11/18/2016 4:16PM

Hovdey: While his opponents worked, Buckpasser played

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Do not be impressed with the reputation of any modern racehorse until time is spent with the record and the reality of Buckpasser, the Horse of the Year of 1966.

It has not taken 50 years to appreciate this monster. On the contrary, he was feared in the flesh, a relentless 3-year-old machine who blew off the Triple Crown races and won everything else worth winning. Picture Arrogate, plus eight more starts and nine more stakes victories.

As often happens, and quite by chance, Buckpasser came along at just the right time. As 1966 dawned, the American racing culture still was suffering from post-Kelso depression. The five-time Horse of the Year – 1960 through 1964 – had a so-so 1965, winning the Whitney and the Stymie at age 8, but he clearly was not the same Kelso who had dominated the game. Kelso made what turned out to be his final start on March 2, 1966, at Hialeah Park, finishing fourth in a six-furlong allowance, the 63rd start of his career.

The following afternoon, Hialeah presented its marquee event, the $100,000 Flamingo Stakes, for the best of Florida’s 3-year-old division. Nine were entered, making for an interesting contest on paper, but apparently only one runner mattered to management. Because of Buckpasser – and the minus pools that had followed him through an early career of 10 wins in 13 starts – the race was declared a betless event.

Buckpasser ended up beating Abe’s Hope by a nose in a thriller, prompting Red Smith of the New York Times to rub management’s nose in the non-wagering decision, dubbing it “the Chicken Flamingo.”

Bill Shoemaker rode Buckpasser that day, but it was Braulio Baeza who was most closely associated with Buckpasser, both mornings and afternoons. When trainer Eddie Neloy got Buckpasser back in action in June of ’66, after losing time to a cracked hoof, horse and rider set off on an unbeatable rampage that took them from New York to California.

Call it the Buckpasser Comedy Tour.

Time and again, Buckpasser would do just enough to win the race, and nothing more. His preferred margin of victory was three-quarters of a length – in the Leonard Richards, the Arlington Classic, the Chicagoan, the Travers, the Woodward, the Malibu – which was enough to be conclusive but never discouraging to opponents who would always think, “Maybe next time.”

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But every next time turned out just like the last, at least for the rest of 1966. In addition to the close call in the Flamingo, he won the Everglades by a head, the Brooklyn by a head, the American Derby by a neck. Only when the distances stretched beyond the ability of any opposition to keep pace did Buckpasser open daylight at the end, like he did by 2 1/2 lengths in the 13-furlong Lawrence Realization, and by 1 3/4 lengths in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“To me, it was like a game for him,” said Baeza, 76, who entered the Hall of Fame in 1976. “You see, he wasn’t running hard when he would get to horses, or horses would come to him. He wouldn’t want to leave them, just stay with them, play with them. Other jockeys kept thinking they could beat him, because he never pulled away.

“For me, at the beginning this wasn’t much fun,” Baeza went on. “But then later, when I got to know him, it became great fun. He taught me how to ride him.”

To keep his playful colt from getting bored during training sessions, Eddie Neloy would deploy several workmates around the track. As Buckpasser dispatched each one, another would pick up the baton.

“Every time he passed one he’d pull himself up,” Baeza recalled. “Everything was just so easy for him. Underneath he felt like a powerhouse. He could accelerate any time he wanted.”

Buckpasser was bred in the deep purple – by Horse of the Year Tom Fool out of War Admiral’s male-bashing daughter Busanda – born and raised at Claiborne Farm and decorated by the black silks and cherry red cap of Ogden Phipps.

True to his heritage, he was the ultimate example of equine noblesse oblige. Cary Grant in a horse suit, never taking himself seriously. His demeanor was gracious, unperturbed; his physical attributes flawless. Racing writers lined up to heap praises upon the look of the handsome bay colt with classic black points.

“There simply is no particular in which Buckpasser is disappointing on the score of conformation,” wrote Daily Racing Form’s Charles Hatton. “He is larger and better balanced than Citation, his pasterns less lengthy than Count Fleet’s … gets his head lower and has a less staggy action that had Man o’ War.”

Buckpasser owned 1966 with 13 wins (losing only his first outing, a batting practice allowance race) and record single-season earnings of $669,078. He lowered the mark for the mile to 1:32.60 in the one-turn Arlington Classic. He defeated the Derby and Preakness winner, the Belmont winner, and older horses, and he did it all with a puckish sense of humor always at the ready.

“He dropped me one morning,” Baeza said. “He kind of pulled himself up, wheeled, and got me off.”

No doubt panic ensued, with the valuable colt fleeing down the track.

“No,” Baeza replied with a laugh. “He stood right there and looked at me. Like he was saying, ‘You gonna get up, or what?’”