By MIKE MULLANEY
Features Editor, Daily Racing Form
When told of Exceller’s demise, Charlie Whittingham, the horse’s trainer in 1978 and early 1979, said, “It’s a sad thing . . . you’d expect more from people. He sure ran some awfully big races for me.”
Before he came to Whittingham, the Kentucky-bred was trained in France by Maurice Zilber and Francois Mathet.
He won a maiden event and placed in two group races at 2, and as a 3-year-old-though he won the Prix Royal-Oak and Grand Prix de Paris-he was overshadowed by Nelson Bunker Hunt’s other stars, Derby winners Empery and Youth.
He was maturing, however, and at 4 Exceller won the Coronation Cup and beat the classic winner Crow in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. He also ran third to Epsom-Irish Derby winner The Minstrel in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
With his arrival in the U.S. that fall, Exceller began a series of entertaining jousts with Johnny D. and Majestic Light. The former took the Washington D.C. International, the latter the Man o’ War, and Exceller the Canadian International Championship. But when Johnny D. won the Turf Classic, he won the championship.
Exceller then went to Whittingham, and early in ’78 he won the Arcadia (carrying 126 pounds, spotting the runner-up 13), San Juan Capistrano (126, giving Noble Dancer a pound and a beating), Hollywood Invitational (127, giving runner-up Bowl Game, eventual turf champion of ’79, four pounds), Hollywood Gold Cup (beating Text, Vigors and J.O. Tobin, running 10 furlongs on the main track in 1:59 1/5 under 128) and the Sunset (under 130).
Only Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed stood in the way of a Horse of the Year title. Slew beat Exceller in the Woodward, but Exceller got a break in Round 2, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, when Affirmed’s saddle slipped and Slew’s rider temporarily lost an iron.
A savage pace led to an epic performance as Exceller-22 lengths behind-rallied to beat Slew by a nose.
Exceller closed the campaign with a victory in the Oak Tree Invitational, but at season’s end was left title-less as Affirmed took the Horse of the Year crown, Slew was named champion older horse and Mac Diarmida, who never ran against Exceller, was named the turf champion.
Exceller lost all four of his starts in ’79 (though he placed in the Big ‘Cap, Century and Capistrano) and was sent to Gainesway having won 15 races and $1,654,002 from 33 starts.
Marion Gross, stallion manager there, recalled him as “always a very healthy horse with a great temperament. I could show him anytime, and a 14-year-old kid could handle him.”