Story of Exceller

Exceller Remembered As A Truly Class Act


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.”

Exceller’s Fate: Racing’s Heart?


Features Editor, Daily Racing Form

Go for Wand was “Wanda” to those who knew her – she had a nickname, she had a family and she was loved, and her death created an inestimable hole in the hearts of those who spent day after day with her.

The on-track demise of Go for Ward, Ruffian and, most recently, Hello, as well as horses of lesser repute, is a heart-wrenching experience for all who share the view that horses are more than program numbers to be stammered to mutual clerks. To those less attached, her death served as a reminder of the Nordic belief that to die in battle guarantees interment in Valhalla. But what of those horses who no longer compete?

Do they lose their nobility, dignity and courage when a 110-pound human is taken off their backs? Are horses merely commodities that turn into liabilities when no longer profitable, either at the racetrack or at stud?

Exceller stopped being Exceller when breeder interest waned. At that point, he became just another horse. His final destination was similar to that of an estimated three million American horses from 1986-’96.

Anne Pagmar, who led him to slaughter, said Exceller knew what was going on. He smelled blood and expressed fear. Tied off and hung by a single hind limb, fractious horses thrash while their executioners bludgeon and bludgeon. They are alive when their throats are cut and they are bled to death.

It’s an unpleasant reality; it isn’t the topic of pleasant conversation, and it probably won’t be part of next Sunday’s Round Table agenda.

One American horseman, when told of Exceller’s last walk, said, “They have to die sometime.”

That response leads to another question: How hardened must the human spirit become to survive in this sport?

Not everyone has grown cold. Christine Picavet galloped horses after coming to America from France, and one of those horses was Exceller. She went on to become a noted artist and she painted the horse twice. She still bears the scar of a playful bite. When she heard Exceller’s story, she struggled for words describing his generosity and kind disposition. Then, in tears, she apologized, begged for time to compose herself and put the phone down. Could that horseman’s emotionless response be the product of denial?

Haven’t you wondered what happens to horses who won’t survive surgery? Not many get the send-off Go for Wand or Ruffian received, with services and burial in the infield of a major racetrack. Horse meat is still favored in many of Europe’s industrial countries, and many stockyards that specialize in this particular trade in America are European owned. There are several grassroots organizations that have popped up to save horses from slaughter, such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, created by Monique Koehler; the United Pegasus Foundation, run by Helen Meredith; the Equis Foundation, presided over by Linda Moss; and the California Equine Foundation, with Kathleen Doyle as its president. Doyle is trying to push through the California Legislature a proposal called “Save the Horses,” which would classify horses as companion animals, not as animals bred to be slaughtered, and make the out-of-state exportation of horses for slaughter a felony. Doyle needs 600,000 signatures on a petition this summer for the proposal to be put on the ballot in November ’98.

Monique, Linda, Helen and Kathleen…see a pattern? With few exceptions, men are conspicuously absent from this initiative, and so, too, are racing’s executives.

Many fans don’t know where or how to contribute, so perhaps a short note in the track program would help. Tracks would also receive a PR boost if they stabled horses who accomplished something of note locally, rather than allowing them to ship to whoknowswhere.

But there’s one last nagging question: If complaints of poor customer service fall on the deaf ears of racing executives, what chance do horses have?

Unique Superstar Exceller Met Tragic End


Features Editor, Daily Racing Form

Exceller’s name was listed on the ballot for election to the Hall of Fame in April. Also that month, if the account of two people close to the horse is to be believed, his name went on the list of equine martyrs.

Best remembered as the only horse to beat two Triple Crown winners, he proved his quality on a global scale by winning graded or Group 1 stakes on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon his retirement in 1979, he was sent to stud at Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky., where he sired several stakes winners, but nothing spectacular, then was sold and sent to Sweden in 1991. He was all but forgotten until Daily Racing Form recently began a search for him as part of its “Whatever Happened To” series.

The search was completed three months too late; Exceller was put down April 7. According to both the woman who tended to him-and whose duty it became to kill him-and to the director of the Scandinavian Racing Bureau, he wasn’t destroyed because he was ill or injured, but because he had become a liability to his bankrupt owner, Gote Ostlund, who didn’t care to spend diminishing resources on a horse from whom he couldn’t profit.

