Christmas, Channukah and so many other celebrations of love and life are also occasions for “re-memory” as the novelist Toni Morrison calls the act of remembering in a reflective way. In my own case, I rememory the Christmases of my childhood, when my grandparents were alive and their house was a fairyland of lights and ornaments, and Christmases with my father, who was the most expert of turkey-carvers, and who died suddenly when I was only 31 years old. These memories are part of who I am. Every Christmas brings me back to my grandparents and my Dad. In that sense, they have achieved a kind of immortality, living on as they do within me.
This short piece on THE VAULT is inspired by the importance of rememorying not only the famous thoroughbreds, but also those whose contribution to the sport — and our passion for it — was as great.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who have given THE VAULT your support. I have received wonderful comments from so many readers! Special thanks to Steve Haskin who, busy as I know he is, always takes the time to drop me a note of encouragement each time I publish a new article.
I have also to thank photographers extraordinaire Lydia Williams (LAW), Barbara Livingston, Bronwen Healy, Amber Chaflin, Emily Shields and Lindsey Ames Sanquenetti for so generously sharing their beautiful photographs with THE VAULT and its readership. I have wanted to celebrate my passion for thoroughbreds and the sport since I was a little girl. THE VAULT has made this dream possible through readers like you and the wonderful photographers whose work has so enriched the writing.
I wish each of you a very Happy Channukah, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May the holidays bring you joy and laughter, the company of friends and family and good tidings throughout 2012!
I am a collector of thoroughbred photographs, something that started about twenty years ago with the desire to track down an actual photo of one of my equine favourites, Terlingua, Secretariat’s daughter and the dam of Storm Cat. It was a modest goal at the time. Since then, my collection has exploded to epic proportions. Such is the course of any passionate pursuit: it starts by timidly entering into the dance and, before you know it, you are dancing out your joy each and every day!
In the course of searching out collectible photographs, I have come across legions of thoroughbreds who never hit the headlines more than once or twice in their day, if at all. Their names could fill an encyclopedia: Ned Reigh, Amazing Princess, Novelty, Thanksgiving, Savage Beauty, Quando, Pot O’ Luck, Merry Pete, Street Song, Sorteado, Battlin’ Satin, Famous Victory, Casual Friend, Billionaire, Staffordshire, Monte Carlo, Gosum, Mowsatre. I stumble upon these equine ghosts because I am hopelessly in love with early horse racing photography. It captures a golden age in a completely different visual sensibility that is hard to generalize. But from what I have gleaned over the years, the pre-1950 horse racing photographer was more interested in communicating the reality of the sport than in getting a perfect, promotional image. Accordingly, among the more conventional track photos abound images of “ordinary moments” in the lives of the thoroughbred, his/her trainer, jockey and groom. These oldies are so compelling, so charming, that it is tough to resist them.
When a photo captures my imagination, I spend a little time trying to research its equine subject — often, to no avail. The records of these obscure athletes — the colts, fillies and geldings who worked hard on racetracks throughout the USA and Canada, but who never gained superstar status — together with the biographies of their trainers and owners, elude even the most skilled researcher.
While horses like Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, Exterminator, Citation, Secretariat, Ruffian, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are irreplaceable as ambassadors of our sport, its history is writ large at the uppermost levels of equine society, a little like Shakespeare, whose plays focused on the lives of the aristocracy. The Belmonts, Whitneys and other founding racing dynasties were the focus of much record-keeping and writing in the past and that trend continues today.
The reason is obvious: we ordinary folk are more fascinated by the lives of the greats than we are the daily drudgery of the common hoard . Understandable, to be sure. But what happens in the wake of this cultural tradition is that history sustains huge gaps in its very fabric and, consequently, becomes distorted. So it is that the stories of racing communities and their horses become lost to us forever, as witnessed in the mountains of old press photos that depict thoroughbreds whose names mean nothing today. Prancing onto the modest tracks that proliferated throughout the land, with all the pomp and circumstance of soldiers going into battle, these “forgotten” thoroughbreds were the true ambassadors — and heroes — of the turf. It was they who brought the magic of horse racing to millions of people, making it possible for the working man or woman to participate in the sport of kings.
Enter Molasses Bill (1933) and Jimmie (1941).
Molasses Bill was an elegant dark chocolate gelding, a son of Challenger II (1927) out of a mare named Molasses Jane (1926). The colt was bred and raised at Branncastle Farm, owned by William Brann, the breeder of Challendon and owner of Gallorette. Challenger II was a son of the great British thoroughbred, Swynford (1907) who won 8 of his 12 starts, including the St. Leger and Eclipse Stakes, and sired Blandford, St. Germans and the great Saucy Sue, winner of the Oaks and 1000 Guineas. On his dam’s side, Molasses Bill boasted the ancestry of Domino (1891) and Commando (1898), as well as Ben Brush (1893) — the sire of Regret, the first filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby — and Ben Brush’s son, Broomstick (1901) — all brilliant race horses.
