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As the incomparable WINX marches on, in a campaign that has us all witnessing history-in-the-making, what is it that keeps us coming back to watch her race again?

The psychology of sport is arguably as fascinating as the sport itself. And while those of us who follow horse racing think we do it out of a passion for thoroughbreds or standardbreds, what gets our cranial pleasure centre pumped is the risk that our champion of the day might lose. It could be convincingly argued that without the potential for loss, sport might not exist at all. Because winning — especially winning all the time, despite the odds — is boring.

As much as metaphors of horse racing extol its capacity to inspire hope, the possibility that our four-legged hero or heroine might be conquered is as intoxicating. In a sense, we repeatedly tune in for a Winx or a Rachel Alexandra or a Frankel race because the possibility that they’ll be defeated is irresistable. Which is not to say that we think about this consciously: we don’t think “Will Zenyatta lose?” rather, what we tend to write, speak and ask ourselves is more like “Can Zenyatta do it again?”

Case in point was Zenyatta’s bid for a second consecutive win in the 2010 BC Classic. Even though the loss was painful for fans and her team, broadcaster Trevor Denman spoke a text rich in the nuanced possibility that defeat might, indeed, happen.

Since 2010, it has been the thinking of most racing experts that the great mare ran the best race of her career in defeat. But what most of us remember about that day is the anticipation — and the foreboding — as Blame and Zenyatta near the wire. And Denman’s words, “…Zenyatta ran her heart out…”

The part of the brain that controls pleasure is the amygdala and when we are in contexts that excite us or move us to a level of “brain happy”, as in intense physical workouts or deep meditation, the amygdala releases dopamine into our system. Dopamine is a natural “high” that gives us feelings of intense, emotional well-being, relieving stress and anxiety in a matter of nano-seconds. Arguably, our excitement watching a big race like the 2010 BC Classic is as much about the thrill of the loss as it is about the thrill of the win — and the amygdala cooperates by responding to our heightened senses as we watch to see what will happen.

And the “what” in “will happen” is written in the tension between win and loss, victory and defeat. In the great Frankel’s last race, the ground was less than ideal, and the colt was caught “sleeping” at the start:

Granted, the “nail-biter” of Frankel’s last appearance on the track resolved itself fairly quickly when the colt made his big move in the stretch against a valiant Cirrus des Aigles.

But many of the greatest, most beloved thoroughbreds have come perilously close to sufferring defeat at least once in otherwise brilliant careers.

One instance of this would be Personal Ensign’s victory in what would be her final race, the 1988 BC Distaff, where with heart-thumping courage she struggled in the slop against the winner of the 1988 Kentucky Derby. This race stands as arguably the best performance ever seen in a Breeders Cup Distaff/Ladies Classic. The stakes were high: Could the undefeated Personal Ensign finish off her career with a win against the Kentucky Derby heroine?

The 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was still another battle to the wire. It featured two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, as well as Nelson Bunker Hunt’s Exceller. Although, sadly, many know Exceller because of his end in a slaughterhouse in Sweden, the colt was a champion who had won races in Europe as well as America.

As you will see in this (rather poor quality) footage of the 1978 Jockey Gold Cup, Seattle Slew ominously rushes out of the gate before the start, although this didn’t appear to dampen his ability in the slightest as the race gets underway. But as viewers in the moment we, of course, don’t know this. And the “Can Slew do it?” is in the forefront as the race gets underway. The track conditions are sloppy but racing fans were firmly entrenched in either the Seattle Slew or Affirmed court:

 

Champion EXCELLER portrayed by Richard Stone Reeves.

The rare defeats of champion thoroughbreds only seem to make racing enthusiasts respect them more. This might be because a champion has proved his/her vulnerability, making them appear a little more like the rest of their human following. The poet Sylvia Plath wrote, “Perfection is terrible … Cold as snow breath..” and, in a sense, our passion for a particular thoroughbred champion is also based on their overcoming the stasis of perfection, which they do by bravely facing the music again and again and risking everything.

The corollary of hope is despair, and loss is one of the experiences that triggers feelings of despondency. Perhaps no other event in the last century of racing in England was as keenly felt as Nijinsky’s narrow loss to Sassafras in the 1970 Arc.

The British people had easily fallen for the brilliance of their Triple Crown winner and so much hope was placed on a triumph in the Arc. But what most had no way of knowing was that Nijinsky had fallen ill to an extreme case of ringworm during the season and that his run in the St. Leger, the last leg of the British Triple Crown, was against the advice of his trainer, Vincent O’Brien. But as owner Charles Engelhardt wanted Nijinsky to run in the Arc — another request frowned upon by O’Brien — the St. Leger was the only decent prep moving forward.

Had O’Brien’s sage advice been heeded, there would have been no Triple Crown winner of 1970. And, as it turned out, the trainer’s judgment about the champion’s fitness for the Arc was also correct.

Still another lacune was Lester Piggott’s ride on Nijinsky in the Arc: he held the colt back too long and whipped him near the finish, causing Nijinsky to shy and lose any chance he may have had to beat Sassafras:

 

The 1970 Arc. It was this close — NIJINSKY on the outside in a photo finish.

Still, it was a photo finish. But when Sassafras was declared the winner, the despair of Nijinsky’s handlers was visceral. They were not alone. Just across the English Channel, England and Ireland felt the loss every bit as keenly.

Had he won under circumstances that would stop most horses cold — from a poor post position to the distance he was asked to travel to reach Sassafras – Nijinsky would have gone down in history as THE thoroughbred of the century. But such was not to be. However, Nijinsky’s courage and raw ability could not be denied: in defeat, he was glorious.

The Hero’s Journey is played out in myth,religions, literature, film and popular tv series around the world.

Since the beginning of time, myths of the hero’s journey have been written. It’s a formula that we all know very well, however we might have learned it: the hero/heroine is born but orphaned early in life — to realize his/her true heroism, s/he must accept and overcome a series of challenges — triumphing over all, the apprentice becomes a true hero/heroine.

In modern times, we recognize the pattern of the ancient hero myths in Shakespeare, in George Lukas’ original Star Wars trilogy, in book series such as Harry Potter and author Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” in Marvel characters (Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman et al.) and in television series like Game of Thrones.

But it was theatre and sport that first popularized the hero myth for enthusiastic spectators in the ancient world, pitting individuals against challenges both psychological (as in the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex) and physical (marathon runs, chariot races, etc.) That tradition has continued to the present.

GOSHAWK walks onto the track. The image evokes the hero entering the fray, and few capture it better than the incomparable C.C.Cook. Date: 1923. (Source: The Vault, private collection)

The pageantry of a horse race echoes, in microcosm, the journey of the hero. Out the horses come, one by one, in the pre-race parade. Each is a warrior going into a battle where the outcome is far from assured. And as we watch them, we can’t help but imbue each one with the courage they so rightly deserve. Once the race is on, we are presented with a micro-battle scene, as horse and jockey overcome all that is thrown in their way to cross the finish line first. If they come home leagues ahead of the field, or fight it out to get their nose down first, they triumph as only a hero or heroine can.

BATEAU (Man O’ War) seems dwarfed by the enormity of the track, reminding us of the challenge she faces — and will be asked to overcome. Another of C.C. Cook’s “racing portraits.” (Source: The Vault private collection.)

 

The Dwyer, July 1920. MAN O’ WAR, with Clarence Kummer up, on his way to the post. Cook frames the colt’s readiness for battle in an image that depicts his taut body and pricked ears, underlying the determination that was so much a part of Man O’ War’s character. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

The drama of a race in which we have invested our hopes and fears is cathartic because we, too, have run races in our own lives. We have funded courage against the odds and struggled to overcome them, and we have succeeded or failed in the process.

Win or lose, the thoroughbreds we have grown up with and come to love, go on. And as we participate in their campaigns, we are also subconsciously reliving places in our own lives. How else to explain our unerring understanding of the grammar of loss and our enthusiastic reception of the crucible through which thoroughbred champions come to be?

 

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

Out of the past: A few of the many other breathtaking performances that are personal favourites (below), listed at random.

We’re certain that our readers have their own favourites. Many of these are available on YouTube if you’d like to relive them.

 

Secretariat — The Belmont

 

Ruffian — The Mother Goose

 

Rachel Alexandra — The Kentucky Oaks

 

Barbaro — 2006 Kentucky Derby

 

 

Tiznow & Giant’s Causeway — 2000 BC Classic

 

Dance Smartly — 1991 BC Distaff (following her winning the Canadian Triple Crown)

Invasor & Bernadini — 2006 BC Classic (also features Lava Man, Flower Alley, George Washington, Giacomo, Lawyer Ron & Brother Derek):

 

Zenyatta — 2009 BC Classic

 

American Pharoah — 2015 Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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In recognition of Man O’ War’s birth over a century ago, it’s been a time of celebration in the USA and Canada. So many fabulous articles, exhibits and online postings about America’s “favourite son” made for great reading and learning. THE VAULT is joining in the fun, with the assistance of B.K. Beckwith, Frank Gray Griswold and the Director of the Keeneland Library, Becky Ryder, to whom a special thank you is extended. 

I. Recollections of Louis Feustel, who trained Man O’ War

 

MAN O’ WAR exercising at Faraway Farm. Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

In B.K. Beckwith’s magical book, “Step And Go Together,” there is a chapter entitled “The Old Man and the Horse.” It’s a touching interview with Man O War’s trainer, Louis Feustel. We thought it would be fun to share some of Feustel’s recollections with our readers. (NOTE: B= Beckwith; F= Feustel; non-italic = notes on the chapter.)

MAN O’ WAR as a 2 year-old with trainer Louis Feustel (right front, in the light suit), owner Samuel Riddle (in round top hat) and jockey Johnny Loftus. The identity of the other gentleman unknown. Source: Pinterest

B: What was he like? What made him great?

F: I don’t really know…Maybe this will explain it — there was not a thing in the world that you wanted him to do that he would not try to do it better. If you asked him to walk, he’d fight to jog; if you asked him to jog, he’d grab the bit and gallop; if you wanted him to gallop he’d say “to hell with you” — and run.

B: They raced on steel then; you had no aluminum plates.It wouldn’t have made any difference…I think he’d have “tied ’em in knots” … yesterday, today or tomorrow… any weight, any distance.

F: Naturally, I’d agree with you…But I want to say here and now, I’ve never bragged too much about this horse. I’ve always felt the facts could speak for themselves. I loved him, big and mean and bull-headed as he was. He had a heart the size of all outdoors, and he had the physical power to go with it. I knew he was good from the beginning, and I wasn’t fool enough not to know that he was making me look good. Mr. Belmont and Mr. Riddle and the rest of them used to have long talks about what we would do with him, but they all came back to me to see what the horse wanted to do himself.

MAN O’ WAR working out. The drill was to “blow him out” roughly three-eigths of a mile the day before a race, followed by another eighth the day of a race. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

 

F {continuing}: I guess…like every other trainer in the world, I had sense enough to know I had hold of the tail of a tiger and, while I could steer him some, I had to do a lot of swinging with him, I had to grow with him and try to out-guess him…figure things out with him and let him believe he’d done it for himself. You can’t handle a temperamental horse or human being any other way.

B: …Too many people are inclined to think that anybody could have handled “Big Red” …Nothing could be further from the truth. His massive frame housed as much destructive power and deviltry as the average hurricane. Maybe you could get to the “eye” of it with luck, but it took a very good man to navigate from there.

F: You see…I had a bit of an edge with him. I not only knew him from the day he was weaned, but I knew his sire and dam and his grandsire. I broke and trained and won with Mahubah — she started only twice with one first and one second — I handled Fair Play as a yearling and I used to gallop Hastings when I was exercise boy for August Belmont. They were all of them over-anxious and rough. I knew what to expect when I got Man O’ War.

Feustel’s experience with Hastings was short-lived.

F: I was assigned to gallop him an easy half-mile one morning…Two miles later, with him going like a runaway locomotive, somebody picked us up. I was never allowed to get on him again. And that …was alright with me. He scared me almost as much as the first horse I rode for Belmont.

HASTINGS was another tough customer in MAN O’ WAR’S pedigree. When Louis Feustel rode him as a boy for August Belmont, HASTINGS “scared me as much as the first horse I rode for Belmont.”

Feustel had been “bound out” to August Belmont when he was only 10 years old.

F: I got a dollar a month, plus board and room and clothes. I sent the dollar home to my folks. They kept us kids working on the ground for a long time in those days…

By 11, Feustel was riding for Belmont and he remained with racing stock all of his life. At 72, Feustel retired from the farm of Harry M. Warner, where he was farm manager, and with his wife, took over the operation of Mickey’s Tavern in Altadena. During his racing career, Feustel famously trained for Belmont and Sam Riddle, as well as for Elizabeth Arden, Averell Harriman, J.W.Y. Martin, Harry Brown and Edward Harkness.

F: I’ll still say, though, that the best man I ever knew was August Belmont, and Man O’ War was the best horse. It was a sad day for me when I took him back to Kentucky for retirement. It was cold and miserable when I unloaded him from the railway car. There were a lot of people around wanting to strip the blanket off him and take pictures. I guess I wasn’t very polite to ’em. I told ’em to get the hell outta there. When I took him to the van it was so old and rickety that I said to Miss Dangerfield, ” If you don’t get him something better than this to ride in, he’ll knock the sides out of it and end up in the road pulling it himself.” She didn’t like it but I was mad. I hated to see him go.

