Racing crossover: An enigma named after a star

Profile Picture: Rowan Ward

May 27th, 2021

The city of Chicago has more than a century of sports history. Superstars of every sport have called Chicago home over the years, but the most iconic athlete in the history of Chicago sports is unquestionably Michael Jordan.

Even his career highlights take forever to sing.

He led the Chicago Bulls to a "three-peat" — NBA championships in 1991, 1992, and 1993. After a brief diversion to baseball, he not only returned to the Bulls but carried them to yet another three-peat in 1996, 1997, and 1998. He won the NBA Finals MVP all six of those seasons. He won the NBA scoring title 10 times and league MVP five times.

Basketball players and sneakerheads alike clamored for his Nike Air Jordan kicks. They still do, even almost 20 years after Jordan retired.

Kids of all ages lined up at the movie theaters to see him in Space Jam. He appeared in the music video for "Jam," a 1992 song by Michael Jackson. Even off the court, Michael Jordan was a cultural force.

Sometimes, the fun of following a horse named after an all-time sports great comes from drawing the parallels — since a horse must be named before their first start, they beat astronomical odds if they become a star.

But, sometimes, such a horse becomes compelling because of the contrast. And that was the case with a Chicago horse named Super Twenty Three.

The contrast would not have been as interesting had Super Twenty Three just been the next Zippy Chippy. That would have been a racetrack retelling of the oldest fable about hubris. Of course, some would say, if you name your horse in honor of a legend, they would respond by never winning a race.

Super Twenty Three, a bay gelding by Badge of Silver, out of the Behrens mare What If, won more than a single race. Trained by longtime Chicago mainstay Emmagene Schwan for all but one of his starts, Super Twenty Three won five times in 47 starts from ages three through six. 

But every time Michael Jordan stepped on the court, magic happened. Even if he wasn't feeling his best, he was still Michael Jordan, something never better proven than in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, the immortal "Flu Game." Even feeling his worst, he dropped 38 points, including a late three-pointer that sunk the Utah Jazz for good. Through the 1980s and 90s, you always knew Michael Jordan was going to play like Michael Jordan.

The only thing you could expect from Super Twenty Three was a surprise. Anyone who handicapped Chicago regularly through the mid-2010s knew. The name Super Twenty Three popped up in the entries and you massaged your temples, shook your head, and wondered which version would show up.

The five times Super Twenty Three won, he crossed the wire clear of his opposition. His closest calls were a pair of 1 3/4-length victories — his only multi-win streak, though even then they were separated by a two-month winter layoff. 

His other three wins were romps, none more emphatic than his maiden win on Oct. 6, 2013 at Hawthorne. He set a comfortable pace, unbothered by six fellow Illinois-bred maiden claimers, and kicked away into the lane and kept drawing off. Though it was only 7 1/4 lengths from second-place to last, it was 17 3/4 lengths from Super Twenty Three to second-place Ballistic Tim.

That romp was the closest Super Twenty Three came to the sheer dominance of his namesake. And though he was a frustrating horse for handicappers, his name was a fun take on a true Chicago icon. It was always a fun surprise when Super Twenty Three decided it was the right day to bound clear of his foes in the lane.