Updated on 09/17/2011 5:52PM

Staking his claim to Horse of the Year

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - At the racetracks of America there is a universal term for a horse like Ghostzapper: a freak. He has raw talent that dwarfs even those Thoroughbreds who might legitimately deserve the label "great."

Until Saturday, the public at large was only dimly aware of this exceptional 4-year-old. Last season he never got a shot at the glory of the Triple Crown races, and thus never got widespread media exposure. Because of his limited racing opportunities, many people who admired him continued to doubt his stamina. But after what Ghostzapper did in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, there are no doubts left.

The 4-year-old ran away from an all-star field at Lone Star Park and covered the 1 1/4 miles in a record 1:59.02, the fastest performance ever in America's richest race. When speed handicappers have finished their calculations, they may declare this to be the fastest single performance by any horse in any race of the Breeders' Cup's 21-year history.

And he didn't do it the easy way. The 13-horse lineup was filled with high-quality speed horses, such as the blazingly fast Roses in May and the champion mare Azeri. Yet trainer Bobby Frankel declared in advance that he intended to have jockey Javier Castellano go to the lead, try to beat the speedsters at their own game, and then hold off the stretch-runners such as Pleasantly Perfect, the defending champion in this event. Frankel, an avid student of the speed-figure sheets produced by Len Ragozin, knew that Ghostzapper possessed superior talent. He had told confidantes, "This is the best horse I ever trained." There was no need for any subtlety. He was prepared to let Ghostzapper flaunt his brilliant speed.

Ghostzapper broke alertly and seized the lead immediately; once he was on top, Castellano put him under stout restraint and took control of the race. He got his one and only challenge on the backstretch, when Roses in May drew abreast of him. The challenger is a formidable horse, who was unbeaten in five starts this season; he is a fierce battler. And yet when he tried to pressure Ghostzapper, Castellano never had to adjust his feet-in-the-dashboard posture. He easily shrugged off the challenge by Roses in May, whose jockey, John Velazquez, said, "The winner ran a humongous race." Ghostzapper dismissed the challenges of the late runners just as easily.

Ghostzapper's victory was by far the highlight of the first Breeders' Cup held in Texas, but the day produced other memorable moments. The 2-year-old Sweet Catomine delivered a stunning performance winning the Juvenile Fillies. She ran into traffic on the turn, checked and lost two lengths, but then surged to win by nearly four lengths. She ran faster than the colts in the Juvenile - a race in which the 28-1 European invader Wilko beat America's best. The filly might be a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby.

The Filly and Mare Turf produced a brilliant performance by another European, Ouija Board, whose owner has a more majestic name than any in the sport: Lord Derby. The Breeders' Cup also produced a wonderful rags-to-riches story, the victory in the Mile by Singletary, owned by a 13-member syndicate that had bought the horse for $3,200.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the day, along with the collective poor showing of America's 2-year-old colts, was the subpar effort by Kitten's Joy in the Turf. Hailed as the nation's best grass runner in years, he was a potential candidate for the Horse of the Year title until he lost to the 27-1 Better Talk Now.

There may still be some debate about the Horse of the Year, even after Ghostzapper's performance today, because Smarty Jones was such an exciting and popular performer during the Triple Crown series. Yet as good as Smarty Jones was, he never approached Ghostzapper's level of performance.

In his three prior starts this season, Ghostzapper ran three phenomenal races. When he won the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park, he ran so fast that he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 128, the best by any horse in more than a decade. In the seven-furlong Tom Fool Stakes at Belmont, he earned a figure of 120 - the best effort by any sprinter this season. Thus he was the fastest distance runner and the fastest sprinter. If that's not a Horse of the Year, what is?

When Frankel was asked about the impending Ghostzapper vs. Smarty Jones vote, he reacted with characteristic bluntness.

"This," he said, "is a no-brainer. [Ghostzapper] is the . . . Horse of the Year. This is the best horse in the country by far."

(c) 2004 The Washington Post