Was Chinook Pass the Fastest Ever?
He was the proletarian hero of a second-tier racetrack, but Chinook Pass lived a richer life than many of his contemporaries.
The modestly bred gelding from Washington state won or placed in 21 of 25 lifetime starts (15 of those stakes races) in a too-brief racing career that ended at age four. Named champion sprinter of 1983, Chinook Pass still holds the North American record for the fastest five furlongs on dirt (0:55 1/5). At the time of his death last week at the venerable age of 31, Chinook Pass was believed to be the oldest living Eclipse Award winner.
Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who was aboard the gelding for seven stakes wins, once said of Chinook Pass, “Affirmed was the best horse I ever rode. But Chinook Pass was the fastest ... the fastest I ever saw.”
Was he the fastest thoroughbred ever?
It is the question on which the sport of racing was founded: Who has the fastest horse? Sprint races (those run at distances no more than seven furlongs) don’t have the same cachet or purse monies as races run at classic distances. But a sprint race is infinitely more thrilling to watch, a showcase of the thoroughbred in its most organic form. It’s the closest structured racing comes to replicating the sheer abandon of horses running in the wild.
Before Chinook Pass, who was forced into retirement at the end of his championship season because of nagging leg injuries, other speedballs had captured the public’s fancy.
Tom Fool, the 1953 Horse of the Year, won at seven furlongs carrying up to 136 pounds, 26 more than his rivals. Buckpasser was the 1966 Horse of the Year and the first to run a mile under 1:33. Then there was Dr. Fager, who set a world record for the mile (1:32 1/5) in 1968 while toting 134 pounds.
Ta Wee, Dr. Fager’s half-sister, was a two-time sprint champion who went out a winner under 142 pounds in her final career start, the 1970 Interborough Handicap. And the brilliant but brittle Mr. Prospector, whose track record of 1:07 4/5 stood for 26 years.
Forego, the versatile, injury-plagued three-time Horse of the Year, was named champion sprinter in 1974 in the same year he won the 2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Two of the more modern examples are Groovy, a front-running bullet who was dominant in six stakes races in 1987, and Artax, who broke track records set by Dr. Fager (seven furlongs in 1:20) and Groovy (six furlongs in 1:07 3/5), and equaled Mr. Prospector’s six-furlong mark while winning the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park.
Now 15, Artax — the only living horse among the nine — is one of the busiest stallions in thoroughbred racing, shuttling from Diamond G Ranch in Edmond, Okla., to Haras Henrique Waihrich in Brazil for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season. It can be argued that his track records were, essentially, achieved while competing against three of the fastest thoroughbreds of all time. And unlike the other sprinting greats, Artax was also a formidable distance runner — he began his career as a highly regarded two-turn horse and retired as the world’s top sprinter.
A regally bred son of Marquetry who had already sired two Breeders’ Cup winners, Artax made his career debut as a 2-year-old winning a mile and one-sixteenth maiden race by nine lengths. As a 3-year-old, he was a top contender for the 1998 Triple Crown races, thanks to victories in two important West Coast prep races, the Santa Catalina Stakes (a mile and one-sixteenth) and the San Felipe Stakes (also a mile and one-sixteenth).
A third-place finish in the mile and one-eighth Santa Anita Derby, and a subsequent 13th-place finish (of 15 horses) in the Kentucky Derby, were a precursor of Artax’s preference for shorter races.
The following year, Artax was transferred from trainer Randy Bradshaw’s barn in California to Louis Albertrani in New York. The colt’s owner, Ernie Paragallo, a Joey Buttafuoco lookalike who changed trainers as often as he changed his Gucci loafers, agreed with Albertrani’s suggestion that Artax try sprinting.
Albertrani retired from training two years ago and now works as an agent for jockey William Antongeorgi at Philadelphia Park. “I think I just wanted to try something different with him,” said Albertrani, 53. “Give him a shot at some of the big spring sprint races.”
Artax was blessed with natural speed, but what impressed Albertrani was his ability to sustain it. “Endurance was the key with him,” Albertrani said. “Even within the last quarter of a mile, he’d be as strong in the final eighth as he was in the first eighth.”
Bred by retired beat cop Ed Purvis, Chinook Pass (named for a pass in the Cascades mountain range) wasn’t even the fastest yearling at his birthplace, Rainier Stables, in Enumclaw. By Native Born (a son of Native Dancer) out of the Turn-to mare Yu Turn, Chinook Pass was a plain-looking bay who hung back and let his pasture-mates converge on the feed tubs. With little in the way of desirable qualities to pass on, Chinook Pass was gelded at two.
In 1981, he was sent to trainer Bud Klokstad at old Longacres Racetrack to begin his racing career. As a 2-year-old, he whittled a second off the Longacres track record for five-and-a-half furlongs and won three of five starts. Never the soundest horse, Chinook Pass ended the season with a cracked cannon bone, which forced him to the sidelines for seven months.
The gelding returned in 1982 and easily won his first two starts (even tying his own track record in one). He lost two one-mile races, though he did finish a game second in the Longacres Mile.
The Owners Handicap put him in the record books. More than 20 lengths in front at the three-sixteenths pole, Chinook crushed the world record for five furlongs with a time of 0:55.20. Klokstad decided the gelding was ready to tackle the best sprinters in the nation, so Chinook Pass was shipped to Southern California for his 4-year-old campaign.
Laurie Anderson was enlisted to train Chinook Pass (Klokstad had returned to Washington), and the gelding was targeted for California’s five top sprint races. He won four of them, and then returned to Washington for another crack at the Longacres Mile. He was never headed en route to a six-length win.
It would be his last race. A cracked splint bone curtailed a planned New York invasion. Then, while training for a match race against a quarter horse, Chinook Pass bowed a tendon. He was retired and given the job of babysitting yearlings at Rainier Farm until 1988, when he was leased to Jill Hallin.
Hallin retrained Chinook Pass in dressage, and the two often performed between races at Longacres. In 1992, he was part of the “Save Longacres” protest at the track, which was closing after 59 years. He appeared in parades, at schools, and at the 2003 premiere of “Seabiscuit” in Seattle. His last public appearance was at Emerald Downs in 2008 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Longacres Mile win.
It’s impossible to pick the winner of a hypothetical match race between Artax and Chinook Pass, since speed figures don’t measure heart or tenacity. How either horse — or any of the aforementioned greats — would have fared on synthetic surfaces, which do not favor front-running styles, is anyone’s guess. And neither of them carried weight imposts as daunting as their predecessors.
Perhaps, as it so often does in any discussion of who’s the greatest athlete, the edge should be given to the one who also lived an exemplary personal life. Artax never quite settled down, fathering dozens of children with different comely lasses. Chinook Pass only had eyes for one.
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