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World-record holder aims to validate status in Challenge

He's the fastest American Quarter Horse in history. So why in the world haven't you heard of A Long Goodbye?

At the classic shortline distance of 440 yards (one-quarter of a mile), A Long Goodbye's time of :20.686 shot to the top of the all-time charts this spring when he won Sunland Park's MBNA America New Mexico Challenge Championship. The regional victory also earned him a berth into Saturday's Grade 1 $300,000 MBNA America Challenge Championship, highlight of a six-race stakes bonanza set for southern California's Los Alamitos Racecourse.

A Long Goodbye is third choice in the morning line for the Challenge Championship, but the rags-to-riches rocket will have to prove himself against the best in North America, including even-money morning-line favorite Catchmeinyourdreams. Despite winning 17 of 37 starts, the five-year-old A Long Goodbye must out-run his past to gain respect.

Horseplayers and the racing public are reluctant to heap praise on a runner who once plied his trade in bottom-level claiming races and was haltered by his current connections for a measly $6,500 in 2003. The New Mexico Challenge Championship was his first graded stakes win.

In his record-setting victory, it should be noted that A Long Goodbye was aided by a 14 mph tailwind -- significant, but not overly brisk for a springtime afternoon just outiside El Paso. When he stopped the clock that day, he shaved 5/100ths of a second off of Kendall Jackson's world record, the most prestigious in all of American Quarter Horse racing. In fact, it was just the fourth time in 33 years that the 440-yard standard had been lowered.

Tom Dawson, perhaps the best-known shortline historian and analyst the game has ever known, was the racing secretary at Ruidoso Downs in 1973 when Truckle Feature established the 440-yard world record in winning the World Championship Classic. Dawson said comparing A Long Goodbye to horses like Truckle Feature is a stretch.

"The truth is," said Dawson, "as I see it, Truckle feature set a 440-yard world record in 1973 beating an outstanding field of horses for fun. That record stood for 30 years. Since then, this is the fourth different horse to beat his record. There is no way this horse is better than two lengths faster than Truckle Feature on his best day -- that's inconceivable to me.

"Truckle Feature was a very good horse beating an excellent field handily under perfect conditions. He ran his optimum race and you would expect to hang a number...and even so, there were many questions about that back at the time. In fact, I was one of two people who had a handheld watch on it along with electric timer...I thought I missed the break or something it was so fast. That's why people had a hard time believing it even back then."

Most racetrack regulars know that fast tracks make for fast times as much as fast horses deserve the credit. Whether it be a Thoroughbred or American Quarter Horse meeting, the published list of track records anywhere often is a smattering of famous names mixed in with never-heard-ofs who skipped over a lightening-fast surface for their few seconds of fame.

How legitimate a fast time stacks up historically is more art than science. Raw numbers don't always tell the real story; sometimes you must craft the big effort in the broader context of a horse's career.

A Long Goodbye ran a blistering :20.88 in his trial for the New Mexico Challenge Championship, showing that his world-record clocking was within reach with the right conditions. And, the Oklahoma-bred most recently ran a close second (beaten by a neck) at the new Zia Park in New Mexico -- behind Corona Ease's :19.00 clocking, which will be deemed a new 400-yard world record upon its pending approval and verification of the timing. Those two races, sandwiched between his record-setting run in the New Mexico regional final, lend a touch of credence to the validity of his new standard.

So where does A Long Goodbye stand?

"Most of the trainers and handicappers I talk to out here know the times are a little bit phony at Sunland and Zia Park because of daylight racing and a strong tailwind," said Ed Burgart, Los Alamitos' morning line maker, handicapper and announcer. "Sunland, that's a track where a lot of records are set and often you don't see a repeat of that big effort when those horses come out to Los Alamitos.

"I'm not picking the horse one-two-three. He's won 17 races and that I respect...but he just ran hard two weeks ago, and, to me, that's bringing him back really quick. The horses that beat him at Zia Park like Corona Ease aren't that strong and wouldn't be competitive against top horses out here. He'll have to prove it to me."

Dawson added, "I think it's track preparation that has allowed these horses to run faster in certain circumstances. If the track preparation and maintenance has progressed in 30 years as other technological advances have, it's reasonable to say they're running on a surface that can be made faster. I don't say A Long Goodbye's record is phony, but rather a product of the environment."

Will A Long Goodbye be able to wave goodbye to the doubters Saturday night with a score in the MBNA America Challenge Championship? This time, it won't be the clock he has to outrun, but rather a classy field that includes 2004 Challenge Championship hero SLM Snowman and three-time past AQHA divisional champion Catchmeinyourdreams.

The only way to know if the one-time claimer has legitimately moved to the upper echelon of the sport is for him to run like the wind at Los Alamitos. Most importantly, a victory would put A Long Goodbye into unquestionable territory next to names like Tailor Fit, SLM Big Daddy and Kool Kue Baby -- prior Challenge Championship winners who rank amongst the best shortliners of the past decade. That, paired with a world record, would make for quite a resume.

Challenge notebook
Blane Schvaneveldt leads the all-time trainers' list of Challenge Championships winners with six, followed by John Bassett's four ... G.R. Carter leads all jockeys in career Challenge wins with six, followed by Jacky Martin's five ... Horses who qualified for the Challenge Championships from the California region have won 15 races in the event's history, most of any region. Texas (12) and New Mexico (9) rank next-best ... Californians have absolutely dominated the Ford Juvenile historically with six winners in 12 years ...Qualifiers from Canada and Mexico are a combined 4-for-91 in the Challenge all-time ... Odds-on favorites are 9-for-21 in the Challenge all-time with 16 finishes in the exacta ...Los Alamitos will offer three different pick fours on its 13-race program (races 1-4, 6-9, 10-13), with the middle pick four exclusively involving MBNA America Challenge Championships races ... Post time for the first race on the Los Alamitos program will be 6:30 p.m. pacific.