Originally appearing Feb. 6, 2007
Buckpasser — 1966 Horse of the Year
Two stakes races staged on opposite coasts this past weekend have brought to
mind the immortal Buckpasser, widely regarded as the best horse ever to sport
the famed colors of Ogden Phipps. The Busanda S., held last Sunday at Aqueduct,
is named in honor of his dam, and Buckpasser himself was a comfortable winner of
the San Fernando S., contested last Saturday at Santa Anita.
Bred in the purple, with a flawless physique that drew rave reviews from
artist Richard Stone Reeves, the handsome bay did more than merely live up to
his pedigree and looks. A champion at two, unanimous Horse of the Year at three,
and champion again at four (in one poll), Buckpasser would go on to become a
seminal influence on the breed. Although he was very much a member of the equine
aristocracy, he endured his share of hardships as well, suffering from a quarter
crack that robbed him of a chance at Triple Crown glory and eventually
developing arthritis that ended his career. Buckpasser’s extraordinary talent
came at a price.
Brilliance and suspect soundness were part of the legacy of his sire, Tom
Fool, a superstar himself. The top two-year-old colt in 1951, he compiled a
10-for-10 mark as a four-year-old in 1953, when he was voted Horse of the Year,
champion handicap horse and champion sprinter. During that perfect season, Tom
Fool captured the Metropolitan Mile, then carried his blazing speed 1 1/4 miles
to take the Suburban H. and Brooklyn H. In the process, he became the first
horse to sweep the “Handicap Triple Crown” since Whisk Broom II in 1913. The
next to take all three events in the same year was the legendary Kelso (1961),
and the only subsequent sweeper would be Fit to Fight (1984).
Busanda was also a high-class performer, but of a quite different type. As a
large, late developer with an overabundance of stamina, she was a complementary
mate for Tom Fool. Victress of the Alabama S. in 1950, Busanda scored three of
her most notable wins at the expense of males — the Suburban (1951) and two
runnings of the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup (1951 and 1952).
Embedded in Busanda’s name was a clever allusion to her sire and dam. World
War II veteran Phipps named her after the U.S. Navy’s acronym for “Bureau of
Supplies and Accounts,” perfectly suitable for a daughter of 1937 Triple Crown
hero War Admiral and Businesslike (Blue Larkspur), who was herself out of the
supreme broodmare *La Troienne (*Teddy).
Busanda foaled her Tom Fool colt on April 28, 1963, at the historic Claiborne
Farm near Paris, Kentucky. Phipps was once again inspired with a flash of genius
when it came time to christen our subject, hitting upon a single word that
connotes the follies of bureaucracy. “Buckpasser” crisply sums up the
unaccountable bureaucrat who “passes the buck” onto someone else.
While Buckpasser’s name fit his parentage, it did not describe his character.
To be sure, the colt was a lazy worker who wouldn’t exert himself unnecessarily,
and in his races, he tended to pull himself up once he felt his job was done.
But unlike a real passer of the buck, this Buckpasser never shirked his duty,
never failed to respond to a summons, never backed down from a fight, even when
he was hurt.
As a juvenile, he was trained by Bill Winfrey, whose other famous charge was
the once-beaten Native Dancer. The “Gray Ghost” was champion three-year-old of
1953, the year of Tom Fool’s heroics. A clash between the two phenoms was hoped
for, but it did not materialize. Hence there was no small irony in the fact that
Native Dancer’s trainer wound up with the best son of Tom Fool.
Buckpasser debuted in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden at Aqueduct on May 13, and after
breaking dead last in a field of 10, rallied for fourth. Never again in his
career would he finish off the board. Sixteen days later at that venue, he swept
to a two-length score in the slop.
Winfrey must have realized that Buckpasser was something special early on, as
he introduced his promising pupil to famed turf writer Charles Hatton that same
month. Hatton revealed the details of their conversation in the 1966 American
Racing Manual (ARM), which recapped the 1965 season.
