Buckpasser: The Nonchalant Champion

Legends
Hall of Famer Buckpasser, above winning a race at Aqueduct during his 15-race winning streak, was a champion in each of his three seasons of racing. (BloodHorse Library/NYRA photo)

Buckpasser was a real personality —that’s a nice way of putting it. It’s a testament to his talent, if not his tenacity, that the blueblood colt compiled a Hall of Fame career despite his nonchalant and often frustrating attitude toward racing.

At one time or another, Buckpasser did virtually everything you can ask of a great horse. He won sprinting as short as five-eighths of a mile; he won major stakes races as long as two miles. He earned $1 million back when that milestone was still a significant feat. He broke or equaled three track records. He carried great weights, traveled from coast to coast winning major races, and finished out of the money only once, in his debut.

Buckpasser after winning 1966 Travers. (BloodHorse Library/NYRA photo)

Bettors embraced Buckpasser, sending him to post as the odds-on favorite 24 times. On a couple of occasions, Hialeah Park in Florida refused to offer wagering on races in which Buckpasser competed (including the famous 1966 Flamingo Stakes) because they feared they would lose money on the proposition.

This is all the more extraordinary when you consider Buckpasser considered racing to be a form of group exercise and had virtually no interest whatsoever in actually defeating his opponents. As racing historian Ed Bowen put it in “Legacies of the Turf, Vol. 2: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders”: Buckpasser was a “prettily designed vehicle … with a turbo-charged V-8 engine,” but was also “inclined to let the foot off the throttle at awkward moments.”

A homebred racing for Ogden Phipps, Buckpasser was always cut out to be something special. His sire, Tom Fool, won Horse of the Year honors in 1953 thanks to a perfect 10-for-10 campaign. His dam, Busanda, was likewise a top-class runner. A daughter of Triple Crown winner War Admiral, Busanda won the 1950 Alabama Stakes and later defeated males in the Suburban Handicap and two editions of the Saratoga Cup.

Buckpasser obviously inherited superior racing genes from his parents, although he seemed to lack their sense of competitive urgency. Whereas Tom Fool was a speedster, pressuring his opponents right from the start, Buckpasser was perfectly content to gallop along behind the early leaders. In the homestretch, he would rally not so much because he cared to win, but because he was so much faster than his rivals he couldn’t help but pass them. He liked to catch horses, but he didn’t want to lead the pack, an event which occasionally triggered overreactions from the wildly talented colt.

In the tradition of the day, Buckpasser raced heavily as a juvenile. Under the care of trainer Bill Winfrey, Buckpasser — a tall colt, dark bay and almost perfectly put together — finished fourth in his debut on May 13, 1965 at Aqueduct, charging late from off the pace to finish just 1 ¼ lengths behind the leader.

From that point on, Buckpasser was almost unstoppable. In the span of four months he rattled off eight consecutive victories, employing his trademark late-running style to nab prestigious prizes like the National Stallion Stakes, Tremont Stakes, Sapling Stakes, and Hopeful Stakes. In the Sapling, he blew the start and conceded the field several lengths, but “roared down the homestretch” to prevail by a half-length, as recounted in the Aug. 9, 1965 edition of The Daily Register.

“We were not ready at the start. He was backing up and had to make a lunge,” explained Buckpasser’s regular rider, Braulio Baeza. “It was a terrible start as far as we were concerned, but once he got to running, he ran one of his best races.”

“I think the only horse that can beat Buckpasser is Buckpasser.” - trainer Eddie Neloy

A narrow defeat in the Sept. 25 Futurity Stakes proved to be Buckpasser only other setback for the season. Three weeks later, when stretching out to a mile for the first time, Buckpasser cruised to an easy victory in the Champagne Stakes to cement his standing as the champion 2-year-old male of 1965.

But Buckpasser’s season was not without it quirks. In the Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park — the richest race in the world at the time with a purse of $335,000 — Buckpasser demonstrated what would become a worrisome habit. After seizing a four-length lead in the stretch, Buckpasser started looking around for competition. Finding none, he began to shorten stride.

“Buckpasser was looking back and loafing, so I had to get after him pretty good,” Baeza said in the Sept. 12, 1965 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He eased up after getting the lead on the outside.”

This tendency would recur the following season as Buckpasser became more and more reluctant to race on his own, without competition. He was already a tough horse to train in the mornings.

Kimberly Herbert wrote in “Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century” that Buckpasser “was not interested in exerting himself unnecessarily, and rarely would if there were nothing to beat. A stablemate had to be sent out with him in the mornings to get any conditioning into him, and that didn’t always work.”

Buckpasser winning Everglades. (BloodHorse Library)

Eddie Neloy, who took over Buckpasser’s training during the winter, referred to the colt’s habits as “idiosyncrasies” in a column by Red Smith. “Of course, maybe [easing up] is good for him. Maybe he conserves himself that way.”

Neloy’s comments were published on March 2, 1966 in the Tampa Bay Times, one week after Buckpasser had endeavored to pull himself up in the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah, in the process careening into stablemate Stupendous before fighting back to win by a head. On March 3, Buckpasser pushed his antics to an entirely different level in the Flamingo Stakes.

“I can’t tell you if the horse will outgrow all his bad habits,” Neloy ironically commented the day before the race to Art Grace of The Miami News. “… I think the only horse that can beat Buckpasser is Buckpasser.”