 

MAN O’ WAR in retirement and one of the vechicles that transported him. Was it the same one Feustel cautioned Miss Dangerfield about? Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

B: Why was he retired at the end of his three year-old season?

F: We figured that we’d get the grandstand on his back if we went on with him at four…He’d won the Potomac Handicap in his next to last start down at Le Havre, packing 138 pounds…he just galloped to them {the rest of the field}…{Sam Riddle} asked me to go ask Walter Vosburgh (then handicapper for all of New York tracks) what weight he’d put on the horse if we ran him as a four year-old. You know what that man’s answer was? “Lou…I can’t tell you exactly what weight I’d put on him next year, but I’ll say this much –I wouldn’t start him in his first out a pound less than 140” … What could we do? He wins at 140 and then there’s no ceiling. Vosburgh was right of course. He deserved it. But Riddle says, “Retire him. He’ll never run  again” …I wonder what he would have done if we’d gone on with him. We’d never really set him down, you know. Neither I nor anyone else knew just how fast he could run. I’ve always had a hunch on the tracks of those days he could have turned a mile in 1:32 flat…

B: Man O’ War was really Louie’s horse. Riddle bought him and paid the $5,000 at auction at Saratoga which made him his. But he didn’t want him and he never would have got him had it not been for Lou and Mrs. Riddle.

F: … Finally, in desperation, I turned my sales talk on Mrs. Riddle. We all went up to Saratoga and she says to him {Sam Riddle} “You’ve got to buy him. The big red one. Lou thinks he might be good. Just buy him for Lou’s sake if nothing else.” Man O’ War was really more Mrs. Riddle’s horse than Sam’s.

About Man O’ War’s management: it wasn’t as simple as just maintaining a perfect running machine.

F: I had no problems with soundness…But I had mental problems with him from the very beginning.The violent, competitive spirit which burned in him kept you continually on your guard. He never actually hurt anyone…but all of us working with him knew he might try it at any time. He’d peel the shirt off you if you weren’t looking, and he began to savage other horses even before we retired him…Sometimes sweets or a pet, or something of that sort, will help you. But not with him…

Man O’ War was a horse that needed a strong body on his back, hence Clarence Kummer, who Feustel described as “a husky type,” adding that Kummer was “the only one who could really rate him.”

F: I remember once when Kummer was sick up at Saratoga, I put Earl Sande up on him. It was in the Miller Stakes…He was carrying 131 pounds and he won off by six lengths in 1:56 3/5, a new track record {for 1 mile 3/16}. After the race Sande came up to me and he says, “You’ll never get me on his back again. He damned near pulled my arms out of their sockets!”

The Miller Stakes at Saratoga: MAN O’ WAR with Earl Sande up. After the race, Sande told Feustel, “You’ll never get me on his back again.” Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Feustel also pointed out that horses were handled differently in those days.

F: It was a much longer process both before and after a workout. When I first began exercising stock for August Belmont, there were only two sets went to the track every morning. An individual horse would be out for an hour. He would be walked and then given long gallops, and usually brought back to a paddock two or three times, unsaddled and cooled out, and finally sent out for his serious drill. When we got back to the stable we didn’t just wash ’em off in a hurry and throw a cooler on ’em…Sometimes I used to think that all that working on ’em with the brush and curry, and the saddling and unsaddling, made ’em restless and mean.

C.C. Cook’s exquisite portrait of MAN O’ WAR. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Beckworth’s interview with Louis Feustel ends with the author noting how much alike, in their youth, trainer and colt seemed to be. However, age had made both Feustel and Big Red more mellow, even gentle.

In the case of Man O’War, Beckwith had visited him one last time at Faraway Farm before the death of the stallion, taking his dog with him. Having been assured that it was safe by Will Harbut, Beckwith and dog drew closer to the great horse.

Big Red lowered his head to sniff and then touch noses with the dog.

 

II. How great was Man O’ War? The reservations of Frank Gray Griswold (1854-1937)

Frank Gray Griswold was an American financier, sportsman and writer who was also the darling of New York society. Griswold was an enthusiastic “rider to hounds” and wrote several books about fox hunting, salmon fishing and one about the bloodlines and performance of notable thoroughbred horses. The book excerpted here is “Race Horses and Racing,” privately published by the Plimpton Press in 1925 and dedicated to the champion thoroughbred, Iroquois. It is a compendium featuring great thoroughbreds, including St. Simon, Lexington, The Tetrarch, Durbar II  — and Man O’ War. While Griswold clearly knows the biography and pedigree of each of his subjects, the larger purpose of this book is to persuade the reader of his expertise on the subject.

 

GRISWOLD pictured here (furthest right, white shoes) on one of his sports fishing jaunts. The photo featured in his book, “Sport on Land and Water.”

 

The champion IROQUOIS, depicted here by Currier & Ives, to whom Griswold’s book is dedicated. IROQUOIS was the first American-bred to win the Epsom Derby in 1881. He then went on to win the St. Leger and the St. James Palace Stakes, among others. Returned to the USA in 1883, he won several races before being retired to stud duty. He was the Leading Sire of 1892.

For Griswold, the standard of excellence is set by champions like Iroquois, to which “Race Horses and Racing” is dedicated.  Iroquois was, without question, a brilliant racehorse who won on both sides of the Atlantic in dramatic fashion, only missing the British Triple Crown by a second place finish in the Two Thousand Guineas. Too, Griswold was a friend of Iroquois’ owner, Pierre Lorillard IV, a millionaire aristocrat who owned Iroquois and raced thoroughbreds out of his Rancocas Stable in the UK and the USA. The introductory chapter of Griswold’s book is devoted to a history of Rancocas Stable.

What makes Griswold’s reservations about Man O’ War being “…hailed as the champion race horse of all times…” is interesting primarily because it disrupts the popular narrative of the day about Sam Riddle’s great horse. Griswold was a mover and shaker in New York society and this fact also makes it intriguing to wonder if his views about Man O’ War were popular among the elites — including horsemen — of the 1920’s. The answer is tough to ascertain. The press largely exhalted Man O’ War — but did their accolades fully convince everyone in the racing community that they were witnessing something they had never seen before?

The Dwyer, July 10, 1920. It was the only race where Feustel held his breath and prepared for defeat — until Kummer tapped him with the whip (one of only two times the colt evcer felt it). Photo shows MAN O’ WAR with Kummer up ,on his way to the post. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Griswold is happy to extol Man O’ War’s physical attributes: ” …Man O’ War is a chestnut with a star and slight stripe on his forehead. He is a level-built beautiful horse to look at, and as a three year-old was a giant in strength and full of quality. Some good judges thought he was a trifle too long in the back and too wide across the chest, but my personal opinion is that it would be difficult to improve his looks.”

In pedigree, Griswold declares Man O’ War “…hardly fashionably-bred,” noting that despite the good individuals in his bloodline (specifically, Galopin, Macgregor, Underhand, Rock Sand and Spendthrift), “…Man O’ War cannot be registered in the English stud book owing to the mare Aerolite…the dam of three great American race horses Spendthrift, Fellowcraft, and Rutherford; and she was also the sister to that good horse Idlewild” because “…there are several mares in the remote crosses of Aerolite’s pedigree that cannot be traced in the {English stud} book, for they end in the ‘woods.’ ” 

Griswold implies that while this glitch might be “…quite good enough for America,” it is less than desirable in a so-called champion’s pedigree. There were, of course, other champions in Man O’ War’s pedigree that Griswold ignored, notably St. Simon, Hampton, Australian and Doncaster. But Griswold is accurate about Aerolite; in her tenth generation there are indeed a number of individuals whose pedigrees remain incomplete even today. (It should be said that when Griswold is writing, America held true to the English bloodlines and pedigree standards in the development of American-bred thoroughbreds.)

 

James R. Keene’s SPENDTHRIFT (Australian X Aerolite)

But Griswold’s chief reservation lies in the time standard used to evaluate Man O’ War’s greatness, to which he responds, albeit between-the-lines, “But who did he really beat?” To quote Griswold directly: “…He was hailed the champion race horse of all times, yet he had not met a really good horse in his two years racing career, for John P. Grier, though a fast horse, could not stay and when he met Sir Barton the latter was no longer the champion he had been in 1920…”

Following a meticulous review of Man O’ War’s victories and new track records, Griswold writes, ” It was a pity that he did not meet the reliable Exterminator in the Saratoga Cup, and that he was not raced in America as a four year-old or sent to England to win the Ascot Cup, for turf history can now never explain how great a horse he was. He had proved that he was a game horse and that he could carry weight, but competition alone decides the worth and stamina of the racehorse, and he really was never asked the question. He goes down in history as a ‘riddle horse’ in more than one sense.” 

MAN O’ WAR and Will Harbut checking out the Hazeltine sculpture that would become the monument now housed in the Kentucky Horse Park. Keeneland Library Collection. Used here with permission.

The final argument in Griswold’s chapter on Man O’ War states his case firmly: ” Those sportsmen who believe in the time test will always contend that Man O’ War was the best horse that ever ran. Those who do not believe in the watch will always consider Luke Blackburne, Hindoo, Hanover, Salvator and Sysonby greater race horses than Man O’ War.”

Champion SYSONBY, at Saratoga in 1904, takes a time-out to graze and watch the action on the backstretch.

1920: MAN O’ WAR winning the Lawrence Realization. Feustel and Griswold agree on one point: During his racing career, the colt was never asked the question. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

Frank Gray Griswold’s reservations about the status of Man O’ War in the pantheon of American-bred thoroughbreds are unlikely to change anyone’s mind. But his argument is salient nevertheless. Conferring greatness on a thoroughbred of any year, decade or century has always been a complex business and remains hotly contested.

Not to mention the fact that Griswold’s central argument, centred as it is on the question of speed vs. stamina, is as current today as it was a century ago.

 

III. Recollections of Man O’ War by others (Keeneland magazine and The Blood-Horse)

 

 

SOURCES

Beckwith, B.K. Step And Go Together. 1967: A.S. Barnes and Co., Cranbury, New Jersey.

Griswold, Frank Gray. Race Horses and Racing. 1925: Privately printed by The Plimpton Press, USA. Limited to 500 copies.

The Keeneland Library, Lexington, KY, USA

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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He was the undisputed King of harness racing’s Golden Era. But his real life was a far cry from the tall tales that framed it.

DAN PATCH in Chicago, 1905.

The issue that always confronts a researcher is the necessity of discerning fact from fiction. But when a horse is part legend and part enigma — and where the latter takes concrete form in publications, movies and an ocean of promotional material — even an experienced researcher can easily take the wrong turn and end up simply perpetuating the fiction.

 

 

The story of Dan Patch is such a case in point. He is, of course, beloved to a nation and to the sport of harness racing. But Dan’s life was so romanticized that ploughing through it all amounts to wading into the fraught waters where enigma reigns supreme. The whole “phenomena” of Dan Patch was as much the creation of his owners, trainers and the world in which he lived, as it was the story of a horse so brilliant that he was almost beyond human comprehension. In fact, sports writers whose sterling reputations preceded them, notably John Hervey, had great difficulty in representing that brilliance, that “something” that placed Dan Patch in the ethereal, making him seem more deity than horse.

Before we begin, I wanted to acknowledge Charles Leerhsen for his brilliant book, “Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.” And I do mean “brilliant.” This is a book that takes you on the most fascinating journey ever — into Dan’s world as it was at the turn of the last century. I’m not really a fan of non-fiction about famous horses (or people) for a number of reasons I won’t go into here. But in “Crazy Good” both the social and racing history are so absorbing that they risk obscuring the impeccible, meticulous research of the author.

I want to thank Mr. Leerhsen for setting me straight and for ripping the “veil of enigma” from Dan’s story in the kindest possible way. Which he did with humour, compassion and the elegant, rolling prose of an accomplished writer and storyteller.

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Dan Patch’s story begins with Zelica, his dam, a sweet-natured Standardbred mare who had a gimpy leg and was purchased as a 2 year-old at a sales dispersal by Dan’s first owner, dry goods merchant Daniel Messner, for the unheard-of sum of $255 (USD). It may have been competitiveness that pulled Messner’s switch, but he may also have been acting on his doctor advice that the best cure for his ailing stomach was a horse.

ZELICA as she appears circa 1907. Source: “Crazy Good” by Charles Leerhson.

When the townspeople of Oxford, Indianopolis, Messner’s home and the site of his store, heard what Messner had paid for the imperfect filly, they gave Zelica a new moniker: “Messner’s Folly.” Messner knew next to zero about horses but he stood up against those who laughed behind his back, driving Zelica around Oxford in a beautiful new harness and rig. By all accounts he genuinely was attached to his little filly, whose coat he kept gleaming as brightly as her silver-studded tack. Despite her limp, Zelica’s bloodlines were impeccible: by the stallion Wilkesbury, a descendant of champion George Wilkes, out of the mare Abdallah Belle by Pacing Abdallah, the filly carried Rysdyk’s Hambletonian on the top and bottom of her pedigree.

The Standardbred horse was officially recognized as a breed in 1879, based on a standard of time performance for one mile —2 minutes 30 seconds — from which the breed takes its name.

The stallion MESSENGER, by MAMBRINO, was imported to the USA shortly after the American Revolution. A thoroughbred, he is the progenitor of the American standardbred trotter although he also produced thoroughbreds.