“Here is your sort of colt exactly,” Winfrey told Hatton. “He isn’t flashy,
but he has no nerves and he runs his hardest down there on the money. Big doer
and a bit of a loafer at times, especially in the mornings, but he is determined
in the afternoons.”
Hatton was enamored of the Phipps colt, calling him “a horseman’s horse” and
praising his action.
“He goes low as a southern hound and is a far-striding colt,” Hatton wrote.
“When Buckpasser put his head on a level with his tail coming off the stretch
turn, somebody’s horse was going to know he had been to the races that last
Buckpasser’s maiden win marked the beginning of an eight-race winning skein.
Five of those came in stakes, each accomplished in slashing, off-the-pace style
with regular rider Braulio Baeza. After roaring home late to snare a dead-heat
victory with Hospitality in the colts’ and geldings’ division of the National
Stallion S., the Phipps colt got up by a neck in the Tremont S. In the Sapling
S., he was “left flatfooted at the start and off some five lengths behind his
field,” as the Daily Racing Form chart put it, but Buckpasser overcame
his tardiness to post a half-length tally at Monmouth Park.
Leaving the starting gate proved problematic once again in the Hopeful S. at
Saratoga, but neither stumbling at the break nor steadying nearing the stretch
could prevent him from winning by 2 1/2 lengths, going away. Similarly slow to
mobilize in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, Buckpasser circled the field on
the turn and opened up a commanding lead, only to idle in front and make things
interesting. Baeza had to get after him as his margin dwindled, but Buckpasser
held on by a half-length at the line.
His winning streak was snapped two weeks later in the Futurity S., when the
filly Priceless Gem (whose dam, Searching, was closely related to Busanda) wired
the field. Buckpasser tracked in second for much of the 6 1/2-furlong contest,
but despite looming boldly in deep stretch, could not get by and was forced to
settle for runner-up honors. (Priceless Gem’s half-length defeat of Buckpasser
was not her only claim to fame, as she would later become the dam of French
all-time great Allez France [*Sea-Bird]).
Buckpasser exacted his revenge in the Champagne S. To ensure that Priceless
Gem would not have things her own way up front, Winfrey entered Impressive as a
rabbit. The pacemaker did his duty efficiently, and the better half of the entry
romped by four lengths, with the filly finishing a well-beaten sixth. According
to the chart, Buckpasser delivered “a fine burst of speed” to win “in a
convincing manner.” From that point forward, he often had the assistance of a
speedy entrymate to smooth the way, but he was not slavishly dependent on a
rabbit and scored several notable victories when flying solo.
The Champagne capped his championship year, in which he set a new record for
two-year-old earnings with $568,096 to his credit and compiled a sterling
11-9-1-0 mark. Buckpasser could have taken part in such rich late-season events
as the Pimlico Futurity and Garden State S., but as Hatton reported, his
connections opted to give him time to develop physically in advance of a tilt at
the Triple Crown. Another transition took place at this juncture as well.
Winfrey decided to retire, and Eddie Neloy took the helm.
Bill Shoemaker partnered the bay for his first three starts as a sophomore.
Making his 1966 debut in a betless exhibition at Hialeah on Valentine’s Day,
Buckpasser gained ground but was still 4 1/2 lengths adrift of his stablemate
Impressive at the wire. Impressive was no slouch himself, as he equaled the
seven-furlong track mark of 1:21 4/5 that day and would rank as that season’s
champion sprinter. Buckpasser stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the Everglades S.
nine days later, and despite swerving when stung with the whip and slamming his
entrymate Stupendous, he scored by a head. That was the start of a 15-race
winning skein that would continue until midway in his four-year-old campaign.
Buckpasser’s idiosyncrasies nearly cost him next time out in the Flamingo S.,
which has gone down in history as the “Chicken Flamingo” after Hialeah
officials, terrified by the prospect of a minus pool, banned betting on the
affair. Frustrated would-be wagerers booed during the post parade, but the crowd
would soon get its money’s worth, in a different way. After the Phipps colt hit
the front, he promptly reverted to cruise control. As he fiddled around and lost
interest, Abe’s Hope blew right past him and established a daylight lead in
midstretch. Once Buckpasser’s blinkered eyes saw his opponent, he suddenly took
off again in the waning yards and snatched the victory by a nose. His startling
change of gear must be seen to be believed.
