The 1970s were an unforgettable decade for Thoroughbred racing. A seemingly endless parade of legendary champions graced the sport year after year, and their names — Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Forego, Ruffian — evoke memories of greatness to this day.
During this decade of champions, there was a California-bred gelding whose durability and longevity allowed him to outlast most of his more heralded compatriots. He made his debut in 1972, before Triple Crown winner Secretariat had even run in a race, and by the time the gelding retired in 1978, two more Triple Crown winners had already entered the history books.
The name of this California sensation was Ancient Title, and while his name has not lived on with the strength of the Triple Crown winners, his versatility and phenomenal speed allowed him to compile a career record that compares favorably with the decade’s greatest stars.
He demonstrated from an early age that he was fast—he won three stakes races as a 2-year-old, throwing down eye-catching fractions of :21 4/5, :43 4/5, 1:08 4/5, and 1:20 4/5 while winning the Sunny Slope Stakes at Santa Anita. But he could carry that speed, too — he had the stamina to win the Grade 1 Charles H. Strub Stakes as a four-year-old, dominating the 1 ¼-mile race by three lengths during a season that also saw him finish second in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Over the years, Ancient Title would win more than his fair share of major races at all sorts of distances; he could sprint three-quarters of a mile with anyone, was downright unbeatable at seven-eighths of a mile (going a perfect 7-for-7 during his career), and even shipped away from California to win the historic Whitney Handicap in 1975 at Saratoga going 1 1/8 miles.
He was still going relatively strong at the age of seven in 1977, the year that he arrived at Del Mar to contest the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap. Held at a distance 120 feet short of 1 ¼ miles, the race would be a stiff test for the aging gelding, for although he was still a force to be reckoned with on his best day, he was no longer as consistently brilliant as he had been in his youth. His blazing speed would sometimes desert him, and his stamina seemed to be a bit less than it had been a year or two earlier.
Furthermore, Ancient Title would be facing a very strong field in the Del Mar Handicap. There was Crystal Water, who had defeated Ancient Title decisively in the Santa Anita Handicap, Californian Stakes, and Hollywood Gold Cup earlier that year. Also in the field was Cascapedia, a talented filly that had won five of her last six starts, including the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap. Her only defeat during that timeframe had come in the Hollywood Gold Cup, where she had lost by a neck to Crystal Water.
Under the circumstances, it was hard to envision Ancient Title prevailing in the Del Mar Handicap, and so he was allowed to start as a mild longshot at odds of 8.50-1. Perhaps inspired by the disrespect accorded to him by the bettors, Ancient Title put on a show.
Breaking like a rocket out of the starting gate and flashing more speed than he had shown all year, Ancient Title flew out into the early lead while running the opening quarter-mile in :22 1/5, then pulled away to lead by 2 ½ lengths through a blazing half-mile in :44 3/5. He was running like a sprinter, running as though the finish line was just ahead, when in fact it was a grueling three-quarters of a mile away and he hadn’t even reached the halfway point of the race.
He had to stop at some point. There was no logical way he could maintain that sort of pace, and when he charged toward the far turn and clocked three-quarters of a mile in 1:08 1/5 — a brilliant time that would win most sprints — defeat must have seemed inevitable.
But behind Ancient Title — three widening lengths behind his grueling pace — no one was gaining ground. Crystal Water had broken slowly, and now he was being run off his feet trying to catch up. Cascapedia was way behind, some seven lengths back, passing tiring rivals, but losing ground against Ancient Title, who powered around the far turn with his strides barely slowing … and his lead growing larger.
Into the homestretch, Ancient Title cruised past the mile marker in 1:32 3/5, just two-fifths of a second off the world record, and he was still going strong. Coming down the stretch, past the stands, in front of the cheering crowd, he was clear by five lengths, and still no one was gaining. It was a performance for the ages, a tour de force display of domination, a new opening for the highlights reel of Ancient Title’s career.
When he crossed the finish line, “in hand” according to the Daily Racing Form, he was still five lengths in front, and the timer revealed that he clocked the distance in a staggering 1:55 2/5, shaving more than a second off the track record for the unique distance. The time was so fast that the Sept. 6, 1977 edition of the Los Angeles Times noted that “a projection of Ancient Title’s time to a full 1 ¼ miles at his record rate would have been faster than the world record of 1:58 1/5.” Indeed, simple math reveals that Ancient Title’s time at 1 ¼ miles would have been 1:57 3/5, which would remain the North American record on dirt to this day.
Even more remarkable, jockey Darrel McHargue told the Los Angeles Times that Ancient Title had won with ease. “I knew we had the race won at the three-eighths pole,” McHargue said. “Anytime you leave a horse like this alone for that long, they’ll never catch him. He won with plenty left.”
Forty years later, Ancient Title might not have the enduring legacy of the decade’s greatest champions. But on that special day in 1977, Ancient Title ran as fast as any horse has ever run. Maybe, just maybe, no one could have beaten him on that day.