Past the Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
* Angel Cordero Jr., 11 Straight Saratoga Riding Titles
* Kelso, Horse of the Year 5 Consecutive Years
* Woody Stephens, 5 Consecutive Belmont Stakes
* D. Wayne Lukas, 6 Consecutive Triple Crown Race Wins
* Ruffian, 10 Consecutive Starts, Never Headed at any call, and the Track or Stakes Record Broken in Every One
There have been some phenomenal streaks in almost every sport there is. The Sport of Kings is no exception, and some of our streaks rival the best all of sports have to offer. In defining great streaks, and remaining cognizant this can be very subjective, I wanted solid criteria for what constitutes “The Sport of Kings Greatest Streaks”. What I came up with were, streaks that are remarkable achievements, display the highest level of ability, occurred at the top level of the sport, and will likely never be duplicated or broken. Knowing full and well how humbling a game horse racing can be, the fourth criteria is a bit of a gamble. This is horse racing though so a bit of a gamble seems appropriate. These four will be pretty safe bets.
Even the safest of bets can fool you though, especially in sports. Just look at Johnny Unitas and his record of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. There was a time when it was widely thought that record would stand forever, and it lasted 52 years. But things change and records are broken. Drew Brees finally broke it and his name wound up atop that list. The ones I’ve cited as The Sport of Kings’ Greatest, even with changes, are likely to stand as time marches on.
Although The Sport of Kings doesn’t get the prime time attention it did in days past, the athletic achievements of our human and equine athletes do not take a back seat or even second place finish to any other accomplishments or streaks in sports.
To put things in proper perspective, let’s look at some of the undisputed greatest streaks in sports, so that when we look at the greatest ones in our game, we see what they are on a par with. It’s difficult to look at the greatest streaks without mentioning some of the more famous ones, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, or Cal Ripkin’s 2632 straight games. Orel Hershiser pitching 59 scoreless innings was impressive and how about Eric Gagne with 84 saves in a row. When he entered the game the scoreboard flashed ‘Game Over”. Martina Navratilova won 74 straight single tennis matches, and Richard Petty won at least one Nascar Race in 41 straight seasons.
There’s so much more. Track star Edwin Moses won 122 straight races over a 10 year span. Julio Cesar Chavez won 87 fights in a row, while Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano won 49, with 45 by KO. Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One” scored a goal in 51 straight games for The Edmonton Oilers. Let’s not forget not all streaks in sports are good. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 26 straight games, but eventually got their Super Bowl. The Buffalo Bills lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, mislabeling them amongst many as losers, but ask yourself this, what does it take to get to The Super Bowl 4 years in a row? Losers is NOT the answer. Sports teaches us never quit, never tap out, never give up.
Eddie Arcaro lost 250 races before riding his first win. Today he’s the only jockey to win The Triple Crown twice.
Angel Cordero Jr. Saratoga Riding Champion 11 years in a row, 1976 thru 1987
Angel Cordero Jr. would have excelled in any sport he played. His size limited him to being a jockey, but limit seems like the wrong word. He knew no limits, and pound for pound is one of the best athletes ever. He’s also one of the most dominating ever in The Sport of Kings.
As a rider, Angel had no weakness, he wanted to beat you. On the racetrack, he was cagey, smart and cunning all rolled into one. He could out ride you, out think you, or both, whichever it took. He could ride the front end as good as any jockey ever did, he could beat the gate and be 3 in front in a flash. He could come from the clouds, or stalk you.
Angel could ride his horse and yours at the same time, and anticipate horses and riders moves before they happened. Nobody switched hands faster or better and he was equally adept with the stick in his left or right hand. Nobody took a second hold like he did and nobody got down as low and rode and pumped as hard as Angel.
Poetry in motion, at one with the horse is what it was. Rough but graceful, aggressive but elegant. Nobody did it better. As a student of the game, it was a privilege to watch him, and he rode this way every day, every race. He carried Bold Forbes home after taking him wide by design in The Belmont to get him the mile and a half.
