It is the afternoon of June 25 and seven horses are entered in the $350,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, the richest thoroughbred race in America. J. O. Tobin has the lead at the top of the stretch in the 1�-mile event, but is tiring and drifting out badly. Vigors, a white horse, is flying on the outside and looks to be a sure winner. Down along the rail Exceller is moving boldly under Bill Shoemaker. Inside the 16th pole he takes the lead and holds off fast-closing Text by a neck with Vigors another head behind.
The winner's purse pushes Exceller's lifetime bankroll over $1 million, but not many people east of Inglewood, Calif. take note of that or of Nelson Bunker Hunt's remarkable 5-year-old. But they did last Saturday at Belmont Park when Exceller ran against two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, in the $321,800 Jockey Club Gold Cup. This Gold Cup was only the fourth start on dirt for Exceller, who had run most of his 28 races in England and France, and a wet but fast track was not believed to be to his liking. For this reason, and because Easterners tend to be provincial about judging horses, Exceller was rated a poor third behind Slew and Affirmed.
The Gold Cup marked the first time three millionaires had ever met in a race. The three also happened to be the best 3-year-old in training (Affirmed), the best 4-year-old ( Seattle Slew) and the best 5-year-old (Exceller). Obviously, it was the definitive race of the year, and when it was over Exceller was the winner by a desperate nose over Seattle Slew. Exceller thereby became the fifth-leading money-winner of all time with $1,479,003, a figure topped only by Kelso, Forego, Round Table and Dahlia. Maybe now the old dude will get some of the acclaim he has deserved for so long.
With a mile remaining, Exceller was 30 lengths behind the front-running Seattle Slew. But that is Exceller's way and Shoemaker was unconcerned. "I was so far back I couldn't really tell what was going on up front," said Shoemaker after the race, "but I didn't need to know too much anyway. With Exceller, the winning gets done in one long move."
Bill Shoemaker. What is there left to say about him? At 47 and in his 30th year as a jockey, he seems to be getting better with each furlong pole he passes. When he unsaddled after Exceller's Gold Cup his 1978 purse earnings were in excess of $4 million, the first time Shoemaker has ever reached that figure. During his career, Shoemaker has won 746 stakes, and 135 of those have been worth $100,000 or more. This year Shoe has ridden in seven races worth $200,000 or more and won four.
The Gold Cup was a race fascinating to ponder. Following wins in the Marlboro and Woodward Stakes, Slew was expected to go to the front with Affirmed just behind. To ensure that Slew would not be able to run off by himself and dictate the pace, trainer Laz Barrera entered Life's Hope as a running mate for Affirmed. Obviously, Life's Hope was going to go out and push Seattle Slew. The game plan was that Steve Cauthen would position Affirmed behind them.
Little went according to plan. First, Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start and Angel Cordero had to yank hard on the horse to avoid being thrown into the infield. When the race started, Slew got away first, and Life's Hope and Affirmed rushed to join him. But as they entered the first turn, Cauthen felt his saddle creeping forward and was unable to fully control his horse. Cordero, meanwhile, had momentarily lost his right stirrup. Slew, Affirmed and Life's Hope swept the first turn like comets, with Cauthen in trouble and Craig Perret, on Life's Hope, knowing that Barrera's plan was already doomed.
"The saddle was up around Affirmed's withers and I couldn't get any balance," Cauthen said later. "I thought I was going to be pitched off. The damned thing was nearly up on his neck."
No one knows for sure what made Affirmed's saddle slip. It's conceivable that it was not tightened enough by Barrera in the paddock or that as Cauthen tried to rate Affirmed in the early part of the race, pulling hard on the reins, the saddle slid forward.
The first quarter mile of the 1�-mile race was run in :22[3/5]. Too fast. At the half mile Slew had a head in front of Affirmed with Life's Hope another head back. But that first half was run in :45[1/5], insane time for horses trying to stretch out 1� miles.