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Then, with about half a mile remaining, Slew took what looked to be a commanding lead as Affirmed and Life's Hope faded, a collapse that eventually left Affirmed next to last in the six-horse field and Life's Hope last.
With that long half mile remaining, Exceller started his rush. He was gathering ground with every stride and saving it as well as Shoemaker kept the son of Vaguely Noble on the inside rail. He was doing his Hollywood Gold Cup trick again and it was working.
The punishing early fractions and the fact that Cordero had his horse out from the rail, leaving an opening for Exceller and Shoemaker, should have set Slew up for the kill. And Exceller did get to the front—but he could not widen his lead. Slew battled back. The finish camera showed Exceller the winner with the third-place horse, Great Contractor, 14� lengths back and Affirmed 20.
Hunt bought Exceller for $25,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in 1974. "There was only one bid made on the horse," Hunt says. "Mine. I've always been very fond of Exceller because he tries hard and he's versatile."
Racegoers overlooked Exceller as a yearling because they thought that his legs were too straight. "The best thing that probably happened to him," trainer Charlie Whittingham says, "is that he raced in Europe as a 2-year-old." This meant that Exceller didn't have to be rushed for speed as would have been the case had he raced in this country. The 2-year-old races in Europe are longer and less frequent, so the pressure isn't as intense as it is in the U.S. That gave Exceller time to develop and let his bones set. "He is one heck of a racehorse," Whittingham says. And indeed he is.
This year he has won the Arcadia Handicap, the San Juan Capistrano, the Sunset and the Hollywood Invitational in addition to the two Gold Cups. "That's three races on the dirt and three on the grass," says Whittingham. "I would think that ought to be enough to make him Horse of the Year."
Perhaps so. Yet Affirmed won the Triple Crown, and Seattle Slew won the Marlboro Cup and Woodward most impressively and lost the Jockey Club Gold Cup by only a nose. Affirmed will not race again this year but Exceller and Slew could meet in the Nov. 4 Washington, D.C. International on turf. And wouldn't that be something.