You didn’t want to have to beat Angel in a head and head stretch duel, and as a bettor, he’s who you wanted your “case money” on. His Hall of Fame accomplishments put him square at the top of the conversation of the best ever, but his King of Saratoga title and how he earned it, goes down as one of The Sport of Kings’ Greatest Streaks.
I recently spoke to Angel about his dominance at Saratoga, what it meant to him, and how he accomplished it. Watching it all unfold as a young boy in Saratoga, often with my friend of many years, his daughter Merly, year after year, was truly a privilege, but talking about it with Angel was an honor.
Angel enjoys talking racing, it’s his life and passion along with his family, and he, to this day, gives back to the game, interacting with fans and mentoring and helping young riders. It didn’t come easy for Angel. To the contrary, he had to work, and work harder than anyone to do what he did.
Angel began riding in Puerto Rico but came to New York to try and establish himself there in the early 60’s. It wasn’t easy, and even with his raw talent and ability, it was tough to break in. His first few times in Saratoga did not go well. In 1962,63, and 64 Angel could barely find or afford a place to stay and couldn’t last the meet. He had to leave early and each time it made him hungrier then before to win there.
Saratoga was the pinnacle meet in the sport, it still is today. It’s where everyone wants to win, and the best outfits in the country point their horses for The Spa. If you didn’t ride for the best, you were going to have a hard time. There was no quit in Angel Cordero Jr., something he has had to prove many times in his life, through both injuries and personal tragedies. He kept coming back to Saratoga, working harder and earlier than anyone in the morning and remarkably won his first of 14 riding titles at Saratoga in 1967. This in and of itself was quite the feat, but in reality it was nothing compared to what was to come.
Repeating the riding title at Saratoga is akin to repeating in The Super Bowl, or World Series. It’s tough. It’s the meet everyone is pointing for and when Angel ran his streak, it was only a 4-week meet making it even tougher. The jockey colony was like a list of Hall of Famers, and one of the toughest ever.
It would take Angel 9 years from that first Spa title in 1967, to repeat in 1976, but it would start one of the greatest streaks and longest reigns in sports, and specifically horse racing.
I asked Angel how he was able to win the meet so many years in a row.
“After having such a hard time there early, and having no place to stay, and not being able to last the meet I wanted to do good there so bad. I worked harder than anybody. I worked a lot of horses, and people saw it and helped me. People who didn’t ride me regularly rode me there because they knew how bad I wanted it. People like Mack Miler, Sidney Waters, Elliot Burch, and especially Allen Jerkens rode me there. They had good horses who they pointed for that meet, and that helped me a lot”.
When it was muddy or sloppy at Saratoga, as we all know it can be, Angel seemed to dominate more. If the track was speed, he was on the lead, if it favored closers coming down the crown, that’s where he’d be. I asked him about that too.
“When it was muddy or sloppy I always felt like I had an edge. If I looked outside and saw it was going to rain, I was happy and nobody could understand why. I knew other riders hated riding in the slop, and if they hated it, I loved it, and that gave me an edge”.
Saratoga’s biggest race, and one of the most prestigious races in the history of The Sport of Kings, The Travers Stakes, did it’s best to elude The King of Saratoga himself. It was a bad bet it would be successful, as Angel had his sights on it, and if he wanted a race, odds are he was going to get it. Angel rode a lot of nice horses in The Travers, and he thought he would finally get his win in the 1982 edition aboard Aloma’s Ruler, that year’s Preakness winner in a small but star studded field. A field that included Kentucky Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, Metropolitan Mile and Belmont Stakes Winner Conquistador Cielo, as well as the Canadian longshot Runaway Groom. Lejoli rounded out the quintet.
Angel described the race to me like it was yesterday. Conquistador Cielo was the heavy favorite at 2-5, and looked to most like the horse to beat, Angel included. Angel broke from the 5 post and by design kept Conquistador and Eddie Maple pinned on the rail.
