1971: Ack Ack's Greatest Season
Even before his five-year-old campaign got underway, Ack Ack had already proven himself to be an accomplished racehorse. A winner in various sprints and routes, he had visited the winner's circle at multiple tracks across the country, and had several stakes wins to his name.
Had be been retired at four, Ack Ack could certainly have been called a successful racehorse. But he was destined for something bigger, something that would catapult him into the pantheon of Thoroughbred legends.
Already part of the Southern California racing scene for the last year, Ack Ack owned victories at Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. The latter track happened to be where he kicked off his 1971 season, which began with the six-furlong Palos Verdes Handicap on January 2. Competing on a good track and teaming with regular rider Bill Shoemaker, Ack Ack finished in third place, not a bad start to the year. But that result, as everyone would see, proved to be the exception and not the rule during the season.
Wheeled back exactly two weeks later, Ack Ack's new assignment came in the form of the San Carlos Handicap. Tasked with going seven-eighths of a mile, Ack Ack once again navigated a good track. The outcome was one spot better than the Palos Verdes, as Ack Ack stalked the pace before taking over for his first win of the year and first on Santa Anita's main track (he won a stakes race on the turf there the previous year).
Next came the San Pasqual Handicap on February 6. Ack Ack met up with seven rivals in the mile and one-sixteenth event. Getting a fast track this time, Ack Ack took control early and never relinquished it, making it two wins in a row. He put up a similar effort twenty-one days later in the San Antonio Handicap, guiding the field through nine furlongs to win his sixth race in his last eight starts (and he had been second in the other two). Displaying impressive form, the San Antonio set Ack Ack up for the biggest victory of his career.
Trainer Charlie Whittingham, one of the sport's finest trainers, entered Ack Ack in the Santa Anita Handicap. Never before had the equine been asked to go a mile and a quarter, but Whittingham clearly believed the distance would not pose a problem. Whittingham knew how to manage a horse, showing it countless times throughout his Hall of Fame career. And he showed it with Ack Ack.
Just as he had in the San Pasqual and San Antonio, Ack Ack sought control early. Facing nine horses, including his talented stablemate Cougar II (who later won the 1973 Big 'Cap), Ack Ack took the field around a sloppy Santa Anita track, not letting anybody to the wire before him as he made it five consecutive victories over the Arcadia track.
The Big 'Cap wrapped up the Santa Anita meet for Ack Ack, but his year was not over. The Hollywood Park spring-summer meet beckoned, and Ack Ack showed up just over three months after the Big 'Cap in the Hollywood Express Handicap. Cutting back to five and one-half furlongs, Ack Ack picked up where he left off, staying close to the front before picking up the first place check. He came back on July 5 to make his second start on turf. The race was the American Handicap at a mile and one-eighth, and Ack Ack handled the surface switch well, getting the lead early and staying put for another win on the grass.
One more start awaited Ack Ack at the Home of Champions, but it would be on the main track. Asked to go ten furlongs again, Ack Ack was in the starting gate for the Hollywood Gold Cup. He had of course long since proved he could handle the big stage, and he did so again in Hollywood Park's most famous race. Again seizing the lead in quick fashion, Ack Ack would not let anybody else win that day. With Shoemaker aboard, Ack Ack became part of the Big 'Cap/Gold Cup winners club in what became his last career start.
But Ack Ack was still winning months later. Among the first horses to be nominated for an Eclipse Award, Ack Ack was the big winner at the inaugural ceremony. He walked away with three divisional honors: Champion Sprinter, Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year. That gave him the distinction of being the first multiple Eclipse Award winner, and it symbolized his collective talents as a racehorse.
Already a versatile talent before 1971, Ack Ack showed he was the complete package during that year:
-He won over five different distances ranging from five and one-half furlongs to a mile and one-quarter.
-He was no worse than second in eight starts, and won seven times.
-He took races on dirt and turf.
-He won on a firm turf course, and also conquered fast, good and sloppy surfaces.
In short, Ack Ack was a virtuoso throughout the whole 1971 season. No one reached his level, and his performances earned him a ticket to legendary status.
He did it all throughout his first three seasons of competition, and he did it all in 1971. And for that reason, Ack Ack can be called a true all-around racehorse.