That is what Exceller needed. And that is what he got, in the way of two months off. The horse prospered, gaining weight and blooming through the California winter. He came back bouncing. By February, Whittingham was cranking him in earnest, preparing him for the long 1978 season—for what, in the end, would turn out to be a racing tour de force, one of the most searching, diversified and successful campaigns undertaken by an American thoroughbred in years. It was a bold, neatly handled enterprise during which Exceller put in his claim as the best grass horse in America, as among its ablest on the dirt and as its most accomplished, consistent performer. And it all culminated late on an October afternoon at Belmont Park, with Exceller battling Seattle Slew in the final yards of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
By then, Exceller had established himself as the preeminent racehorse in California. He had won four major stakes on the Coast, three of them on grass—the 1¾-mile San Juan Capistrano, beating Noble Dancer II by a neck; the Hollywood Invitational in near-record time, beating the good grass horse Bowl Game; and the 12-furlong Sunset Handicap, under Shoemaker's superb ground-saving ride. In the 1¼-mile Hollywood Gold Cup, he came bounding off the pace to beat Text and Vigors, an exceptional handicapper, in his first serious race over the dirt. So Whittingham had himself a dirt horse.
Now, faced with options, he aimed Exceller toward New York—toward Affirmed and Seattle Slew. "That was more Charlie's idea than mine," says Hunt. "He was more keen to take on those horses than I was. Usually, it's the owner who is anxious to throw his horse into the battle. I said, 'Let's run in the United Nations at Atlantic City and places like that.' But Charlie wanted to save the horse and meet Seattle Slew and Affirmed in New York. I said. 'Well, O.K. Do it that way if you want to.' "
Whittingham wanted to, certain now he had the horse to beat them with. "We were going to make money with him," Whittingham said, "and we thought we had a very good chance for the championship."
In the Woodward Stakes, Exceller had no chance—not with Slew the only speed, with Slew running loose on the lead through an easy half in :47[3/5]—but he gave determined chase, finally losing by four. The Jockey Club Gold Cup would be different, Whittingham knew, because Affirmed and his rabbit, Life's Hope, were running, assuring some kind of a pace to help wear the speed horses down. Whittingham could not contain his confidence. The night before the race, the editor of The Blood Horse, Kent Hollingsworth, was musing to a group of friends over which of the Triple Crown winners, Affirmed or Slew, was going to win the Gold Cup.
"Exceller's going to win it," Charlie said.
"Charlie, please stay out of this," Hollingsworth kidded.
"I'm going to win it," the trainer said. "Exceller's a lot better horse than people think."
The next day, after the rains had turned the track into a mire, Hollingsworth approached Whittingham in the paddock and asked him if Exceller could handle such a stew. "I don't know," Whittingham answered.
Exceller handled it like grass. When Affirmed's saddle slipped, the 1978 Triple Crown winner got away from Steve Cauthen, and at once Affirmed and Slew were at each other, dueling at a torrid clip—the half in :45[1/5], three quarters in 1:09[2/5]. As they rounded the turn, Affirmed excused himself, and Slew took a breather on the lead. Shoemaker was 22 lengths back. "I saw Seattle Slew get away from Affirmed around the turn and knew he was getting a breather," the Shoe says. So he began asking Exceller for what he had.