Throwback Thursday: Oh what a year was 1979

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In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6.

The Winterthur Point-to-Point began in 1979, a year that included plenty of other moments both big and small, important and not so important, the familiar and the unheard of. Among them:

  • McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
  • Margaret Thatcher became Great Britain’s first woman prime minister.
  • The Seattle SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers ousted the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
  • A blowout on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico releases an estimated 428 million gallons of oil, the worst spill in history until surpassed by the Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
  • Iraqi President Saddam Hussein arranged the arrest and execution of nearly 70 members of the ruling Ba’ath Party.
  • ESPN launched.
  • John Wayne died.
  • The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
  • The United States secretly aided Soviet opponents there.
  • The Deer Hunter won the Oscar for best picture.
  • A national march for gay rights drew tens of thousands to Washington, D.C.

It was a strange time when you look at it, with disco, Queen and Pink Floyd somehow coexisting on the musical front. The Iran hostage crisis managed to weaken, and strengthen, the United States at the same time. The IRA still made headlines in Ireland. The space station Skylab began its fall to Earth after orbiting for more than six years.

On the racing front, 1979 was the year Spectacular Bid nearly won the Triple Crown, though Affirmed repeated as Horse of the Year. Other stars included Laz Barrera, who won his fourth consecutive Eclipse award. Laffit Pincay Jr. led the jockeys, with Cash Asmussen was the top apprentice.

While American jump racing welcomed Winterthur to the fold, the race meet was just getting started. It offered no purses, though the trophies were nearly one of a kind and wouldn’t join the National Steeplechase Association circuit for another 28 years.

That circuit was just on the cusp of big things. Purses checked in at just under $1 million. In 10 years, they’d explode to $4 million. The year featured all sorts of moments.

Fisback Skiffington1979Top jockeys Jerry Fishback and Tom Skiffington retired, the former after sweeping two races at Saratoga and the latter after winning his third NSA championship in four years. Five-time champion Fishback returned in 1984 and rode through 1987 en route to the Hall of Fame. His chief rival Skiffington turned to training, where he produced the likes of Mrs. Penny, Mourjane, Anka Germania, Milesius, Lac Ouimet, Maxzene and Anguilla. Skiffington-trained horses won 647 races and earned more than $24 million.

For Fishback, the decision seemed like a good way to go out on top – though many were proven right when he returned to riding a few years later.

“It just felt like the appropriate time,” Fishback said told the Daily Racing Form’s Joe Hirsch a few days later in between sets at trainer Roger Laurin’s barn. “I’m still in one piece, I have plans for the future and I retired on a winning note. Some people go to the well too many times. I didn’t want to be in that position when I quit.”

The well was deeper than he thought as he returned to ride the great Flatterer among others before retiring for good with 301 lifetime jump wins (still tied for third all-time).

Skiffington, who rode in England, Ireland and France in 1973 and 1974, was Fishback’s chief rival after returning to the U.S. in 1975. The Virginian won 96 races over jumps in just five years, and left to start a training career backed at first by Henry Ford II. Peter Brant, Joe Allen, Raymond Guest and others sent horses right away and Skiffington soaked up plenty of knowledge while galloping for Burley Cocks, P.G. Johnson and Frank Whiteley.

The retired jockey told Hirsch that goals included a Kentucky Derby win, a Triple Crdown, maybe an Arc de Triomphe.

“If you shoot for Mars and reach the moon, at least you’ve gotten somewhere,” Skiffington told the legendary writer. “I attacked riding with a 110-percent effort and I’m going to do the same as a trainer.”

Jonathan Sheppard ran away with the training crown in 1979 with 29 jump wins and a record $252,824 in purses. His former boss Burley Cocks checked in second with Joe Clancy Sr. (this writer’s father) third, but the ranks also included rare jump wins by flat trainers Del Carroll and Dickie Small, plus two wins by future Hall of Famer Tom Voss.

Martie’s Anger won the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser, edging out stablemate Leaping Frog. Other standouts included Owhata Chief, who won two of three before going to the sidelines. Down First, Deux Coup and Tan Jay starred in the Cocks barn along with 3-year-old star Zaccio (who won six times).

No horse outdid timber star Dosdi, however. He won seven of eight including wins in the Grand National, Maryland Hunt Cup and Pennsylvania Hunt Cup for trainer/jockey Charlie Fenwick Jr. The Argentine import raced up front, daring others to match him. They rarely could as he posted winning margins of 6, 14, 15 (twice), 18 and 30 lengths along the way.

Augustin Stable dominated the owners’ standings with 20 wins over jumps and $152,818 in earnings. Joy Valentine was a distant second, followed by Chadds Ford Stable. Deeper on the list came crossovers such as Lillian Phipps, Will Farish, Montpelier, Betty Moran and Sally Gibson.

GriffinMervJump racing got a dose of the big time in October, when Belmont Park’s Temple Gwathmey race was featured on the Merv Griffin Show. The afternoon talk show was a staple of television programming back then, featuring such guests as Phyllis Diller, Joe Namath, Orson Welles, George Carlin, Norman Rockwell, Rosa Parks and four U.S. presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan). At Belmont, Griffin even hosted the champagne toast and presentation in the trustees room at Belmont as Skiffington, Cocks and owner Joy Valentine accepted the Gwathmey trophy after Down First’s win.

Winterthur didn’t make it to television, but was off and running just the same. The years to come