The Outside Rail

Hang around horse racing long enough and you will hear old-timers say, after some inspirational on-track performance or another, “They don’t make horses like that anymore.” The statement is a cliché, hyperbole, exaggeration and wrong – nobody really “makes” horses. They’re born. Nature is in charge, not man.

Although – when you consider the feats of timber horse Saluter – perhaps the old-timers are right. Because there will never be another horse like Saluter.

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this appeared in video form in the livestream broadcast of the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase meet. Watch it here:

 He won the Virginia Gold Cup, the 4-mile timber stakes on today’s card at Great Meadow, six years in a row. From 1994 through 1999, over 24 miles and 138 fences, nobody was better than Saluter. At Great Meadow, on the first Saturday in May, he was Bill Russell, Rocky Marciano, Michael Phelps, the UCLA men’s basketball team . . . the greatest of all-time.

That last bit can be debated, this is sports after all, but no timber horse in history won more  races, earned more money or captured more hearts than Saluter. The Virginia Gold Cup will be run for the 95th time today, and no other horse has won it more than three times. That was Leeds Don in 1965, 66 and 67. For almost 30 years, he was the yardstick. Now, Saluter stands alone. And he doubled Leeds Don. 

Foaled in Virginia in 1989, Saluter was intended to race on the flat at Laurel Park, Pimlico, maybe the big time like Belmont Park or Saratoga. Never let it be said that he didn’t have his chance. Racing for legendary trainers Sidney Watters Jr. and Dickie Small, Saluter made seven flat starts in the early 1990s. He won once, at Philadelphia Park in 1992, but was otherwise a non-factor. Small, who didn’t normally do such things, even tried Saluter over hurdles twice in 1993. It did not go well.

Ultimately, the big, long-winded gelding found his way to the barn of Tom Voss and then to his neighbor Jack Fisher who paid Small $2,500 on the premise that maybe Saluter would make somebody, “a nice foxhunter.”

And the Chevelle was a nice muscle car.

Three months after finishing last in a 2-mile turf race at Laurel, Saluter shipped to the Avon meet in upstate New York for his timber debut. Matched up against far-more seasoned rivals, the 4-year-old Saluter won – and added two more wins to close 1993. The next year, he won three more races, including his first Gold Cup, and was crowned the NSA’s timber champion the first of four times. Saluter’s 1995 season may never be duplicated as he won five in a row – including a second Gold Cup, this one a 20-length laugher in course-record time – and finished with six wins in seven starts and $96,889 in earnings. 

Though he never repeated that 1995 season, Saluter kept on winning – twice in 1996, capped by another Gold Cup. In 1997, he went international – taking the Gold Cup and England’s Marlborough Cup to claim a $100,000 bonus as the first and only World Timber Champion. 

In 1998, he won his fifth Gold Cup to retire the race’s Stanley Cup-sized trophy for owners Ann and Henry Stern – and became a celebrity – complete with a mini Saluter stuffed animal. To this day, there are legions of Virginia Gold Cup fans who can name one racehorse. Saluter. 

In 1999, he added a sixth Gold Cup and two other wins, the last of which came in Montpelier’s Virginia Hunt Cup to set a record for lifetime timber victories with 21. No active horse has more than eight.   

Saluter’s Gold Cup streak ended in 2000, when he finished third. The 11-year-old made five starts that year and finished second or third in all, but that wasn’t Saluter – not the Saluter everyone knew anyway – and he was retired to Fisher’s farm. There he spent the next 17 years as a pampered, spoiled, typically fat and dirty legend. Fisher turned out to be right as Saluter did indeed go foxhunting – after more than a half-million dollars earned as a racehorse. He’d take dips in the farm pond, roll in the mud, eat all the grass he wanted and dare people to guess who he was. 

In 2007, Great Meadow honored Saluter with a bronze by artist Alexa King. The sculpture fittingly stands in the winner’s circle. 

Saluter died in 2017, an old man of 28.

No, they don’t make horses like Saluter anymore. But they made one, and that was enough.

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The video tribute uses the wonderful photography of Doulas Lees, Sarah Libbey Greenhalgh, Pat Morris-Evans and Betsy Parker. Thank you.