Indeed, Buckpasser did his best to defeat himself. In a race Gene Ward described as “weird” in the New York Daily News of March 4, Buckpasser tracked the pace, took the lead easily at the top of the stretch, and promptly lost interest in running. As late-running longshot Abe’s Hope swept to the front, opening up a two-length lead, Buckpasser somehow restarted his engine and re-rallied in the final strides to win by a nose.

“I’ve never been on a horse that made up that much ground that fast,” marveled Buckpasser’s temporary jockey Bill Shoemaker in The Miami News of March 4, 1966.

Unfortunately, a quarter crack hoof injury forced Buckpasser to miss the Triple Crown series, which he would have been favored to dominate despite his antics. The good news? When he returned to action in June, he was at least slightly more professional and wholly unstoppable.

Ten starts between June 4 and Oct. 29: 10 victories, most of them by small margins as Baeza — back in the saddle — worked hard to time Buckpasser’s late rallies just right. With stablemate Impressive sometimes serving pace-setting duties, Buckpasser occasionally consented to be brilliant. In the Arlington Classic Handicap at Arlington Park, Buckpasser rallied from behind a blazing pace to win in 1:32 3/5 seconds, eclipsing the world record for a mile. Later in the summer, he broke a track record when claiming the 1 1/8-mile American Derby by a neck in 1:47 flat, and he equaled Saratoga’s track standard for 1 ¼ miles when winning the historic Travers Stakes in 2:01 3/5.

Victories against older rivals in storied races like the Brooklyn Handicap, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup reiterated Buckpasser’s status as the best horse in training. Despite missing the spring classics, he was an easy choice for champion 3-year-old male, champion handicap male, and Horse of the Year.

Following a two-month rest, Buckpasser kicked off his next campaign on the West Coast, shipping across the country to Santa Anita to score victories in the Malibu Stakes and San Fernando Stakes. But just as his 4-year-old season was heating up, another quarter crack sent him to the sidelines, and a sore hoof kept him out of the rich Santa Anita Handicap.

The remainder of the season was a mixed bag. After recuperating for four months, Buckpasser returned to action with a victory in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap, extending his win streak to 15 consecutive races. His connections then pondered an ambitious trip to France for the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, where Buckpasser would race on grass for the first time.

Neloy and Baeza expressed confidence Buckpasser would handle the transition just fine; per the June 12, 1967 edition of the Orlando Evening News, Baeza told the Associated Press “You don’t have to worry about this horse. He can handle any kind of track, muddy, sloppy, good, fast, dirt or grass.”

But Buckpasser had other ideas and dashed those tentative plans by finishing third in the Bowling Green Handicap, his turf debut. Returned to dirt for the Suburban Handicap, Buckpasser rallied gamely in the final strides to win under 133 pounds, conceding 22 to the runner-up.

This proved to be Buckpasser’s final hurrah. Ongoing foot issues compromised his training, and he failed to produce his trademark stretch challenge when finishing second in both the Brooklyn Handicap and the Woodward Stakes. Following the latter defeat — a 10-length loss against future Hall of Famer Damascus — heat was detected in Buckpasser’s right front pastern, prompting his retirement

“It wasn’t Buckpasser [in the Woodward],” Baeza told the Associated Press for a story published in Fort Myers, Fla.’s The News-Press of Oct. 3, 1967. “He was not giving out like he can. He started to run out from the first turn until he got into the stretch. The real Buckpasser always was eager to catch the horse in front. He was not that way in the Woodward.”

Despite his late-season defeats, Buckpasser received one more championship title, being voted champion handicap male by the Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Buckpasser’s racing days were over, but he remained in the headlines for years to come. Syndicated for a record $4.8 million as a stallion prospect, Buckpasser proved to be a success a stud, with the champion fillies La Prevoyante, Numbered Account, and Relaxing among his best foals. Despite passing away at the young age of 15, he also became an influential broodmare sire, with his daughters producing champions Easy Goer and Slew o’ Gold among many other notable runners.

A perfect equine specimen and poetry in motion. (BloodHorse Library)

With his racing exploits and productive stud career, Buckpasser earned accolades from handicappers and horsemen alike. But perhaps no one was ever more impressed by the five-time champion than acclaimed painter Richard Stone Reeves.

“Of all the horses I have painted, I believe Buckpasser has come closest to physical perfection,” remarked Reeves in the book “Legends: The Art of Richard Stone Reeves,” by Ed Bowen.

Reeves heaped praise on Buckpasser’s conformation; his “fine-crested neck and clean-cut throatlatch; deep, well-sloped shoulders; deep through the middle, good bone, straight legs; nearly perfect quarters and hind legs … I could go on and on about Buckpasser. He had an intelligent eye, a wide forehead, a finely crafted muzzle. … His coat was a rich bay, the color of antique furniture, dark mahogany almost.”

And Buckpasser could flat-out run, too …  as long as he had competition!


Fun Facts

  • Buckpasser retired with a record of 25 wins, four seconds, and one third from 31 starts. His career earnings of $1,462,014 ranked him third all-time upon retirement.
  • Buckpasser was a champion every year he raced.
  • In 1970 — just three years after his retirement — Buckpasser was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
  • When The Blood-Horse polled racing experts to determine the top 100 racehorses of the 20th Century, Buckpasser ranked No. 14.

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