The Jockey Club Gold Cup: America’s Greatest Race

Sep 29th 2011 06:00 am |

Citation on the cover of the 1948 Jockey Club Gold Cup day program

OK, maybe the title is a bit provocative, especially for those who love the 3-year-old classics. However, there is plenty of evidence for making a good case that the Jockey Club Gold Cup is, historically, a solid contender for the title of America’s greatest race.

For race fans of my generation who have always known racing with the Breeders Cup, looking back on the former end-of-year races is always a worthwhile history lesson. Listening to those who remember the pre-Breeders Cup era, I have found that most are rather disgusted by what the BC has done to races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, sadly relegating them to mere prep races. Unfortunately for them, the BC “Championship” genie is out of the bottle and unlikely to go away anytime soon. Having said that, I think it’s important to remember what the former championship races meant to the sport.

A few years back I did a story about the JCGC and its influence on the Horse of the Year Award. As I wrote then, prior to the Breeders Cup, and since the beginning of an official Horse of the Year Award (1936 to 1983), 40% of horses who won the JCGC were awarded the Horse of the Year. If we count up to the present (1936-2010), approximately 31% of the race’s winners won Horse of the Year. [Sidenote: During the Breeder’s Cup era, from 1984 to 2010, eleven of twenty-seven (41%) Breeders Cup Classic winners were voted Horse of the year].

This year, I decided to take a different approach to further prove my point that the JCGC deserves to rank among the most significant races in America. Of the countless numbers of horses born and raced in the United States over the last one hundred and fifty years, less then two hundred have been honored in Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. Only an infinitesimal number of the whole population count themselves as legends among the forgotten. Keeping that in mind, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, since it was run for the first time in 1919 until the end of the last century, has seen an astounding number of future legends win the race or finish among the top three.

Get this: In the 20th Century (1919 to 1999), in eighty-one editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a future Hall of Famer finished among the top three forty-eight times (59%). If we just look at the winners, thirty-two (40%) were won by a future Hall of Famer, including multiple winners Nashua (1955-56), Shuvee (1970-71), Slew of Gold (1983-84), Skip Away (1995-96), and, of course, five time winner Kelso (1960 to 1964). Of the seven horses who won the race multiple times, only Mad Hatter (1921-22) and Dark Secret (1933-34) are not members of Racing’s Hall Of Fame. Of those two, I think a strong case could be made that Dark Secret deserves a place among the immortals in Saratoga.

Another interesting note, during the eighty one editions run in the twentieth century, five had a 1-2 finish of Hall of Famers:

Program page for the 1959 Jockey Club Gold Cup held at Aqueduct

1942 – Whirlaway – Alsab
1950 – Hill Prince – Noor
1959 – Sword Dancer – Round Table
1979 – Affirmed – Spectacular Bid
1996 – Skip Away – Cigar.

Five of the eleven Triple Crown winners count the JCGC as a win on their career resume. Two Triple Crown winners finished second. Whirlaway was beaten by a former $1000 claimer named Market Wise in 1941 but returned to beat future Hall of Famer Alsab in 1942. Seattle Slew – in a race remembered as one of his greatest – lost by a nose to Excellor in 1978.

Of the three horses that usually round out the top three places when ranking the greatest of all-time, Citation (1948) and Man O’ War (1920) both won the JCGC. Secretariat never raced in the JCGC but his broodmare sire, Princequillo, won it in 1943.

Similar statistics could easily be built around any of the 3-year-old classic races but few unrestricted races could stand next to the JCGC for its roster of legendary entries and winners.

When looking over the history of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the gates rarely opened without a legend breaking out among what are now long forgotten rivals. While numbers make a strong case for its place among this country’s greatest races, it’s the names that appear in the charts that stand as the strongest evidence of all.


The program pages are courtesy of Ron Micetic, who is a long-time friend to this site. He has a large and impressive collection of historic programs and is always on the look out for new stuff. If you have old programs looking for a home, contact Ron at

This was an interesting exercise and I will no doubt use this formula when writing about important races in the future. I think it would be interesting to conduct a similar study with the three Triple Crown races. I also think that the Suburban, Woodward, Met Mile, and Santa Anita Handicap might also make for an interesting study.

