06/01/2017 2:36PM

Hovdey: Much history has been made at eight furlongs


As a cultural concept, the sound and substance of the “mile” has always been attractive.

Miracle Mile. Magic Mile. Mile High City. There’s “8 Mile,” a country mile, “Moonlight Mile,” and for smokers, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”

Horse racing is just as fascinated with the idea of the mile. No one said it was official, but apparently the game is celebrating Mile Day on Saturday, with events on both coasts that toast those Thoroughbreds who can do eight furlongs quickly, and with style.

Out West, Santa Anita offers its brace of features in the Beholder (née Vanity) Mile and the Shoemaker Mile, both Grade 1 rated. The Shoemaker is on grass and should be over with in a hurry, given that What a View, Bal a Bali, Heart to Heart, and Farhaan all know how to bring the heat. The main track’s Beholder, on the other hand, could unfold more like three-dimensional chess, pitting the class and versatility of champions Finest City and Stellar Wind against the seeming invincibility of Vale Dori.

Meanwhile, in the East, Penn National will chime in with the Penn Mile, an upwardly mobile Grade 2 contest that is beginning to fit snugly into an increasing array of opportunities for 3-year-olds on grass. America has no equivalent to Europe’s classic series of Guineas, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t try. Young horses from California, Kentucky, and New York will carve up $500,000 in prizes.

:: Get bonus PPs for Saturday's Grade 2 Penn Mile card at Penn National with purchase of any other Saturday PPs

How memorable this weekend’s bountiful miles will be is up to history. Racing lore already is crowded with landmark races run at one mile. One turn, two turns, dirt, or turf – they have provided some of the most memorable performances the game has ever witnessed. Here are just a few:

Mile memories tend to begin and end with the Metropolitan Handicap, which has been run somewhere in the environs of New York City at one mile since 1897. An era isn’t worth the bother unless it produces at least one great running of the Met Mile – this century already has been treated by Ghostzapper and Frosted – but no horse seized the race as his own like Devil Diver, the demon of Greentree Farm.

Running most of his life on a dicey foot and a bar shoe, Devil Diver won 22 races. Three of them were the Met Mile at Belmont Park. He won the 1943 Metropolitan under 117 pounds in 1:36 3/5, the 1944 Met under 134 pounds in 1:35 4/5, and the 1945 Met under 129 pounds in 1:36 2/5.

Before the Devil did it in 1944, no horse ever carried as much as 134 pounds in winning the Met, and none has since. The horses who finished second and third that day carried 109 and 108.

The world record of 1:33 3/5 established by Citation in the 1950 Golden Gate Mile Handicap made national headlines, mostly because it was Citation who did it, and he carried a very appropriate 128 pounds. It did not take long, however, for the time to find its true context. By the end of that Golden Gate meet, the trampoline track had produced world-record clockings from four different horses for six furlongs, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles, in addition to Citation’s mile.

The world mark 1:33 1/5 mile in the 1956 Argonaut Handicap at Hollywood Park also occurred amidst a whirlwind of records. This time, however, they were taken more seriously than the Golden Gate onslaught, since they all were set by one horse – Swaps.

Sailing around the Hollywood oval, his red mane and tail rippling in his own breeze, Swaps carried 128 pounds in the Argonaut to a comfortable win over Bobby Broccato, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap. Yes, the track was very fast. So was Swaps.

Miles worth mentioning in the wake of the Swaps record include Intentionally’s ferocious 10-length victory under 126 pounds in the 1959 Jerome Handicap at Belmont Park, and the exhilarating performance of 1961 Derby-Preakness winner Carry Back in the 1962 Metropolitan, his first major score as an older horse, accomplished in 1:33 3/5.

Those races set the tone for the march of remarkable miles staged in Chicago by track impresario Marjorie Everett in the mid-1960s.

First came Hedevar, a capable 4-year-old, who posted a 1:33 1/5 to beat Bold Bidder in the Equipoise Mile at Arlington Park. One week later, Buckpasser hit town to take the 1966 Arlington Classic by three-quarters of a length over Creme dela Creme in 1:32 4/5. To say he could have run faster is to know Buckpasser, notorious for winning by as little as possible. Two months later, Bold Bidder returned to Chicago to beat champion Tom Rolfe in the Washington Park Handicap, clocked in 1:32 4/5.

In August 1968, the speedway at Washington Park provided the stage for Dr. Fager’s moment of transcendence. At the time, the son of Rough ’n Tumble was on his way to championships in three different divisions, but the Washington Park Handicap stood apart as his everlasting gesture.

Carrying 134 pounds – Devil Diver country – Dr. Fager ran with the field through the first half, then gradually disappeared into the distance, winning by 10 lengths in 1:32 1/5. Some remarkable miles have come and gone since that day, but Dr. Fager’s record on old-fashioned American dirt still stands.