As so often in racing, and life, best laid plans came to naught. Buckpasser
developed a quarter crack in his right front hoof that became infected before
the Florida Derby, forcing him off the Kentucky Derby trail. A special plastic
patch, developed by Standardbred horseman Joe Grasso, was applied to the
afflicted foot. Sidelined for three months, he returned to action beneath Baeza
on June 4 at Aqueduct and defeated older allowance foes in a sharp 1:09 1/5 for
six furlongs, the fastest time of the meet. Buckpasser and Baeza wouldn’t be
After a cozy score in the Leonard Richards S., spotting his rivals 12 pounds
while carrying 126, he was set for a showdown with Derby and Preakness S. hero
Kauai King in the Arlington Classic H. On a strict reading of form, Buckpasser
looked to have the measure of Kauai King. Stupendous, the Everglades runner-up,
deputized for his superior barnmate in the classics, finishing a close fourth in
the Derby and runner-up in the Preakness.
Moreover, Buckpasser had enlisted the services of Impressive, whose mission
was to give the speedy Kauai King fits in the early going at Arlington. The
dynamic duo were about to put on a world record-setting show. Impressive blazed
a half-mile in :43 3/5, six furlongs in a sizzling 1:06 4/5, and Buckpasser
produced his customary late charge to pick up the baton in midstretch,
completing the mile in 1:32 3/5. His world mark stood for slightly more than two
years, eclipsed by the mighty Dr. Fager’s 1:32 1/5 at that same track in August
1968. Kauai King tired to fifth, unfortunately bowing a tendon and pulling up
Without the help of a rabbit, Buckpasser captured the Chicagoan S. and
Brooklyn H., his first stakes appearance against his elders. In the latter, he
displayed real heart to regroup after faltering in deep stretch, coming again to
take the prize by a head while giving seven pounds to the runner-up.
Once more teaming up with a pacemaker at Arlington, the Phipps star made
light work of his 128 pounds when surging to a neck decision in the American
Derby. Despite his high weight, and swinging well wide in the stretch, he posted
a new track record of 1:47 for 1 1/8 miles. In so doing, he swept the
“Mid-America Triple,” comprising Arlington’s major three-year-old events, and as
icing on the cake, he crushed Belmont S. winner Amberoid, who trudged home
Buckpasser again handled Amberoid in the Travers S., equaling the 1 1/4-mile
Saratoga mark of 2:01 3/5 and becoming the youngest-ever millionaire. A brief
bump in the road occurred when Baeza didn’t like the way he felt in a couple of
works, leading to his withdrawal from an engagement in the New Hampshire
Sweepstakes Classic at Rockingham Park.
Next followed a magisterial procession of trophies — the Woodward S. over
older horses, including Tom Rolfe, the previous year’s champion three-year-old;
the Lawrence Realization S., spotting his sophomore foes 10 pounds; and proving
that a marathon distance held no terrors for him, the two-mile Jockey Club Gold
Cup, in which he “drew off without need of urging and won with complete
authority,” according to the chart.
Buckpasser shipped to Santa Anita for the winter, where he set his sights on
the Strub series. In the seven-furlong Malibu S. on New Year’s Eve, he was
slowly away from the gate but arrived in time at the wire, officially ending his
smashing sophomore campaign. Acclaimed as Horse of the Year, champion handicap
horse and champion three-year-old, he won 13 of 14 starts in 1966 and boasted
career earnings of $1,237,174.
The first month of his four-year-old year foreshadowed the rest, with
blistering success checkered by physical frailty. After taking the San Fernando
“with authority,” giving weight and a beating to subsequent Santa Anita H. hero
Pretense among others, a clean sweep of the series appeared to be at his mercy.
