Archive for March, 2011

AUGUST 14, 2015
Dear VAULT reader: As you know, THE VAULT published its very first article in 2011 and now enjoys a readership of over 280,000 worldwide. I cannot thank you all enough for your support and enthusiasm.
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Thank you.

Until a day after the Wood Memorial, in which she had finished a game third, there was debate between trainer and owners as to whether she should run in the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby …

… at the Derby quarter pole, it was the filly with the wide white blaze in the lead, Rockhill Native (1977) and Plugged Nickle (1977) hot on her heels. By the eighth pole, these two colts were fading, but now it was another pair, Rumbo (1977) and Jacklin Klugman (1977), who were making their run.

They weren’t good enough to catch her. At the finish it was all Genuine Risk — only the second filly, since Regret in 1915, to ever win the Kentucky Derby.

The finish of the 1980 Kentucky Derby — the filly sparkles!
(Copyright the Chicago Tribune)

Daunting as she was on the track, it’s just as daunting to take on Genuine Risk as a subject for this second feature story in our Kentucky Derby series. Her fans number in the legions, accompanying her from racetrack to breeding shed and into retirement. Had these same fans enjoyed the possibilities of 2011 media technology, they would have established a relationship with Team Genuine Risk comparable to the ones that burgeoned for Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Barbaro. But they persevered despite the handicap, with the help of equine photographers like Barbara Livingston, Lydia Williams (LAW) and Anne Eberhardt and racing magazines that continued to check in with Genuine Risk throughout her long life. Genuine Risk was (and remains) a thoroughbred icon.

As is true for all of the individuals who attain legendary status, Genuine Risk was a horse brimming with personality and charisma. And, as was the case with many a thoroughbred star, her potential was not readily apparent as a youngster. One of the famous anecdotes about Genuine Risk was that had it not been for Bert and Diana Firestone’s young son of 14, Matthew, Genuine Risk would have gone unnoticed at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale of 1978. Matthew was excited by her pedigree: she was by Exclusive Native (1963), whose son Affirmed (1975) had, only a few weeks earlier, won the Triple Crown. And, as if to shout it out, the filly bore an uncanny resemblance to her sire in colour and markings, right down to a common right hind stocking. So it was that young Matt first convinced his parents and Matthew Greene, the Firestone’s farm manager, to bid for Genuine Risk that July day — Matt who was given the task of bidding on the filly  — and Matt who signed the winning $32,000 ticket on behalf of the Firestone family. (No surprise that the gifted teenager would go on to build his own career in the thoroughbred industry!)

Without question, Genuine Risk’s pedigree spoke loud of possibility and potential.

Not only had her sire produced the third Triple Crown winner in a decade, but her grandsire, Raise A Native (1961), was the sire of Affirmed’s nemesis, the outstanding Alydar (1975). Arguably even more impressively, Raise A Native also sired the incomparable Mr. Prospector (1970). He got other fine horses as well, notably Majestic Prince (1966), winner of The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and The Santa Anita Derby. (Majestic Prince would go on to sire Coastal {1976} and Majestic Light {1973}.)

Raise A Native, sire of the great Mr. Prospector
and the grandsire of Genuine Risk
Exclusive Native, sire of Genuine Risk
The picture says it all: Raise A Native, Exclusive Native and Affirmed

Genuine Risk’s dam, Virtuous (1971), was out of the champion Gallant Man (1954) by Due Respect II (1958), whose sire, Zucchero (1948) was by Nasrullah(1940). In England where he was born and raced, Zucchero won both the 1952 Princess of Wales Stakes and the 1953 Coronation Cup. Due Respect II’s dam, Auld Alliance (1948) had been bred by the prominent British horseman, Lord Rosebery, from the solid stallion Brantome (1931); Auld Alliance was also the dam of the American thoroughbred champion, Tomy Lee (1956).  And, as if this weren’t enough, Genuine Risk’s pedigree over 4 generations also boasted, on her sire line, individuals like Shut Out (1939) a son of “the chocolate soldier,” Equipoise (1928) and the incomparable Native Dancer (1950), sire of Raise A Native. On her tail female were both Mahmoud (1933) who, in previous articles on THE VAULT keeps coming up in the pedigrees of contemporary champions, as well as Mah Iran (1939), a daughter of Mah Mahal (1928) by the sire Bahram (1932), the 1935 British Triple Crown winner. Mah Mahal, as you may remember, was a descendant of the important British sire, The Tetrach (1911), ranked internationally as the best 2 year-old of the twentieth century.

