Hialeah Park’s Flamingo Stakes, once a preeminent steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby, gave us so many great champions — Citation, Northern Dancer, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Alydar and Spectacular Bid.
It also gave us the memorable “Chicken Flamingo.” Say what?
Foaled: April 28, 1963
Died: March 6, 1978
Birthplace: Claiborne Farm;
Sire: Tom Fool
Dam: Busanda, by War Admiral
Owner-Breeder: Ogden Phipps
In 1966, a field of nine 3-year olds was entered for the Flamingo Stakes on March 3, headed by Buckpasser. He brought a record of 10 wins and two seconds from 13 starts into the Flamingo, and figured to be no better than 1-5 odds with Bill Shoemaker in the irons.
The previous week, Buckpasser had won the Everglades Stakes, which earned the strikingly handsome bay colt the prestigious title of winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Fearing the possibility of a costly minus pool, Hialeah track president Gene Mori made the rash decision to stage the Flamingo as a non-wagering exhibition. Mori had calculated that the track might lose between $50,000 and $100,000 if wagering was permitted.
In his column the following day, New York sportswriter Red Smith dubbed it “The Chicken Flamingo.”
A boisterous crowd of 30,011 gave Hialeah’s top brass an earful, booing lustily during the post parade. Apparently, Ogden Phipps’ colt wasn’t pleased either. After he hit the front, Buckpasser promptly lost interest and shifted into neutral. Meanwhile Abe’s Hope blew right past him and established a daylight lead in midstretch. Buckpasser - racing in blinkers - woke up. Suddenly, he uncorked a mad dash in the waning yards, but still appeared to be a certain loser with only 20 yards to go. With a devastating demonstration of explosive speed and power, Buckpasser snatched the victory by a nose.
“I was just about to give up,” said a stunned Shoemaker after the race. “No horse has ever demolished that much ground in three strides. It demonstrated tremendous ability and courage.”
Those racing tactics were Buckpasser’s standard fare. Unchallenged by another horse, Buckpasser tended to get lazy, sometimes pulling himself up, until faced with the prospect of losing. He beat everything sent against him by only as much as he had to, thus giving all owners on the grounds some hope that one of their horses actually had a chance to beat him.
Nearly 17 hands and impeccably bred, Buckpasser was a champion at two, unanimous Horse of the Year at three, and a champion again at four. A dynamic force both on the track and at stud, his legacy still reverberates in prestigious races around the world.
In his 2-year-old debut in 1965, Buckpasser finished fourth in a 5 ½-furlong maiden special weight. He would never be unplaced again in 30 more starts, and immediately rattled off eight consecutive wins. On a later streak, he would almost double that number. In each of his three seasons, he was a champion, despite quarter cracks (a crack of the hoof located between the toe and heel) in both his 3- and 4-year-old campaigns. And even after missing the Triple Crown races, he was voted Horse of the Year at age three after winning 13 or 14 starts.
Buckpasser was foaled on April 28, 1963, at historic Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. He was bred and owned by Ogden Phipps, the central figure in a family dynasty built on steel, investment banking and the breeding and racing of horses. Ogden was the grandson of Henry Phipps, partner of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. A broad-shouldered, balding man, Phipps was also chairman of The Jockey Club.
As for Buckpasser, his pedigree was pure gold. Brilliance (and suspect soundness) was part of the legacy of his sire, Tom Fool, a superstar himself. War Admiral's Suburban Handicap winning daughter Busanda was the dam and a granddaughter of the immortal Man o’ War.
“Buckpasser is the most perfectly proportioned Thoroughbred I have ever seen," insisted the great painter Richard Stone Reeves. Only two horses, Secretariat and Affirmed, have since earned the artist’s high praise.
New York racing official Dr. Manuel Gilman added, “Generally, every horse has about a hundred faults of conformation. I would defy anybody to pick a flaw in Buckpasser.”
As a juvenile, Ogden’s colt was trained by Bill Winfrey, whose other famous charge was the once-beaten Native Dancer. Ridden in all but three races by Braulio Baeza, the colt broke his maiden second time out, going five furlongs on a sloppy track. Buckpasser took a liking to the winner’s circle. His wins included a dead heat with Hospitality coming from nine lengths out of it in the 5 ½-furlong National Stallion Stakes in late June, the Tremont, at the same distance, Monmouth’s six-furlong Sapling, and the 6 ½-furlong Hopeful at Saratoga.
“He isn't flashy, but he has no nerves and he runs his hardest down there on the money,” Winfrey noted. “Big doer and a bit of a loafer at times, especially in the mornings, but he is determined in the afternoons.”
