Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
There is no denying that some horses have a special affinity for certain racetracks and perform better when flaunting their talents at those tracks. This is particularly notable in Europe, where the style, shape, and design of the courses varies widely, but the scenario is also seen on a smaller scale in the United States, where some horses display a fondness for the dirt and conditions at a particular track.
It’s much more common to find a horse that prefers a particular kind of footing —dirt, turf, mud, synthetic, etc. The terms “turf horse,” “mudder,” and “synthetic specialist” have not evolved without reason, and at times a horse can be vastly superior on one kind of footing versus another.
Consider Cigar, whose racing career was going nowhere fast (pun intended) until he transitioned from turf to dirt. The result? Sixteen consecutive victories, 13 Grade 1 wins, and two Horse of the Year titles.
General Assembly was one of the most talented colts to emerge from the foal crop of 1976 and he had a special fondness for Saratoga Race Course. Owned by Bert and Diana Firestone and trained by LeRoy Jolley — the same team that would later campaign 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk — General Assembly looked like a star from the very start of his career.
As a 2-year-old in 1978, he broke his maiden first time out at Belmont Park, then demonstrated his affinity for Saratoga with consecutive wins in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes and the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. That he relished the track came as no surprise, for it was in his DNA — his sire, Secretariat, had won three of his four starts at Saraotga, and his broodmare sire, Native Dancer, went unbeaten in six races at the historic track.
At that point, General Assembly was the leader of the division and an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but two factors — the end of the Saratoga meet and the emergence of another talented 2-year-old named Spectacular Bid — conspired to weaken General Assembly’s lofty reputation. He would lose nine of his next 10 races while finishing behind Spectacular Bid on five occasions, including all three Triple Crown races. There were some highlights along the way —he won the Grade 2 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and finished second in the Kentucky Derby — but overall, he failed to deliver on the great promise he had shown at Saratoga as a 2-year-old.
But just when General Assembly was starting to fade from view — shortly after he had finished fifth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont — two factors combined to reignite his career. First, Spectacular Bid went to the sidelines after a busy campaign, causing him to miss the big races of the summer. Second, the 1979 Saratoga meet arrived and, at long last, General Assembly was back on the track that he loved.
The first sign that General Assembly was about to live up to his potential came when he won a modest seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga by 3 ¾ lengths in the blazing time of 1:21 flat. Now, the horses he beat were not remarkable — runner-up Sir Rossel was just a decent allowance runner, and third-place finisher Gristle was the same — but the ease with which General Assembly won suggested that he was ready to run a big race in the 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes, his major goal of the meet.
But his love for Saratoga aside, General Assembly was slated to face a very tough field in the Travers and he wasn’t favored to win. That honor went to the remarkable filly Davona Dale, who had won five straight Grade 1 races earlier in the year by the combined margin of 27 ¼ lengths, including the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn Stakes, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks. And if you didn’t like Davona Dale, you could always side with the impressive Smarten, who brought a six-race win streak into the Travers, or even Private Account, a blue-blood Ogden Phipps runner that had won the Jim Dandy Stakes in the sharp time of 1:48 2/5.
Yes, despite his love for Saratoga and his impressive allowance victory, a Travers win by General Assembly would have been a little bit of a surprise. He was a contender, no doubt, but he would surely have to work hard to defeat his talented rivals.
Then it started raining.
And the track became sloppy.
And as it turned out, General Assembly loved the mud just as much as he loved Saratoga, and the result of this combination was one of the most unbelievable performances in the history of horse racing.
When the gates opened, jockey Jacinto Vasquez sent General Assembly straight to the lead — a slightly surprising turn of events given that General Assembly tended to settle a few lengths off the pace — and managed to open up a two-length early lead on his rivals. The jockeys of the other horses weren’t interested in pursuing General Assembly, and Davona Dale, nearing the end of a long campaign, was failing to show her usual speed.
And so General Assembly sloshed through the slop and cruised through an uncontested half-mile in :47 3/5. With this pedestrian fraction behind him, General Assembly had plenty of fuel in the tank and ran six furlongs in 1:11 1/5. His lead grew to four lengths.
As Davona Dale threw in the towel and began to retreat, and as Smarten and Private Account tried desperately to keep up, General Assembly’s strides continued to come with a steady beat as he rolled around the track. He passed the mile marker in 1:35 4/5 and he was leading by six lengths, unchallenged, galloping happily over his favorite track and splashing through the mud that he relished. He was turning the marquee race of summer into a one-horse show with a script so farfetched that no one would have believed it except that it was actually unfolding before their eyes ... and the show would only get more unbelievable.
In the final quarter-mile, General Assembly executed the coup de grâce of his performance. Moving like a tremendous machine — a trait quite possibly inherited from his legendary father — General Assembly left his rivals far behind, extending his lead to eight, nine, 10, 12, and finally 15 lengths as he crossed the Saratoga finish line. But the most unbelievable aspect of his performance was the final time: a seemingly impossible 2:00 flat that established a track record (at the time) for the distance.
General Assembly would eventually prove that he was more than just a Saratoga specialist. In the final two starts of his career, he finished second to Spectacular Bid in the prestigious Marlboro Cup at Belmont and won the Grade 2 Vosburgh Stakes at Aqueduct over an excellent field that included the champion sprinter Dr. Patches.
But it was his love for Saratoga — combined with his love for mud — that has forever immortalized him. General Assembly's track record for 1 1/4 miles set in the Travers stood for 37 years, during which very few horses even came close, until Arrogate in the 2016 Travers broke the mark by completing the distance in 1:59.36.
Note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.