A steady, depressing, wind-driven drizzle and 49� temperature drenched and chilled the 40,154 who turned up at Aqueduct last Saturday to peer through the mist at 1966's Race of the Year. But that event, the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward Stakes, the weight-for-age test for the very best horses in training, turned a dreary afternoon into an occasion of brief but undeniable brilliance. It was a memorable occasion in Thoroughbred history, because Ogden Phipps's 3-year-old champion, Buck-passer, masterfully wrapped up his first Horse of the Year title by whipping five older horses (and three his own age) to dispel, once and for all, any notions that he is not one of the great racehorses of our time.
Young by classic standards, the Woodward has quickly won esteem as a testing ground for would-be champions. Among horsemen it is generally believed that a good 3-year-old, who is just reaching his full maturity in the fall of the year, has a slight edge in a race like the Woodward, because he carries only 121 pounds, while all older horses carry 126. And yet in the 13 years since this race, named for the late master of Belair Stud, was first run, only two 3-year-olds before Buckpasser came down in front. They were Traffic Judge in 1955, when the event was a handicap, and Sword Dancer in 1959. Among the upstart sophomores who tried to beat their elders and failed were Gallant Man, Bold Ruler, Nadir, Tompion, Carry Back, Jaipur, Never Bend and Quadrangle. Now you can add to this list two more, who trailed Buckpasser home last week: Buffle, winner of this summer's Suburban Handicap, and Amberoid, the easy winner of the 1966 Belmont Stakes.
Nothing remains to be questioned about Buckpasser's ability. He proved Saturday that he is a champion on any kind of a track and against any opposition of any age. On the backstretch, where he usually looks like a lazy critter taking his own sweet time, he is so inconspicuous that you tend to forget he is in the race. Then his jockey, Braulio Baeza, clucks to him at about the half-mile pole, and this marvelously attuned pair overtakes and passes the field on the way to a victory that seems almost too easy to be true.
That's how last week's Woodward was run, against the best field put together anywhere this year. There were nine horses in all. Buckpasser had his speedy stablemate Poker along to insure a fast pace. Greentree sent out an entry of Malicious, also real speed and a proven runner in the sort of slop that greeted these horses, and O'Hara. In addition to Buffle and Amberoid, there were the Phipps castoff, Staunchness, who won the Whitney at Saratoga, and Mike Ford's Royal Gunner, who ran second to Roman Brother in the Woodward last year. And, lastly, there was little Tom Rolfe, a sentimental favorite of many, last year's 3-year-old champion, who passed up the 1965 Woodward when his owner, Raymond Guest, elected to try him instead against the finest horses in Europe in the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. A superb list—but when the race was over Buck-passer had made hash of his eight rivals. A 4-to-5 favorite, he won his 10th straight race of the year, raised his earnings to $1,111,559 and moved up to fifth place on the all-time money-earnings list, ahead of the great Citation.
Malicious and Poker, as anticipated, set the early pace, and the former, surprisingly enough, held on until mid-stretch. Baeza lolled along with Buck-passer lengths behind the leaders on the back side, while Bill Hartack trailed the entire field with Royal Gunner. Bill Shoemaker stuck to the rail with Tom Rolfe but was never really in contention. Rounding the far turn, Baeza got into Buckpasser, and just as the field straightened for home Braulio, in another of his typically daring moves, drove the bay son of Tom Fool through on the rail. They were inside of Malicious and Buffle, who was coming fast on the outside to take a momentary lead. Behind them Shoemaker tried to slip Tom Rolfe through the same gap, but had to check for an instant and then go around. It would not have made much difference, for now the stretch duel was on and little Tom was not part of it. Buckpasser stuck his handsome head in front as he reached the eighth pole, and Baeza kept it there. Malicious stopped badly, Buffle faltered and Hartack drove Royal Gunner (an 11-to-1 shot) up to take second place, beaten three-quarters of a length by Buckpasser. Buffle, who always seems to do all right when Buck-passer is not around, was third, five lengths ahead of Tom Rolfe. Spread out in the slop behind them were O'Hara, Amberoid, Staunchness, Malicious and an eased-up Poker, in that order.
Having established his superiority over every other horse in this country, Buckpasser could challenge for the title of Horse of the World if he flew to Paris this week for the mile-and-a-half Arc, or even if he accepted an invitation to the Nov. 11 Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. But, immediately after the Woodward, Owner Phipps and Trainer Eddie Neloy announced that the champion would start only in the Lawrence Realization on Oct. 19 and the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 29 before calling it quits for the year. And what a year!
But if 1966 is the year of Buckpasser and the team of Phippses, Neloy and Baeza (17 of their horses have already accounted for 35 stakes and $1,167,694), it is also a year in which horsemen the world over are not only thinking about international racing, but actually doing something about it. This week, for example, as the English and Irish launch their annual invasion of France in the Arc de Triomphe—an invasion that has not been much of a success in recent years—George Pope is sending along his California-bred Hill Rise, who probably has a better chance to win than any other American horse who ever has competed in the race.
"If Hill Rise won the Arc it won Id be the best thing that could happen to international racing. It would encourage everyone to give this kind of thing a try"—that was the opinion last week of a man who knows European and American racing inside out and who practices the racing philosophy that he preaches. In addition to being the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, he probably is the best and most popular goodwill ambassador of racing ever to hang his bowler in a U.S. Embassy. Just a year ago, five months after he took up residence in Dublin, Raymond Guest brought Tom Rolfe, Trainer Frank Whitely and Bill Shoemaker to Paris to run against a team of top French horses, including the great Sea Bird. Despite the fact that he knew Tom Rolfe had little chance of winning—he was running on turf for the first time in his life and over an up-and-down course the "wrong" way—Guest smiled his way through Arc day, telling his friends that Tom was "a nice little fellow and a genuine little horse."
Tom Rolfe was no match for Sea Bird, Reliance and Diatome, though he did well to finish sixth in the 20-horse field. When the Arc was over that beautiful fall day, it was characteristic of Guest that he should ignore the handicaps Tom Rolfe had encountered. "Well, we took it on the nose today," he said, "but I don't think it hurt racing a bit. And besides, we'll live to run another day."
Guest's refreshing no-alibi attitude toward racing was the reason he found himself last week on a whirlwind 25-hour visit to New York and to Aqueduct for his first look at Tom Rolfe in action since the 1965 Arc. "If we have a chance against Buckpasser," he said before the Woodward, "it has to be a hell of a small one. It's hard to beat a world record-holder while giving him five pounds. But if I'm supposed to be a sportsman we've got to give it a try. That's what this game is all about."