While the Standardbred trotters all descended from the thoroughbred stallion, Messenger, the pacers emerged from a breed called the “Narragansett pacer,” fused with the bloodlines of another breed, the “Canuck” from Canada. Despite these different trajectories, both trotters and pacers trace back to Rysdyk’s Hambletonian, after which the Hambletonian race is named. (Interestingly, the Canuck, or Canadian horse were the foundation for the later development of the Morgan, American Saddlebred and Standardbred breeds. In vintage photographs of Standardbreds and Morgans, the contribution of the compact Canadian horse shines through.) Of paramount importance, however, is the fact that the Standardbred is America’s horse, born and bred for the first time ever in the USA.

Dan’s sire, Joe Patchen, stands in high contrast to the sweet and gentle Zelica in more ways than one. Joe Patchen, pilotted throughout most of his career by another harness racing legend, Edward F. “Pop” Geers, was sired by Patchen Wilkes, the grandson of Rysdyk’s Hambletonian. While he had been a fair-tempered colt, as a stallion Joe Patchen became so vicious that he was actually weighed down by chains in his stall to keep him under control. Ill-temperament, bordering on the manic, was a strong tendency in the descendants of Dan’s great grandsire, George Wilkes and Joe Patchen sure got dealt a bumper crop of nasty.

JOE PATCHEN, champion pacer but a vicious, ill-tempered sire.

It would seem that Dan Patch came about not as a result of a brilliant breeding decision made by Messner, but rather as the outcome of a drinking episode in which Dan Messner and his friend, John Wattles, a local farmer and livery stable owner, decided to drive Zelica to Joe Patchen — then standing in Chebanse, Illinois, some 40 miles away — to be bred (see quote from Ray Wattles’ manuscript in Leerhsen, “Crazy Good” ). So off they went to do the deed, driving Zelica there and then home again.

Fortunately for Messner, the colt foal who came into the world on Wednesday, April 29, 1896 received Zelica’s gentle temperament in the gene mix. However, the mahogany bay colt with black feet or “points,” as they were called then, was unable to stand at first. He had been born “crooked.” The advice of the onlookers was to put a hammer to his head, but Dan Messner resisted, instead helping to raise the little fellow to nurse. A few hours later, Dan stood on his own, wobbling badly at first. When the wobbling subsided, all present saw a handsome baby, with a beautiful head and strong body. Looking at Zelica’s colt foal, John Wattles claimed he said that if the little fellow “…grows into those legs he’ll be the fastest horse in the world.” Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t. But if he did, it was probably an expression of pride rather than prophecy.

At about the same moment, Dan Messner decided to name the colt Dan Patchen, which had shortened to Dan Patch by the time Zelica’s son made his first start, the original name having been rejected by the American Trotting Register Association.

An early photo of DAN PATCH from “The Autobiography of Dan Patch” by Merton E. Harrison.

Harness racing was already well established before Dan was born: the first harness racing took place in the Americas in the 1700s. While trotting as a sport began in the East, pacing originated in the Midwest and the South — in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. It took until the late 19th century for the pacers to gain the status of the trotting side of the family, despite the fact that it was harness racing and not thoroughbred racing that drew crowds to local fairs in the Midwest and the South. Although harness racing was the choice of owners of more modest means, even established farms like Calumet housed a string of Standardbred horses by the beginning of the last century.

During Dan’s racing days, harness racing took place in “heats” — a series of five one-mile races. The horse who took the majority of the five won. In a career of almost a decade, Dan Patch lost only two heats and won every race he ran.

When Dan Patch set foot on the track he would begin a campaign that single-handedly pulled pacers out of the charming fabric of town fairs and on to the national stage. But given the degree to which his talent was exploited for gain, one almost wishes he had stayed in Oxford, where he was cherished as a hero and beloved by all.

DAN PATCH was never defeated, although he lost two heats during his racing career.

 

Dan’s debut took place in 1900, when he was a four year-old.  Up until then, he was content to deliver dry goods from his owner’s store and was well on his way to becoming Oxford’s favourite equine.  His temperament was so remarkable that even tiny children could pet him or, as happened on days when he took the Messner family to some local event, run right under him or sit astride him, without incident.

The four-year old Dan Patch apparently stood at a strapping 15.3h, making him slightly taller than the average 15.2h standardbred of his day. It is shocking to realize that the giant of pacing was shorter than Northern Dancer! But, then again, if you look at ancestry, the even today the Canadian horse stands no taller than 15.4h. (NOTE: Various sources and one autobiographer, Merton E. Harrison, report Dan’s height as 16h. However, Charles Leerhsen appears to dispute this, giving the pacer’s height at 15.3h. This seems far more likely, given the meticulous research of the author and the size of other standardbreds of the time. All of which begs the question: Was Dan reported to stand 16h because he actually was or, or did it better suit the giant of a Standardbred pacer he became? )

My grandfather at Ormstown Fair in Quebec, Canada in the 1930s with his champion Standardbred mare. Grandpa barely reached 5 feet, showing the average size of a Standardbred even some 30 years into the last century.

DAN PATCH in 1906. He certainly appears to be closer to 15h3 than 16h here. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

Getting Dan to the races had been a complex task for his trainer and driver, the elderly John Wattles. Although Dan got around on his delivery duties just fine, when hitched to a sulky his crooked hind leg splayed out, such that he kept banging it on the sulky wheel, or else he caught his left foreleg. The discomfort made it impossible to tell whether Dan had any real racing aptitude. Wattles designed a special sulky for him, one wider than the standard of the day, to correct the problem. Once unimpeded, Dan showed promise in the laps he did with Wattles on an old track near Oxford, but couldn’t really pick up the pace when asked. Off Wattles went to blacksmith Thomas Eleazor Fenton in the town of Pine Village, near Oxford. After hearing about Dan’s problem, Fenton, a wizard at helping horses “with issues,” designed a special shoe for Dan’s malformed left foot; returning to the track, Dan was able to pace and although his speed was nothing to write home about, Wattles was sure that would come in time. Dan was a natural-born pacer, one that would never need hobbles to keep him at a pace — although he would wear knee boots occasionally to protect his foreleg from the overreach of his hind — and that, together with his otherwise powerful frame, was part of his latent potential as a race horse.

Dan Patch had always been a bit of a goofball, but the day came when, on the old training track under the summer sun, the horse grabbed the bit, arched his neck and took Wattles on a mile pace of 2:14 minutes. Messner was there, holding the stopwatch.

It took little convincing to get him to see that Dan Patch had the makings of a fair ground winner.

DAN PATCH. Date unknown.

 

He made his debut at a country fair on August 30, 1900, in a best out of 5 heats race for pacers who had never gone a mile in 2:35. Dan had, of course, gone much faster with Wattles on the old training track near his home, but it was the trainer’s idea to start him off slowly, since Dan was green and even Wattles couldn’t tell how he’d handle all the noise and distractions of a fair grounds harness race. Green he was, but Dan’s remarkable ability was evident right from the start and he not only took his maiden, but two subsequent races at different fairs. In his second start, he lost a heat to Milo S. by a nose. This was the first of only 2 heats he would ever lose. And it was also at this initial stage that Dan moved himself into the 2:20 race category, having paced only a little over 2 seconds slower.

Wattles would have liked Dan to come along a little slower, but as he was learning, when he turned Dan around to make a start and once his horse got going, it was almost impossible to slow him down.

Film outtakes of DAN PATCH on the track. Source: “The Autobiography of Dan Patch,” by Merton E. Harrison.

At the close of 1900, as his horse returned home to Oxford and a hero’s welcome, Daniel Messner was determined to enter Dan in the 1901 Grand Circuit races for handicapped horses. Messner also decided that Dan needed a different trainer if he was to go up against other handicapped pacers.

Myron McHenry, one of the undisputed greats of harness racing, nicknamed “The Wizard of the Homestretch.” However, McHenry was also a wheeler-dealer and alcoholic, both of which landed him in serious trouble throughout his career.

To this end, he contacted Myron McHenry, a New York-based trainer. At first, McHenry was unwilling to take the colt. The trainer was a superstar, having trained and partnered Phoebe Wilkes, John R. Gentry and a “crooked-legged” filly he bred himself named Rose Croix, who had won the Kentucky Futurity, making McHenry the only man in history to breed, train and drive a Futurity winner. McHenry received many requests from small-town owners to train their horses and refused the vast majority. Too, the trainer doubted that Messner could afford what it took to run a horse in the Grand Circuit.

But Messner persisted and McHenry finally agreed to at least see the horse. So on May 13, 1901, Dan boarded a train to Cleveland to be introduced to McHenry. After taking the horse for a spin, McHenry agreed to take him on. McHenry may not have guessed the ride the handsome son of Joe Patchen had in store for him, but he had wanted the pacer since reading reports of his exploits the year before, modest as they were.

Harness racing was in its Golden Era when Dan came along and a superstar could routinely draw triple the attendance at a professional baseball game. And that meant money — and lots of it. The sport was rife with punters and sleazy types who made a profession of cheating the odds any way they could, including drugging horses with alcohol and cocaine. Races were set up to provide bettors-in-the-know with as much profit as they could squeeze out of a race. Drivers regularly slowed horses so that underdogs could win, despite the vigilance of the American Trotting Association (NTA).

DAN PATCH on a vintage postcard from 1910.

Myron McHenry wasn’t sleazy, but he was an opportunist. He saw in Dan Patch and his naiive owner all kinds of possibilities for making himself a tidy bundle. A consummate horseman and trainer, McHenry was also regularly involved in the kinds of disputes with owners that reduced his stable to only a few runners on a regular basis. As noted by Leerhsen, ” …Messner was a classic example of the kind of owner who stumbled into the lion’s den that was McHenry’s stable.”

Below, a remarkable short clip of Dan racing. Note the protective knee boots on his forelegs:

 

Dan made his first start under McHenry in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on July 10, 1901, in a race for 2:15 pacers that he won comfortably. Seven days later they were in Detroit, at the Grosse Point track, part of the Grand Circuit. And he won again. Then came Cleveland, Columbus and Buffalo; in Buffalo, Dan floated home, pacing the last quarter mile in 30 sec. flat. McHenry declared the pacer the best he had ever raced — and that made sports headlines, as did most of what McHenry did. He was, after all, as much a superstar as his pacer was becoming.

DAN PATCH and McHenry. Here, the champion is shown wearing knee boots. Source: The Minnesota Historical Society.

In the same year, in a training session before a race in Lexington, Kentucky, McHenry found Dan somewhat “sloppy” and slow. He determined that the 5 year-old was off-balance. Taking him to a blacksmith of reputation, who had shoed greats like Lou Dillon, McHenry asked Philander Nash to shorten Dan’s toes on the front, but leave the rear of the hoof alone. Nash did as he was told and when he was done the feeling for Dan must have been rather like walking around in high-heel shoes. But the improvement on the track was immediate and Dan won his race — as he always did.

Somewhere along the timeline of 1901 or perhaps early in 1902, Myron McHenry hooked up with Manley E. Sturges, a New York casino owner and wheeler-dealer. The two hit upon a plan: they would buy Dan Patch from Daniel Messner and then re-sell him as quickly as they could for a much larger sum.

DAN PATCH appears within a frame that includes cameos of Myron McHenry and M.E. Sturges (note: the Sturges name is mispelled here, as happened frequently).

The trouble was: Messner wasn’t selling. He refused Sturges’ offer of $20,000 USD more than once and said offer was a handsome amount in 1901. Simply put, to his owner Dan was family. Messner owned his dam and had bred Dan in 1898/1899 to John Wattles’ good mare, Oxford Girl (sire and dam unknown) to produce a beautiful coal-black filly he named Lady Patch. In 1902, Lady Patch shared a stable with her sire and granddam, Zelica. As well, to the townspeople of Oxford, Dan Patch was their greatest son, the horse that had “put them on the map.” He was the feature of the annual “Dan Patch Day” and a local, one James W. Steele, had even written him his own song, the “Dan Patch Two-Step.” (Note: Not the one that usually appears on video footage or for sale. Steele’s original score, sadly, has been lost.)

Then, in 1902, Messner became the victim of an escalating harassment campaign. It began with the appearance of several well-dressed men who warned him against refusing Sturges’ offer, while never using the New Yorker’s name directly. It culminated with the poisoning and death of Lady Patch, in her stall in Oxford. (It should be noted, however, that some Dan Patch researchers are of the opinion that the filly was poisoned by “some jealous person,” i.e. “jealous of Messner’s success. In other words, not Sturges’ henchman. Regardless, when his filly’s death was declared no accident, Daniel Messner became frightened for Dan’s safety. Shortly thereafter, he sold his beloved Dan to Manley E. Sturges for $20,000.

When the door of the car that would transport Dan opened, it was Myron McHenry who stepped down to take the pacer away from the only home he had ever known and the people who loved him best of all. (McHenry, if not a full partner with Sturges, certainly was cut handsomely into the deal.)

“DAN PATCH BARN” in Oxford, Minnesota is still standing to this day. It is one of the few artefacts related to DAN PATCH that remain extant.

The day Dan left Oxford (IN) forever, almost the whole town turned out at the train station. Among those absent was John Wattles, Dan’s first trainer.

Dan’s campaign in 1902 was as much about advertising his greatness as it was about anything else. With McHenry at the reins, he again raced the Grand Circuit. The aim was to equal or take down the standing record for the mile of 1:59 1/4 , set by pacer Star Pointer in 1897, while making as much money as possible along the way. However, the fact that Dan was still undefeated made it necessary for many tracks to remove him from the betting altogether. This, of course, also interfered with any additional revenue that McHenry and Sturges could make.

The pacer STAR POINTER, who set the record for the fastest mile of 1:59 1/4 in 1897.

