The unfortunate retirement on Monday of Wise Dan brings to an end a remarkable career that will, after the mandatory waiting period, be rightfully acknowledged with a Hall of Fame induction. For those of us residing in Central Kentucky, the April and October meets at Keeneland just won’t feel the same.
Wise Dan’s presence on the national scene over the past five years is also a reminder of how vitally important geldings have been and continue to be in weaving the sport’s on-going narrative. The classic horses are the superstars and generally attract the bulk of mainstream attention, but the mad (and sometimes distasteful) rush to hurry them off to their second careers leaves a vacuum often filled by geldings — the dependable warriors that battle their way to major wins, and into the hearts of countless fans, year in and year out.
Wise Dan has certainly earned his place in the upper echelon of racing’s “Great Geldings” category. Exactly where I wouldn’t dare try to pinpoint, but perhaps not too far behind the legendary post-war triumvirate of Kelso, Forego, and John Henry.
The Thoroughbred wing of the Hall of Fame is replete with the country’s most celebrated and revered geldings that raced on the flat. The early decades of the 20th century were a boom time that included the likes of Exterminator, Old Rosebud, Roamer, Roseben, and Sarazen.
The post-war era has also included the likes of Horse of the Year Armed and the California-based quartet of Native Diver, Ancient Title, Best Pal, and Lava Man, all of whom are enshrined at Saratoga Springs. Horse of the Year Roman Brother and dual classic winner Funny Cide did not consistently win enough to necessarily merit a Hall of Fame plaque, but their exploits are hardly forgotten.
Here are a few other geldings that, in my opinion, seem underrated historically.
FORT MARCY — He’s in the Hall of Fame and has a Grade 3 stakes in New York named after him, but Fort Marcy has always seemed to be overlooked as one of the more durable, if not great, grass horses of all time. A three-time divisional champion (two from DRF and one from the TRA) and 1970 Horse of the Year in one poll, he was a 16-time stakes winner overall and lost 12 others on the turf by less than a length or disqualification. Few have traveled so well — he won major stakes in New York, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, and California — and his career record on turf was 49-18-13-10 (with two of the eight unplaced efforts the result of disqualifications).
BOWL GAME — Shin problems and other infirmities limited this Greentree Stable homebred to just 23 starts, but the ability he showed on turf and dirt suggested he could have done a lot more. Like Fort Marcy, he ran well from coast-to-coast and in between, and a quintet of victories in the Hialeah Turf Cup (G2), Arlington H. (G2), Man o’ War (G1), Turf Classic (G1), and Washington D.C., International (G1) earned him the title of champion turf male in 1979. Unplaced just once in his career, he also captured his stakes debut in the Gulfstream Park H. (G1) and was narrowly second in the Brooklyn H. (G1), both on the dirt.
CREME FRAICHE — Best known for being the fourth of trainer Woody Stephens’ five consecutive Belmont (G1) winners, he was also a two-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and four other Grade 1 tests from a mile to 1 1/4 miles. He won 14 stakes, placed in 25 others, and was also fairly capable on the turf. Although never a serious divisional title contender and a non-Breeders’ Cup participant, racing fans that came of age in the golden era of the late 1980s fondly remember him as a frequent participant and an occasional upset winner in some of the east’s major events.