Virtuous, dam of Genuine Risk
Zucchero, broodmare sire of Virtuous
Mahmoud goes down to the post for the start of the 1936 Epsom Derby
The Tetrarch: he was the best 2 year-old of the twentieth century
A rare and blurry image of Mah Iran
The outstanding Bahram, winner of the 1935 British Triple Crown

Keeping in mind the potency of the X-chromosome Genuine Risk received from her dam, together with the undeniable influence of Gallant Man, who carried both Mah Iran and Mahmoud in his sire line, it would seem that Virtuous was a rather overly-modest name for such a fine individual. And it’s impossible not to love the sheer — if mysterious — beauty of exceptional sires and families who, over a century of breeding, combined to pass at least some of their greatness on to Virtuous’ daughter.

Genuine Risk’s grandsire, Gallant Man, was a smallish brown thoroughbred by Migoli (1944), a product of the Aga Khan III’s impeccible breeding program. A determined competitor, Migoli won the Dewhurst and 4 other races in England before being sent to France as a 4 year-old, where he annexed the 1948 Prix de l’Arc Triomphe. There would not to be another British-trained thoroughbred who would win the Arc until 1971. Migoli’s sire was Bois Roussel (1935), a son of Bahram. When mated to Majideh(1939), another product of the Aga Khan’s stud and a daughter of Mahmoud, the result was Gallant Man.

Migoli as a youngster, before the telling grey that linked him to Mah Iran had emerged.
Majideh, the dam of Gallant Man

Trained by John Nerud, Gallant Man is perhaps best-remembered for the peculiar circumstances of his loss to Iron Liege (1954) in the 1957 Kentucky Derby. As the story goes, jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and when he stood in the stirrups, Gallant Man began to slow down, allowing Iron Leige to nip him at the finish. But Gallant Man was a little horse with great stamina, shown in his absolute triumph in the Belmont Stakes that same year, which he won by a decisive 8 lengths over Bold Ruler (1954) setting a track record that stood until 1973, when Secretariat (1970) ran the race of a lifetime. Racing at 3 and 4, Gallant Man beat Bold Ruler again in the Metropolitan Mile and also took the Jockey Gold Cup against older horses. And although he beat the great Round Table (1954) twice, Gallant Man was never honoured as Horse of the Year. As a stallion, he sired 52 stakes winners; as a broodmare sire, he not only could lay claim to Genuine Risk, but also to another spectacular filly who was twice voted champion filly of the year, as well as being inducted into the Hall of Fame — Gallant Bloom (1966).

Iron Liege nips Gallant Man (outside) in the 1957 Kentucky Derby
Gallant Man returns to win the Belmont Stakes decisively
John Nerud with Gallant Man

With a bloodline this spectacular how could the Firestone filly not be a champion?

…..Well, at the beginning, Genuine Risk was having none of it — not the saddle, not the rider and not the training! Just like so many of the great thoroughbreds that have appeared here in preceding stories, Genuine Risk was resistant to taking commands from humans, making her “very, very tough” to break and, initially, to train. It’s easy to sympathize with the threat such changes represent to a yearling, perhaps especially since they demand an unconditional surrender to the unknown. John “Buck” Moore, who was with Genuine Risk from the moment she arrived at the Firestone’s facility was the man who broke her, rode her and cared for her throughout her long life. He knew her perhaps the best of anyone and felt that her attitude towards accepting saddle and bit had to do with her having a mind of her own. Interviewed in the Blood-Horse (April 30, 2005), Moore explained, “…She bucked a lot and she would try you. But there is not a mean bone in her body. She just wants to tell you that, ‘Hey, I’m not laying down and rolling over when you say so.'” (pp.2629)

The youngster may have been a tough customer to acclimatize to her new vocation, but it was exactly this kind of fighting spirit that would also make her a strong competitor when she hit the track. As her trainer, Hall of Famer Leroy Jolley would later say, “There’s no give-up in her.” Jolley, the son of trainer Moody Jolley, was a private man, not unlike Genuine Risk’s owners. He had trained Ridan(1959) and would go on to train Foolish Pleasure (1975) before the daughter of Exclusive Native joined his stable.