Molasses Bill was a sprinter of more than average talent — and stamina. The gelding made 262 starts between the ages of 2-16 years of age, with a record of 61 wins – 44 places – 33 shows. In other words, he made good in over 50% of the races he contested. His lifetime earnings were a little shy of $51,000 USD, which would be worth roughly $ 610,600 USD today. Racing both in the USA and Canada, Molasses Bill gave Canadian racegoers the “greatest thrill of the afternoon” when he ran to a dead heat finish in the Inaugural Handicap at Blue Bonnets Race Track in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on April 22, 1938. Here’s the link to the article that ran in THE MONTREAL GAZETTE :
Owned by E.D. Slavin in 1938, Molasses Bill changed hands at some point thereafter since, by 1944, his owner is a Mrs. Winston W. Adams and his trainer is George Alexandra. Whether or not the gutsy gelding was always trained by Alexandra could not be determined. However, we do know that Molasses Bill also campaigned at Suffolk Downs and Narragansett Park and records suggest that the former may well have been his home base. In 1942, as a 9 year-old, Molasses Bill won 3 races in a row. Still running at the age of 16, the son of Challenger II raced 16 times, with 4 wins, 2 places and 2 shows. The gelding was deep through the heart and, it would seem, never gave up without a battle even when he was a senior competing against babies. In the very few accounts that are extant, it would appear that his mettle was not only respected, but also gave him a following of devoted fans from Montreal to Suffolk Downs. What became of him after his retirement is unknown, but one finds oneself wishing that he was treated with the deep respect he so richly deserved in his old age.
Another grand campaigner was a chestnut gelding named Jimmie (1941), by Chance Play (1923) out of Nursemaid (1928). Jimmie was a homebred of a Mrs. Roy Carruthers of Versailles, Kentucky. Jimmie’s bloodlines are as distinguished as those of Molasses Bill.
As a grandson of Fair Play (1905) and the mare Quelle Chance (1917), Jimmie’s pedigree on top boasts the names of the brilliant and bad-tempered sire, Hastings (1893) and of Spendthrift (1876), the Belmont winner and accomplished “mudder,” together with Australian (1858) the leading sire and founder of the Fair Play line. Bend Dor (1877), a son of Doncaster (1870) and the excellent broodmare Rouge Rose (1865), as well as Rock Sand (1900), the broodmare sire of the incomparable Man O’ War and winner of the English Triple Crown in 1903, round out Jimmie’s blue-blood ancestry.
On the bottom of Jimmie’s pedigree, we again find Domino and Commando, as well as Sweep (1907), another outstanding son of Ben Brush. Sweep was a champion 2 year-old (1909) and 3 year-old (1910) who went on to become the broodmare sire of two Triple Crown winners: War Admiral and Whirlaway. Finally, Jimmie’s bloodlines also feature the two-time winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, Isonomy (1875). ( Like many American thoroughbreds of their day, both Jimmie and Molasses Bill were descendants of accomplished British horses, several of whose names appear in their pedigrees from the 2nd through the 5th generations.)
Jimmie’s racing career is as hard to track down as that of Molasses Bill, although extant pedigree information declares him to have been a black-type winner. We do know that Jimmie made a total of 95 starts, winning 21, placing in 15 and finishing third in 11, with lifetime earnings of over $60,000 USD, the equivalent of roughly $611, 600.00 USD today.
Jimmie actually got a headline on June 30, 1945, when he was the second choice to the favourite, Amber Light, in the $10,000 Cadillac Handicap at the Detroit Fair Grounds. His second-place ranking was based on the fact that Jimmie had run second to the same horse earlier, in the Boots and Saddle Handicap. Sadly, despite our best efforts, the results of the Cadillac Handicap could not be found anywhere. However, a year earlier, Jimmie qualified for the $25,000 added Chesapeake Stakes and in an article in the April 1944 DRF, the inference is that Jimmie deserves to be there. Jimmie’s second headline appears in the DRF in April, 1944 — “Jimmie Convincing Winner At Pimlico” — in which he “dusted off” the other 3 year-olds in a win that was seen to qualify him to be entered into the Preakness; Jimmie covered six furlongs in 1:14 and change and had to be eased up after the finish. Racing at Pimlico in late May of 1945 for his owner, Mrs. Carruthers, Jimmie fought hard to finish in 4th place against a longshot called Harford. At Havre de Grace in April of 1946, Jimmie is up against three very good colts — Warren Wright’s Pride, Pentagon Stables’ the Doge and H.L. Straus’ New Moon. In June of 1948, Jimmie is entered in a claiming race at Delaware Park, but in May of 1949, the gelding is one of the top picks to either win or place against a horse called Dr. Roche in a column in the DRF entitled “Havre de Grace Selections.” At this point, Jimmie was an 8 year-old, which might explain why further information about him is scant. One hopes that, as a homebred, he was retired to live out his life under Mrs. Carruthers’ care but, like Molasses Bill, there is no information about Jimmie after he was retired.
What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with the spirit of the season?
Surely the Spirit of Channukah and Christmas showcases a moment in time when the lowly creatures in a stable and a handful of ordinary folk rose from obscurity to greatness, the former in the presence of a baby who would devote his life to bettering the lives of all people and the latter, due to a resolve, hope and faith so great that they were willing to stand firm against impossible odds. And, although we don’t know the names of the brave who brought Channukah to us, or of those lowly beasts in Bethlehem, we honour their memory.
p.s. I am proud to say that I own all the press photos of Molasses Bill and Jimmie that appear in this article. One day soon, they will be framed and mounted along side my beloved photo of Will Harbut walking Man O’ War. I like to think that both Will and the first Big Red would understand — and would welcome their place in thoroughbred history.