“I knew if I could keep him on the rail and pinned, I could beat him. He was the one I was worried about. The rail wasn’t the best part of the track that day. I kept him pinned on the rail, and then I would ease off and let him think he could come through, when he tried I’d tighten it up again, and I did this a few times until I knew I had him intimidated and beat. In the stretch he tried to come through but I tightened it up again on him, and I got ahead and thought finally, my first Travers. Then I saw the grey horse out of the corner of my eye. I tried to get Aloma’s Ruler to go out after him but we were too close to the wire and he saw him too late and he got me. I was more determined to win The Travers than ever”.
It wouldn’t take much longer for Angel to get his Travers win. If you knew him, and the fierce competitor he was, and the talent he possessed, there was never really a doubt he’d get his Midsummer’s Derby Trophy. It happened in 1985 aboard the prior year’s two-year old champion and inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Winner, Chief’s Crown. In a textbook “catbird” seat ride, perfectly positioned behind three horses battling for the lead, Angel sat fourth just biding his time. He swung outside turning for home and did what he did best, got down low and went to work. He had his Travers. Deservedly so.
The King of Saratoga had one Spa record elude him. Angel wanted to break Manny Ycaza’s 41 victory season, set in 1959 when the meet was still 24 days. Angel took great satisfaction when his protégé, John Velasquez, tied the record aboard Island Fashion in the 2003 Alabama Stakes. The meet was 36 days in 2003 but Johnny tied it on the 22nd day of the meet. Before the race, Angel went into the jockey’s room and told Johnny he was one win away from the record. Johnny smiled and told Angel all you care about is records in a joking way. The closest Angel came was 36 wins in both 1967 and 1988.
Johnny is one of many young riders Angel mentors, as he continues to give back to the sport, fans, horses and his family. He has always been a devoted family man and has as much passion and fire towards his family as he did on the track.
After Angel won his 11 Spa titles in a row, Jose Santos won one in 1987. Angel came right back to win two more, 1988, and 1989. Angel won his 11 in a row without the benefit of a powerhouse stable and rode for everyone he could. His Saratoga titles total 14, with 11 in a row. A record by one of, if not the best ever, that will never be equaled.
He did it against a Hall of Fame colony as well. Riders like Jorge Velasquez, Braulio Baeza, Jacinto Vasquez, Eddie Maple, Laffit Pincay Jr., Steve Cauthen, Eddie Belmonte, Jean Cruguet, Jeffrey Fell, Pat Day, and so many others fought him tooth and nail every year. Angel checked himself out of The Saratoga Hospital against medical advice to win the meet. He also won it on the last day. He did it all during the streak of 11, one of the greatest streaks in all of sports. Angel just dominated the Spa like nobody before him, and likely like no one after him.
Horse of the Year 5 Times in a Row 1960-1964.
It almost sounds like a joke when you say it. He was Horse of the Year 5 times in a row. Yeah, sure he was. Who wins the Horse of the Year title 5 times in a row? Kelso, that’s who. Being a gambling man by nature, I’d wager that’s the only name that will ever hold that distinction. Granted the game has changed, and horses don’t run as long or as much as they did back then, but 5 times in a row Horse of the Year just doesn’t happen.
Kelso was bred by Allaire Du Pont’s Bohemia Stable and born on Claiborne Farm on April 4th, 1957. It should be a horse racing holiday. He was sired by the fast racehorse but unproven sire, Your Host. Kelso was out of Maid of Flight, who was by Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, and his grand sire was the great Man O’ War. He won his two-year old debut at Atlantic City Race Course, a premier East Coast racetrack back then, while trained by veterinarian turned trainer Dr. John Lee. Dr. Lee went back to his veterinary practice and Kelso was turned over to who became known as his regular trainer, Carl Hanford.
There is some discrepancy as to when exactly Kelso was gelded, but there is no question he was more talented than most early on. It is said gelding him never really quieted him down, or even settled him at all, but it surely didn’t hurt his focus or will to win on the racetrack. That was always there.