Are you looking at me? The power and beauty of Genuine Risk,
shown here in 1980 with her regular exercise rider, Luis Hortez

Genuine Risk’s 2 year-old season was faultless. Teamed with jockey Jacinto Vasquez, who would go on to ride her in every race save one throughout her career, the filly broke her maiden at first asking in a maiden special weight at Belmont in September 1979. Two weeks later, Genuine Risk charged to a seven and a quarter length victory over a fast track in an allowance race at Aqueduct. A month later, the filly started in the Tempted Stakes, a mile run intended to give her connections a sense of whether or not she could beat a classier field: Genuine Risk took it easily, winning by 3 lengths. And even though it was only her third start, Vasquez was immensely proud of Genuine Risk’s effort. In his view, she was good enough to take on colts. She closed out the year with a gutsy battle to the wire in the Demoiselle, over a distance of a mile and an eighth. In a three-wide move on the final turn, Genuine Risk headed for the lead, to be challenged by Smart Angle. They came to the finish head-to-head, but it was Genuine Risk’s white blaze that crossed the line first. Finishing her first season undefeated, Genuine Risk travelled to Florida with the other Jolley horses to prepare for her 3 year-old campaign.

Assistant trainer, John Nazareth, leads “Genny,” as she was nicknamed
by the press, off the track after a work at Pimlico

After winning her first race at Gulfstream Park, Jolley shipped Genuine Risk back to Aqueduct where she ran in a mile handicap for fillies. Again Genuine Risk came home a winner, but in a time that suggested her sixth consecutive victory had put little into her. Jolley knew only too well that to go to Kentucky in May with a solid chance of winning, Genuine Risk needed a better prep than Aqueduct had given her. By all accounts, the trainer wasn’t sold on entering the filly in the Wood Memorial but after discussions with her owners, he reconsidered. Being a thoroughbred who always gave it her best, Genuine Risk ran a game race in the Wood, finishing third behind Plugged Nickle and Colonel Moran (1977). The former had actually bumped into her in the stretch, carrying her wide, an incident that made coming in third even more impressive. Genuine Risk was a big, strong filly and even though she went back to the barn with a few scratches, she seemed her usual self the next morning. But Jolley suspected that the Wood had taken a lot out of her and so it was that the trainer pushed running Genuine Risk in the Kentucky Oaks rather than the Derby. The Firestone’s saw it differently. Quite simply, in their filly’s gutsy battle to third place in the Wood, they saw that Genuine Risk had earned the right to face the colts again.

Standing tall: groom, Jack Jackson, leads Genuine Risk
and jockey Jacinto Vasquez into the winner’s circle
at Churchill Downs. In the foreground capturing the
moment is famed photographer, Tony Leonard

And so we return to the beginning, to the elegant chestnut with the will to win crossing the wire a length ahead of a colt named Rumbo to become only the second filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby. And how she had triumphed! Genuine Risk dominated the field for the final half-mile, running quarters of :24 4/5, :24, :24 2/5 and :24 2/5 to finish in a final time that was faster than that of the great Spectacular Bid (1976), the 1979 Derby winner. Her final time of 2:02 was also 2 3/5 seconds short of the track record held by Secretariat (1970).

(Apologies for the quality of the footage, but it was the only visual I could locate…..)

Each year’s Kentucky Derby is framed by the achievement of those that came before. In the same way, 1980 was the beginning of a new decade that was framed by a preceding decade of absolutely stunning talent. The 1970’s belonged to Secretariat (1970), Nijinsky (1967), Dahlia (1970), Seattle Slew (1974), Spectacular Bid (1976), Exceller (1973), Allez France (1970), Affirmed (1975) and Alydar (1975), to name but a few in a veritable gallery of champions.
And just as every decade opens with the promise of remembrance and renewal, so it is fitting that in the vanguard came an exquisite and determined thoroughbred named Genuine Risk, whose Derby triumph bespoke a royal heritage, rich in possibilities.

Postscript: Genuine Risk went on to complete the Triple Crown series with a highly controversial loss to Codex in the Preakness and a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes to Temperance Hill over a muddy track that she didn’t particularly like. She remains the only filly to finish in the money in all three Triple Crown races to this day. She went on to compete in another 5 races, winning 3. 