A few articles that are well worth a read came across my desk this week:
“Giving Jack his Due” from Linda at the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred
“Making Time Stand Still” from Valerie at Foolish Pleasure

Check out all the posts about the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Colin’s Ghost

I’ll in the house at Belmont Park on Saturday. While the gamblers are grumbling about the short fields, I don’t see a thing to complain about with the list of big name horses on the bill. I am looking forward to a great day of racing…let’s hope the weather is cooperative. I’ll see you there!

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

Filed in Horse of the Year,Jockey Club Gold Cup,thoroughbred racing history

5 Responses to “The Jockey Club Gold Cup: America’s Greatest Race”

  1. Helene Conway says:

    I am soo in agreement with you on this issue; not because of the facts and figures you state, rather because I was in attendance year after year up until 1983 at the Fall Classic Races run at Belmont. The MOST IMPORTANT RACE RUN WAS THE J C G C! It was the ultimate prestige race which premiered the best older (and truely developed) horses.

    Nice work as always.

  2. T.J. Connick says:

    A gem of a race. Another facet: the men who rode the winners.

    Twenty-five of the 51 jockeys who rode winners in the Gold Cup — 93 races through 2011 — are in the Hall of Fame. The race’s history has but 31 editions with winners piloted by non-members of the Hall.

    The batting averages will only improve as future members are drawn from the 8 riders in 10 recent races: Robby Albarado, Chris Antley, Jorge Chavez, Robbie Davis, Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez, Shane Sellers, and Alex Solis.

    In the 43 races from 1953-1995, only 3 winners were ridden by jocks who are not today in the Hall of Fame: Forego under Heliordo Gustines (1974), On the Sly under Gregg McCarron (1977), and Flying Continental under Corey Black (1990).

    Men who have ridden 3 or more Gold Cup winners:
    Robby Albarado, Braulio Baeza, Jerry Bailey, Angel Cordero, Pat Day, Jose Santos, Jorge Valasquez, and Milo Valenzuela rode 3. Willie Shoemaker rode 4, Earl Sande rode 5, and His Highness, Eddie Arcaro, rode 10, from Firethorn in 1935 to Kelso in 1961.

  3. RG says:

    Good Morning All

    I’m not quite in agreement with Helene’s comment that it premiered the best “older” horses. The article mentioned twenty horses starting with Nashua and concluding with Princequillo. Thirteen were in the JCGC at the age of three. Nashua and Princequillo won as 3yo’s. Kelso won as a 3yo and then won four more times.

    The horses mentioned in the article that did not run in the JCGC at the age of three were Noor(not in the country), Round Table, Cigar, Exceller, Mad Hatter,
    Dark Secret and Shuvee.

    My opinion has Citation’s win as a 3yo at two miles coming just three days after winning at a mile as the most impressive.

    I’m sorry Kevin but the mile and a quarter race you saw Saturday is just a shadow of what it was in the past.

  4. Teddy Lopez says:

    Amazing and, mindboggling that in the 87 year history of the jockey gold cup which use to be 2 miles and, the max race, that only 7 horses have won it 2 times and, the amazing Kelso won it 5 times and, 5 times in a row! He is the only horse that after winning the jockey gold cup and setting a record at 3:19 1/4 on a sloppy track to only11 days later win the dc cup which is againts the best horses in the world, in time of 2:23 4/5 on 3 turns for 1 mile and a half on grass!It would have been very impressing for secretariat to have participated in the jockey gold cup, instead they decided to go for the grass races in the man of war and, the canadian international which were not only of less importance but, less money. I’ve talked to many experts who agree that they were avoiding prove out, the great Allen Jerkins’ horse who beat secretariat in the woodward giving away 7 pounds to him. Imagine how much greater it would have made secretariat look at retirement had he been able to prove he could really beat proveout and, prove he could win at the max 2 miles jockey gold cup race and, maybe had a chance to break the great Kelsos’ record. But, no, they just came up with another excuse. Why put riva ridge againts prove out in the jcokey gold cup when they knew riva ridge was not as good as secretriat? Doesn’t make no sense, does it now? Kelsos’ biggest fan, Teddy.