If you go back through the 20th century, the typical equine hero was a 3-year-old or 4-year-old male who excelled at our classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. There were the rare exceptions like geldings Kelso, John Henry, Forego, Armed, Lava Man, and Exterminator, who raced at ages ranging from 6-years-old to 9-years-old, and a handful of fillies and mares. But for the most part, it was our Triple Crown winners and other classic males that became the sport’s headliners.
For example, from 1977 to 1989, 11 of the 13 Horses of the Year were either 3- or 4-year-olds, with two of them being 4-year-old fillies. The exception was the great gelding John Henry, who was voted Horse of the Year at age 6 and 9.
But as the Sport of Kings evolved and horses of all kinds, whether they were grass horses, females, or sprinters, were given a major stage on which to perform, our equine heroes began taking on an entire new look.
In a five-year-period, form 2009 to 2013, the Horse of the Year was, in succession, a 3-year-old filly, a 4-year-old filly, a 6-year-old mare, and a gelding grass miler, who won the honor at age 5 and 6.
Although 2011 Horse of the Year, Havre de Grace, was an exceptional filly, she did not attain the hero status of a Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Wise Dan, all of whom earned celebrity status on a national scale and attracted thousands of impassioned followers.
But nowadays, a horse does not need to be voted Horse of the Year to become a bona fide star, and it does not matter if they are classic horses like American Pharoah and California Chrome or specialists in divisions not known for producing heroes.
We have seen a female dirt sprinter in Groupie Doll and a female grass sprinter in Mizdirection, both back-to-back winners of a Breeders’ Cup race, attain celebrity status with their own devoted fan base.
With the blue-collar Wise Dan, sired by a $5,000 stallion, who would have thought that a grass miler would be voted Horse of the Year two straight years and become America’s top headliner by virtue of his back-to-back brilliant victories in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and his numerous wins in other grass events in the U.S. and Canada, in which he became almost machine-like, winning 14 consecutive grass starts to end his career.
We are all aware of the intense emotions stirred by Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as they became the greatest rivalry that never was. Rachel Alexandra was the personification of brilliance, and many of her feats will never be duplicated. Zenyatta’s incredible 19-race unbeaten streak was the stuff of legends, and no horse in memory affected the lives of so many people in such a personal way as this giant of a mare.
We now have Beholder, the only female to ever win grade I stakes in five consecutive years, at 2,3,4,5, and 6. As beloved as she is, setbacks, especially the one that forced her to miss her showdown with American Pharoah in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, have prevented her from reaching the status of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, although another BC Classic awaits her.
A horse like the 10-year-old phenomenon Ben’s Cat has shown us that a horse doesn’t even need to be a major stakes horse or compete at the major tracks to win the hearts of racing fans, and his following continues grow even though it hasn’t reach a national scale. All this remarkable gelding has done is win the Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel six consecutive years, the Jim McKay Turf Sprint five times, and the Parx Dash, Maryland Million Turf Sprint, and Fabulous Strike Handicap three times each, while compiling 32 victories and $2.6 million in earnings.
We had learned the same lesson from fillies Pepper’s Pride, who became a major star by winning all 19 of her starts racing in sprints in New Mexico and before her, Hallowed Dreams, who won her first 16 starts competing mostly at small tracks in Louisiana. Both had devoted fan bases that would have been larger had they competed now during the height of social media.
Even on an international scale, where past heroes have basically been classic horses like Ribot, Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Nijinsky II, Shergar, Phar Lap, Dubai Millennium, and Deep Impact, just to name a few, there has been a new brand of hero. Black Caviar became one of Australia’s greatest sports heroes with her amazing run of sprint victories, including a score at Royal Ascot, while another female, Makybe Diva, became the only horse to win the two-mile Melbourne Cup three times. The great stayer Yeats, the only four-time winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, won the hearts of everyone in Great Britain and Ireland. With the exception of the great Brigadier Gerard, who did stretch out once to win the 1 1/2-mile King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, you rarely saw horses who excelled at a mile to a mile and a quarter mentioned in the same breath as the great mile and a half horses. That is until the brilliant Frankel took Great Britain by storm with his series of spectacular victories. Never before had a horse demonstrated such electrifying speed to decimate his opponents from eight to 10 furlongs.
And has there ever been a European star that has gained as much popularity in the United States over the course of four years as Goldikova, the only three-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, who finished third in the event in her fourth attempt?
And now we have yet another star, whose fan base keeps growing with every victory, and who endeared herself to European racing fans in much the same way Goldikova did in America. And that is Tepin, who took her six-race winning streak, all at a mile to 1 1/8 miles on grass, to Royal Ascot, where she defeated the best milers in Europe in the group I Queen Anne Stakes, despite racing on a straightaway for the first time, racing on an undulating course with a testing uphill run at the finish, and racing on soft ground with no Lasix and without the nasal strip she usually wears. It was a truly remarkable accomplishment, and elevated her already superstar status to another level, which can be witnessed in the many photos posted of her on Twitter and Facebook since her triumph at Ascot. Everyone wants to get close to her.
It is also possible we are witnessing the birth yet another superstar in the 3-year-old filly Songbird, who dominated her division last year and has begun her 3-year-old campaign by continuing her total domination of her opponents, none of whom have even made her raise a sweat in eight career starts. If she comes to Saratoga this summer and defeats better quality fillies in such prestigious races as the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes, then we can add her name to list of true superstars.
So, just think of it, since 2009, the majority of our equine heroes have been horses you never would have seen attain such popularity in the past, unless they were Pegasus reincarnated, like Ruffian, who earned a special place in racing lore.
With today’s social media, not even Ruffian inspired the passion in people that Zenyatta did, or Rachel Alexandra. No European captured the imagination of the American public more than Goldikova did. Never would you have seen female specialists like Tepin, Groupie Doll, and Mizdirection earn the kind of hero status these fillies did. We have seen some terrific grass milers over the years, but none came even remotely close to earning the title as best horse in the country until Wise Dan came along. And when have you seen such popular foreign horses as sprinter Black Caviar, stayers Yeats and Makybe Diva, and the eight-to-10-furlong specialist Frankel?
Thoroughbred racing is embarking on a new era, where passions run feverishly high for our equine heroes, regardless in which division they compete. Yes, we love our classic horses like American Pharoah and California Chrome, but it no longer matters what sex a horse is, how old they are, or in which races they compete. Americans, and racing fans across the world, open their hearts to any equine athlete who displays the qualities of greatness and does it on a consistent basis. Compared to athletes in other sports, the flame of our equine stars burns only for a short period of time, so we must embrace our heroes as enthusiastically and passionately as we can for as long as they continue to enrich our lives.