Exceller is widely considered one of the best horses to race in the United States to not win a year-end championship. Despite his exemplary achievements as a racehorse, and his unique accomplishment in being the only horse to ever defeat two Triple Crown winners in the same race (and only the second ever to do so in his career), Exceller is now remembered more for the tragic manner of his death and the horse rescue movement it helped inspire.
Exceller was foaled on May 12, 1973 in Kentucky. Bred by Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, he was sold as a yearling for approximately $27,000 to Nelson Bunker Hunt. Hunt's advisors figured that a son of European champion stayer Vaguely Noble with long and upright pasterns, would be better suited to European racing and sent him to France.
Trained at first by Francois Mathet, who had been the trainer for François Dupré, and later by Maurice Zilber, Exceller didn't accomplish much racing as a two-year-old but blossomed as the distances got longer during his three-year-old season. While stablemates Empery and Youth were taking down the French and English Derbys, Exceller pounded out wins in the grueling Prix Royal-Oak (run at 1 7/8 mile) and the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris. Shipped to England at age four, he wound up a half-length behind The Minstrel and Orange Bay in one of the most exciting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes ever run and annexed the Coronation Cup. Sent on to Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Canada, Exceller won the Canadian International.
In the middle of 1977, Exceller was shipped to California and placed in the care of Charlie Whittingham. At first, Whittingham didn't have high expectations for a horse who walked stiffly on arrival and seemed the worse for wear. However, a little time off and some of Charlie Whittingham's expertise soon had Exceller competing and winning against some of the best horses in America.
As a five-year-old in 1978, Exceller had his best season on the racecourse, winning 7 of 10 starts, all in top company, on both dirt and turf racetracks. After claiming the Hollywood Gold Cup, Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap, San Juan Capistrano Handicap, Sunset Handicap, Oak Tree Invitational Stakes, Exceller had his crowning moment. With Willie Shoemaker in the saddle, Exceller came from 22 lengths back to beat Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. To be fair, Affirmed's saddle had slipped, effectively taking him out of the race, and Seattle Slew had been hanging up almost suicidal fractions on the lead, but Exceller still powered through the Belmont Park mud to win by a nose.
Exceller came back again at age six and managed some nice placings, but was not quite the same horse.
In sum, he had won 15 of 33 starts, including 13 stakes races, and placed in 11 more in France, England, Canada, and the United States and had earned $1,654,003. He and Noor were the only horses in history to defeat two U.S. Triple Crown winners, and Exceller was the only one to pull off this feat in a single race. Most racing writers agree that, along with Gallant Man and Lure, he may have been the best horse to race in the United States and not win a year-end championship.
Exceller ran best, like many European horses, "covered up"—deep in the pack early. In the late stages of the race he produced a powerful burst of speed and caught the leaders in the stretch. From a race enthusiast's point of view, Exceller's final quarter mile times are nothing short of amazing: he regularly sprinted the final quarter in under 25 seconds. His fractions of 23 2/5 seconds at the end of the Hollywood Gold Cup and Oak Tree Invitational is very fast as 23 seconds is considered a quick first quarter in such a race.
Exceller was syndicated and retired to stud at Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky for the 1980 breeding season. He shared a small stallion barn with his sire Vaguely Noble and classic-winning champion stablemate, Youth. In 1986 (and probably before), he stood for a $50,000 stud fee, the second-highest listed fee at Gainesway at the time.
As time went on, however, it became obvious that Exceller was never going to be a leading sire. By 1991, his stud fee had plummeted to $2,500.
In 1991, the syndicate was bought out by a breeder from Sweden and Exceller was shipped back across the Atlantic Ocean. He sired a few crops of foals, then was diagnosed with a mysterious infection that forced his removal from stud service for several years. When Exceller's owner went bankrupt, the horse was moved to a small farm where he remained for a year before owner Göte Östlund ordered him killed. He was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed for meat.
Exceller left behind 16 crops of foals in the United States, including 19 stakes winners and 40 stakes horses, none of them of his quality. His runners were headed by the fillies Slew's Exceller and Squan Song.
Exceller was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1999. Although their website does, the plaque in the museum makes no mention of the manner of his death, only that he died in 1997. His fate, essentially unheard of for an American stallion of his racing class, generated debate over the proper treatment of race horses after their careers on the track were over.
Today, a number of grassroots organizations, such as The Exceller Fund, ReRun, The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER) and Old Friends, among others, take inspiration from Exceller's story as they work to purchase and retrain former racehorses for new careers. In addition, had the horse been in the United States, he may well have been given a proper home at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions in Lexington as was done after the retired champion thoroughbred Cigar was found to be infertile at stud. Or, the owner might have been able to have handed him over to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, the world's largest and most respected organization devoted to equine rescue.
Like Exceller, Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand ended up in a slaughterhouse in Japan in 2002.
In the Blood-Horse magazine ranking of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century, Exceller was ranked #96.