In retirement, it took 11 years before Genuine Risk produced her first foal, Genuine Reward (1993). He was followed by a second colt, Count Our Blessing in 1996. Neither colt ever raced, although Genuine Reward has produced a few winners and is now a sire of polo ponies. Count Our Blessing turned up at a riding stable in NY and was purchased as “Westley” by Kim Cirillo in 2004. Ms. Cirillo traced the gelding’s pedigree through his lip tattoo and discovered his true identity. Westley/Count Our Blessing competed with Cirillo as a show hunter, winning several ribbons in different competitions. 

Genuine Risk was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. On August 18, 2008, at the age of 31, Genuine Risk died of natural causes in her paddock at the Firestone’s Newstead Farm in Virginia. 

One of photographer Tony Leonard’s shots of Genuine Risk
and her first foal, Genuine Reward

The handsome Genuine Reward, all grown up!
The equally handsome Westley, aka Count Our Blessing
NEXT WEEK: We don’t usually associate horse racing with the term “hat trick” except perhaps once, when 3 generations of thoroughbreds (from the same sire line) captured the Kentucky Derby!

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(NOTE FROM ABIGAIL: Before we kick off our Kentucky Derby series, I wanted to thank all of you for CLICKING: we’ve made $60.00 since the beginning of March (106 clicks) !!! It would be great if we could reach $100.00 by March 31!  If you’re new to THE VAULT, we are a non-profit site that raises money for horse rescues in the USA & Canada. All you have to do is click on one or more ads on this page  (side bar & bottom of this article) — no purchase necessary

Nothing is certain on the Derby trail and Northern Dancer’s story is one filled with setbacks of all kinds. But his journey to victory in the 1964 Kentucky Derby brought hundreds of Canadians into the sport of horse racing (like me!) and made the little colt a national hero. 

Canadian Red Ensign, the unofficial flag of Canada from 1868-1965

In 1964, the average Canadian appeared to be suffering from a collective identity crisis. The big questions, posed by everyone from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to author Margaret Atwood were: “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” and “What characterizes the Canadian identity?” and “How are we different from the United States?”  To which the average Canadian had no answer, much to the chagrin of politicians, academics and (Canadian) writers. School curriculum nation-wide were being rewritten to counter an obvious (and embarrassing) national deficit. Courses like Canadian literature and “Oh, Canada! Towards a National Identity” were all the rage. Too, 1964 marked the year that Canada debated the issue of creating her very first national flag — before then, the Canadian flag was essentially the Canadian Ensign, complete with British Union Jack. And although the image and colours for the new flag were hotly debated in public, a good 50% of the country yawned and wondered why we needed to bother changing the flag we already had. See what I mean?

Atwood and other Canadian intellectuals also accused us of suffering from feelings of inferiority parked, as we were, just North of our giant, strident cousin. There was a lot of truth to that. According to a number of surveys, Canadians knew more about the NY Yankees, Walt Disney, the Boston Tea Party and JFK than they knew about the culture of their own country. Canadians in 1964 were absolutely convinced that anything we could do, our American cousins would do better. And we weren’t bothered by it. We more or less accepted that Americans had the best of everything, from baseball teams to national figures to cotton to shoes. (I came from a family that lived about 30 minutes from the New York border — an unrepentant gang of smugglers. In particular, my grandmother would simply not hear of anything except American cotton and American footwear…..which were happily smuggled through the border under the front seat of various cars — and before that, were buried in feed bags in the family buggy!)

All by way of saying that when diminutive Northern Dancer stepped onto the track at Churchill Downs on May 2, 1964, we were there to watch him ……. lose. It was inconceivable to think that this tiny thoroughbred with the seriously cracked and doctored hoof could beat the giant American champion, Hill Rise. (Part of that “anything-you-can-do” sensibility.) But we were still in the Dancer’s cheering section, to be sure, proud that a Canadian colt had qualified to even run in the Derby. 