Racing again at Windsor, Grosse Point and Cleveland, Dan won in times of 2:06 1/2, 2:05 and 2:03 3/4 respectively. But winning purses were modest as far as McHenry and Sturges were concerned. Campaigning their shining star was only lucrative if they could find a way to milk even more profit out of him.

DAN PATCH at work. Date unknown. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

McHenry hit upon the idea that they could make more profit if Dan raced against the clock in time trials along the Grand Circuit. Neither McHenry nor Sturges were doing well financially with Dan — and they were anxious to “flip him” and make the huge profit they anticipated. Remember: 1902 is the world before the automobile completely takes over the hearts and minds of America, and harness racing was the king of popular sport.

Dan Patch was a “name” that drew crowds in the thousands and the shrewd McHenry was certain there was a rich man out there who would want his name associated with such a celebrity.

DAN PATCH was a beauty. Shown here with Myron McHenry. Date unknown.

And, in fact, there was: Marion Willis Savage of the International Stock Food Company of Minneapolis and Hamilton (later to be re-named Savage), Minnesota.

Over the next several months, the kindly Dan was put to the test, pulling off fractions like :31 seconds for a quarter mile on tracks in Colombus, Brighton Beach and Readville until, on August 29, 1902, he beat Star Pointer’s record by 1/4 of a second. Returning to Readville, having had his shoes re-done and caulked by Philander Nash, Dan was clocked at 1: 59 1/4  — although McHenry was insistent that the correct time was really 1:59 and left the track infuriated.

Enter Mr. Savage.

The narrator of this rare footage is harness racing HOF, Delvin Glen “Del” Miller, a driver, trainer and owner who is also well-known for his contribution to the breed through the mighty stallion Adios, one of the most important foundation sires of the modern Standardbred. Adios stood at Miller’s Meadow Lands Farm in Pennsylvania. Miller was also the founder of The Meadows Racetrack in Meadow Lands, Penn. which is still in existence today, known as “The Meadows Racetrack and Casino.” In 1997 the Adios Pace was officially renamed the Delvin Miller Adios Pace in Del’s honor.

Dan’s new owner was a complex man. Despite Del Miller’s positive, if measured, words about Marion Willis Savage, the man who took ownership of Dan in 1903 for $60,000 USD was another wheeler-dealer, albeit of a different order from McHenry and Sturges. However, as the rise of the automobile overtook the horse and as car races replaced horse races in America, it was Savage who assured the legacy and legend of Dan Patch for posterity. In fact, horse and man live on in symbiotic relationship –just as Savage assured Dan’s place in American racing history and culture, so his affiliation with the champion assured that his own name would live on.

 

DAN PATCH with his third and final owner, Marion Willis Savage.

It would have been romantic had Savage been driven to enshrine Dan Patch in America’s cultural ethos because he understood his horse was one of “the greats.” But he didn’t.

Savage had tried his hand at two agriculture-related businesses before arriving in Minneapolis, where he set up the International Stock Foods Company. Its key product was a food supplement that made claims of fattening up livestock. Marketed as “3 Feeds For One Cent,” it quickly became a best seller, largely because of Savage’s decided gift for advertising. In this regard, Savage could rightly be called a visionary.

Ironically, despite the nature of his business, Savage knew very little about horses. To the businessman, none of that mattered. He had purchased a commodity in Dan Patch, one that would make both his company and himself famous.

“3 Feeds For One Cent” was Savage’s main product, a supplement to fatten up livestock. Postcard, circa 1899.

As his chief promoter, Savage unintentionally gave Dan Patch a national audience who would assure his dominance in the annals of harness racing history, career records aside. So many stars of the late 19th-early 20th centuries have largely been forgotten: Sleepy Tom, Flora Temple, Alix, Star Pointer, Dexter, Axtell, Pocahontas, Lou Dillon, Goldsmith Maid, Axworthy, Volomite, Ethan Allen, Hamburg Belle, Jay-Eye-See, Nancy Hanks and a host of others. Had they had Marion Willis Savage as their agent, their march through time might well have been different.

DEXTER.

NANCY HANKS.

FLORA TEMPLE.

Despite knowing little or nothing about horses, Savage had progessive views about keeping Dan and the other horses he acquired well within themselves. At his grandiose stables in Hamilton/Savage (Minn) the stalls were bright and airy. The facilities included both an indoor and outdoor training track, as seen in the Del Miller footage [above]. The stables were indeed palatial — and the round tower that dominated them led people to re-name them the “Taj Mahal.”

International Stock Food Farm, aka The Taj Mahal, and its main stables in Hamilton/Savage, Minnesota. Postcard.

But when the brilliant and sweet-natured Dan arrived in Minneapolis to waiting throngs, he couldn’t have known that his life story was about to change still again. The change was such that we couldn’t help but think of the story of Black Beauty. Except that, unlike Anna Sewell’s classic, there was no rescue. No riding-off-into-the-sunset clause — Dan Patch had been bought as a marketing commodity for the International Stock Foods Company, and his treatment until the end of his days was anything but kind.

During the Savage years, Dan was moved from city to city on a tight schedule that took no account of what was best for the horse, who was beginning to show his age. But Dan was an individual who would always give his best when asked, and for a time, from 1903-1906, he did just that. Running in time trials all around the country, accompanied by pacemakers to keep him interested and honest, the champion set new track records.

In 1903, Dan broke the world record at Brighton Beach, pacing a mile in 1:59 despite cold and windy conditions. At McHenry’s urging, Dan paced the final quarter mile in under 30 seconds.

In Lexington that same year, the 7 year-old broke the existing record for pacing while attached to a wagon (instead of the lighter, more aerodynamic sulky) by over two seconds. In the meantime, McHenry was beginning to worry about the pacer, who he felt was exhausted. However, another pacer called Prince Alert had taken down Dan’s 1:59 and Savage was determined that Dan get it back before closing out the 1903 season.

So, a week after Lexington, McHenry and Dan were in Memphis, where the champion with the big heart and the courage to match it regained the one mile record from Prince Alert with a time of 1:56​14.  Dan’s performance was so dramatic that it made the front page of the New York Times.

Newspapers around the country carried the story of DAN PATCH’S 1:56 1/4 mile — a new world’s record.

Extending their stay in Memphis, Dan set two additional world records: in the first trial, he lowered the record for the half mile from 57​12 seconds to 56 seconds. In the second, run 45 minutes later and pacing again hitched to a wagon, Dan bested his own record from 1:59​14 to 1:57​14.

1905. DAN PATCH (inside)with one of his pacesetters, warming up before setting his Memphis record.

By 1904 Savage and McHenry had parted company. This was really no surprise. Both men were determined types, used to getting their own way. But only one knew that Dan was being overworked and that, despite his gallant heart, the pacer was showing signs of gearing down: whatever else one said about Myron McHenry, the man knew the great Dan Patch very, very well.

DAN PATCH paced the mile in 1:56 in Memphis in 1904.

Stepping into his place was Harry Hersey, a kind and caring man who was a Savage employee with scant driving experience. This move effectively put Marion Savage completely in charge of Dan’s training and appearance schedule. In other words, Dan no longer had anyone to speak on his behalf to his ambitious owner, as McHenry tried — and usually failed — to do.

DAN PATCH with Harry Hersey. Date unknown.

As it turned out, Hersey would eventually quit too, disheartened and angered by Savage’s overriding of what was best for Dan and the other horses in his stable. In September of 1904, with Hersey as his driver, Dan Patch came close to dying of what was initially diagnosed as a strangulated hernia, but later determined to be an impacted bowel. Savage hurried to his dying superstar and would later say that it was Imported Stock Foods colic medicine that had saved him. But that was, of course, completely untrue. A few days later, when Dan could still barely stand, Savage ordered him to be paraded before his fans in Topeka before being shipped back home, where he was given a brief time off. This must have gotten to Hersey, as it did Dan’s head lad, Charlie Plummer, whose job it was to travel with Dan and who slept in his charge’s stall when they were on the road. Dan was back in action a few weeks later, in October.

British-born Charlie Plummer with DAN PATCH. Charlie was DAN’S head lad during most of the Savage years.

Dan Patch celebrated his ninth birthday in 1905, an age at which racehorses, even in the rollicking early years of the last century, were thought past their prime. Even though it was foolish to expect anything great from an ageing pacer, Dan was still greeted like a king everywhere that his travelling roadshow went. Certainly, he arrived like one in his very own elaborately-decorated coach. And it was the year that Dan, with Hersey driving, would set his official record of 1:55 1/4 , which he did in Lexington, Kentucky. The record would stand for 30 years.

DAN PATCH arrived at his appearances by rail, in his own elaborately outfitted railway car. Shown here with his considerable stable of caregivers.

 

1905. DAN PATCH (inside)with one of his pacesetters, warming up before setting his Memphis record.

It would have been the perfect moment to retire the great Dan Patch. It has been estimated that Savage made about two million USD from Dan’s appearances, products — including his own — that carried Dan’s image or name or both, and stud fees (Savage bred Dan during the breeding season each year, a practice not uncommon at the time).

Dan had set his breathtaking world record for the mile with the help of his pacesetters and an equipment addition called a “wind shield” that Savage et al. had been using. (The wind shield or wind screen was affixed to the back of the sulky of one of Dan’s pacesetters to cut down on wind resistance.) However, in 1906 the National Trotting Association (NTA) banned the use of the wind shield, although they did allow Dan Patch’s 1905 record to stand. Officially, then, Dan’s best mile was 1:55​14.

Unofficially, his best time was 1:55, paced in September 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair. However, ignoring the ban on wind shields, one was mounted on a pacesetter and because of this, the NTA never officially recognized the time. (An incensed Savage was so indignant about the NTA’s decision that he renamed his International Stock Food Farm the “International 1:55 Stock Food Farm.” Savage also continued to advertise Dan’s 1:55 in publicity for his products and promotion of Dan Patch progeny.

DAN PATCH and Harry Hersey setting the 1:55 world record.

 

In 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair, DAN PATCH set the unofficial record of 1:55. He is pictured here following his run. DAN was now 10 years old.

 

During the three intervening years before his retirement, Dan Patch continued a rigorous schedule of appearances around the country, but crowds began to shrink and the champion was no longer able to best his own best. Too, the automoble was progessively taking over North America and this mark of progress would have a permanent impact on both standardbred and thoroughbred racing. In still another sense, America had tired of seeing the grand old man of pacing. Savage may have been a genius of a salesman, but he knew little of the price of over-exposure.

Portrait of DAN PATCH by George Ford Morris.

Dan Patch retired undefeated, having paced over 80 times in races and time trials and holding nine world records.

Of his stud career, success was moderate, but Dan never produced anything even close to himself. The mares he received weren’t the best, largely because Minneapolis was too far away from the centre of breeding in Lexington. However, the champion sired 38 trotters who met the 2m:30s standard and one who broke the 2:10 barrier. He also sired 138 pacers who met the standard, 5 of whom broke the 2:05 barrier. Dazzle Patch was his most successful son, but died prematurely, leaving only a few progeny. Dan Patch’s name is rare in modern pedigrees.

DAN PATCH (outside)and his son, DAZZLE PATCH.

His most famous descendant is the Hall of Fame pacer, Jate Lobell aka “Jate The Great,” who traces back to Dan Patch’s daughter, Theda Patch, in the 5th generation of his female family.

Jate retired as the third richest pacer of all-time and was syndicated for a cool 12 million. He sired 15 offspring who went the mile in 1:50 another 496 who paced it in 1:55, with 296 winners of 100k, and total earnings of over $105 million. Millionaires Cane Pace, Riyadh, David’s Pass, Gothic Dream and Village Jasper were his best. As a broodmare sire, Jate Lobell is credited with total earnings of over $205 million, with 553 $100,000 winners and 12 millionaires. They include world champions Mister Big ($4,008,257), My Little Dragon ($2,318,623), Southwind Lynx ($1,763,389) and, most recently, 2010 North America Cup winner Sportswriter ($1,566,460).

JATE LOBELL, champion pacer and sire of champions. JATE carries THEDA PATCH (DAN PATCH) in the 5th generation of his female family. He is DAN PATCH’S most brilliant descendant. JATE LOBELL Died in 2015.

A mere seven years after retirement, on July 11, 1916 at 10:00 a.m., Dan Patch collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack. In the seconds that remained of his life, Dan moved his legs in a pace.

Owner, Willis Marion Savage died 36 hours later in hospital of a pulmonary embolism, following routine surgery for hemorrhoids. His plans to have the greatest Standardbred of the early decades of the last century, and one of the greatest who ever lived, stuffed and mounted were called off following Savage’s death. The horses of the International Stock Food Farm were dispersed and Dan Patch was laid to rest in an unmarked grave near the river on the property.

Savage died a seriously indebted man and the family — his wife and two sons — struggled to fend off debt collectors for the rest of their days.

Dan Patch’s grave has never been found.

 

A tombstone in memory of DAN is found in his hometown of Oxford, Indiana. But his actual burial site in Savage, Minnesota on the site of the International Stock Foods Farm has never been found.

