Updated on 09/15/2011 12:55PM

Superhorse or same-old, same-old?


WASHINGTON - Since "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" entrenched itself on the bestseller lists 24 weeks ago, racing fans have marveled at one aspect of the saga. Seabiscuit was so exciting and charismatic that he captured the interest of the public at large, drawing attention to horse racing from people who otherwise would have had no interest in the sport.

"His appearances smashed attendance records at nearly every major track; 75,000 people witnessed his last race," author Laura Hillenbrand wrote. "As many as 40,000 fans mobbed tracks just to watch his workouts, while thousands of others braved ice storms and murderous heat to catch a glimpse of his private Pullman rail car.

"He was featured week after week, year after year, in Time, Life, Newsweek, Look, Pic, and The New Yorker. . . . The little horse and the men who rehabilitated him captured the American imagination."

As the popularity of racing has declined in recent years, its remaining fans have hoped that a horse could appear and invigorate the game as Seabiscuit did, that he could have the same kind of impact that Tiger Woods has had on golf. So whenever a young horse displays exceptional potential, people dream that he might be the next great Thoroughbred, the next Triple Crown winner, a horse so extraordinary that he could have some magical, transforming effect on his sport.

That's an awfully heavy burden to put on an inexperienced 2-year-old whose main accomplishment has been winning a three-horse race on a Wednesday afternoon at Del Mar. But the colt in question has exuded star quality before he ever competed. He has the right connections: He is owned by the Thoroughbred Corporation, which campaigns the top 3-year-old Point Given, and is trained by Bob Baffert, the most high-profile member of his profession. The colt even has a name worthy of a champion: Officer.

Officer was sold at the Barretts Sale in March, where 2-year-olds show their potential with a short workout before the auction. Officer sped a quarter-mile faster than any horse in the history of the sale - 20.7 seconds, with the first furlong in a stunning 9.8 seconds - and commanded a bid of $700,000.

He lived up to his promise by scoring a six-length victory in a maiden race and then a nine-length romp in a minor stakes for California-breds, beating negligible competition. On Aug. 15, Officer had his first real test in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar, and while the event drew a field of only three, the other two were both highly regarded colts with stakes potential. (One of them, Essence of Dubai, had cost $2.3 million as a yearling.) Officer went past his rivals as if they were standing still, and throughout the stretch he was under such a strong hammerlock by jockey Victor Espinoza that announcer Trevor Denman exclaimed, "It looks like he could go around the track again!"

Even though Espinoza never turned him loose, Officer sped 6 1/2 furlongs in a stakes-record 1:15.08 seconds and demolished his rivals by seven lengths.

After the race, Espinoza said: "It's the easiest I've ever won on any horse. I'll tell you right now, I think he's a champion. . . . Have you ever seen one like him?"

Could he be right? Could Officer be the Great Bay Hope?

Any realist would have to conclude that the odds are against Officer, and that American racing is unlikely to see another horse with the star power of Seabiscuit or Secretariat.

The odds are against the emergence of a superhorse because the American breeding industry hasn't been producing them. In the 1970's, the sport saw extraordinary performers such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, Ruffian, and Forego. Not a single horse with their talent has appeared in this country in the last 20 years.

This is probably not an accident. American-bred racehorses are demonstrably less robust and durable than they used to be. Moreover, there is such an increased emphasis on breeding for raw speed that fewer horses have the genes to excel at classic distances. (If you can sell a horse for big bucks on the basis of a fast two-furlong workout, why bother to breed for stamina?)

Officer may be a case in point. His sire, Bertrando, was a purveyor of raw speed, and although he did once win at 1 1/4 miles, and ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he has not yet proved himself a sire of classic horses. So Officer - like so many racing prodigies - must be considered a question mark at the distances where Thoroughbreds are ultimately asked to prove their greatness.

If a youngster such as Officer - whose next race is the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 5 - does develop into a genuinely great racehorse, and even if he further defies the odds and stays sound, he is unlikely to have a long career because modern horses can earn so much money at stud. Seabiscuit entrenched himself into the American consciousness because he raced 89 times over a six-year period. Horses don't have campaigns like that any more; the biggest name of 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus, was retired to stud, in perfect health, after a nine-race career.

So there are plenty of reasons for prudent racing fans to doubt that Officer is going to be the sport's bright new star. But that won't stop us from hoping that he lives up to every bit of his potential and becomes the Seabiscuit of his era.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post