They don't talk much about Ack Ack these days. But few horses before or since have commanded his versatility – setting sprint records and winning handily at classic distances under staggering imposts.
Speed is the first requisite of the race horse, willingness the second. Ack Ack had both in spades. In a spectacular career Ack Ack scored victories in Florida, Kentucky, New York, and Illinois, as well as triumphs in the biggest races on the West Coast. Ack Ack was marvelously consistent with 19 victories and six second place finishes in only 27 starts with a winning average of 70 percent.
Named for the fast artillery action of the war plane guns of World War II, it seemed an appropriate handle for this dark bay colt of the unbeaten Colin bloodlines. Sired by the stallion Battle Joined, out of the Turn-to mare Fast Turn, Ack Ack was foaled on Feb. 24, 1966.
He was considered the finest stakes horse ever bred by Captain Harry F. Guggenheim, an international turfman, art collector, publisher and philanthropist whose grandfather amassed an enormous fortune in the mining industry. Guggenheim was also instrumental in the success of America's space program, financially backing early research in the days before NASA.
He bred and raced numerous stakes winners including the 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star and 1960 Eclipse Award winner Bald Eagle.
A turfman of the old school, Guggenheim often afforded his Cain Hoy Stable horses the time to reach their most effective form. Ack Ack sported his breeder’s blue and white silks only three times at two before being sent to the farm to unwind as Guggneheim believed the colt was too valuable a property to chance compromising his future.
A handsome colt, Ack Ack stood just short of 16 hands with no conspicuous markings. His whole torso suggested prodigious strength. His demeanor at races was businesslike. Headed to post he moved with conscious pride, sometimes a jaunty little swagger. There was an air about Ack Ack of "no surrender."
At three, Ack Ack made up for lost time. Conditioned by Frank Bonsal, he won the Bahamas Stakes and broke the track record in the Derby Trial, running the mile in 1:34 2/5. Pundits favored him to win the 1969 Kentucky Derby, but the Captain ordered Ack Ack shipped to New York leaving the classic races to Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters. Guggenheim explained he was disinclined to race Ack Ack beyond eight furlongs at that particular phase of his carefully choreographed season. Instead, he was prepared for the Withers, which he easily won.
Ack Ack completed his 3-year-old season with seven victories, runner-up three times, and bankrolling $177,491 in eleven starts. As Capt. Guggenheim's health began to fail in 1969, he offered a full stable dispersal of his Thoroughbred holdings. But Guggenheim held on to several stallions and Ack Ack, on whom he reportedly set a $1 million reserve, a huge number as the 1960s came to a close.
Instead, Ack Ack was sent west and turned over to Charlie Whittingham who spent 1970 getting to know the horse. The "Bald Eagle" ran the colt five times, all in sprints, and won four, including the Autumn Days Handicap on the turf at Santa Anita Park and the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park on the disqualification of Right or Wrong. Ack Ack also set a Del Mar track record running five and a half furlongs in 1:02 1/5. With four wins in five starts, it was clear that Whittingham‘s new charge was one of the fastest horses in America.
The trainer saw the potential for distance racing because of the colt’s breeding. The transformation of a former sprinter to a sensational Horse of the Year would prove to be Whittingham's greatest professional achievement. Ack Ack began his fourth season of racing the day after New Year’s by finishing second in the Palos Verdes Handicap and quickly wheeled back to win the seven furlong San Carlos Handicap. Guggenheim died on Jan. 22, 1971, six days after Ack Ack beat Jungle Savage in that race.
Whittingham persuaded Buddy Fogelson to acquire Ack Ack opportunistically from the Guggenheim estate after his sole 1971 loss. Married to the actress Greer Garson, Fogelson had a ranch in New Mexico and Texas real estate dotted with ever-pumping oil wells. He purchased a majority interest in the horse for a reported $500,000, while the wily trainer retained one-third interest.
It was money well spent. The best was yet to come.
In his first route try in nearly two years, Ack Ack won the San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles. Next came a win in the nine-furlong San Antonio Stakes. The historic Big ‘Cap came calling and the former sprint specialist was assigned 130 pounds in his first try at a classic 1 1/4 mile distance. He burst out of the gate, opened up a big lead and was able to hit the wire 1 ½ lengths clear of the classy Cougar II.
After a brief rest, Ack Ack showcased his impressive versatility, scoring easily in the Hollywood Express at just 5 ½ furlongs. Next would come only his second shot on the grass. Once again Ack Ack dominated his rivals in the 1 1/8 mile American Handicap, clocking a course record.
Ack Ack's next test would come in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Riding a six-race winning streak, Ack Ack toted a high weight of 134 pounds. Nearest the favorite in weight assignments were previous Hollywood Gold Cup winner Figonero and the successful mare Manta, who carried 117 pounds each. Previously, the highest weight carried by a Hollywood Gold Cup winner was 133 pounds, the burden carried by both Seabiscuit and Challedon in their Gold Cup successes.
The heavy impost and the 10 furlongs mattered little as Ack Ack, with Bill Shoemaker aboard, performed brilliantly. Taking the lead from Judgable at the quarter pole he opened up a six length lead on the backstretch. Cruising coming out of the far turn, Ack Ack held off the closing drives of Comtal and Manta to win by almost four lengths, and clocked in a spectacular 1:59 4/5.
The celebrated turf journalist Charles Hatton compared him to Tom Fool, the 1953 Horse of the Year.
"As an entertainer, Ack Ack had great verve and was very dashing," he wrote. "Winning at every pole is winning the hard way, and it is estimated a horse must be five pounds the best to achieve this."
"I really couldn't do much about the weight they gave him," Whittingham said. "It wouldn't have been any less if we had taken him to New York. But he could handle it. He was built real wide across the rear. A lot of thick muscle. And he got that weight moving right from the start, which made it easier on him than if he was a come-from-behind type of horse, starting and stopping all the time."
The Hollywood Gold Cup was only one of seven coveted stakes he reeled off during his 1971 campaign, all at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park and spanning January to July. Then he was stricken with a severe case of colic. His intestines were badly impacted and Ack Ack required round-the-clock attention. It derailed the balance of the season and he was retired. Despite not racing after the Gold Cup on July 17, his superlative five-year-old season earned him a trifecta at the 1971 Eclipse Awards.
Ack Ack was honored as Horse of the Year, as well as both the Champion Older Horse and Champion Sprinter. He retired with career earnings that totaled $636,641.
Knowing the horse would be obliged to carry staggering imposts if he continued racing, Ack Ack was dispatched to Bull Hancock’s Claiborne Farm, where he entered stud duty in February 1972. Fogelson’s unshakable confidence in Ack Ack’s potential once again played out in his decision not to syndicate Ack Ack but to hold him as a private stallion.
Ack Ack sired 56 stakes winners, including multi-millionaire Broad Brush, whose victories included the Santa Anita Handicap; Youth, who won the French Derby and earned championships both in France and the United States; and the additional stakes winners Ack's Secret, Rascal Lass, Caline, and Trinidad's Horse of the Year Ackstatic. His daughters produced Epsom Derby winner Benny the Dip and the champion mare North Sider.
Ack Ack passed away on December 28, 1990, and is buried at Claiborne Farm. He is #44 in the Blood-Horse’s Top 100 Race Horses of the 20th Century. The Ack Ack Handicap run at Churchill Downs is named in his honor. He became a member of the Hall of Fame in 1986.