All Hail the Warriors
In my mind, racehorse champions fall into three main classes. At one end, the shooting stars. At the other end, the warriors. The shooting stars are those who burst onto the scene with a flash and stun everyone with their apparent brilliance, before either fading quickly or being taken off the track by their connections. These horses are those such as Arrogate and Justify, to name the most prominent in recent years, and also Nyquist. What they accomplished was doubtlessly remarkable, but short-lived.
And then there are the warriors. These are the horses who had lengthy careers, who kept being raced when their connections could easily have retired them as champions much earlier. In this category fall horses such as California Chrome, Zenyatta, Winx (AUS), Tepin, and Lady Eli. These champions all stayed in the racing game past the time when other horses might have been retired, and their wins extended beyond a season or two of racing. Some of the horses whom I would argue also fall in this category even came back after major setbacks to perform admirably on the track once again.
But what of the horses who were neither shooting stars nor qualify as warriors? I would argue that they fall into a third class, let’s call them the all-stars, as their careers/winning streaks were longer than those of the shooting stars, but not quite as long as the warriors. Again, what these horses accomplished was remarkable – I am not denying that – but their stars shone for what could be said is the “average” for racehorses. Horses that fall into this category are horses such as Gun Runner, American Pharoah, and Songbird, to name just a few.
Unfortunately, many times the shooting stars receive much more praise and are far more recognized than the warriors or the all-stars. The shooting stars stun us with the brilliance of their accomplishments, they are compared to legends such as Secretariat, they are hailed as the second coming, and they are called everything but the best thing since sliced cheese. This can sometimes blind us to the accomplishments of the warriors, those who kept going and putting in solid performance after solid performance. The names of the warriors may be well-recognized, but may still seem dull in comparison to the shooting stars.
Let’s take Winx (AUS) as an example. A mare who is still running at the age of seven (more than twice the age at which some of the shooting stars were retired), and who at the time of the writing of this article is currently on a twenty-seven race long win streak. Yes, twenty-seven races won consecutively. That’s more than twice the length of the entire racing careers of some of the other horses mentioned. Yet fans are divided on the level of her brilliance. Currently ranked #1 in the LONGINES World’s Best Racehorse rankings, some are in awe of her brilliance and say she is entirely deserving of that status. But then there are the doubters, those who dismiss Winx because she has never raced outside Australia. Those doubters say she has never beaten anyone of great talent, that she has only beaten horses of lesser quality. Those doubters fail to consider that the mere fact that she is continuing to win consistently at this stage of her career is a remarkable feat in itself. Not to mention the fact that she has beaten formidable racehorses, including Highland Reel (IRE) in the 2015 running of the Cox Plate.
Compare this to a horse like Justify, the much-lauded 2018 Triple Crown winner, who recently retired to stud. Let me first make one thing clear: I am not saying that what Justify accomplished was not brilliant, because it was. Winning the US Triple Crown is one of the most difficult feats in racing to accomplish, hence the thirty-seven-year-long gap between Affirmed’s crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s in 2015. It’s not an easy task. But also consider this: while Justify may be retiring undefeated, his entire racing career only spanned six races. He was unraced at age two, and as a result when he won the Kentucky Derby he broke the infamous “Apollo Curse.” In his entire racing career, he only faced forty-nine opponents. Of those forty-nine, nineteen of them came from a single race alone, the Kentucky Derby. In comparison, Winx has faced 325 opponents. Of course, you need to take into consideration that they both beat the same horse(s) multiple times, so the number of individual opponents is different. However, the numbers stand in my mind because it does happen that horses are beaten by opponents they trounced in previous races. Regardless, Winx’s current win streak is more than four times the length of Justify’s entire racing career, and yet there are those who would say Justify is the better horse. Why did Justify retire so early, not even racing through the fall? Well, the answer to that question depends entirely on whom you ask.
Now let’s look at American Pharoah, whom I have classified as an all-star, neither a shooting star nor a warrior. Despite the fact that he retired at the age of three, just like Justify, and also won the Triple Crown, he is not a shooting star. Let me tell you why. A) American Pharoah had a two-year-old season that was good enough to earn him the Eclipse Award for Two-Year-Old Male, b) he raced again following the Triple Crown, and c) he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November 2015, completing the “grand slam” of horse racing in winning both the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year. No other Triple Crown winner has yet managed this, so this makes it an extraordinary feat. American Pharoah was trained by Bob Baffert, who was also the trainer of shooting stars Justify and Arrogate.
Many will disagree with my classification of Arrogate as a shooting star, so I feel some explanation is needed. Arrogate’s racing career did span more than a year, but his major wins did not. Arrogate gained the attention of the racing community when he decisively won the 2016 Travers Stakes in track-record time, setting himself up to contend the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which he also won. In doing so he finished ahead of California Chrome, the top-ranked older horse of that year. Following the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate and California Chrome contested the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, which was widely seen as a rematch between the two. Arrogate again came out the winner, with California Chrome’s disappointed jockey saying that he was not himself that day. Arrogate’s next victory was also his last; following his win in the 2017 Dubai World Cup, he then suffered three straight defeats, the final one being the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he dead-heated for fifth place. Ultimately, Arrogate’s streak of stakes race victories came to an end after only seven months and four races, and for that reason I place him squarely among the shooting stars.
The horse Arrogate defeated twice, California Chrome, I do classify as a warrior. Why? A few reasons, one of them being that California Chrome raced every year from the age of two until his last race at the age of six. He had twenty-seven total lifetime starts, with sixteen wins. Not all of those wins were at the top level, but it still should be noted that California Chrome won more races than Arrogate ran in in his entire racing career. California Chrome also returned to racing after minor injury and managed to win again, something which not all horses are able to do.
Other horses I consider to be warriors include Tepin, who defeated males three times at the grade/group 1 level in three different countries with her wins in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile, the 2016 Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot racecourse in England, and the 2016 Woodbine Mile at Woodbine racetrack in Canada; Lady Eli, who won major races at ages two, three, four, and five, despite contracting laminitis (a hoof disease that can sometimes cause death); Beholder, a racemare who can claim winning grade 1 races at age two, three, four, five, and six among her many accomplishments; Goldikova (FR), a French-based mare who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile three years in a row, not only beating males each time but also becoming the first horse to accomplish such a feat; Wise Dan, who won both the Woodbine Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Mile in consecutive years; and of course the great Zenyatta, one of my personal favourites who became the first female horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and came the barest nose away from repeating the victory in a race that ended her incredible nineteen-race win streak and signaled the end of her racing career, retiring with a win record of 20: 19-1-0. These are just to name a few – many more could be added to the list.
In my mind, the differences between the shooting star horses and the warrior horses are clear and definitive, and the same goes for the differences between the all-stars and the warriors. The non-warriors were doubtlessly fantastic racehorses themselves, but none can compare to the true warriors of the racing world.
All hail the warriors!