09/27/2013 4:08PM

Jay Hovdey: Immortal they may be, all things must end

NYRA photo/Bob Coglianese
Spectacular Bid is all alone in his career swan song, a walkover in the 1980 Woodward.

It’s been said the best way to go out is to leave them wanting more. You would think, though, that rabid followers of AMC’s meth-and-violence-addled “Breaking Bad” would have had enough of Walter White and his merry band of sociopaths by now, and that the final episode on Sunday night will bring them blessed relief so that they may feel free to turn to more wholesome entertainment, like “Duck Dynasty,” or reruns of “Dexter.”

After a run of five seasons, as “Breaking Bad” has enjoyed, there will be no excuses for anything less than a finale that will rank with TV’s most memorable, whether you’re talking about “M*A*S*H” or “Dallas” or “Seinfeld” or “St. Elsewhere,” which turned out to be nothing but the fevered imaginings of an autistic child. And of course we all know where we were and who we were with when the end came for “BJ and the Bear” in 1981. Man, I miss that monkey.

Thoroughbred racing has had more than its share of grand final acts. Seabiscuit won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap in his 89th and final start and walked gingerly into the sunset. Secretariat took his last bow with an inspirational performance in the 1973 Canadian International Championship. Seattle Slew erased the bitter taste of his narrow loss in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup by carrying 134 pounds to victory one month later in the Stuyvesant Handicap before an adoring New York crowd.

As good as he was – and many still think he was the best – it is hard to give Spectacular Bid a lot of credit for the final race of his career. It was, after all, a walkover. Still, the sight of the steel-gray colt galloping briskly around Belmont Park under Bill Shoemaker to add the 1980 Woodward Stakes to his perfect season was somehow fitting to the moment.

In a similar vein, it is wrong to call Citation’s last, satisfying appearance in winning the 1950 Hollywood Gold Cup a truly grand finale, since his people were ready to run him again if he had not reached the magic milestone of a million dollars in earnings that day.

In fact, there have been any number of champions who marked up a victory in the final race of their careers and were ready to keep playing when someone rewrote the script.

In the summer of 1954 Native Dancer had just carried 137 pounds in an overnight handicap for his 21st win in 22 starts and was supposed to run in the Saratoga Cup a few days hence. Then his bad foot flared and that was that.

Two years later, after winning the 1956 Washington Park Handicap for his 19th win in 25 starts, Swaps had dead aim on the Trenton Handicap at Garden State when he fractured a hind leg that ended his career and nearly cost his life.

Then there was the heartbreak of Native Diver, who at the age of 8 had just equaled a track record in winning the Del Mar Handicap in his 81st start and was ready for more. Eight days later he was dead from the ravages of colitis.

Ack Ack, John Henry, Ghostzapper – the last time they were seen on the racetrack they were Thoroughbreds in full possession of their gifts. Ack Ack won the 1971 Hollywood Gold Cup under 132 pounds. John Henry lit up the New Jersey night in the 1984 Ballantine Classic. Ghostzapper dismantled the 2005 Metropolitan Mile in the best race of his short career. All of them were intended to do more, but for the misfortune of untimely injury.

At least they went out on top, because it doesn’t always work that way, no matter how we’d like the fairy tale to end.

Forego, Zenyatta, Kelso, Round Table, and Bold Ruler all went out on a losing race, heads high and owing nothing to no one. Damascus and Buckpasser both left the stage on a low note that soon faded in the glow of what they achieved. Serena’s Song may have stayed too long at the dance, losing her last seven starts after winning 18 of her first 31, but still she found herself in the Hall of Fame. And after Skip Away lost his last two starts at the end of his $9.6 million career, trainer Sonny Hine worried aloud that his tough warrior might not win the vote for 1998 Horse of the Year. He did.

Nashua was flawless in his final start, the 1956 Jockey Club Gold Cup, while Dr. Fager had nothing to prove by carrying 139 pounds to win the last race of his career in the 1968 Vosburgh Handicap. To make a point, he set the seven-furlong Aqueduct record.

By the fall of 1971, Shuvee had run 43 times and earned everlasting admiration by winning every major New York race for fillies and mares. Her final bow came in a defense of her title against colts in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which she won by seven lengths.

As far as all-time favorites, it is hard to top the swan song of Affirmed, who ended his career by defeating classic winners Spectacular Bid and Coastal in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup. For sheer drama, Personal Ensign gets the prize for refusing to lose what was announced as the last start of her life, when she caught Winning Colors at the end of the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff to remain undefeated in 13 starts. An encore was not required,

But if Walter White wants a role model in racing, as far as tough-guy exit lines go, he could do a whole lot worse than Johnny Longden. Not only did Longden, then 59, circle the day and race for the last ride of a 38-year career, he won that 1966 running of San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita in the bargain, and by a nose no less, aboard the 6-1 shot George Royal. That’s what you call 99 percent pure.

John Rowan More than 1 year ago
Man o'War defeating the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in his 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup swansong deserves mention. Aussie raider Phar Lap won the rich Agua Caliente Handicap unextended by two lengths in 1932. Three weeks later he was dead by mysterious causes while in training at Tanforan, thereby plunging the entire nation into mourning Down Under, and conspiracy theories there abound to this day.
Old timer More than 1 year ago
Nice memories!
John Murray More than 1 year ago
Terrific article Jay, it exhorts us to remember the long view, puts things in perspective, few current heroes still racing, especially after this year's mediocre 3 yo triple crown season. Pop-up winners like RtGreek and Little Mike on their day, are the rule rather than consistent excellence, save for Wise Dan, perhaps Game On Dude, and the exemplary legend Frankel. Johnny Longden George Royal and Majestic Prince, all Canadian, btw.
Earl Rhodes More than 1 year ago
Love Johnny Longden aka the Pumper , during the seventy's my mother was dyeing from cancer , decided to go to Bay Meadows that day , Mr, Longden was training by then , but when he was riding he was my mothers favorite jock , thought an autograph from him would cheer her up , without hesitation he gave it to me on a program , to this day I have it , by the way the horse he was there to saddle Majestic Prince
Edward Kip More than 1 year ago
Did I forget to mention that Noor had already beaten Citation 4 times in 1950?
Edward Kip More than 1 year ago
Poor Noor....never gets any credit.....especially when it comes to Citation. Noor won the the 1950 Hollywood Gold Cup (and he beat the already-voted-in HOY, Hill Prince, '49 KY Derby winner, Ponder and Triple Crown winner, Assault). That was Noor's final race. Citation would win the race (and his million) in 1951- he was out with leg problems for the '50 Gold Cup. Just a small correction to an otherwise great story, Jay....loved it! -Kip Hannan - Betfair Hollywood Park TV Dept. -a serious 'Breaking Baddict.'
Dennis Lapp More than 1 year ago
Yes, it is impossible, or nearly so, to outdo Longden's exit. Only Ted Williams comes close.
Dac More than 1 year ago
Nice story but I believe when Ack Ack won the Hollywood Gold Cup he carried 134 lbs
Terri Bey More than 1 year ago
Great job. Loved the piece.
Pat Diers More than 1 year ago
Awesome, Jay-