My grandfather would be dead by August of that year, but frail as he was, he insisted on watching the Kentucky Derby with his family. We got him out of his bed, helped him to his favourite chair and wrapped him in a blanket. Then we all took our seats in front of the old black and white television……

Northern Dancer (1961) was the product of E. P. Taylor’s breeding program, first at the original National Stud in Toronto and later at the first of two Windfields Farms, in Oshawa, Ontario. “Eddie” Taylor, as he was known to his friends, was a Canadian business tycoon whose love of thoroughbreds so surpassed his obvious business acumen that a few short months before his death, Taylor confessed that his greatest thrills had come from breeding champions like Northern Dancer. Taylor made pivotal contributions to Canadian thoroughbred horse racing during his lifetime, from the founding of Windfields to installing starting gates at Woodbine to lobbying for racing regulations to protect all thoroughbreds from mistreatment and harm. He was, undoubtedly, the godfather of the sport and his thoroughbred breeding operation — with lots of help from Northern Dancer — brought Canada international status.

Northern Dancer’s sire, Nearctic (1954), was a son of Nearco (1935) and Lady Angela (1944), she a daughter of Hyperion (1930)  that Taylor had purchased overseas. Part of Taylor’s method was to introduce strong British bloodlines into Canadian thoroughbred breeding in an effort to improve the breed. In this respect, he followed in the footsteps of great American racing dynasties such as the Whitneys, the Belmonts and the Alexanders.

But when Lady Angela arrived by boat from England, in foal and with another foal at her side, she was in terrible distress. Taylor’s trusted stallion manager, Henry Green, had been sent to the port of Montreal to receive the precious cargo but when he looked down into the hold, what he saw was a mare bathed in sweat, slipping dangerously on the hard metal floor, her foal huddled close to her side. The ship’s crew had been trying without success to drive mother and baby into the crate that would carry them to surface, but the mare was terrified and was having none of it. Green went down into the stall to settle Lady Angela. Then, knowing that the mare would do anything to keep her foal close, he led the little fellow into the shipping crate first, holding him close as they were hoisted out of the hold. Once the foal had been bedded down in the horse van that would take him to his new home, Green went back for the mare. Happily, she followed him into the crate without incident, calling to her foal as she stepped out onto dry land. It was very fortuitous that Henry Green was there that day, otherwise Lady Angela might well have miscarried the foal she was carrying — and that foal was Nearctic.

Family tree: (clockwise from top) Lady Angela, Natalma and Nearctic

Nearctic grew to be an outstanding individual of 16 hands with a brown coat so dark that it looked black. As a two year-old he was described by his first trainer, Pete McCann, as having a “mean streak.” Nearctic’s bad temper showed itself in the form of overt aggression toward other horses and people, including the joy he seemed to derive from dislodging his exercise riders and jockeys. His dark temperament was also an issue because Nearctic possessed great running ability — ability that might never shine unless his temperament could be harnessed. McCann was the kind of trainer who rode many of his young charges himself and he took Nearctic under his wing. After working with him long and hard, McCann finally had a colt who had learned enough basic etiquette and track smarts to start racing. Nearctic was sent off to Saratoga and stabled with trainer Charley Shaw. He won the Saratoga Special, came in fourth in the Hopeful and then was sent back to Canada a nervous and agitated colt. It seemed clear that without Pete McCann around, Nearctic had reverted back to his old ways. Returned to the familiar routine of McCann’s stable, Nearctic came back to win the Carleton Stakes before showing signs of a quarter track in his left front hoof. In those days, there was little to do with this kind of injury other than resting a thoroughbred until it healed. Nearctic ended his first racing season having won 4 stakes races and 3 others, a good enough record to see him crowned champion Canadian 2 year-old colt.
Nearctic winning at Fort Erie

At three, the hope was to run him in the Kentucky Derby, but it never happened. Nearctic had been sent to California to the great Horatio Luro for his 3 year-old campaign. The colt’s reputation for nastiness — deserved or not — was legion. He was a powerfully built horse and none of the American jocks wanted anything to do with him. It took Luro some time, but he finally found a jockey who could not be intimidated: Rae Johnstone, an accomplished international figure who hailed from Australia but who had built his career in California and Europe. Under Luro’s guidance, Johnstone began a training regimen with Nearctic suited to the colt’s distinctive temperament — he rode him over the area surrounding Santa Anita in a normal saddle with traditional stirrups, at an almost casual pace. Sometimes they would just come to a halt for a lengthly period of time so that Nearctic could look around. Johnstone rode the fiery colt with calm, gentle hands and great confidence. Gradually, the 3 year-old began to respond. However, when Johnstone departed for the British racing season and Nearctic was put back into a regular training program, the Achilles’ heel of his left front hoof reared its ugly head again and his lameness made the Kentucky Derby impossible. He went on to race that year, but won only 4 of 13 starts.

