The Outside Rail

It might have been the best track record in Thoroughbred history - an easy time to remember, in a historic race, at a historic venue and in bold/daring fashion. And now it's gone.

 But that doesn't mean it will be forgotten.

On Aug. 18, 1979 General Assembly ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:00 (no change) to win the Travers for Bert and Diana Firestone, trainer LeRoy Jolley and jockey Jacinto Vasquez. With the front-running score, the chestnut 3-year-old displaced the mark of 2:00.20 set by Firestone/Jolley horse Honest Pleasure in 1976 - and found a place in Saratoga history.

The record lasted 37 years, falling to Arrogate's 1:59.36 this year.

"Thirty-seven years is a pretty long time to hold it, especially at a track like Saratoga where major racehorses run year after year," said Jolley this week while taking a break from his small string on the Saratoga backstretch. "It's not like you held a record at some obscure place. Most every good horse in America runs here every year and you know how good some of the Travers runners have been over the years.

"Arrogate ran a huge race and is a very deserving record holder."

Jolley was proud of his horse in 1979, and still is. The Hall of Famer saddled his first runner in 1958, and took Ridan to the Kentucky Derby in 1962. Jolley won the Derby in 1975 with Foolish Pleasure and again in 1980 with the filly Genuine Risk. Those two joined Meadow Star, Honest Pleasure, What A Summer and Manila as champions to start for Jolley.

General Assembly, a son of the great Secretariat and the Native Dancer mare Exclusive Dancer, never won a championship but don't blame him. Born in 1976, he was part of Spectacular Bid's 3-year-old crop and never could vanquish the superstar. As a 2-year-old, General Assembly finished second to Spectacular Bid in the Champagne and the Laurel Futurity. The next year, General Assembly finished second in Spectacular Bid's Kentucky Derby and was fifth in the Preakness. Seventh (Spectacular Bid was third) in the Belmont Stakes, the Virginia-bred took a summer break and aimed for Saratoga.

Twice a winner here as a 2-year-old - in the Saratoga Special and the Hopeful - General Assembly loved upstate New York. Without Spectacular Bid, who spent the summer at Delaware Park, Jolley's horse was the best 3-year-old on the grounds. He won a 7-furlong allowance prep Aug. 4, then aimed for the Travers two weeks later.

On a sloppy track, General Assembly faced six rivals: Smarten, Private Account, Steady Growth, King Green, Screen King and the classy filly Davona Dale.

Stabled in the same barn as Arrogate - trainer John Terranova's Barn 25 near the 5-furlong gap - Jolley was pretty confident.

"That was a good field, a field full of good horses," he said. "But General Assembly loved the track at Saratoga - wet, dry, any way he could get it. He ran here four times and won all four. And all four were impressive races."

Breaking from the rail, General Assembly made a play for the lead and was joined by King Green. Private Account sat third, followed by Davona Dale (whose eight-race winning streak had ended a week earlier in the Alabama), Smarten and Screen King.

The leaders were together through a quarter-mile in :23 3/5, but just past the 7-furlong chute, General Assembly took the lead for good - and ended the race. The others never got close as General Assembly won by 15 lengths in a hand ride. After that first quarter, the other fractions (converted to hundredths) went up in :47.60, 1:11.20, 1:35.90 and 2:00. Arrogate's splits were :23.23, :46.84, 1:10.85, 1:35.52 and 1:59.36.

Don't begrudge the sloppy surface for slowing General Assembly.

"The track was fast, in both cases," Jolley said. "It was wet for General Assembly, but it was fast."

Predictably, a Travers win came with just as much hoopla for the winners. A record only added to the moment.

"It was the centerpiece of Saratoga then, as it is today," Jolley said. "It was a big deal to win it. Our crew was very excited about it. It was kind of a long, frustrating 3-year-old year for us because we kept running into Spectacular Bid. You don't put a horse in a race hoping for or trying to set a track record. Who knows when it's going to happen? Nobody knows."

Three weeks after the Travers, General Assembly gave Spectacular Bid another tussle in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park but settled for second - again. In October, the speedster backed up to 7 furlongs and won the Vosburgh in the final start of his career.

General Assembly won seven of 17 starts, finished second six times (four times to Spectacular Bid) and third once while earning $463,245.

"General Assembly was unfortunate to be born in the same year as Spectacular Bid or we might have heard a lot more about him," Jolley said. "He was a very, very good horse. You go back to his races here, the Hopeful was a tremendous race and he ran extremely well in his race before the Travers."

General Assembly stood at the Firestones' Gilltown Stud in Ireland, at Pillar Stud and Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, in France and in Germany, where he died in 2005.

Don't forget him.

Opinions Archives

Opinions from 2013 to Present