BALTIMORE - There is no debate about the greatest Pennsylvania-bred race horse of all time. It has been only 3 years since Smarty Jones. It might take an eternity to find one more dominating.
There is a reasonable debate about the greatest Pa.-bred sire of all time. One could make a strong case for Storm Cat, the world's most expensive sire at $500,000 a pop. Or one could make an equally strong case for Danzig, the sire of four winners of Breeders' Cup races, more than 100 graded stakes winners and 10 champions.
Danzig had a lot of Smarty Jones on the track, too. The colt was unbeaten and unchallenged in three races, one as a 2-year-old in 1979, two in 1980, for trainer Woody Stephens. Bred by Marshall Jenney's Derry Meeting Farm and Will Farish, the same man who hosted Queen Elizabeth II at the Derby, Danzig was sold to Henryk de Kwiatkowski for $310,000 at the 1978 Saratoga Yearling Sales.
"He was unbelievably good," said Phil Gleaves, then Stephens' assistant before becoming a very successful trainer in his own right. "No horse ever got in front of him at any pole in any race."
Danzig was operated on after his first start because of knee problems. His knees never really got better. The colt was so arthritic that Gleaves remembers trying to get him loose before going to the track every day by jogging him up and down the tunnel at Belmont Park that separates the barn area from the paddock.
Then, Danzig would train. Then, they would ice him down. Eventually, that took its toll and Danzig had to be retired midway through his 3-year-old season.
Only 4 years later, his son Chief's Crown won the first Breeders' Cup race ever run, the Juvenile at Hollywood Park. In 1986, another son, Danzig Connection, gave Stephens his fifth consecutive Belmont Stakes win.
Danzig's son Lure won the BC Mile twice. His daughter Dance Smartly beat the boys to win the Canadian Triple Crown before beating the best females in the world to win the BC Distaff. Another son, War Chant, won the BC Mile.
Danzig, who stood at stud for $200,000 at the end of his career, also sired Preakness winner Pine Bluff, the great English sprinter Dayjur, and Danehill, the sire of a world-record 300 stakes winners. A son of the greatest sire of the second half of the 20th century, 1964 Derby winner Northern Dancer, Danzig carried on the legacy after the great Dancer died in 1989.
"He was just a freak of nature," said Gleaves, Danzig's exercise rider in 1980. "He was built like a tank."
Danzig, then 29, was put down on Jan. 3, 2006, at Claiborne Farm, where he was buried in the same cemetery as Secretariat. His final foals are 2-year-olds this year. The one race a Danzig offspring has never won is the Kentucky Derby.
For more than a mile on May 5, it looked as if another Pa.-bred, Hard Spun, son of Danzig, might get the Derby. Street Sense changed that, but nothing can change the impact of Danzig on the breed.
Hard Spun will get a chance to add to the legacy in today's Preakness. Some people who saw Danzig race will tell you he could have been as good as any horse that ever hit the track.
"Woody had me breeze him a mile one day," Gleaves said. "His first half was 52 seconds. His last half was 46 seconds."
For the last three-eighths of a mile, another horse, a horse just starting his workout, unintentionally joined Danzig.
Even though Danzig had already worked 5 furlongs, "Danzig was just toying with him," Gleaves remembered.
It turned out the horse was working to get ready for a stakes race the next day. The horse, named Rivalero, won that stake, 17 career races and $568,475. And the legend of Danzig was cemented for Gleaves.
"We throw the word 'great' around way, way too much," Gleaves said. "If we're honest with ourselves, there hasn't been a great horse since Spectacular Bid."
Danzig, Gleaves is certain, was on his way to great. Danzig's three races are on YouTube. Check them out.
What Danzig could have been on the track will be left to our imaginations. What he became as a sire needs no imagination. It is right there in the race records of all those sons and daughters who have won so many significant races for more than 2 decades.