Kelso went on to win Champion 3-year old and Horse of the Year in 1960. He did this despite his campaign getting underway after The Triple Crown Classics. He continued the streak and won Horse of the Year titles in 61,62,63, and 1964. You may want to fact-check that; it just isn’t possible is it. Just as Angel Cordero Jr. faced the best of the best jockey colonies, Kelso handled more than his fair share of good horses. Carry Back, Gun Bow, Bald Eagle, Tompion, Never Bend, Beau Purple, Quadrangle, Jaipur, Ridan, Crimson Satan, and Pia Star are among those left in his wake.
He carried 130 pounds 24 times winning 13 of them. He won The Jockey Club Gold Cup, then a two-mile classic in world record time of 3:11.1. He broke 9 track records during his run into The Greatest Streaks in the Sport of Kings.
He was ridden by John Block, Walter Blum, Bill Hartack, Eddie Arcaro, but his main rider was Patrick Valenzuela’s uncle Ismail “Milo” Valenzuela. Unarguably one of the greatest to look through a bridle Kelso finished his career with 63 starts, 39 wins, 12 seconds, and earnings of $1,977,869.00.
Kelso was always described as a high strung aggressive horse, even after being gelded. His handler in the gate for the majority of his career was Frank Calvarese, a legend in the starting gate and regular handler of horses like Secretariat and Ruffian. Frank never had a problem with Kelso. He may have been ornery and high strung, but when he went in the gate he focused. He knew it was race time and had his mind on winning. His record attests to that. Again, you better fact-check the 5 Horse of the Year consecutive titles, that just can’t happen.
Woody Stephens 5 Belmont Stakes in a Row 1982-1986
As amazing an accomplishment as Woody’s 5 Belmont Stakes in a row is, you have to remember when he did it, The Belmont was as prestigious and as difficult to win as The Kentucky Derby itself. As American commercial breeding became more speed focused, The Belmont, not dubbed The Test of Champions for nothing, lost some luster. That was not the case when Woody ran up his remarkable streak of 5 in a row. Once again, this is a streak, at the highest level, as were our prior two, that will never be equaled or broken. Woody was known as a great trainer and horseman. He always had a reputation, well deserved I might add, as being especially adept with 2-year olds. While true, he was equally as deadly with almost any kind of horse. He was great on turf or dirt, long or short, it didn’t matter. Woody was a great all around horseman, and fun to engage in conversation if he liked you or you caught him in the right mood.
Woody won The Kentucky Derby twice (Angel Cordero Jr. rode one of them), The Kentucky Oaks 5 times, trained 11 Eclipse Award winners, and won over 100 Grade 1 races. It’s the 5 Belmonts in a row that takes the cake though.
The most remarkable of Woody’s Belmonts was his first with Conquistador Cielo. The Monday prior to The Belmont, Conquistador Cielo won The Metropolitan Mile as a 3-year old against older horses so impressively, Woody decided to wheel him back on 5 days rest and go a mile and a half in The Belmont. It was a gutsy and rare move but it worked to perfection, and started the streak. Woody followed up with Caveat under a rail skimming ride by Laffit Pincay Jr., Swale, the ill-fated winner who would mysteriously die just days later, Crème Fraiche and finally Danzig Connection.
Even with the powerhouse barns we have today, who seem to have an advantage over many smaller stables in the sheer number of well-bred and well-meant horses, this streak is likely permanent. Woody did it when the competition was fierce and there were many powerhouse stables and farms loaded with horses meant for The Belmont distance.
Not only is Woody’s 5 Belmont Stakes in a row one of The Greatest Streaks in The Sport of Kings, it’s one of the greatest training feats in racing history.
D. Wayne Lukas 6 Triple Crown Races in a Row
When the scoreboard flashed “Game Over” when Eric Gagne took the mound during his streak of saves for The Dodgers, it wasn’t very different when bettors uttered “Wayne off the plane” when D. Wayne Lukas shipped in a horse to run, especially in a stake.