 

 

BONUS FOOTAGE:

1) Champion ADIOS

2) VOLOMITE and other champions of the past. Rare footage

 

3) JATE LOBELL — final heat of the 1987 North American Cup

4) JATE LOBELL at the Meadowlands, 1987

 

Selected Bibliography

Harrison,Merton E. The Autobiography of Dan Patch. St. Paul, Minn: Webb Publishing Co., 1912

Leerhsen, Charles. Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018

NY TIMES Archives. Dan Patch Beat Record: Great Pacer Lowered World’s Mile Time to 1:59 at Brighton. August 20, 1903

— New Records For Dan Patch. December 1, 1903

Waite, Gerald. Dan Patch. Indiana Historical Society

The Dan Patch Historical Society: http://www.danpatWaite, Gerald. Dan Patch. Indiana Historical Societych.com

The Dan Patch Project: http://danpatchproject.org

The Harness Racing Museum: https://harnessmuseum.com

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ENABLE as a foal. A Juddmonte homebred, she is the product of 30 years of careful and skillful breeding decisions made by Prince Khalid Abdullah and his advisors.

 

She was not the first Arc winner to show up at the Breeders Cup, but she was the first dual Arc winner.

Others had come before her, most recently Golden Horn. But none could quite pull off annexing the Arc and a Breeders Cup in the same year. One Arc winner, Dylan Thomas, was entered but never ran.

 

Year – Arc Win Arc Winner Breeders’ Cup Result
1986 Dancing Brave 4th in Turf
1987 Trempolino 2nd in Turf
1990 Saumarez 5th in Turf
1992 Subotica 5th in Turf
2001 Sakhee 2nd in Classic
2007 Dylan Thomas 5th in Turf
2015 Golden Horn 2nd in Turf
2016 Found 3rd in Turf

 

Prince Khalid Abdullah had tried to accomplish this double feat with the legendary Dancing Brave in 1986:

Prince Khalid has always been an enthusiastic supporter of the Breeders Cup, sending his horses to America year after year to compete against some of the best in the world. But the decision to send Enable to the 2018 BC was one that surprised and delighted North Americans from Montreal, Canada to the smallest towns on the American-Mexico border. Many knew that the filly’s arrival was the first act in the drama of a precious gift that was being shared with the world.

Many were moved, even before they caught their first glimpse of Enable at Churchill Downs, by her courageous performance in the 2017 and 2018 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The most prestigious race in Europe, the Arc is the ultimate test of champions.

In her 2017 win, the 3 year-old Enable had led the field home under champion jockey, Frankie Dettori:

But the Enable who arrived at Longchamps in 2018 was not the same individual, or, if she indeed was, the filly had yet to show it. She had sustained a worrisome setback — fluid in a knee — at trainer John Gosden’s facility, Clarehaven, in May and this meant she was effectively out of commission until her first start in the G3 September Stakes in the UK. (Please excuse the unfortunate reference to “Indian style” by the announcer.)

The 2018 Arc was only the second start of the filly’s 4 year-old season. In striking contrast to her fitness level in the 2017 Arc, where Enable rolled to victory in what was her seventh start of the season, the 2018 Arc would be a huge ask and everyone knew it. John Gosden acknowledged repeatedly that it had been a “long, difficult and emotional year” with his champion filly, but what he did not tell eager throngs of journalists was that the filly had spiked a fever going into the race and was about 85% herself. In the end, Enable showed her bravery by holding on to get up by a short head over a brilliant run by the 3 year-old, Sea of Class:

But North America, like the rest of the racing world, cared not that Enable had won her second Arc by a slim margin: she had prevailed. And all waited with sweet anticipation for the arrival of a thoroughbred queen.

ENABLE heads out on to the turf at Churchill Downs. In the saddle is a man who has been with her every step of the way, Imran Shawani.

They love her at her home of Clarehaven, they love her in the UK and France. Predictably, North America fell in love with her too. There was no other BC entry who got anything close to the attention Enable got in the days leading up to Saturday, November 3 and the BC Turf.

Among those watching the champion filly was photographer and racing journalist, Michele MacDonald, of Full Stride Communications, who wrote: “There is a certain essence about a great horse that is unmistakable. You can see something of an aura around them even from a distance — something in the way they carry themselves, some kind of projection of their very heart and soul. This essence never fails to ignite me, and I find my blood pumping, hands shaking, eyes watering — it’s often difficult to take the photos I want to produce while in this state, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. This visceral recognition of a higher force that powers champions is part of why we are inspired by the best in Thoroughbred racing. Today the two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Enable revealed her spark of greatness as she took a tour of Churchill Downs’ turf course. Juddmonte’s 4yo daughter of Nathaniel, Europe’s Horse of the Year for 2017, is the heavy favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf…”

“…a certain essence about a great horse that is unmistakable…” pronounced Michele MacDonald of Full Stride Communications. ENABLE beautifully captured by the brilliant British photographer, Michael J. Harris. Photo and copyright, Michael J. Harris. Quote and photo used with permission.

Accompanied by Clarehaven’s Head travelling lad, Tony Proctor, and the man who cares for her every need, Imran Shawani, Enable took some gentle gallops over the BC turf course as her team awaited the arrival of trainer Gosden and the jockey that has partnered her throughout most of her career, Frankie Dettori. In the unknown world of Churchill Downs, Imran and Tony provided security and comfort as they have always done — playing out an essential role flawlessly. You could see their influence in Enable’s curious eyes, gleaming coat and unruffled composure.

Tony Proctor and ENABLE. Photo and copyright, Michael J. Harris. Used with permission.

With the arrival of Gosden and Dettori, excitement went up by several notches around the track and, through social media, around the racing world.

Michele MacDonald: “Today’s Enable moment: crouching under the rail [to take a photograph] allowed a different sensation, that of feeling (as well as hearing) the ground tremble as the champion and Frankie Dettori galloped past. When they were stepping off the turf course, Enable paused for a moment to take in the view. Walking near her, trainer John Gosden said gently, “Come on, pet.” She dutifully moved on, heading toward her attempt to make history Saturday…”

 

John Gosden makes no secret that he loves ENABLE. Shown here, with his wife, greeting the filly after her second Arc win.

Day Two of the Breeders Cup dawned sunny and dry, allowing the turf and dirt courses some relief from the rain that had fallen liberally during the week. The day before the BC Turf, Frankie Dettori had talked about Enable’s chances in a refreshingly down-to-earth manner, “Look…the stats tell you that it’s not easy …so we’re going to give it a try.” When asked if Enable would be “better” than she was in the Arc, he responded, “Well I hope she’s just the same — she doesn’t have to be better.”

Before the Turf — the Classic for turf runners — there were more thrills, as there had been on Day One when the juveniles were the stars. But despite the Post Parades of champion thoroughbreds, many awaited Enable and her run towards BC history with even greater excitement. The filly would be facing turf giants from either side of the Atlantic — Talismanic, Waldgeist, Channel Maker, Robert Bruce, Sadler’s Joy and two from the O’Brien stable in Hunting Horn and Magical.

The German champion Waldgeist was the second favourite in the betting. But Aidan O’Brien had saved the best for last in the brilliant filly, Magical, who even Frankie Dettori admitted, “…sails like a rubber duck over these conditions” and John Gosden added, “…the filly [Magical] was brilliant recently at Ascot [on Champions Day].”

Here’s Magical winning the Fillies and Mare Stakes on 2018 Champions Day. (Note: Sound quality improves after about 4 seconds):

Then, as the saying goes, “The hour was upon us.” And as Enable and Frankie passed her, Michele Mac Donald remarked, When a horse looks at you like this when they are walking past in the post parade, your knees go a bit weak and you know they have shown you greatness.”

“When a horse looks at you like this…you know they have shown you greatness,” said Michele MacDonald of ENABLE in the BC Turf post parade. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Quote and photo used with permission.

And then time stopped, as it’s wont to do at moments like this:

In well less than a short few minutes, Enable had taken history and given it a good shake to become the first thoroughbred to capture both the Arc and a Breeders Cup in the same year, a year where she’d spent more time recuperating than running. Her BC Turf victory was only her third (and last) race of her four year-old season.

John Gosden’s elegant remarks provided a perfect summation, as well as occassion for a really good chuckle in “Mr. Dettori has three children going to college…”

ENABLE in the saddling area prior to her run in the BC 2018 Turf, surrounded by her team.

ENABLE sails across the finish line.

Emotions as ENABLE comes back to the Winner’s Circle.

ENABLE, the queen of the 2018 BC Turf.

The battle between Enable and Magical was titanic but it was the ground that played against Enable, making her decisive win even more remarkable, if that’s possible. (NOTE: Frankie’s analysis of the race comes up early in the video):

In conclusion — a daunting task when Enable is the subject — we would like to express our gratitude and thanks to Prince Khalid Abdullah for sharing a most precious gift with the North American racing community.

It was an experience that will stay with us forever.

 

A very special thank you to the gifted Michael Harris who allowed us the use of his photographs of Enable, and to Michele MacDonald of Full Stride Communications for her moving observations of Enable and her team at the 2018 Breeders Cup. Your images and words made this article into a richly-textured experience for VAULT readers.

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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The first eight to cross the finish line in the 2018 Arc carried Urban Sea in their second and third generations. It was just another day in the legacy of the arguably most important matriarch in modern thoroughbred history.

Eric Saint-Martin and URBAN SEA after their win in the 1993 Prix de l”Arc de Triomphe.

When Enable came charging home in the 2018 Arc with Sea of Class nipping at her throatlatch, history was made and turf records danced all around it. The 4 year-old became the first British-trained thoroughbred to win the Arc twice, joining a very select group before her that includes Treve, Alleged and Ribot. For trainer John Gosden it was a third Arc win in four years, beginning with Golden Horn in 2015. For jockey Frankie Dettorri, it was an incredible sixth Arc win, his first coming when aboard Lammtarra in 1995.

 

A joyous team — Imran Shawani, Frankie D., and Tony Proctor — after ENABLE’S win in the 2018 Arc. Photo and copyright, Michael Harris. Used with permission.

But there was more in Enable’s victory to set the heart singing. There was the fact that the filly was making only her second start of the season and wasn’t “battle-ready” for the exigencies of the Arc, making her win even more extraordinary. Post-race, Dettorri said that when he first asked her she gave him the same feeling she had when she led the Arc field home in 2017. But it didn’t last — and Dettorri knew he was under fire and that Sea of Class was coming. Trainer Gosden acknowledged the season with Enable had been a “nightmare” because of the injury to her knee that took her out of contention until the September Stakes, followed by a fever she had sparked between that win and the Arc, which forced him to tone her training down substantially. Of her second Arc win, Gosden reflected that it was “…Enable…who got herself back today” adding that she was a determined individual, always bringing her very best to whatever is asked of her. And to ask an Arc victory after a year like she’d had was a huge ask. Gosden summed it all up by in stating that Enable had won on “…grit, determination and brilliance.”

Nor can the brilliant run by Sea of Class, who came from last to within a hair’s breadth of defeating Enable, be overlooked. The 3 year-old, a daughter of Arc winner Sea The Stars, is undefeated in 4 of 6 starts in 2018 including wins in both the Irish and Yorkshire Oaks. According to trainer William Haggas, the filly will be put away now until 2019 where the ultimate goal will be another Arc run. And if she gets it, Sea of Class will be the third in a family of Arc winners begins with Urban Sea.

The brilliant runner-up to ENABLE is this year’s Arc, the 3 year-old filly, SEA OF CLASS. It was compelling for us to note that she carries the blazing red coat of URBAN SEA.

 

URBAN SEA with the tiny SEA OF STARS, the sire of SEA OF CLASS.

So overwhelming was her presence in the 2018 Arc that the Racing Post published an article with the lead, “Urban Sea in Overdrive…”  For the Tsui family, Urban Sea has been the centre piece in their contribution to the making of a powerful bloodline. Few are the thoroughbreds who take their racing brilliance into the breeding shed. But Urban Sea not only did that, she did it so thoroughly as to be hailed as arguably the most important matriarch in modern thoroughbred history.

URBAN SEA during the first chapter of her remarkable life.

The bright red filly by Miswaki X Allegretta was purchased at the Keeneland November sale in 1984 and once weaned, she was promptly shipped overseas to Haras d’Etraham in Normandy, France, a farm located near the famed Omaha Beach, where allied forces had swept into war-torn Europe on June 6, 1944. In France at the Deauville yearling sales, the filly was initially purchased by trained Jean Lesbordes for a wealthy Japanese client. When he first saw her, Lesbordes reportedly loved her “at first sight” and she was shipped back to his stables near Chantilly. The trainer was thrilled to have the athletic filly, who was named Urban Sea.

URBAN SEA with trainer Jean Lesbordes after her 1993 triumph in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

However, Lebordes’ Japanese client encountered financial difficulties and his entire stock., including Urban Sea, were consigned to the sales. Not wanting to part with her, Lesbordes began looking around for a new owner himself.

Enter the Tsui family.

Mrs. Ling Tsui, a brilliant entrepeneur in China, re-located in Paris in 1986 to assume the position of CEO for China Cheers, a commercial arm of China Aerospace. As fate would have it, Mrs. Tsui met Jean Lesbordes and the former agreed to purchase Urban Sea and keep her in training with Lesbordes.

 

Learning to dance: a horse and its trainer. Tang Dynasty, AD 618-907, China.

Mrs. Tsui didn’t know much about horse racing when she acquired Urban Sea, but as she made weekend visits to see her filly, she not only fell in love with her but began a personal study of horse racing in Western culture. In China, horses have been revered since well before the birth of Christ. They were not only instrumental to the tea trade, but the bearers of power, carrying armies to victory in the many wars waged by different regions in China for power. The horse was associated with elemental powers, principally with the Yang, or vitality, and it was believed that horses not only carried the dead into heaven but resurrected humans from death. Closely associated with divine and heavenly attributes, beloved horses were buried with Emperors of China over the centuries.

