a trainer that I liked, so it was only natural that I fell for this tough New York-bred. He became one of America’s best turf horses at the age of 5. I’ll never forget a trip with my dad to Atlantic City to watch him roll in the United Nations.
(O) Ouija Board - There have been many top Europeans who have come over to race in America which I had utmost respect for, and this one is right up there with my favorites. It didn’t matter in which country she ran, or if it was males or females, she always fired. A slow pace likely cost her three straight wins in the Breeders’ Cup.
(P) Princess Rooney - It was almost like two separate careers for this wonderful filly. In her first career, I marveled watching her runaway wins in the Frizette and Gardenia. Post-injury, I suffered when she lost a few, but the real Princess was at her very best for that first Breeders’ Cup. She won the Distaff but would have beaten the boys if they had run her in the Classic.
(Q) Quick Call - He wasn’t exactly John Henry, but over a long career in New York, he proved himself a very tough competitor. He was also Mr. Saratoga. He raced at the Spa every summer for seven years and loved the place. A two-time winner of the Forego, he won 9-of-16 career races there, and now has a race named in his honor.
(R) Rachel Alexandra - On a short list of my all-time favorites, her excellence rekindled my passion for thoroughbred racing. I believe her 3-year-old season of 2009 was the best by any filly that I’ve ever witnessed. I still get goosebumps watching replays of her elegant dominance. Races like the Kentucky Oaks or Haskell of that season were pure magic.
(S) Spectacular Bid - Who is the best horse I ever saw? Probably Secretariat, but this guy stands tall and next on the list. I jumped on his bandwagon real early in his 2-year-old season, before he ever was The Bid, and it was a magical ride for the better part of three seasons. Somehow the Triple Crown eluded him, but what he did at 4 was simply overpowering.
(T) Tiznow - I started liking what I saw in California from this late developing 3-year-old, but it wasn’t until seeing him in person at Churchill Downs in his first Breeders’ Cup which made me a true fan. His game victory over Giant’s Causeway in the Classic was absolute toughness, and the fact that he came back and did it again the following year turned him into a legend.
(U) Unbridled - How could you not love the scene of Carl Nafzger celebrating with Frances Genter in the Kentucky Derby stands? I actually liked this one well before the Derby and celebrated big time in the Churchill Downs infield. There were more losses than wins from there, but when the Breeders’ Cup Classic rolled around, he came up large once again.
(V) Vigors - I first saw him on the turf at Belmont and was struck by his color and good looks. He could not handle the very best at the time, but boy did he get good on the dirt out in California the following year. Nicknamed the White Tornado, he was a joy to watch picking them up and laying them down.
(W) Wajima - The oldest horse on this list was the first horse I went gaga over. I saw him run early in his career and loved the way he looked. Like Secretariat, a son of Bold Ruler, he did not live up to lofty expectations until the summer and fall of 3-year-old season, when he put it all together. His battles with the mighty Forego were my first occasions of diehard rooting interest.
(X) Xtra Heat - As hard-knocking a mare as we’ve seen in a while, she only attempted running farther than seven furlongs once in her career. She was a sprinter, through and through, and she was darn good at it. She went to the lead and dared her competition to catch her, and 26 out of 35 times, they could not.
(Y) Yankee Affair - Another hard knocker, he developed into one of America’s best turf horses after being purchased for only $10,200 at yearling auction and not making it to the races until his 4-year-old season. All told, he won 22 of his 55 lifetime starts, including numerous turf stakes such as the 1989 Man O’ War and Turf Classic.
(Z) Zenyatta - While it’s true I was decidedly on the Rachel side of the great female debate, there have been few horses in the last 40 years that I have more respect for than the big daughter of Street Cry. Sustained excellence, three powerful performances in the Breeders’ Cup and, of course, that patented late run make her simply unforgettable.