He closed the gap to 15 lengths, then 12, then to seven at the 3/8ths pole. Slew's breather had become a sabbatical by the turn for home—he was covering the last three quarters in 1:17[4/5] and coming off the turn Exceller appeared to have him. But he didn't—at least not yet.
The two battled through the stretch. Slew hung on tenaciously. At the eighth pole, Exceller had him by half a length. But Slew fought back. From the pole home, Slew whittled at the margin—a neck, a half a neck, a head. Just as he seemed about to swallow Exceller, they hit the wire, Exceller winning by a nose. It had been, by both horses, a tremendous performance.
The inevitable followed, as if fated at Keeneland four years before. The charismatic Slew, the Triple Crown winner who had come back—from illness and adversity in 1978, from the eighth pole to the wire in the Gold Cup—stole the hour that was Exceller's. "Darnedest race I ever saw in this respect: Seattle Slew got more credit for running second than my horse did for winning," says Hunt.
Nor was Exceller called upon when they passed out Eclipse Trophies for 1978. Affirmed was voted Horse of the Year, off his Triple Crown, with Exceller a distant third. Seattle Slew was named the champion handicap horse. Not wanting to risk catching a soft-turf course in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel, Whittingham took Exceller back to California following the Gold Cup and won the Oak Tree Invitational with him. "Charlie wanted to come back," Hunt says. "He'd been two months in the East. I really didn't have the heart to say, 'Well, let's stay another month for the International.' That was part of it. The other reason is I own half of Trillion and I thought she really had a shot to win. She ran fourth."
And the winner, Mac Diarmida, was named grass horse of the year, though he spent it largely in the company of fellow 3-year-olds.
But Exceller had himself a year. He won seven of 10 on two coasts, six of them major stakes against the best horses in America, and earned $879,790. And he is back again. "Economically, it probably would have made more sense for him to go to stud," says Hunt. "But I enjoy seeing him run—he's a hard-battling horse. Dahlia's the alltime money-winning filly, she's by Vaguely Noble. And I'm anxious to see if Exceller can become the alltime money-winning horse, being by Vaguely Noble."
And the first to win $2 million. All that is in the year to come. Charlie Whittingham, scratching his pate, still wonders what happened last year.
"He won six major races," he says. "He won on the grass. He won on the dirt. He won in the mud. He carried his weight in all his races and coast to coast on three different tracks. He did it all. And he did it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. What do you have to do to be Horse of the Year?"
You try again.