Buckpasser concluded his juvenile year with a four-length victory in the one-mile Champagne Stakes, one of the few times when he actually created good separation. With nine wins and a second in 11 starts, and more than $500,000 in earnings, he was deservedly accorded the 2-year-old male championship. Winfrey decided to retire, and Eddie Neloy took the helm. Bill Shoemaker partnered the bay for his first three starts as a sophomore.
After the Flamingo Stakes shenanigans in March 1966, Buckpasser developed a crack on the inside quarter of his right front foot. It knocked him out of the spring classics. A special patch was applied to the afflicted foot and three months later he was back.
The rest of the year, Buckpasser dominated every horse he faced, but not once in a big, overwhelming way. Consider that his 13 consecutive wins in 1966 came by a total of 12 1/2 lengths, including one verdict by a nose, two by a head and one by a neck. Buckpasser gave the crowd their money’s worth — and heart palpitations — every time he ran.
In Chicago’s Arlington Classic Buckpasser began to roll around the far turn, and came home with a new world record for a mile with a time of 1:32 3/5. Buckpasser’s record stood for two years until the great Dr. Fager broke it in 1968, running 1:32 1/5.
BUCKPASSER AFTER WINNING 1966 TRAVERS STAKES AT SARATOGA
Photo courtesy of NYRA
A win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August would make Buckpasser racing’s first 3-year-old millionaire. After trailing early, he caught Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid about a furlong from the finish, finally forging ahead to the wire by three-quarters of a length. The horse had also equaled the track record of 2:01 3/5 for 1 ¼ miles. With his ninth straight victory, he now had a bankroll of $1,038,369. In November, Buckpasser was named Horse of the Year, 3-year-old male champion, and the top handicap horse by Daily Racing Form and Morning Telegraph.
As a 4-year-old, his physical troubles recurred, starting with another quarter crack early in the year and ankle trouble over summer. Buckpasser would race just five more times, all at Aqueduct. He did not compete again until the end of May when he captured his 15th consecutive win in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap. Shouldering 130 pounds he sailed to the front in the final furlong, where he “retained a safe margin without the need of urging” en route to a 1 1/4-length score. His earnings, now at $1,342,204, put him in third place on the all-time list behind only Kelso and Round Table.
Buckpassser delivered a performance for the ages in the Suburban Handicap in July. Giving away 22 pounds to Widener Handicap winner Ring Twice, that colt owned a two-length advantage just 80 yards from the wire. In a dramatic end to his most spectacular stretch drive, Buckpasser dug down deep and burst past Ring Twice to win by a half-length.
Frank Talmadge Phelps in the 1967 Bloodstock Breeders’ Review, called Buckpasser's Suburban “the greatest individual performance of at least two decades.”
“He really put his heart out to win that race,” Baeza later reminisced. “He struggled to win it. He won it on his heart alone. He had the heart of a champion.”
The 1967 Woodward Stakes would be the final race of his career. Commonly referred to as the “Race of the Decade,” the contest brought together three horses that were among the biggest guns in the history of the American track: Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and Damascus. Between them, the trio decimated records, won 12 championships, made 85 starts, for 64 wins, 13 seconds, 5 thirds, and $3,641,437, a good amount of money in the 1960s.
Damascus romped as a hobbled Buckpasser did the best he could in overhauling eventual 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager for second. Buckpasser would again be named champion handicap horse. His remarkable career concluded with 32 starts, 25 firsts, four seconds, one third, and earnings of $1,462,014.
In Buckpasser, the Phipps bred and built a home run horse. They had done it before with Bold Ruler in the 1950s, in the 1980s with Seeking the Gold and quite possibly the family could have another in Orb in 2013. Each became a prominent stallion who not only added value to the family bloodlines, but generated cash for the horse business.
Buckpasser was syndicated for $4.8 million, a record $150,000 a share in 1967. He stood at stud at the farm where he was born, Claiborne Farm. In 11 years, he sired 313 foals, of which 35 won stakes races. Even though he has had three tail-male Kentucky Derby winners — Spend a Buck (1985), Lil E. Tee (1992) and Silver Charm (1997) — it is his record as a broodmare sire that really stands out.
The leading broodmare sire in 1983, ’84 and ’89, among his stakes winners was champion Numbered Account, the future dam of Private Account, who would sire the incomparable Personal Ensign. Another Buckpasser daughter was Canada's illustrious champion filly and Horse of the Year La Prevoyante. Buckpasser sired the dams of Coastal, Slew o’ Gold, El Gran Senor, Seeking the Gold, Touch Gold and the great Easy Goer.
Buckpasser was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1970. He died of a ruptured aorta on March 6, 1978, at the relatively young age of 15 and is buried at Claiborne Farm. He ranks #14 on the Blood-Horse’s top 100 Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century.
Fun facts about Buckpasser