California lost the golden boy of its golden age of horse racing Sept. 26 with the death of Precisionist at the age of 25. The champion was laid to rest at Old Friends retirement home near Georgetown, Ky., where he had spent his final months.
Voted into racing's Hall of Fame in 2003, Precisionist had undeniable star quality and longevity. To see his brilliant red coat flashing down the lane in the late afternoon sunshine was to instantly fall in love with him. And so many did. During his career from 1983-88, gigantic crowds flocked to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park to see the powerful chestnut run. He was truly a people's horse.
As a precocious juvenile, he built a following and defeated older horses as a sophomore. He then campaigned in the nation's top handicap races. He won short and long, from six furlongs to 10, on dirt and once on grass.
Owner Fred Hooper bred Precisionist in Florida, but California soon adopted the flashy colt. Hooper won the Kentucky Derby with the first horse he owned, Hoop Jr. in 1945, and tried for the rest of his lengthy life to win another. But Precisionist didn't get Hooper to Louisville in the spring of 1984. Trainer Ross Fenstermaker decided against it after the headstrong Precisionist, with regular rider Chris McCarron aboard, blew a three-length lead in the stretch of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) before a record crowd of 63,130 and lost to 32-1 shot Mighty Adversary. Instead, he stayed home and won the 1 1/4-mile Swaps Stakes (gr. I) by 10 lengths.
In 46 races, the speedy chestnut won 20 times -- including 17 stakes, eight at Santa Anita -- and earned nearly $3.5 million. Precisionist's victory in the 1985 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Aqueduct over what many still believe was the finest field in that race's history came off a four-month layoff. Sore feet kept the son of Crozier from preparing for the Classic (gr. I), so Fenstermaker opted for the Sprint, coming into the race off works alone. The win -- at decent odds of 3-1 -- propelled them to an Eclipse Award.
That same year, Precisionist became just the fifth (and last) horse to sweep Santa Anita's Strub series, joining Round Table, Hillsdale, Ancient Title, and Spectacular Bid. The 1985 Strub series was special for something else: the beginning of an all-time great rivalry between Precisionist and the Charles Whittingham-trained Greinton. Starting in January 1985, they clashed eight times in 15 months; both horses won four, and they ran one-two in seven graded stakes.
That spring while winning the 1985 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) under 126 pounds, Precisionist set a track record for a mile at Hollywood Park -- 1:32 4/5. Greinton came right back to break it in the grade I Californian (1:32 3/5) with Precisionist second.
At times, though, Precisionist maddened his fans by promising so much and then failing at the most inopportune times.
He lost the 1986 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) to Greinton after getting suckered into a pace duel with the 157-1 rabbit Herat. Precisionist faded to sixth. His backers knew he was already softened up by an outrageously fast workout a few days before the race.
It seemed so unfair. As Greinton's supporters roared, Precisionist's camp demanded a rematch. More than 70,000 on-track saw the injustice firsthand. What his fans wanted was a match race with Greinton, which came six weeks later in the four-horse San Bernardino Handicap (gr. II), a race in which Greinton had beaten Precisionist the previous year.
For a tense 1 1/8 miles, the pair fought 1-2 all the way around with Precisionist always in front while setting a fast pace. He prevailed by a neck. The finish-line photo captured his gameness and grace. At the wire of the grueling test, Precisionist on the inside has his neck fully extended and all four feet well off the ground.
Precisionist went on to defeat Lady's Secret by 4 1/4 lengths in the 1986 Woodward (gr. I). But back home at Santa Anita, a hard bump at the seven-furlong pole in the Breeders' Cup Classic cost him the race to Skywalker and Horse of the Year honors to Lady's Secret, who waltzed in the Distaff (gr. I).
Precisionist's lack of fertility led to his return to racing in 1988 after a 20-month layoff. At age 7 with a screw in his left foreleg to mend a fracture, he established the mile track record at Del Mar (1:33 1/5) that still stands. It is a fitting tribute to a golden horse and a golden age that likely won't be duplicated.