After today's Widener Handicap, there appears to be no doubt about the identity of the best racehorse in America. In fact, Turkoman may be the most exciting horse to come along in years.
Not only did he run 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 3/5, shattering a track record that had stood since 1960, but he did it in a manner that evoked memories of the most legendary stretch-runners.
Turkoman ran last for most of the Widener, far behind Proud Truth, Gate Dancer and Creme Fraiche, all of whom are noted for powerful finishes. But he overhauled all three of his millionaire rivals, then caught the front-running longshot Darn That Alarm to score a half-length victory. Gate Dancer was third, Creme Fraiche a distant fourth and Proud Truth fifth.
Turkoman's modest winning margin doesn't begin to suggest the extent of his supremacy. He overcame adversity that likely would have defeated almost any other horse with his late-running style.
None of the six entrants in this $218,900 stake had much early speed, and Darn That Alarm was able to take a comfortable lead by running the first half mile in 47 1/5 seconds, extremely slow time on a track that was lightning fast.
(Earlier in the day, a low-grade field of 3-year-old allowance horses had run faster early fractions). Even the confirmed plodder Gate Dancer was able to stay just a length or two behind the leader.
But trainer Gary Jones had predetermined Turkoman's tactics. "He's a one-run horse," Jones said. "That's why we needed a jockey like Chris McCarron with the guts to sit and make that one run."
When the field reached the final turn, Darn That Alarm was still cruising with a comfortable lead and Gate Dancer looked like the only horse with a chance to catch him. Turkoman was still last, although McCarron was now starting to ask him for a response.
Turkoman advanced along the rail, then angled wide as he entered the stretch, with a seemingly impossible task ahead of him. Both leaders were running strong.
"I was very concerned," Jones said, "and at the 16th pole I quit rooting. The other horses weren't coming back to him. So he went and got them."
Turkoman had rallied powerfully just to get into contention, and in the final yards he accelerated into a higher gear to fly past the leader. His time of 1:58 3/5 broke the track record of 1:59 3/5 that Bald Eagle set in this stake in 1960.
Actually, the final time wasn't as impressive as it looked because the track was so fast. A 3-year-old filly almost broke the six-furlong track record earlier in the afternoon. It was Turkoman's closing fractions that were dazzling.
He covered the final half mile of the Widener in 47 seconds -- a phenomenal achievement. That is the kind of acceleration Secretariat displayed when he won the Kentucky Derby, and was hailed as a superhorse as a result.
Turkoman had made similar stretch runs to win his last two starts, but he made them in minor stakes against weak opposition. Now that he has whipped some of America's best horses in a race of the Widener's prestige, the racing world will finally take note.