By MIKE MULLANEY
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.”