One of the most famous of all sacred horses was Night-Shining White (depicted below). The painting of the stallion is the most famous work of Chinese master Han Gan, famous for his ability to convey the power and the personality of his equine subjects. Unlike Western art, in Chinese traditional painting the brush is viewed as the extension of the soul and the subjects of brush work — be they mountains or horses — are captured with the intent of portraying their divine energy.

 

NIGHT-SHINING WHITE, the beloved of Emperor Xuanzong (712-756 A.D.) Painted by one of the most acclaimed masters of the brush, HAN GAN, the stallion is shown here in all of his power. The writing all around the painting is that of those who owned the manuscript over the centuries and added their own words of appreciation. Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Now in the collection of THE MET, NYC, USA.

 

The video below (despite the commentary) illustrates the principle of traditional Chinese brush work to show how the depiction of a horse begins with its divine energy and spirit:

 

 

No wonder Mrs. Tsui was quick to fall in love with her burnished red filly.

Urban Sea trained only lightly into her second year, bothered in part by a problem with a fetlock, but more because she wasn’t yet ready, according to Lesbordes. But she did carry the Tsui silks into two races, winning one easily at Maisons Lafitte and finishing third at Evry.

But as a three year-old, Urban Sea would notch a victory for which she will always be famous, even though some saw it as rather ho-hum given a weak field and slow pace. After two starts, Urban Sea returned to Longchamp to win followed by the third place finish in the Prix de Diane at Chantilly. Following a narrow defeat at Evry, the filly won the Piaget d’Or at Deauville and came in third in the Prix Vermeille. After this, Urban Sea became a globetrotter. At Woodbine in Canada she finished she came second in the E.P. Taylor, returned to France to win the Prix Exbury at Saint Cloud, then was off to Royal Ascot, where she finished second in the Prince of Wales.

Then came two victories in France, culminating in a victory in the 1993 Ciga Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe:

Mrs. Tsui and her young son Christopher had managed to learn enough about their gutsy filly and the European racing scene to understand that Urban Sea’s triumph was one for the ages. In 1993 and arguably still to this day, winning the Arc was the mark of an outstanding thoroughbred and a dazzling accomplishment for a 3 year-old filly. Indeed, Urban Sea was only the 10th filly to ever win the Arc since 1920, its debut.

 

URBAN SEA wears the Arc blanket, while her young jockey Eric Saint-Martin is understandably overjoyed. She would be his only Arc winner. After riding in Hong Kong for almost a decade, Saint-Martin retired to become a thoroughbred trainer.

Despite her lithe frame, Urban Sea was a tough individual and she actually raced into her 5th year, winning the prestigious Prix d’Harcourt and coming in third in the Prix Ganay and the Coronation Cup, her final start. She retired with a race record of 22-8-4-3 and earnings of slightly over $1.7 million USD.

Hopeful as the Tsui family may have been that their champion mare would produce a winner, they could hardly have imagined that she would become the matriarch of dynasties. But that’s exactly what she did. After two foals, Urban Ocean (Bering)and Melikah (Lammtarra) proved promising, the mare visited Sadler’s Wells and from that union came Galileo. Two more visits to Galileo produced the champion Black Sam Bellamy and All Too Beautiful, a filly.

URBAN SEA and her LAMMTARRA filly, MELIKAH. A beaming Mrs. Tsui poses beside her beloved mare.

A mating with Giant’s Causeway produced still another champion, the filly My Typhoon. In 2004, Urban Sea foaled Cherry Hinton (Green Desert), who was also very useful as a runner but, like her dam, would turn out to be an even better broodmare.

URBAN SEA grazes with MY TYPHOON, her filly by GIANT’S CAUSEWAY at her side.

URBAN SEA with CHERRY HINTON, a daughter of GREEN DESERT.

Then, based on the exploits of his incomparable daughter, Ouija Board, the Tsui family bred their mighty mare to Cape Cross in 2006. The result of this union was Sea The Stars.

Introducing SEA THE STARS, the son of CAPE CROSS and URBAN SEA

By the time her bay son was staking his claim to immortality, Urban Sea was gone. In 2009, she died of foaling complications giving birth to a colt foal by Invincible Spirit who was named Born To Sea. Yet, when her son stormed home in the Arc a short seven months later, it was impossible not to believe that Urban Sea was there. The field was brilliant and included the champions Stacelita, Dar Re Mi, Youmzain, Conduit, Fame And Glory and Cavalryman. But none of that mattered.

The brilliant Mick Kinane, who had partnered so many great thoroughbreds declared, “This one is something special.”

And in the hearts of the Tsui family and Jean Lesbordes, who was also there, Sea The Stars and Urban Sea were united in victory:

 

Each one of Urban Sea’s produce have gone to the breeding shed in a virtual red wave of success, excepting her last foal Born To Sea who is only beginning his stud career.

It’s hardly worth saying the Galileo’s influence has been epic, except to add that with the recent win of his daughter, Magical, on Champions Day in England, Galileo surpassed his sire, Sadler’s Wells, in numbers of individual elite Grade One winners to now stand at 74.

Nor did Sea The Stars have anything but a great Champions Day, with his brilliant son Stradivarius coming home to take the G1 Long Distance Cup, completing the season undefeated and in brilliant fashion, with wins in the Lonsdale Cup, Gold Cup and the Goodwood and Yorkshire Cups:

STRADIVARIUS and Frankie Dettori after their win in the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day, Oct. 20, 2018.

Too, on the same day (Oct. 20) Sea The Stars posted a 1-2 in a maiden race at Leopardstown. But this is just another day in the life of this brilliant young sire, who counts among his best the winner of the 2014 Investec Oaks as well as the King George VI and QE2 Stakes,Taghrooda; Sea The Moon, winner of the 2014 German Derby; multiple stakes winner, Cloth of Stars; Zelzal who won the G1 Prix Jean Prat; Tanino Urban Sea (a filly out of champion Vodka) winner of the Seibu Suponichi Sho and Suma Tokobetsu in Japan; and Harzand, winner of the 2016 Investec and Irish Derbies.

A lesser-known full brother to Galileo was the late Black Sam Bellamy. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, his mosty impressive wins came in the Gran Premio del Jockey Club at 3 and a win in which he demolished the field in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at4. Retired to the German stud Gestut Fahrhof until 2008, he was subsequently leased by Shade Oak Stud Shorpshire, where he died of congestive heart failure at the age of 19 in July 2018.

His best flat produce were Earl Of Tinsdal, a triple Group 1 winner in Germany and Italy, Daveron, successful in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa Handicap, and German Group 3 winners Goathemala, Saphir and Valdino. Black Sam Bellamy was hugely successful as a jumps sire, producing The Giant Bolster, twice placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Sam Spinner, winner of the 2017 Long Walk Hurdle, as well as the handy runners Flute Bowl, Hollies Pearl and Sam’s Gunner.

BLACK SAM BELLAMY (Sadler’s Wells ex. Urban Sea)

Urban Sea’s daughters have had their share of successes too, both on and off the track. Fan favourite My Typhoon has yet to produce a really good individual, but has a 2016 daughter by Tapit named Tappity Tappity who might well change all that. Certainly My Typhoon had a brilliant racing career. Trained by the eminent Bill Mott, one of her best performances came at Saratoga in 2007:

 

Urban Sea’s daughter by the brilliant Lammtarra, Melikah, has success with sons, Masterstroke (by Monsun), Mr. Moonlight Magic (by Cape Cross) and Royal Line (by Dubawi), who is now in training with John Gosden. Masterstroke, who won the Lucien Barrier Grand Prix de Deauville and finished third in the Arc on the heels of the Japanese superstar Orfevre, stands at Darley’s European facility. Mr. Moonlight Magic was in training with Jim Bolger before moving to the stable of Jim Cummins in Australia in 2018.

MELIKAH with her 2013 colt, MR. MOONLIGHT MAGIC. Thus far, the colt has won or placed in 8 of his 15 starts.

Masterstroke winning the Grand Prix de Deauville in 2012. (Bright blue cap wearing #10):

 

 

ROYAL LINE coming home to win the Great Metropolitan Handicap this year. He’s another who carries the distinctive red coat of his Bm sire, dam and granddam.

Cherry Hinton is well on her way to becoming a Blue Hen, black-type producer like Urban Sea, her dam. Leading the way are her daughters Bracelet (2011 by Montjeu), Athena (2015 by Camelot) and the very promising Goddess (2016 by Camelot). In 2018, the mare birthed a filly foal by American Pharoah who is unnamed at present. Daughter Bracelet is now retired and has produced two foals to date: Magic Fountains (2016 by War Front) and Urban Aunt (2018 by Uncle Mo).

Athena has been making a lot of noise on both sides of the Atlantic. Most recently, in July of this year, the 3 year-old captured the Belmont Oaks in what was her 8th start in a mere 12 weeks and her first G1. She won it impressively, crossing the line with ears pricked:

 

 

The best illustration of the mighty current that flows from Urban Sea into generation after generation of thoroughbred champions is arguably this: in over 200 years of British breeding, only 10 brood mares have produced siblings to win the Epsom Derby, the last being Windmill Girl whose sons Blakeney and Morston won in 1969 and 1973 respectively. Through her sons Galileo and Sea The Stars, Urban Sea has joined Windmill Girl; too, when Harzand (Sea The Stars) and Minding (Galileo) won the Derby and Oaks in the same year, Urban Sea joined Pocahontas, another key broodmare in British racing annals, who accomplished the same in 1866 through her sons Stockwell and King Tom. They are the only two broodmares who can make this claim.

But in recent memory, a more dramatic illustration is this: within a space of two weeks, descendants of Urban Sea dominated in both the 2018 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the 2018 Champion Stakes. As noted above, the first eight across the finish line in the Arc are direct descendants of Urban Sea:

While in the 2018 edition of the Champion Stakes, the first five are also direct descendants of this great mare:

It is an amazing accomplishment for a good – to – brilliant thoroughbred to hand down winning blood as consistently as did Urban Sea, staking her claim to the title of one of the most important broodmares in thoroughbred history.

And isn’t it lovely to feel the current in her blood racing ahead, into the future?

 

Bibliography

Cox, Michael. HK Racing. “Famous bloodlines go from generation to generation for the Tsui family”

Sea The Stars website: http://www.seathestars.com/en/#home

Stevens, Martin. Racing Post. “Only six Epsom Classic Entrants Not Descended From Urban Sea”

Sexton, Nancy. Thoroughbred Racing Community. “Why Urban Sea may be the mnost influential matriarch in Thoroughbred history”

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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The images that mean the most to us hold memories in place, keeping them vivid and alive.

 

New Bond Street, Mayfair, London England.

 

THE GIRL

The year was 1975.

It was a little before lunch when the young couple entered the gallery. The young man strode in with confidence, but his partner seemed to hesitate, stopping a few feet from the door. As she took in the walls, crowded with paintings and prints of ships, people, hunting dogs and landscapes, he quickly engaged a smartly-dressed clerk with a handshake, explaining that they were from Canada and he was a longtime customer of the gallery.

The gallery was in Mayfair, on New Bond Street, a street of decidedly upscale shops where price tags were considered vulgar — as was asking the price. It was the kind of place where the rich and famous shopped.

The young couple hardly fell into that category, the second of the two clerks surmised. He was an older gentleman, with a sculpted face framed by greying hair and kind, hazel eyes. It was rare to see young people in the gallery these days. They were more inclined to be on Carnaby Street. But the young woman, who was still standing near the door, was charming in her reticence. It seemed that the gallery more fascinated than overpowered her.

He approached her quietly and asked if he could “…be of any assistance.”.

“I’m interested in thoroughbreds…in horse racing,” she said. She smiled at him and he noticed the deep blue of her eyes.

“I’m interested in thoroughbreds…in horse racing.”

Beckoning with his hand, he ushered her over to a section nestled amongst a long row of prints.

“These,” he said, “are the smaller prints. The larger ones would be in this drawer,” he added, indicating a dark mahogany drawer with spotless brass handles. “I would be pleased to show you these when madam is ready.”

The thoroughbred BELLARIO. Steel point etching/print.

She thanked him in a muted tone, thinking the “madam” rather stuffy, and began to sort through the bank of images.

He was pleased to see that she understood how to handle old prints. He moved off, as he normally did with clients who preferred to peruse on their own. She was one of those, and so fell neatly into the sensibility of New Bond Street, where there was never any question of pressuring a client. Those who came to New Bond Street only called upon clerks when they were good and ready.

The young couple were on their honeymoon and so far it had been filled with explorations of antiquarian London — bookstores and galleries like this one. This was a London she barely knew and she was dumbfounded by the antiquities on offer, from leather-bound books with marbled frontespieces to prints dating back to the days when Canada was still a colony.

The small prints were either hand-coloured or steel points in black and white. Most had been extracted from books of the period, hence their size, although some had actually been produced as prints. The style was that common before George Stubbs, who had revolutionized the representation of horses forever. She studied some with more interest than others, plucking them out and holding them in front of her as though she were reading them. Noteworthy subjects, although their tiny heads, bulging eyes and disproportionate bodies weren’t particularly compelling. She let out the softest of sighs.

CHILDERS, “the fleetest horse there ever was” in a print from 1856.

 

George Stubbs’ “Horse in the Shade of a Wood” produced in 1780 (just 24 years after the print pictured above) epitomizes the degree to which Stubbs revolutionized the art of the horse.

The grey-haired clerk reappeared at her elbow. “Would madam care to look at some of the larger prints, I wonder? There aren’t as many of them, but you may possibly find something of interest.”

