The 1980s belonged to the 49ers... and Forty Niner

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July 15th, 2021

The 1980s were a good time to be a 49er.

Though the San Francisco 49ers had yet to win a championship since their founding in 1946 and struggled through the late 1970s, the appointment of Bill Walsh as their new head coach marked a turning point.

Hired by new owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., after a 2-14 season in 1978, Walsh quickly proved his skill at identifying talent. The 49ers drafted Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in the third round. Walsh also drafted the relatively unheralded Clemson wide receiver Dwight Clark, after he served as a pass catcher while the 49ers scouted quarterback Steve Fuller.

That set the stage for a meteoric rise. In Walsh's third season, as well as Montana's and Clark's, the 49ers got very, very good. They piled up a 13-3 record during the 1981 season, the best in team history. In the NFC Championship Game, against the Dallas Cowboys, Montana tied the game in the fourth quarter with a throw to Clark, forever known as "The Catch." The 49ers went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI, their first title.

Through most of the 1980s and 1990s, the 49ers were an elite NFL franchise. In 1984, they were dominant — a 15-1 regular season, a romping run through the playoffs, and a 38-16 win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.

Then came another star — Jerry Rice — and the 49ers returned to their best in 1988. Though they struggled through the first part of the season, only 6-5 after 11 games, they finished strong. Back in the Super Bowl against Cincinnati, the Bengals led with 3:08 remaining, but Montana orchestrated his greatest comeback yet, a 92-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown with 34 seconds left.

Even though Bill Walsh ceded head coach to George Seifert in 1989, the 49ers stayed sharp, made a blowout run through the playoffs, and crushed the Denver Broncos, 55-10, to win their fourth Super Bowl of the decade.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence that a horse named Forty Niner reached the top of horse racing as the 49ers dominated football.

Forty Niner was a son of Mr. Prospector, which brings up mental images of the prospectors from the California Gold Rush, from whom the football team took its name.

Unlike the 49ers, Forty Niner took little time to reach the top of his game. He broke his maiden on debut at Belmont Park in July of 1987, and though he lost his first stakes attempt in the Saratoga Special S. (G2), he roared back with wet-track wins in the Sanford S. (G2) and the Futurity S. (G1). He then proved himself over a dry track, with a 4 1/4-length win over longshot Parlay Me in the Champagne S. (G1). He concluded his season with a win in the Breeders' Futurity (G2), which clinched champion 2-year-old male, even without a trip to the Breeders' Cup.

In 1988, the same year the 49ers made their way to a third Super Bowl, Forty Niner remained a top-class horse. He finished no worse than second in any of his five Kentucky Derby (G1) preps, including a win in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2). Despite a parking-lot post in the Kentucky Derby, he tracked in range of favored filly Winning Colors, who set the pace. He made a big run at her in the lane but fell just a neck short. 

Forty Niner was at his best through the summer. He set a track record in an allowance at Monmouth Park on July 16, which showed he was in perfect form for the Haskell S. (G1) two weeks later. After a fight with Seeking the Gold for the final half-mile of the race, Forty Niner got his nose on the wire first.

The next month, in the Travers S. (G1), it came down to a nose again. Though Seeking the Gold led into the first turn, Forty Niner took the lead into the backstretch and never gave it up. He was clear midstretch, and though Seeking the Gold came at him to make a race of it again, Forty Niner won again, by the slimmest of margins.

Forty Niner raced three more times against older horses, including a win in the NYRA Mile H., before he retired to stud at the end of his three-year-old season. He made an impact on the Thoroughbred breed all over the world, with sons like leading American sire Distorted Humor, leading South Korean stud Ecton Park, and End Sweep, a prominent sire in the United States and Japan.