SI Vault
William Nack
March 19, 1979
Nelson Bunker Hunt purchased Exceller for $25,000. Now the 6-year-old has won more than $1.5 million
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March 19, 1979

The Bargain Of A Lifetime

Nelson Bunker Hunt purchased Exceller for $25,000. Now the 6-year-old has won more than $1.5 million

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"There's nothing lame about him," Curtin said.

All that was lame, as things would turn out, was the judgment of those who sat on their hands as the bay moved about the walking ring. This was the select yearling sale at Keeneland, and this was the night a son of Graustark, later to be named Whirlawhile, brought $330,000; when a son of Hail to Reason, to be called Milova, brought $197,000; when 79 yearlings brought $57,342 on the average, making the son of Vaguely Noble a fire-sale special. "This isn't a very exact business," Hunt says. Whatever his misgivings at the time, wondering what manner of horse he had bought, Hunt would never name a horse better. He called him Exceller. It is somehow fitting, given what happened in the intervening four years, that the colt should have raised so little notice in his first public appearance and gone almost entirely overlooked.

Since 1975 Exceller has won more money than any racehorse ever sold at public auction. Through March 4, when, in his first race since last fall, he finished in a dead heat for third in the Santa Anita Handicap, he had won a total of $1,599,003, placing him fifth on the list of alltime money-winning thoroughbreds. He is $10,315 behind Affirmed going into this week's San Luis Rey Stakes, a $150,000 race Affirmed will miss. No horse in memory has ever performed so consistently or accomplished so much on both sides of the Atlantic as Exceller. He won $528,231 racing in Europe and almost twice that much here. Yet, when time comes for his induction into the Racing Hall of Fame—if, that is, someone remembers to nominate him—he may be recalled as the greatest racehorse in history ever to be ignored. Fact is, Exceller has spent most of his life ducking out of one shadow and into another, beginning in Europe and continuing through last year in the U.S., when he got lost in another shuffle.

In Europe, in 1975, he was third fiddle in Maurice Zilber's barn of Hunt 2-year-olds. One of his stablemates was another colt by Vaguely Noble called Empery, and another was a son of Ack Ack named Youth. Around the tracks Europeans do things a bit slower than Americans, and Zilber raced the three colts lightly at two. But, by fall, Zilber was already making his plans, and they did not include Exceller.

"With a little luck," he said, "we'll win both derbies."

"What derbies?" asked Hunt.

"The French Derby with Youth and the Epsom Derby with Empery."

Hunt asked about Exceller. "He's very good, but we'll save him until later." said Zilber.

It was a long later, but Youth and Empery were long shadows. Hunt decided to split his stable, giving Youth and Empery to Zilber while sending Exceller to Francois Mathet. Making a prophet of Zilber, Youth won the French Derby, Empery the Epsom Derby. Exceller went elsewhere, to softer spots. He won the Grand Prix de Paris and the Prix Royal-Oak, both major races, winning four of five and $299,101 before he floundered in the soft-going of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, finishing 19th in a field of 20.

Youth and Empery both went to stud at the close of their 3-year-old seasons, and it was Exceller who made most of the dances in 1977. "One of the top middle-distance horses in Europe," Time-form, the periodical that evaluates European racehorses, would say. "Genuine and consistent." And as traveled as Gulliver, hopping from country to country and course to course—France to England to France and back to England again, to America and Canada and back to America again.

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