“Yes, please,” came the whisper of a reply. In the background she could hear the voices of her husband and the other clerk. They seemed so comfortable with one another. But, then again, when it came to antique prints and books,her husband had an expertise that she was suddenly very conscious she lacked.

She watched as the clerk neatly slid open the drawer and then, between open palms, lifted a sheaf of prints and moved with them over to a large counter, where he laid them down with a care that was almost tender. She joined him, watching as he turned them like pages of a giant book, lifting the tissue-thin paper that protected each one to reveal the print.

“Now this one is a lithograph. Hand-painted,” he continued, as they looked together at a scene depicting a race at Newmarket.

She was enjoying his explanations of the different prints and how they were made, but she couldn’t really say that any had caught her eye.

He turned another print over and as he lifted the tissue, he heard her catch her breath in the way people do when pleasantly surprised or caught completely off guard.

She couldn’t take her eyes off it. Then she said, “Oh, my. Oh. This is so lovely.”

“It is actually an aquatint from a series called ‘Moore’s Celebrated Winners.’ Aquatints are somewhat rare. Possibly because some find them too….too indistinct. Colour not as vibrant,” and he scrunched his lips to suggest his doubt that such a criticism was merited. “Aquatints are intaglios, basically. An arduous process in the nineteenth century.”

The young woman barely heard him.

She had been spirited away by the image of a grey thoroughbred caught in the comfort of his box stall. His name — “Chanticleer” — was inscribed beneath in a flourish of script close to the calligraphic, followed by line upon line of his achievements. He didn’t look particularly pleased at finding himself immortalised with such elegance. The quality of light that illuminated horse and stable bathed the scene in a warm glow that made her feel as though she had entered the image.

CHANTICLEER, from the series “Moore’s  Celebrated Winners.” Aquatint by J.W. Hillyard,engraved by C. Hunt and published December 6, 1848 by J. Moore, London, England.

 

Neither he nor she moved or spoke for several minutes.

Finally she asked, “And what would the price be, please?”

He hesitated. “Ninety pounds sterling, madam, I believe.”

She swallowed, although her eyes never left the print. They were both first year teachers, making slightly more than four thousand dollars a year between them. They had saved the whole year for this trip and were only at the very start of a three-week stay that would include Scotland, Wales and Dublin, where she had tickets to the Dublin Horse Show. Each had their own spending budget — and ninety BPS would take a tidy bite out of hers.

“Perhaps madam would like some time to consider it further?”

She nodded dumbly, feeling suddenly terribly small within herself. He lifted up Chanticleer and moved briskly to the back of the gallery, where stood an easel draped in black velvet. And against the dark gloss of the fabric, he placed the print.

The atmosphere in the gallery shifted. Although subtle, it was enough for her husband and the other clerk to raise their heads and look. Standing a few feet away, the girl and the grey thoroughbred seemed connected as though by an electric current. Even the air around them seemed to crackle.

“Your wife is deciding on whether or not to acquire it, sir,” the grey-haired clerk offerred helpfully.

“Can you afford it?” the young man asked.

But he got no answer.

 

THE GREY

Chanticleer was, in fact, a thoroughbred of renown in nineteenth century Great Britain. Born in 1843, he was the son of Birdcatcher (sometimes reffered to as “Irish Birdcatcher) out of Whim, by Drone, and was a direct descendant of the great Eclipse through a son, Pot8os.

 

ECLIPSE as depicted by Francis Sartorius.

POT8OS, Eclipse’s son, occurs in CHANTICLEER’s 5th generation on both the top and the bottom.

BIRDCATCHER, the sire of CHANTICLEER, was a very able stayer and a useful stallion who was Champion Sire in 1852 and again in 1856.

Bred in Ireland by Christopher St. George, the grey colt was subsequently purchased by Mr. James Merry in 1847, after he had already won three Queen’s Plates at the Curragh (IRE). Merry was a Scot whose profession was ironcasting and he also sat in the British House of Commons from 1859-1874. He was an outstanding breeder of thoroughbreds and throughout his lifetime owned two famous Epsom Derby winners in Thormanby(ch. c.1857) and Doncaster (ch. c. 1870).

MR. JAMES MERRY, as portrayed in a magazine of the day. CHANTICLEER would be the first of several very good thoroughbreds who established him as a member of the British racing elite.

But it was Chanticleer who first gave him a reputation as a fine horseman, for Merry “…was little known on the turf until he startled the world with the ‘gallant grey’ when he achieved a series of brilliant triumphs in 1948, including the Goodwood Stakes and the Doncaster Cup.” (B.M. Fitzpatrick in The Irish Sport and Sportsmen)

THORMANBY won the Epsom Derby in 1860, the Gimcrack and Criterion Stakes as a 2 year-old and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1861.

 

DONCASTER, who was originally called ALL HEART AND NO PEEL, won the Epsom Derby for Merry in 1873, the Goodwood Cup in 1874 and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1875.

After his purchase by Merry, the 4 year-old Chanticleer was shipped to stables in Scotland to be trained by William l’Anson. The colt’s 5 year-old campaign was the best of his career, one that saw him winning the aforementioned Goodwood Stakes and the Doncaster Cup, as well as the Northumberland Plate, together with a number of less-distinguished races. In Taunton’s “Celebrated Race Horses of the Past and Present” (vol.4) descriptions like “won the Welter Cup … at a canter,” and “…won the Castle Irwell Stakes …easily” indicate that Chanticleer’s 5 year-old campaign was noteworthy.

This is the familar image of CHANTICLEER that appears in most books and online. Paintings of him are very rare, despite the fact that he was well-known to the racing community in the 19th century.

By the time he retired in 1855, the grey had started 32 times and won 19, worth a combined £4,485, and that was a very respectable sum at the time. However, once Mr. Merry’s betting history was included, Chanticleer actually made in excess of £50, 000 for his owner.

But what was this hardy grey colt really like? Taunton describes Chanticleer as almost 16h with a ” coarse, sour head”, powerful shoulders and a girth of about 67 3/4 inches. Taunton adds, ” He was a very free goer, a capital stayer, possessed fine speed and unbounded courage.”

Arguably as noteworthy as his abilities on the turf was Chanticleer’s foul temper:

“…he was a horse of strong constitution, but very bad temper, in fact a perfectly mad horse, when l’Anson first got hold of him…at all times very savage; and so furious was he, on one occassion, that they were obliged to get the stable lad out of his box through the window.” (The “Druid,” quoted in Taunton, “Portraits of Celebrated Racehorses Past and Present,” vol.4)

At stud, the daughters of Chanticleer made a lasting impact on thoroughbred bloodlines worldwide. Through one daughter, Singstress (1860), came the stallion Macaroon(1871), while through another, Souvenir, came Strathconan (1884) the damsire of Le Sancy (1884). It was also through Strathconan that Chanticleer’s grey coat was passed on to The Tetrarch, a name that appears even today in the bloodlines of some of the world’s most accomplished thoroughbreds.

THE TETRARCH, whose short life did nothing to impede his impact on the breed, inherited his grey coat from a daughter of CHANTICLEER.

Another daughter, Queen of the Gypies (1860), is the ancestress of Theatrical, winner of the Breeders Cup Turf. Remaining daughters produced or were granddams to winners of the Prix Morny, Doncaster Cup, the Grand Criterium, the Derby Italiano, the Epsom Oaks, One Thousand Guineas, Two Thousand Guineas, St. Leger, the Ascot Gold Vase, Ascot Stakes, Chester Cup and the Great Yorkshire Stakes.

But arguably the most influential of all was Sunbeam, herself a champion and winner of the St. Leger, who went on to become the sixth dam of Phalaris (1913), among whose many important offspring was Pharos, the sire of Frederico Tesio’s brilliant Nearco. From Nearco descends Nasrullah, Royal Charger and Nearctic, sires who shaped the 20th century thoroughbred and left an enduring mark on the history of the sport worldwide.

NEARCO by the late Richard Stone Reeves

 

 

THE GIRL AND THE GREY

 

 

Another work by HILLYARD, the artist who did the CHANTICLEER in our narrative. HILLYARD specialised in sporting subjects, usually thoroughbred racing. This is an oil painting by the artist, featuring a pair of saddle horses. As in the CHANTICLEER above, the use of light is notable in this painting.

 

She seemed to stand there for an eternity, but the clerks at the gallery didn’t mind, having sensed that this was a large transaction for her.

In her mind, thought and feeling were engaged in a duel. Was she being too emotional? The cost was more than a day’s pay. But didn’t he belong to her — look at the connection they had ! Opportunities like this are meant to be seized.

Her young husband, having made his selection of military prints, was becoming impatient. He walked over to her, “You need to make up your mind.”

“I know,” she replied. But her voice was dreamy. Not the voice of someone about to make a decision.

After a few minutes more, she drew closer to the print. Then she turned, spinning around as though she were dancing a reel, and met the gaze of the grey-haired clerk, “Yes,” she said. “I must have it.”

“Congratulations, madam,” he responded, moving to take Chanticleer from his perch. “You have made a most excellent choice.”

Carrying the print to the back counter, he placed it with her husband’s purchases and, after each had paid, arrangements were made to ship the prints to Canada. When this was done, there were handshakes all around and the grey-haired clerk escorted them to the door.

As they entered the flow of pedestrians on New Bond Street, he heard her say, “I don’t care if I can’t afford anything else on this trip. I just felt that he was meant to be mine.”

“Okay…” her young husband parried, “but I sure hope you don’t see something else you think you must have.”

“Not ‘think’ … ‘feel,’ ” came the reply. “It’s about the way that grey made me feel.

 

Footnote

The series, Moore’s Celebrated Winners, were a series of aquatints produced in the 19th c. by John Moore in London, England. Various artists and print makers were called upon to do each of the “celebrated” subjects. Prints from this series are very rare and seldom come up at public auction anymore.

The aquatint is an intaglio print. In intaglio printmaking, the artist makes marks on a plate (in the case of aquatint, a copper or zinc plate) that are capable of holding ink. The inked plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the paper. This can be repeated a number of times, depending on the particular technique.

Like etching, aquatint uses the application of a mordant, or dye fixative, to etch into the metal plate. Where the engraving technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever colour ink is used), aquatint uses powdered rosin, a resin obtained from pine trees or conifers to create a tonal effect. The rosin is acid resistant and typically adhered to the plate by controlled heating. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of mordant exposure over large areas, and thus the image is shaped by large sections at a time.

An advertisement for MOORE’S CELEBRATED WINNERS that appeared in a 19th century London sports magazine.

 

NANCY (born 1848, by Pompey X Hawise). Winner of the Chester and Goodwood Cups, among others. One in the series MOORE’S CELEBRATED WINNERS. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

WEST AUSTRALIAN (born 1850, Melbourne X Mowerina by Touchstone). Great Britain’s first Triple Crown winner. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (born 1846, by Bay Middleton X Barbelle). Winner of the 1849 Epsom Derby, St. Leger and Ascot Gold Cup, among others. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c.,London, UK

RABY(born 1846, by The Doctor X Modesty). Winner of the Cambridgeshire Cup. Moore’s Celebrated Winners. Aquatint, 19th c., London, UK

 

Bibliography

The British Museum online. Print of Newminster and descriptive details.

Taunton, Thomas Henry. Portraits of celebrated racehorses of the past and present centuries: in strictly chronological order, commencing in 1702 and ending in 1870, together with their respective pedigrees and performance recorded in full. Volume IV. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1883

B.M. Fitzpatrick. Irish Sport and Sportsmen. Waxkeep Publishing, 2015

Thoroughbred Heritage. http://www.tbheritage.com

The New Sporting Magazine. London: Rogerson & Tuxford, December 1858

 

 

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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Dating back to well before the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest horse races in the world. Steeped in medieval tradition and filled with colour, controversy and drama, The Palio lies at the very heart of the identity of the city of Siena.

(Dear Reader: This post is neither a promotion of the Palio nor a condemnation of it. Rather, it was inspired by a treasured memory and a recent visit to Italy. Video footage included here shows no horse or rider being fatally injured, although some may be seen falling during the actual running of the race. AA)

 

MEETING GAUDENZIA

It wasn’t that Rome or Venice or Verona weren’t breathtaking, but my connection to Siena was personal, rooted deep into my childhood.

In 1961, when I was 12 years old, my grandmother had given me a book by Marguerite Henry entitled, “Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio.”

Some fifty-seven years later, here I was in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where the climax of Gaudenzia’s story had taken place.

Entering the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Lined with restaurants and lying in the heart of city, it’s a place where tourist and the Sienese congregate over drinks and food.

 

Under the clock tower in the Piazza, noticeable in grey stone, lie the stables where the horses will be kept on the day of the Palio. Within these cool, dry walls, horses await the start of a race that has gained international status.

 

Over a gin-tonic and pizza, I contemplated the giant oval of the Piazza, imagining how it must transform in July and again in August, when The Palio is run. Like a palimpsest veiled only by the sights and sounds of lunch on an ordinary day in June, medieval buildings festooned with flags, cobblestones covered over with sand and an infield packed where hundreds stood, packed tighter than sardines in a tin, drifted like ghosts across my inner eye.

