03/04/2005 12:00AM

Best 41 days a horse ever had

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NEW YORK - When the usual suspects in the racing world filled the Grand Ballroom of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Feb. 6, 1984, there was genuine suspense over who would be named Horse of the Year at the end of the evening.

The three leading contenders all had somewhat unusual credentials. Slew o' Gold, the champion 3-year-old, had defeated good older horses such as Bates Motel in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup but was otherwise 3 for 10. Devil's Bag, the champion 2-year-old, was the talk of the sport but there was widespread reluctance to make him the first juvenile Horse of the Year since Secretariat. The final candidate was the oddest of all, a French filly who had not made her American debut until Oct. 16. No foreign-based horse, and no runner who had raced exclusively on grass, had ever been named America's Horse of the Year.

She became the first. All Along, who died last Wednesday at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., won the award for what she achieved during 41 days in the fall of 1983 that had a far-reaching effect on the sport.

All Along, the Wildenstein family's homebred daughter of Targowice (Round Table-Matriarch), was a bust in the European 3-year-old classics but won the Prix Vermeille in the fall of 1982 and was beaten just a neck while splitting Half Iced and April Run in that year's Japan Cup. The following year, she lost her first three starts of the summer but put it all together when it counted, winning the Arc de Triomphe at 17-1 on Oct. 2. In the hands of an ambitious young trainer named Patrick Biancone, she was just getting started.

Officials at Woodbine, Aqueduct, and Laurel had put up a $1 million bonus several years earlier for any horse who could win the Rothmans International, Turf Classic, and Washington D.C. International. No one had come close to sweeping the 4 5/8 miles of grass marathons run just two weeks apart, and the idea that an Arc winner, much less a filly, would even make four marathon starts in 41 days seemed preposterous.

All Along made it look easy. In the Rothmans on Oct. 16, she took over after a mile and pulled away to beat Thunder Puddles and Majesty's Prince by two. Thirteen days later, she trounced Majesty's Prince by 8 3/4 in the Turf Classic. The D.C. International two weeks later was nationally televised in a late switch after Devil's Bag was withdrawn from the Remsen, and All Along became the richest filly in racing history with a 3 1/2-length romp while in hand.

A few things had broken her way. The males she kept pummeling were hardly an inspiring bunch, and she didn't have to face John Henry, the male grass champion despite a spotty campaign and 2 for 6 record that year. She also caught a cold and wet fall and three yielding courses she clearly loved, winning her two 1 1/2-mile races in 2:34 and 2:35. Still, what she had done in 41 days was astounding: won four Grade 1 races while racing a total of 49 furlongs in three countries on two continents.

Today, she would have been proclaimed the Horse of the World and romped in the Eclipse balloting, but at the time this was an entirely new sort of achievement and no one in this country knew quite what to make of it. This was also the last year in which championships would be won and lost in races such as the Gold Cup and the D.C. International. The next year, the Breeders' Cup began, and it was partly All Along's heroics the previous fall that encouraged Europeans to try the new races.

All Along was never quite the same after her championship season, when she was Horse of the Year in both France and the United States. The following fall she was beaten in the Turf Classic, the Arc, and the Rothmans. She nearly went out a winner in her final career start, the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood Park, leading by a length in deep stretch, but along came another European, Lashkari, to nail her on the wire at 53-1.

As a broodmare, All Along had one major offspring, the Grade 2 winner Along All, and two stakes producers, and she was 26 when age and infirmities caught up with her last week. Her passing seemed to attract less attention than it should have. All Along deserves a lasting place in memory and history, not only for her spectacular 41 days in 1983 but also for both changing forever the definition of a Horse of the Year and opening the international borders of the sport.