This is not sour grapes. We have no sour grapes in California. This is, however, an opportunity to pause between Triple Crown jewels and their marquee cast of 3-year-olds to reflect upon the value of another version of the Thoroughbred racehorse. Namely, the sprinter.
Yes, the sprinter. The ultimate club fighter, always found on the undercard, all guts and very little glory. Sprinters are consolation prizes, Quarter Horses in Thoroughbred drag. They have “breathing issues” or “limited pedigrees” or certain conformation tics that preclude any ability to carry speed over a distance of ground.
No one sets out to breed the winner of the Carter Handicap, even though it’s a grade 1 race, or the De Francis Memorial, which used to be but now answers to meager listed status. Owners go to bed thinking they’ve got a colt for the Haskell Stakes (G1) and wake up broken-hearted to find out their trainer recommends something at six furlongs next week at Delaware Park.
Did you know the richest grass race in the world is for sprinters? Of course you didn’t, because AU$15 million (about $11 million in real money) is a ridiculous amount to spend on one race for horses who otherwise live in the shadows. Sprinters are doormats, afterthoughts. In movies they’d be a casual acquaintance of the leading man’s best friend. Mobster No. 3 in the credits.
So why bother? Good question. Without a doubt, they have entertainment value, and there’s a decent amount of money available to consistently effective sprinters, along with two Breeders’ Cup races and two Eclipse Award divisions. The performance of reigning male sprint champ Jackie’s Warrior last weekend in the Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by Ford (G1) was a ripping good display that resonated for about 2 1/2 hours before Rich Strike sucked up all the coverage. Jackie who?
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In the 1950s, the American Racing Manual published a table listing “Annual Champions in Various Divisions.” Sprint champions were included until, around 1960, the category disappeared. When champion sprinters reappeared in 1965, they were listed as a footnote. A footnote.
Then there is the Hall of Fame. The one at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, NY Just the other day it was announced that four more horses would be joining the roster of immortals. The grass miller Tepin was an international star. Hillsdale won a pile of major dirt stakes from seven to 10 furlongs against Hall of Famers and champions. Royal Heroine beat on the boys whenever she was asked. Beholder did everything short of curing the common cold. They make for a brilliant bunch, and we were lucky to have them.
There were four equine Hall of Fame nominees who were not elected because they were not named on at least 50% (plus one) of the 148 ballots cast. Three of those who were champion females—Havre de Grace, Blind Luck, and Rags to Riches—and the fourth was the sprinter, Kona Gold.
Hall of Fame voting is a deeply subjective exercise. Some candidates are first ballot slam dunks, while others need years for their accomplishments to marinate in the minds of the selection panel. Some voters cling to a rigid set of standards that draw a line somewhere around the level of Citation, Secretariat, and Man o’ War. Others see the Hall of Fame as a symphony of many parts, charged with telling the sweeping story of the sport. Takes both kinds.
However, when it comes to entering the Hall of Fame, there has evolved a clear pattern of prejudice. Beginning with the first class of 1955, there have been 129 male horses who raced on the flat inducted. Of those 129, exactly two of them are unapologetic sprinters.
Sure, sure, I know. Forego could sprint, Precisionist could sprint, Coaltown could sprint, Tom Fool could sprint, and Dr. Fager could sprint. Man, could The Doctor sprint. But sprinting for such all-purpose Hall of Famers was a daliance, something they could do in addition to the other stuff, like Rosey Grier’s needlepoint, or Michael Jordan’s baseball career.
Thankfully, the great sprinting females are fairly well-represented in the Hall of Fame, beginning with that Texas flash, Pan Zareta, on through Affectionately and Ta Wee, to more recent practitioners of the craft—Safely Kept, Xtra Heat, and My Juliet . Among males, however, there have been only two deemed Hall of Fame worthy:
Roseben and Housebuster.
Roseben was the weight-packing behemoth of the early 20th century who started 111 times and won 52 races, 51 at less than a mile. Through one stretch in 1905, Roseben won 12 of 14 sprints, four of them under 140 pounds or more.
Housebuster is the two-time Eclipse Award champion of 1990-91 who won 15 of 22 starts for Jimmy Croll and owner Bob Levy. Just because he could, Housebuster also stirred in three stake wins in mile races among his 11 wins at six and seven furlongs.
They are lonely. They need company. Sprinters deserve the same consideration as classic colts and older middle-distance stars. The Thoroughbreds who do it best and longest are blessed with a network of quick twitch muscles and a taste for the jugular that sets them apart. And with not much more than a minute to get the job done, there is no room for the slightest error. This is not to call for an equal opportunity clause in the Hall of Fame process, or the imposition of a quota system. This is a plea to at least recognize at the Hall of Fame level that sprinting consistently against top company is a difficult game.
As for Kona Gold, the memories are still fresh for those of us lucky enough to have watched in person as he performed for our pleasure over parts of six seasons. Failing once again this year to gain entry in the Hall of Fame does nothing to dim those memories. He will be in the Hall one day, hopefully sooner than later, and the Hall will be better for his presence.