Winding through the narrow streets that extend like spokes on a wheel from the Piazza, there were many signs that the Palio of July was, indeed, on its way: street lights adorned with the colours of the different contradas, or districts of Siena; a winding street in the contrada of Leocorno (The Unicorn) festooned with orange and white Leocorno flags; a deserted cafe that opted for diplomacy by displaying the flags not only of Leocorno, but also della Pantera (The Panther, in red and blue) and della Tartuca (The Tortoise, in blue & yellow); and a bodega (small grocery store) where the entire back wall was a riot of Palio memorabilia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PALIO

Different as the regions of Italy may be, one of many things they share in common is a strong commitment to local customs and traditions. Located in Tuscany, Siena is famous for its centuries-old rivalry with Firenze (Florence), as well as being the home of the world’s oldest horse race, The Palio of Siena. Although historians estimate that the Palio is about 800 years old, the first written records about it don’t appear until the sixteenth century. Sometimes a third Palio, called the Palio of Peace or the Extraordinary Palio, is run between May-September. But when this happens, it is because there is a special event that is being commemorated.

The Palio is, ultimately, about the courage of a horse and rider, and the centuries-old, fierce competitiveness of the seventeen contradas of Siena. There is, of course, intrigue as these rivalries play out in July and August. But the intrigue only adds to the drama of horses and men reliving a beloved tradition. However, to fully understand The Palio and the sensibility of Siena, it helps to know a little of Italy’s history.

Until 1861, when Italy became a unified country under the Sardinian king, Victor Immanuel II, the whole of what we know today as one country was in fact ruled by a number of powerful city states. These city states controlled their own territories and were regularly at war with one another. Italy was a celebration of a richly diversified regionalism up until 1861, when all these regional customs and traditions had to learn to live together. And live together they do, but it is a kind of begrudging unity and it is those regional qualities that keep that going. Even in 2018, the citizens of Firenze/Florence consider themselves the chief rival to Siena, just as it was in ancient times. And our tour guide, who came from neither city, confided, ” You know, I find Siena the most beautiful city in the North. But any Florentine will tell you that the Sienese people are really not that nice, not very friendly. The Florentines are much nicer, much warmer.”

To a large extent, the magnificence of the different cities and regions of Italy today is due to their ancient roots as powerful jurisdictions. This is arguably most evident in Venice, a city that presents itself to you as though it was the only important city in Italy.

In the Piazza San Marco, the city of Venice presents herself in all her power and glory. The lion of the city flag hangs proudly next to that of Italy.

 

Proclaiming its power to the world: The Piazza San Marco in Venice.

 

The drama of the first Palio is re-enacted yearly by Siena’s seventeen contradas. Each one has its own flag, its own museum and it own Church. Each Sienese is christened in his/her contrada and it is to the contrada that they return when they die. In Siena on July 2 (Palio di Provenzano) and again on August 17 (Palio dell’Assunta), when the Palios are run, whole families split up, each joining his/her contrada for the day. To refuse to do so would be considered a social aberration, unless you were a babe in arms.

 

 

The colours of the contradas of Siena.

Long before the races of summer, the hunt by each contrada is on for a horse and rider. Whereas jockeys can be contracted by a contrada early in a given year, in the last 60 or so years it is more common after the horse chosen to represent their district is assigned. Each contrada contributes to the pool of horses available, even though not every horse is chosen and there is no certainty that they will be represented by the horse they have put forward. The horses themselves are always mixed breeds, pure breeds being forbidden largely because horses need to be fast and strong enough to withstand the rigors of the Palio. They can come from any walk of life, from working horses to pleasure horses, or from any region of Italy. The most important criteria is their speed. The horses selected are often trained by each contrada’s jockey, but then a twist comes in the form of a lottery.

A few days before the Palio a process takes place to choose horses. On the morning of the third day before the Palio the lottery takes place, but not before each horse is given a thorough check by a veterinary team, followed by a trial run around the Palio course. After this, the ten most suitable horses are chosen and then assigned to each contrada in a draw. The draws for horses being random, it is rare that a horse and its trainer, now turned jockey, end up together.

Only ten contradas participate in each Palio; in the July 2 Palio, the seven contradas who didn’t participate in July of the previous year are included, as well as three additional contradas, who are selected at random in another draw.

Below: The “Drawing of the Horses.”

 

The moment a horse is assigned, the contrada takes it away to their district stables, in a procession of contrada members. It will only return to the Piazza del Campo on the day of the race.

From the time he is contracted, the jockey is given security guards, whose job it is to see that he isn’t tempted by other contradas to throw the race. From the time they are chosen, the best jockeys are habitually assailed by offers in the form of bribes. The only way to assure their loyalty is for the contrada to offer them a handsome sum of money, the payment of which takes place before the Palio. But don’t feel sorry for the contradas: they frequently enpower their jockeys to bribe other jockeys right up to the start of the race. As well, each contrada has up to the morning of the Palio to change its jockey if he is suspected of being compromised in a way that will endanger their winning.

Jockeys can be changed but the horses cannot. If they become ill or unable to race, the horse withdraws as does its contrada and, for all the brutality of the Palio, there have been numerous cases of horses being withdrawn because a contrada feared for its safety.

Three days before the first Palio, as Siena begins to explode with contrada flags and marching bands, the jockeys and horses are given a chance to have a dry run in the form of six horse trials around the course, the last of which occurs on the morning of the actual Palio. Before the trials begin, the entries are drawn and this will decide the order the horses are called to the start on Palio day. The “wild card” — the tenth contrada drawn — does not line up with the rest of the horses. Instead, this pair stand farther back and only when they decide to go is the race officially on.

 

The Tratta is the ceremony in which places are drawn for the Palio. You can see the results on the board in the background. Number ten is the “wild card” — the horse and rider that will determine the start of the race.

On the day of the Palio, horses and riders are blessed in the church of their contrada. Then the horse, wearing its brightly coloured spennacchiera and bridle, is paraded to the Piazza del Campo, where it will be stabled within the cool, stone walls of the del Campo stables to await the race, which takes place at 7:30 pm in July (and at 7 p.m. in August).

The Blessing of the Horse:

 

The running of the Palio is the final event of a day of colour, excitement and festivity, all invoking the rites and rituals of hundreds of years before, called “The Historical Walk” (Passeggiata Storica).The participants number about 600 and are drawn from all of the 17 contradas. The war cart (Carroccio), drawn by white oxen, carries the Palio — a hand-painted banner that goes to the victor of that year’s Palio and hearkens back to the original Pallium banner of the 1500’s or earlier, made of sacred, liturgical cloth and after which the race derived its name.

The arrival of the Palio, or victory flag, is the last event before the Palio itself is run.

 

 

As the horses for the Palio appear on the track, a roar goes up from the crowd. The jockeys, now wearing the silks of the contrada for which they are racing, are bareback and carry only a long riding stick, called a nerbi, make of dried cow hide and with which they can drive on their horses or impede another horse, specifically by knocking off its spennacchiara. Since it is the horse and its contrada, not the rider, who is credited with the win, even a riderless horse can race to victory in the Palio. That is — as it used to be — unless the closest jockey manages to knock of its spennacchiara. But this latter rule has been changed, even though its absence remains contrversial. Spennacchiara or no, the first horse across the finish line, riderless or not, wins.

 

GUESS, who won the July 1 2013 Palio for Oca (The Goose), wearing his spennacchiara (between his ears) in Oca colours.

The horses will race around the Piazza de Campo course three times before the finish and the winner is greeted by a three-gun salute. At the start, the horses are called by the name of the contrada and in chronological order, as per the position they have drawn. Nine line up between the two ropes that mark off the starting gate. The 10th horse and rider, the rincorsa, waits behind the ropes: when the other horses are reasonably orderly in front of him, he will kick off the race by encouraging his horse to leap forward.

As you can see, in the video below, readying for the start can take some time! Here is the July 2, 2018 Palio that took place only a few days after I had left Italy and was on my way home. Note the rincorsa, in the yellow and red colours of the Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) contrada, behind the other nine horses. Note, too, the sharp turn horses and riders make and the white on the walls — thick mattressing put up to lessen the chances of a horse or rider falling to its death. The winner for the Drago (Dragon) contrada was the bay Rocco Nice, ridden by jockey Andrea Mari.

(Note: Riders are unseated and horses fall, but there were no casualties or serious injuries sustained.)

 

HOMAGE TO GAUDENZIA

 

The real GAUDENZIA was not only the heroine of a children’s story. She was adored by an entire nation and went on to become an international superstar, thanks to Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

I recalled little of Marguerite Henry’s story of Gaudenzia.

When I arrived home, one of the first things I did was to pull the book down from the shelf where it sat with other beloved books of my childhood and start to read it again. By the time I had read the last page, I remembered that I didn’t really like the book and I could hazard a guess as to why 12 year-old me might not have been enamored of it.

First of all, “Gaudenzia” is a harsh story of a very poor boy and a forgotten cart horse. Secondly, there’s the annoyance of Henry’s attempt to write people speaking Italian in English, as was the tradition of the time, and dialogue comes off in a way that reminds you of the imperfect speech of a toddler. I felt that Giorgio Terni would have been deeply offended reading this in the context of 2018, but in the 1950’s and long before, this was typically the way dialects and “foreign speakers” were represented. (It was lightly documented, but true, that Will Harbut was deeply hurt by the publication of the phrase he became most noted for: “Da’ mostest horse.” Harbut felt that his words should have been published in standard or, as he put it, “correct” English, i.e. “the mostest horse,” as a sign of respect.)

Last, but not least, “Gaudenzia” has its dark moments and chief among them is the fact that Giorgio’s father bought and fattened horses to be sold for their meat. In fact, it was the loss of the blind mare, Bianca to slaughter — a mare who Giorgio loved desperately — and the coincidence that Gaudenzia came into the world on the same day, that engendered the boy’s interest in the filly foal. Giorgio believed that Gaudenzia was the blind Bianca, coming back to him. As a girl who loved horses, it is quite possible that it was inside the pages of Henry’s narrative that I first learned about horse slaughter and, as a youngster, the very idea of eating a horse would have been inconceivable.

GAUDENZIA, as she is shown with Giorgio, in the book by Marguerite Henry.

It was when I read the final page of the book that explained Gaudenzia’s brilliant reign over the Palio and her retirement, that it hit me: Gaudenzia was real.

And off I went to research her further, to discover that she had, in fact, won four Palios. In her second victory, Gaudenzia had won without her rider, even as her beloved Giorgio — who had trained her but was aboard another horse — raced along beside her, trying desperately to remove her spennacchiara. (In the 1950’s the old rule was in place and it would have effectively disqualified Gaudenzia from her riderless victory had another jockey managed to knock off her spennacchiara.) Giorgio was devastated at trying to stop his mare from gaining a second consecutive victory because he knew that he was one of the few people she trusted.

 

GAUDENZIA racing to victory in the July Palio in 1954, with Giorgio Terni on her back.

Henry travelled to Tuscany three times in order to understand the phenomena of the Palio and was there, with Giorgio, when he and Gaudenzia won the first Palio. She confessed that she had to scrap her first idea for a story because the real story of the grey, part-Arab mare and the peasant boy, Giorgio Terni, was so much more dramatic. As she put it in her preface “… Their battle to outwit destiny is a drama of human and animal courage.”

 

GAUDENZIA and Giorgio: “…a drama of human and animal courage.” (Marguerite Henry, Preface, “Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio.”)

Gaudenzia, who was born in 1942 and won her first 3 Palios at the age of 12, was barred from running for a year because she was certain to win. Returning in the August Palio in 1956, at the age of 14, she won again. It would be the last time she raced. She retired having won 3 consecutive Palios in 1954, in which there was an additional September Palio. No horse had ever done this before Gaudenzia. When she annexed a 4th win in 1956, she became the stuff of legend. The cart horse had morphed into a Queen.

Gaudenzia and Giorgio win their first Palio for the contrada Onda (The Wave) on July 2, 1954. Note that Gaudenzia is the 10th horse and so, is the one who signals the start of the race. (FYI: There is no sound on the video, but there are some wonderful close-ups of Gaudenzia that make up for it.)

And here is Gaudenzia’s last Palio, on August 16, 1956. This time she ran in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) and was ridden by Francesco Cuttoni. Giorgio Terni was her trainer.

Gaudenzia was retired with all the glory of a queen, which she had become, and lived out the rest of her days in a medieval castle near Siena. Giorgio visited her regularly until her death, in 1972 or 1974, at the age of 30/32.

GAUDENZIA being led to the stable of her contrada after the drawing of the horses. Date unknown.

 

GAUDENZIA in the colours of Istrice (The Crested Porcupine) after her final victory in the August Palio of 1956.

 

GAUDENZIA’S beautiful face appears on this German version of Marguerite Henry’s book.

 

GAUDENZIA in the lead — where she always was — in what appears to be her first win in July of 1954.

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

The trailer from the documentary PALIO, available on Netflix. In it, those involved speak in their own voices, leaving the viewer to construct his/her own understanding and conclusions about this complex and controversial race. Some might also be interested to know that the featured jockey, Giovanni Atzeni, is the third cousin of jockey Andrea Atzeni, of thoroughbred racing fame. (NOTE: This is in no way a promotion of the documentary, to which I have no affiliation, but I did watch it and enjoyed it very much.)

 

“…The emotions of a life, the feeling of a life” : Siena Prepares For The Palio

 

Bibliography

Henry, Marguerite. Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio. Rand McNally and Company, New York. 1960

Edizioni KINA Italia/L.E.G.O. The Palio: The Heart and Soul of Siena. ND

Sports Illustrated. Issue of August 30, 1954.

GAUDENZIA: Archivio del Palio di Siena @ https://www.ilpalio.siena.it/5/Cavalli/413?cod=C413

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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