Alas, before the Strub itself, he suffered another quarter crack in his
problematic right fore and was hors de combat for more than four months. He
would win only two of his remaining five starts, but those victories, coming in
two of New York’s most storied prizes, sealed Buckpasser’s place among the
The Phipps star made his reappearance in the Metropolitan Mile, his first
start at the distance since his world record run at Arlington. A complicating
factor this time around was the weight, with Buckpasser shouldering 130 pounds,
but the Horse of the Year was blithely indifferent to the impost. Sailing to the
front in the final furlong, he “retained a safe margin without the need of
urging” en route to a 1 1/4-length score. He took no notice of the fact that he
was spotting 22 pounds to the runner-up and 17 pounds to the third-place
finisher, champion sprinter Impressive, his former stablemate who was racing for
different ownership. His final time of 1:34 3/5 was exceptional in the
Buckpasser had now won 15 straight races, mostly in premier events, and may
have matched Triple Crown conqueror Citation’s streak of 16, if he had remained
on the dirt. The sporting Phipps was interested in the prospect of a
transatlantic raid on the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud, and as a reconnaissance
mission of sorts, his superstar was entered in the grassy Bowling Green H. Not
only was he testing a new surface, but Buckpasser was at the same time trying on
new shoes, “tractionless French plates,” in Hatton’s phrase. As if all that were
not enough, he was also saddled with 135 pounds, eight more than reigning
champion grass horse Assagai. Buckpasser struggled on the hard ground, but he
still managed to finish third to his pacesetting entrymate Poker, with Assagai
Perhaps the racing fates ordained his failure on the turf so that, instead of
being in France during the first week of July, he would take part in the
Suburban and deliver a performance for the ages. Carrying 133 pounds, without a
pacemaker in tow, Buckpasser lagged behind the moderate early tempo and was
going nowhere on the turn. His usual cut-and-thrust rally apparently deserting
him, he was still four lengths adrift in midstretch. Spectators thought he was
beaten, but Buckpasser did not think so.
By a Suburban winner, out of a Suburban winner, he would not besmirch the
family honor in the Suburban. The son of Tom Fool and Busanda dug down deep,
somehow tapped an extra reserve of energy, and accelerated in the final
sixteenth to collar Ring Twice, the Widener H. winner who toted a feathery 111
pounds, and prevail by a half-length. It was Buckpasser’s finest hour.
“His incredible conquest of the Suburban,” Hatton wrote in the 1968 ARM,
“when he came from lengths out of it as a dead-cock-in-the-pit at the quarter
pole, was quite the most stirring race seen in New York during 1967.”
Frank Talmadge Phelps went even further in the 1967 Bloodstock Breeders’
Review, calling Buckpasser’s Suburban “the greatest individual performance
of at least two decades.”
“He really put his heart out to win that race,” Baeza reminisced on his
website, brauliobaeza.com. “He struggled to win it. He won it on his heart
alone. He had the heart of a champion.”
After the Suburban, although his spirit was willing, his flesh had become too
weak. Arthritis was taking its toll on his right fore, affecting not only his
oft-plagued hoof but his pastern as well. He was unable to take the Handicap
Triple Crown, finishing a distant runner-up beneath 136 pounds in the Brooklyn.
His finale came in the 1967 Woodward, often billed as the “Race of the Century”
because it brought together Buckpasser, Dr. Fager and Damascus. The race shaped
up as a perfect storm for Damascus, who romped by 10 lengths, while a hobbled
Buckpasser did the best he could to overhaul Dr. Fager for second.
There was no sense in persevering. Buckpasser was retired with a record of
31-25-4-1 and a bankroll worth $1,462,014. While he lost his Horse of the Year
crown to Damascus, Buckpasser retained the title of champion handicap horse in
Before the Suburban, he had been syndicated for a then-record $4.8 million
for 32 shares, and he embarked upon his stud career at Claiborne. Inducted into
the Hall of Fame in 1970, Buckpasser died of a ruptured aorta on March 6, 1978,
at the relatively young age of 15.
