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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He won $376,279 in four countries and raced on eight different courses in 10 starts, never on the same one twice in a row. He beat the best in three countries, winning the Coronation Cup in England, the rich Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France and the Canadian International at Woodbine. At season's end, he staggered home seventh in the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, beaten by 22 lengths. Following that debacle, he was flown to California, where Trainer Charlie Whittingham was waiting for him.

"Oh, no," Whittingham's vet said. "What have they sent us now?"

"I gave a 'Hail, Mary, Mother of God,' " says Whittingham.

What they had was a racehorse wrung out by the rigors of his itinerary and troubled by a fungus on the heels of his feet, apparently contracted in one of the Eastern swamps over which he had been running—he had hit three soft racetracks in a row. "A horse traveling, when he comes from Europe, it takes a lot out of him." says Hunt. "I'll never forget seeing Nijinsky right after he got off the airplane in Kentucky. My Lord! He looked so bad you'd have thought he was sick or something. I didn't realize anything was wrong with Exceller's heels. I thought he'd just tailed off."

He had done that, too. Exceller is 16 hands tall, but he is put together like a watch, projecting a sense of balance, which conveys the illusion that he is smaller. He carries no excess flesh; so, drawn and thin when he arrived in California, he looked particularly humble. "You could see his ribs," Bill Shoemaker says. "A tired racehorse." What caused the most wincing, though, was the way he walked. The straight pasterns make him step in a brittle, choppy motion, as if on eggshells. He paddles when he gallops, slapping at the ground, and he hammers at it when he runs.

"Like he's driving nails," Whittingham says. "He lowers his head when he gets under pressure and digs in. We've got some in the barn that are built better in front, but they ain't got any money in the bank."

Exceller had won $689,113 when he went to California. More, he had Whittingham, the most successful trainer on the West Coast and for years one of the nation's premier horsemen. Whittingham won his first stakes race with champion Porterhouse in 1953; by last fall, he had trained 111 different stakes winners. No other American trainer has yet reached 75.

"I've known Charlie 20-odd years." Hunt says. "Along with Horatio Luro, his old mentor, they handle these imported horses probably better than most American trainers in this respect: their style of training is very European—longer, slower gallops and longer, slower works. They don't try to give a horse much early speed; a lot of horses, when they come from Europe, aren't used to that. Horses hurt themselves; it changes their whole regimen."

For Exceller's style, running long and coming from off the pace, Hunt could not have put the horse in better hands. He is Whittingham's kind of horse as the patient Shoemaker is his kind of jockey. Patience is the veteran trainer's game. He does not lean on 2-year-olds, preferring to allow a horse's bones to knit before he turns the screws. "You won't have any 4- and 5-year-olds if you run them hard at two," he says. "There are exceptions, but the odds are against you." And he has never much fancied the Kentucky Derby's mile-and-a-quarter cavalry charge in May. "I had a couple of mediocre horses I went with—not top horses—and both got hurt, and I never won anything with them," he says.

From Luro, with whom he worked before and after serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, Whittingham learned how to wait. "He taught me a lot of patience," Whittingham says.

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