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Call it the survival of the fittest

...but not necessarily the best, as the sport wound up its season

This is the time of the year when horse-men get together—if that is possible—and attempt to sort out the various divisional championships. When you have a Kelso, a Buckpasser or a Damascus, the task is simple. But this year it is difficult and almost immaterial. The interesting point is not so much which horses will win seasonal honors as it is which ones might have won had they still been able to stagger to the starting gate. Only in the 2-year-old division, where Riva Ridge, winner of last week's Laurel Futurity, and the filly Numbered Account are outstanding, will the titles be awarded without argument. The situation in the other divisions is so muddled that if these two should meet in the Garden State Stakes on Nov. 13 the result could resolve the Horse of the Year riddle.

Normally, the big races of last week—the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel, the Spinster at Keeneland and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Aqueduct—would have been deciding factors in the championships, but this year the events were notable only for the ease with which the winners scored. One could not help wondering what these races might have been if so many of 1971's early stars had not become lame and halt or for some other reason disappeared from the scene.

The list of those missing is long. Consider just the 3-year-olds who might have appeared in the International or Gold Cup: Hoist the Flag, Canonero, Limit to Reason, Executioner, Jim French, His Majesty, Twist the Axe, Bold and Able, Son Ange, Dynastic, Bold Reason, Sole Mio, Unconscious, Eastern Fleet, Good Behaving, Impetuosity, Pass Catcher, Bold Reasoning and Salem. And the Spinster, a weight-for-age test for fillies and mares, was lackluster without Double Delta, Princess Pout and Drumtop, all of whom were hurt.

The best showing in the end-of-the-season events was the tremendously facile victory of Mrs. Whitney Stone's 5-year-old mare Shuvee in the Gold Cup. This tough chestnut daughter of Nashua became the first of her sex to take the Gold Cup a year ago. Last week she did it again and more convincingly; her time for the two miles was 3:20⅖ and only two Gold Cup winners have bettered that. Before the stake, Shuvee's owner had announced that, win or lose, this race—her 44th start—would be her last. During the summer she had surpassed Cicada as the world's alltime money-winning race mare. "She has been great for us," said Whitney Stone, "and retiring her is a difficult decision. Most people wait until a horse breaks down, but we prefer to do it when we think she may be at her best."

And she was, too. While Polar Traffic and the race's only other filly, Our Cheri Amour, cut out the early pace, Jockey Jorge Velasquez never let Shuvee be worse than fourth. After the seven-horse field had gone exactly a mile and an eighth Velasquez clucked to Shuvee and away she went. The Argentine horse Practicante made a run at her, 1970 Travers winner Loud made a run at her, and finally, as the horses headed into the stretch, another Argentinian, Paraje, put her to the test. Shuvee overwhelmed them all, prancing home the winner by seven lengths. New York's racing fans gave her a farewell salute that heretofore has been reserved for the likes of Stymie, Native Dancer, Carry Back and Kelso. She retires with winnings of $890,445 and is to be bred next spring. Among the stallions being considered: Tom Rolfe, Nijinsky, Arts and Letters.

The eventual successor to Shuvee may have appeared in Friday's Spinster. Prior to the race, however, Chou Croute's owners had so little confidence in her ability that they considered scratching her. The Folsom Farm filly was the winner of seven of her eight starts, but she had never gone more than seven furlongs, and in the mile-and-an-eighth Spinster she would face such accomplished performers as Deceit and Alma North.

Well, not only did Chou Croute (a daughter of Ridan's full brother Lt. Stevens and the Ky. Colonel mare Witherite) go the longer distance, but she looked, as horsemen put it, happier doing it than she had in winning sprints. She charged out of the gate first and was never headed, winning by 2½ lengths. Alma North was third and Deceit fifth. Instead of folding up as sprinters going a route are supposed to do, Chou Croute kept rolling along, not, I imagine, to the 3-year-old filly championship (my vote would go to California's Turkish Trousers) but at least to win a vote as the member of her class most likely to succeed.

Paul Mellon's Run the Gantlet deserves being picked as the best grass runner of the year. He outdistanced his rivals in the 20th running of the International. The second horse, Irish Ball, was six lengths back and the last horse, Quiludi, 84 lengths, or about one-eighth of a mile, behind. The winner's time was a tortoise-slow 2:50[3/5] for the mile and a half (more than 26 seconds off Kelso's track record), but the event, because of the VEE scare, had the poorest foreign contingent ever and was run in such horribly wet and foggy conditions that, as one wit put it, "They ran it in a canal and Run the Gantlet was the only one who could swim." The bay son of Tom Rolfe has now won five stakes in a row and six of 10 starts in 1971. Trainer Elliott Burch considered bringing him back in the Gold Cup just five days later, but decided, "That's being greedy, and greed doesn't usually pay off. Instead we'll rest him until at least February and then think about the grass races in Florida and California. I may even try him again on dirt, but he seems to prefer grass."

Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stable is flourishing with Horse of the World Mill Reef in England, Run the Gantlet and Farewell Party in the U.S. and a barnful of lightly raced 2-year-olds, the best of which may be Fort Marcy's half brother Key to the Mint. Mellon has won close to $2 million with his thoroughbreds this season, racing them halfway around the world, and only the backers of California's Ack Ack and Cougar would show the least surprise if Run the Gantlet became Mellon's and Burch's third Horse of the Year in as many years. That takes some doing.