Although he did not live to an advanced age, Buckpasser still left a towering
legacy, principally through his daughters, but his male line has experienced a
resurgence in recent years. Among his sons were multiple Grade 1 victor Silver
Buck, the sire of 1997 champion and dual classic winner Silver Charm, who is
ironically out of a mare by Buckpasser’s sometime pacemaker, Poker; L’Enjoleur,
a two-time Horse of the Year in Canada; Norcliffe, also a Canadian Horse of the
Year who sired 1987 sprint champion Groovy and is the paternal grandsire of 1992
Kentucky Derby hero Lil E. Tee; multiple Grade 1 winner State Dinner; and
Bucksplasher, sire of 1998 champion turf horse Buck’s Boy.
The son of Buckpasser who has done the most to put the line on a firm footing
is Grade 2 winner Buckaroo. He has himself sired 1985 Horse of the Year and
Derby hero Spend a Buck, who in turn is responsible for Brazilian champion
sprinter Pico Central (Brz), a multiple Grade 1 winner in the United States, and
the promising Einstein (Brz), a Grade 1 hero on the turf last year who will try
to transfer his form to the main track in 2007. Buckaroo’s other prominent son,
multiple Grade 3-winning sprinter Montbrook, has sired several promising young
stallions, led by 2003 Sanford S. (G2) victor Chapel Royal and 2003 Fountain of
Youth S. (G1) winner Trust N Luck.
Buckpasser’s daughters have had an incalculable impact, and this footnote
cannot do them justice. Two of his champions went on to become successful
broodmares. Numbered Account, the champion juvenile filly of 1971, produced
multiple Grade 1 winner and influential stallion Private Account, who sired
another Phipps superstar, the unbeaten champion and 1996 Broodmare of the Year
Personal Ensign. Relaxing, the 1981 champion handicap mare by Buckpasser, foaled
Easy Goer, 1988 champion two-year-old colt and 1989 Belmont hero. Relaxing was
honored as Broodmare of the Year in 1989.
Other Broodmares of the Year have had a close connection to Buckpasser. The
1991 honoree was a daughter of Buckpasser, Toll Booth, whose notable offspring
include 1980 champion sprinter Plugged Nickle. In 1992, multiple Grade 3 winner
Weekend Surprise, herself out of the Buckpasser mare Lassie Dear, was named the
top matron. Her leading progeny are 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, now a
two-time champion sire, and 1990 Preakness hero Summer Squall.
In addition to Numbered Account and Relaxing, Buckpasser had a third champion
daughter, the ill-fated La Prevoyante. Canadian Horse of the Year and U.S.
champion two-year-old filly in 1972, she lost her life on the racetrack and
never had the opportunity to carry on her bloodline.
Other Buckpasser mares are responsible for such significant performers and
stallions as Seeking the Gold, Miswaki, Woodman, El Gran Senor, Try My Best,
Polish Precedent, Believe It, Touch Gold, With Approval and Wavering Monarch,
who is himself the sire of champion and successful stallion Maria’s Mon. Many
prominent sires claim a daughter of Buckpasser slightly further back in their
female line, led by the all-conquering Danehill and Unbridled.
As those incomplete lists suggest, Buckpasser’s genes have gone global,
disseminated by top quality descendants as far afield as Europe, Australia, New
Zealand, Japan, India, South Africa, as well as South America.
Among the high-profile individuals inbred to Buckpasser are Phipps homebred
Smuggler, 2005 champion three-year-old filly; Whakilyric, the dam of French
highweight and successful stallion Hernando (Fr); and several Juddmonte Farms
colorbearers, including Grade 1 winner and young sire Aptitude, 2003 Belmont
hero Empire Maker and recent Malibu S. (G1) victor Latent Heat. Aptitude is
currently represented by a leading hopeful on the Triple Crown trail, Breeders’
Futurity (G1) victor Great Hunter, who boasts three strains of Buckpasser,
having received an extra dose from his dam’s side.
If Buckpasser’s name did not sum up his character, neither did it shape his
destiny. Far from being a faceless, anonymous apparatchik who disappears into
oblivion, Buckpasser was a dynamic force both on the track and at stud. His
legacy still reverberates in prestigious races around the world. Buckpasser
never passed the buck, but he did pass a torch whose flame continues to blaze