Ostlund, an owner and trainer of standardbred horses, was making his entrance into thoroughbred racing when he purchased Exceller from owner Nelson Bunker Hunt for an undisclosed sum. Ostlund speaks limited English, but on Wednesday he told Daily Racing Form that Exceller, 24 at the time of his death, was dead because “he was very old.”

Ann Pagmar, who owns Jaboruder, the small farm in central Sweden where Exceller spent the last year of his life, offers a sinister motive behind Exceller’s death, and her story is backed by Bjorn Zachrisson, director of the SRB.

“Shortly after Exceller came to me last year, the owner called and told me to kill the horse because he couldn’t pay for him,” Pagmar told DRF. “He said that since we weren’t breeding Exceller, there was nothing else to do with him. The owner didn’t want to pay for a stallion license and he wasn’t paying me, so I offered to take Exceller, to buy the stallion license and to breed him. “He wouldn’t give him to me, saying the horse shouldn’t keep moving from one owner to another. The stud fees would help me get paid, but the owner was very stubborn. He wanted to kill the horse.

Over the next few months he called several times, asking if I had killed Exceller yet, and I kept telling him I needed written authorization. He finally sent it to me in April. He told me to bring the horse to the slaughterhouse, and that’s what I had to do.” While Zachrisson says he didn’t see the notice himself, he said that Pagmar had been updating him and told him when the notice arrived. “She was very upset by all of this,” Zachrisson said.

Pagmar details a heart-wrenching story that led to Exceller’s final moments.

“I had him a year,” she said, “and I became very close to him, like I do with all my horses. He was stressed when he first came to me because he had been diagnosed with some sort of infection and he hadn’t been bred in a few years. At the farm he came from, he had been standing next to the stallion who got all the mares. He wasn’t allowed to breed, so he had to watch, and that made him very angry. After some time here he recovered mentally and physically.

“Exceller was very nervous when he arrived here, but in time he became a different horse. My other horses are Shetland ponies, and soon he calmed down to the point where he would walk with them, even play with them. He was in super condition. The owner never visited to see for himself. It didn’t seem to matter. He told me to take Exceller to the slaughterhouse, and I walked him over myself,” Pagmar said.

“I made an appointment because I wanted to get it over with quick, but they were very busy when we got there and we had to wait. Exceller knew what was going on; he didn’t want to be there. Standing with him like that . . . it made me feel like Judas.”

Pagmar said she didn’t know what happened to Exceller after she left him, and didn’t care to know.

“No, no burial ground, no stone, nothing,” she said. When asked what happened to the body, Ostlund said he didn’t understand the question.

Ostlund did tell DRF that Exceller was sterile at the time of his death, but Pagmar says, “We bred him to a mare early this year and she got in foal, and the only reason she didn’t carry the foal to term was that she was very old.”

Zachrisson told DRF, “Ann told me that Exceller ‘looked like a million bucks,’ and in my book he still looked like he had one or two good years left in him as a stallion.”

Zachrisson said Exceller’s troubles began in 1995, when he was “rumored” to have been infected with an undetermined disease. He didn’t cover any mares that year and was later moved to Denmark, where he remained idle until 1996, when he was moved to Jaboruder.

“Many breeders lost interest when he was rumored to have been infected,” Zachrisson said, “but he was no failure at all. With his first crop of 2-year-olds in 1994, he was second on the stallion list (as a sire of 2-year-olds) with 14 runners and five winners. In 1995 he was sixth on the general list with 29 offspring and 13 winners and third on the 2-year-old list with 11 runners and four winners. In 1996 he was fourth on the general list with 29 runners and 10 winners.”

Zachrisson said Exceller covered 41 mares in 1991, his first year in Sweden; 40 in ’92; 20 in ’93; and 17 in ’94. Of the resulting foals, 58 were registered. He had been standing at Stuteri Sac in Landskrona, 30 miles north of Malmo in southern Sweden, until the 1995 season, after which he was moved to Vasaholm Stud, also near Malmo.

“He was in good health and apparently had no fertility problems after covering that test mare successfully earlier this year,” Zachrisson said. “The only reason he did not cover any other mares this year was because his owner was placed on the forfeit list in 1996. Ostlund officially went bankrupt, which put him on the list, and rules are that no one on the list can have any financial transactions in thoroughbred racing.

“This is the sad fact and does not reflect on the good merits of Exceller.”