There is a certain type of Thoroughbred racehorse that has come to be known in the business as an "excuse horse." He almost always runs well but hardly ever wins; and each time he loses he seems to have a good excuse. So the owner keeps hoping and bettors keep losing as he piles up a string of second-and third-place finishes. The archetypes of such horses are All Hands, Guadalcanal and Dapper Dan, each of whom earned more than $100,000 without winning a stakes race. Until last weekend, a regally bred 2-year-old named Successor seemed destined to become this kind of horse.
Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, who owns Successor, gave him his name in the hope that he would emulate his full brother, Bold Lad, the 1964 juvenile champion. Unfortunately, Successor does not look or act like his brother and—until the last 200 yards of the $208,325 Champagne Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday—had not raced like him, either.
Successor had managed to win one minor stakes race earlier this year. Then he lost three in a row—with excuses. He might have won the Great American Stakes if he hadn't hurt his shins in the race; he would have won the Futurity if he hadn't lugged in during the stretch drive; he could have been closer to Dr. Fager in the recent Cowdin if he hadn't been blocked when he began to make his move. But "woulda, coulda, shoulda" is the horseplayer's classic lament. You can hear those words after any race, on any day, in the Aqueduct or Santa Anita grandstands. The fact remains that Successor did not win those races, and some people were understandably wondering if he ever would manage to win a big one.
"I still believe in him—to an extent," said Eddie Neloy, his trainer, before the Champagne. "Even with the various troubles he's had, he's only been beaten by a total of a few lengths in all his races. But let's face it, some horses will spend their whole lives giving you excuses. At some point you have to wonder about them."
On Saturday, Neloy sent out Successor—with a pace-setting stablemate, Great White Way—to challenge the unbeaten Dr. Fager in the Champagne, a one-mile race that has produced the 2-year-old champion in five of the last eight years. When he trounced Successor in the seven-furlong Cowdin, Dr. Fager had an excuse of his own—one of Bill Shoemaker's weakest riding performances. But he won anyway. Since horses that can overcome trouble will generally beat those that make their own trouble, Dr. Fager was an even-money favorite last week, with Successor the second choice at 3 to 1.
An hour before the stakes, Neloy sat in his third-floor box and studied The Morning Telegraph. Although he has proved that he is one of the very best trainers of all time, Neloy has never been ranked with history's great handicappers. The first race he studied was the fifth, an allowance sprint he planned to bet on. He predicted that a filly named Sulenan would win it. She didn't, and he lost $150. Then he turned to the Champagne. He predicted that four horses would set a fast pace and Successor would catch them. They did, and Successor did, and Neloy won 10% of the winner's purse of $148,325. It may not have been his finest day as a trainer, but it was surely the height of his handicapping career.
One of the colts setting the fast pace was Great White Way, with Eddie Belmonte hustling him according to Neloy's orders. The others were Bold Hour and Diplomat Way, both running the way Neloy had predicted, and Dr. Fager. Actually, Shoemaker held the favorite about a length behind the three leaders for the first half mile; then the colt forced Shoemaker to commit himself.
"He was a little rank," Shoemaker said, "and I had to let him run, although I didn't really want to get the lead as early as we did." Dr. Fager reached the front midway on the turn, just as Braulio Baeza was beginning his move with Successor. The other contenders were tiring, and it became a two-horse duel—and a tactical match between two of the country's premier riders.
"I thought Successor would come at me on the rail," said Shoemaker. "So I dropped my horse to the inside as soon as I was clear in the stretch."
"I did want to take the rail," said Baeza. "Then the leaders bore in and I had no room there. I was blocked for just a second, while Shoemaker was taking the lead. Then I saw an opening between my stablemate and Bold Hour, and went between them."