Anyone who believes, as I do, that Buckpasser may be the best American-bred horse of the last 30 years will share the general disappointment over his loss to stablemate Poker and to Assagai in Saturday's Bowling Green Handicap at Aqueduct. Buckpasser has been nothing less than sensational during his two and a half seasons of racing. More important than the accumulation of 24 wins in 27 races and $1,342,204 in earnings is the fact that the son of Tom Fool and Busanda has shown the one quality all horsemen appreciate: he has done virtually everything that could be asked of a champion. This includes winning sprints, setting the world record of 1:32[3/5] for the mile, toting respectable weights in handicaps and beating his elders at weight-for-age over distances up to two miles. From Saratoga to Hialeah and Santa Anita, neither track conditions nor the opposition ever seemed to bother him.
But Saturday, after running up a victory streak of 15 (just one short of Citation's modern record), Buckpasser finally encountered a variety of conditions that were, apparently, too much even for him. The reason he was in the mile-and-five-eighths Bowling Green is that it is contested over the Aqueduct turf course, and if Buckpasser, who had never raced on grass, won that race, Owner Ogden Phipps intended to fly him to Paris, where he would face many top European horses—all of whom have raced exclusively on turf—in the July 2 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud at a mile and nine-sixteenths.
Phipps and Trainer Eddie Neloy had wisely decided that if the best horse in the U.S. was to be part of any such overseas mission, he would have to be tested as severely as possible. This meant entering the Bowling Green against Assagai, Charlie Engelhard's 1966 grass-course champion. When Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter assigned Buckpasser 135 pounds and Assagai 127 pounds it meant giving away eight pounds to an established turf runner. Moontrip, who won the Bowling Green in track-record time a year ago with 112 pounds, was back with 113, and Dunderhead got in with a skimpy 107. Poker, who was to be used as a pacesetter both in the Bowling Green and at Saint-Cloud, was assigned 112.
The other part of the test called for Buckpasser to be shod in French racing plates, which, in order to preserve grass courses, are considerably flatter than ours and without toes or calks. Buckpasser worked in his new shoes before the Bowling Green and, although Neloy was pleased, Jockey Braulio Baeza said his horse was sliding around the turns.
He said it again after the Bowling Green and added glumly, "Buckpasser was beaten by a combination of three things: the grass, the shoes and the weight. For the first half mile he seemed to be fine, but the rest of the way he was sliding all around." Meanwhile Jockey Bill Boland was playing his role perfectly with Poker. Dictating his own slow pace when the rest of the field took back at the start, Boland let Poker open up three lengths. When it came time to run on the far turn, Assagai just didn't have it, and neither did Buckpasser. At the finish Poker was still in front, by a length and a half, with Assagai three lengths ahead of Buckpasser. Dunderhead was fourth and Moontrip last. All but Buck-passer wore American shoes, giving them an advantage of up to five lengths, according to some racing experts.
When it was over, Ogden Phipps had the expression of a man who might have been wearing uncomfortable new shoes himself. "If Buckpasser must run in those shoes in Paris the trip is off," he said. It is a pity that the champion failed this test, and even more of a pity that Parisian racegoers, who have such a great appreciation of excellence in horses, will be denied the opportunity of seeing Buckpasser next week.