August 10, 2020

In Excess a cautionary tale of making the right Breeders’ Cup race choice

In Excess set a still-standing Belmont Park track record of 1:58.33 for 1 1/4 miles winning the 1991 Suburban Handicap (Coglianese Photography)

The connections of star grass performer Bricks and Mortar face a difficult choice of Breeders’ Cup target, and the decision to enter either the Turf (G1) or the Mile (G1) is fraught with risk in one respect.

Although Bricks and Mortar has been widely regarded as the Horse of the Year favorite for several months, his present position must be considered tenuous as turf-exclusive runners have been rare recipients of the sport’s top year-end honor. Not only would a loss in either race open up the Horse of the Year discussion, but it would also trigger second-guessing whether the chosen race was the right one in the first place.

Bricks and Mortar’s position brings to mind a somewhat similar situation that befell In Excess in 1991, an event that nearly three decades later still stings this observer. The Irish-bred, California-based four-year-old rolled into that year’s Breeders’ Cup the Horse of the Year favorite, but choosing the wrong race cost him not only a potential win on the day but also a Horse of the Year title he arguably still should have won.

Though starting his season with one win in three starts in California, In Excess absolutely cleaned up in New York throughout the summer and fall. From an historical standpoint, a sweep of the Metropolitan H. (G1), the Suburban H. (G1) in a still-standing track record of 1:58.33 for 1 1/4 miles at Belmont, the Whitney H. (G1), and the Woodward (G1) put In Excess in a rarefied class. However, some opposing horsemen didn’t see it that way.

The 1991 season was the first for the short-lived American Championship Racing Series (ACRS), created in part to showcase older horses and sustain interest in them beyond the Triple Crown and their three-year-old seasons. A series packaged for television, horses earned points based on their finish positions in 10 races with the top four point getters earning bonus money.

While these races were geographically distributed throughout the country, several of the most historic and prestigious events won by In Excess were not included in the series. Instead of the Met Mile, Suburban, and Whitney, the series featured now defunct events like the Nassau County H. (G2) at Belmont and the New England Classic at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Also included was the inaugural Pacific Classic at Del Mar, won by the three-year-old Best Pal.

The decision not to include races like the Suburban and Whitney certainly had a detriment on the quality of their fields. In Excess’ closest pursuers in both were Chief Honcho and Killer Diller, hardly household names and obscure even to those in the sport with very long and encyclopedic memories. Nonetheless, In Excess won both stylishly.

In Excess competed in only two ACRS events. Though he finished a distant fourth to Farma Way in the Santa Anita H. (G1) in March, In Excess was an even-money favorite to beat that rival and other battle-hardened ACRS veterans like Festin and Jolie’s Halo in the final race of the series, the Woodward at Belmont. In Excess proved best by 1 3/4 lengths, in the process evening his head-to-head season record with Farma Way and Festin at one apiece.

However, some prominent horsemen weren’t buying into In Excess. The Los Angeles Times reported that D. Wayne Lukas, who conditioned Farma Way, said trainer Bruce Jackson had In Excess on a “cream-puff” schedule. Carl Nafzger told the same newspaper: “Some of the races he’s won don’t mean anything. He happened to catch four big races that didn’t have many of the best horses in them.”

Sending In Excess to Churchill Downs early to ostensibly prepare for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Jackson began to have second thoughts running him in that race after a couple unsatisfactory workouts.

“The horse is usually full of himself after a work, but these two wore him out,” Jackson said. “After he worked a mile that day, he laid down in his stall for three days.”

Notwithstanding his performance in the Suburban and the widening margins by which he won the nine-furlong Whitney and Woodward, Jackson was also strangely pessimistic about In Excess’ ability to negotiate 1 1/4 miles.

“His ability to get a mile and a quarter has always been suspect,” he said. “The way he worked over this track (Churchill Downs), I had more of a reason that the distance would be too much for him.”

According to legendary turf reporter Joe Hirsch:

“…friends tried to explain to Jackson that the Churchill Downs people always keep the track deep and tiring before the start of racing and that the track then speeds up gradually, on a daily basis. The trainer, however, could only visualize the extreme fatigue of his horse after that first major work.”

Convinced of his own reading of the horse’s condition, Jackson opted to pass up a shot at the Classic and instead run In Excess in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Although he had won three of six starts on the turf in England and had also won the Volante H. (G3) and San Gabriel H. (G3) during his first few months in the U.S., In Excess was hardly an established top-level performer on the surface. The Mile was unsurprisingly deep, too, featuring that season’s leading turf horse Tight Spot.

“If I’m wrong, find a shovel and come and bury me. Because I’m the only guy who had anything to do with making this decision,” Jackson said.

Describing himself as having marched to a different drummer all year, the metaphorical band that was Jackson and In Excess ultimately came to a sudden halt and stopped playing at Churchill Downs. On a Breeders’ Cup Day that produced a number of major upsets, In Excess could do no better than finish in a dead-heat for ninth with Tight Spot as the 2-1 favorite.

Absent In Excess and Farma Way, who was injured prior to the Breeders’ Cup, the $3 million Classic had as its favorite the long-winded, South American closer Festin. However, no one proved capable of catching the front-running, co-second choice Black Tie Affair, whom Jerry Bailey nursed on the lead over the Derby distance to score by 1 1/4 lengths. The Classic capped a career-ending, six-race win streak for Black Tie Affair (coincidentally also an Irish-bred), who was subsequently voted champion older male and Horse of the Year. In Excess received virtually no support from voters for either award.

Given the criticisms leveled at In Excess and his connections for sidestepping much of the ACRS, it was supremely ironic that Black Tie Affair should have emerged on top of the division and in the national championship chase. After dropping three of his four starts that season, Black Tie Affair gallivanted throughout the Midwest that summer, picking up relatively minor victories in the Stephen Foster H. (then only a Grade 3), Michigan Mile and One-Eighth H. (G2), and Cornhusker H. (G3). Black Tie Affair’s only appearance in the ACRS series was successful, though, a neck victory over Farma Way in the Philip H. Iselin H. (G1) at Monmouth Park. He preceded his Breeders’ Cup win with a dominating score in the Washington Park H. (G2) over Summer Squall, yet another who rarely turned up for ACRS festivities.

The kicker in the In Excess vs. Black Tie Affair debate is that while they did not meet in the Breeders’ Cup, they had met once earlier that season — in the Met Mile. As noted earlier, In Excess won that race. No slouch himself at a mile or less having won multiple graded events going that short, including the seven-furlong Commonwealth (G3) over Hall of Famer Housebuster, Black Tie Affair threw in the towel early in the Met Mile and crossed the wire ninth. A not-insignificant margin of 11 lengths separated him and In Excess.

While it was disappointing that In Excess was not given a chance to compete in his optimal Breeders’ Cup race, more so was the reaction of the Eclipse Award electorate. In year-end balloting for an honor that has traditionally recognized excellence on the main track, voters held his turf performance against In Excess. (The same fate awaited Gentlemen six years later in the race for champion older male against Formal Gold and Skip Away. The latter’s victory at the polls with a relatively inferior record paved the way for a two-year-old, Favorite Trick, to be named Horse of the Year.)

Most disappointing of all, the result of the one head-to-head meeting between In Excess and Black Tie Affair held little sway in the minds of the voters of that era. It might be a minority view of one, but the 1991 season was best summed up not by the result of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but of the Met Mile.