The Coach as he’s called today, along with a talented string of assistants, led by his ultra-dedicated and talented son Jeff, who we lost way too soon just recently, changed the way the game was played. At that time nobody played it better either. Wayne trained for the best, bought the best, and ran in the best races winning more than his share of them. He was really the first trainer who realized, you can ship across the country from anywhere, if you are going to win big races and big purses when you get there.
Wayne and his son Jeff, may he Rest in Peace, revolutionized the stakes game. They had several strings before most powerhouse barns were doing things that way. They ran each string like a perfection factory, everything in place and things done precisely and to a science. Not only did Wayne develop countless fast, classic, Grade 1 winning horses, he developed his fair share of trainers too, none having more never realized potential than his own son Jeff, who was by all accounts tremendously influential in all the barn accomplished. Todd Pletcher, Michael Maker, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, Dallas Stewart, George Weaver, Randy Bradshaw and Bobby Barnett all worked under Wayne and Jeff and have gone on to enjoy great careers, and likely are not finished yet.
Jeff may have had the best career of all if not for the tragic accident with Tabasco Cat that changed everything. Horse racing is a tough game of the highest highs and lowest lows, and is not for the faint of heart, and nobody knows this better than The Coach.[
In an illustrious career Wayne managed 4 Eclipse Awards for Best Trainer in 1985,86,87, and 94. He’s won Breeders’ Cup races and a remarkable 14 Triple Crown races. The streak that gets him on this list; however, is the one that again came at the highest level, and will likely stand and stand and stand. 6 Triple Crown Races in a row. Who does that? D. Wayne, that’s who. Starting in the 1994 Preakness with Tabasco Cat, Wayne went on to take The 1994 Belmont with Tabasco Cat. In 1995 he took The Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Preakness with Timber Country, and the 1995 Belmont with Thunder Gulch. He grabbed the 1996 Kentucky Derby with Grindstone, only to have the streak end when Nick Zito won the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze.
Wayne wasn’t finished though; he came right back to take the 1996 Belmont with Editor’s Note. That’s 6 in a row and 7 out of 8. What would you make the odds of that streak going down? A training feat for the ages, and one of The Greatest Streaks in the Sport of Kings.
Ruffian, 10 Races Never Being Headed or Beaten, and Breaking or Equaling the Track or Stakes Record in Every Start
Certainly one of the most difficult, and impressive, and least likely streaks to ever be done again is Ruffian’s run of all 1’s. 10 races never headed, never beaten, and the track or stakes record equaled or broken in every single start she finished. Her past performances say more than I can. Add those Grade 1’s to the rest of the 1’s and you see what a truly special racehorse this was. You can read the real story of Ruffian here
I truly hope you enjoyed this look at a special part of racing history, and appreciate how it shows the talent and achievements in our game are on a par with any major sport. Our game also gave sports one of the greatest if not the greatest comeback in history, Gary Stevens, who we wrote about here.
If we don’t get the coverage we deserve, it’s the sporting world’s loss not ours. Hopefully enough of the major sports reporters will see this and see just what they are missing out on. If not, so what, we get to experience this great game almost every day. Our human and equine athletes lay it on the line for us day in and day out.
As students of the game we may all have different lists, and different criteria for them. I, of course recognize the streaks of Cigar, Personal Ensign, Rapid Redux, Pepper’s Pride and so many others. There is no slight meant to any achievement in this game I love. I just chose the ones I thought would stand forever, occurred at the highest level, and were truly remarkable. Are there more sure, but these are “the ones”.
Rest in Peace Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps, owner and breeder of the best horses money couldn’t buy, a true pillar in the game and glad your family stable will go on.
HIGH FIVE: Reddam Racing, Doug O’Neill, Mario Gutierrez, and of course Nyquist came to Gulfstream, humbled The Florida Derby field and left The Kentucky Derby favorite with a one million dollar check in their hands.
The all Graded Stakes Pick 4 between Aqueduct and Keeneland, nice to see tracks working together for innovative exciting wagers for bettors.
LOW FIVE: You get one if you didn’t play in the tournament to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.
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