Nearctic really came into his own at 4, winning his first 5 starts. Then, after a disappointing showing in the Dominion Day Handicap and the Connaught Mile, he took the Michigan Mile with authority against some very good colts, among them Swoon’s Son (1953) and Red God (1954). After winning one race at Woodbine in his fifth year, Nearctic again came up lame and was finally retired. Although he was a very difficult stallion to manage and handle even in retirement, he was potent and very successful. Icecapade (1969) and Briarctic (1968), together with Northern Dancer were his three most famous offspring, but Nearctic also sired many other sound and successful individuals. He was inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.

Nearctic as a sire

Northern Dancer’s dam, Natalma (1957), was a daughter of the legendary Native Dancer (1950). A $35,000 yearling purchase at Saratoga in 1958, Natalma also boasted a powerful tail female. She was the third foal of foundation mare Almahmoud (1947), by Mahmoud (1933) and her granddam was Harry Payne Whitney’s homebred, Mother Goose (1922) — the American taproot mare who had astonished racing fans when she swept to victory in the Belmont Futurity Stakes against 27 other colts and fillies in 1924.

Also trained by Horatio Luro, Natalma raced only briefly for Taylor. Despite corrective surgery, the filly was plagued repeatedly by a weak right knee. Muriel Lennox, Northern Dancer’s official biographer, tells how Natalma won her first two starts in 1959 at Belmont but in the Spinaway, under jockey Bobby Ussery, she was whipped hard enough to lug in on another horse and was disqualified.

After that, Natalma decided that if racing was about hitting, she wasn’t going to run. She had, according to Lennox, “gone on strike,” refusing to go anywhere near the Belmont track. Luro’s response was to give her a mild tranquilizer before taking her, under saddle, for a tour of the Belmont stable area. They visited friends, met other horses and stood around watching all the activity. Finally, the filly’s trust and confidence returned. Sadly, a significant calcium deposit was found on her right knee after a prep for the Kentucky Oaks and she was retired shortly thereafter. Natalma was ready to breed by June, but June is late in the breeding season, a problem when all thoroughbreds have birthdays on January 1st. Still, her connections decided to forebear and Natalma was covered by Nearctic later that month: the issue of their mating was Northern Dancer.

Natalma during her racing days
Natalma, shown here on the inside (white blaze), makes all the running in the Spinaway,
only to be disqualified.

Natalma’s little prince came into the world on May 27, 1961. The newborn had a brown coat, dark mane and tail, a crooked blaze running down his face and three white feet. Offered to buyers at the annual Windfields yearling sale of 1962, he failed to garner a single bid despite his regal bloodlines. The reason? He was very small for a yearling — just slightly more than 14 hands — and his peers towered over him. He had pranced down the equine runway in a brand new halter, coat gleaming and hooves polished — while trying his very best to take a chunk out of his handler. Even as a youngster, Northern Dancer gave every sign that the spirit of several tempestuous, albeit brilliant, ancestors coursed through his blood. One client who gave him a second look the day of the sale confided that he was glad that he hadn’t bought the colt: based on the Dancer’s behaviour, he would have had him gelded!

Northern Dancer as a foal. (Courtesy of The Jockey Club)

In the end, the little fellow was vanned off to the Windfields training facility along with the other yearlings who had not been sold that day. He quickly earned himself a dubious reputation. He wasn’t nasty, he just didn’t want to take instruction, however kindly it was offered. He bucked, kicked and bit riders, stable hands and other colts. He was without question the leader of the pack — and that extended to everyone who worked with him. The first time he was taken out to the track, he fought his rider the whole way; when the young man took up the reins and nudged him forward, the colt paused for a split second before all four feet left the ground in a whirling frenzy worthy of a rodeo. Having tossed his rider, the Dancer took off on his own for a canter around the track. He was, as the saying goes, “lightning in a bottle” — as agile as a cat and as unpredictable as a wild thing.

In his first start at 2, the Dancer was ridden by Ron Turcotte. By now, the little bay’s idiosyncracies were legion and trainer, Horatio Luro — “El Gran Senor” — made it clear that Turcotte was not to go to the whip, no matter what happened. A few months earlier, in a trial race against two other Taylor colts, the rider had used his whip on Northern Dancer and the colt had responded by finishing the course in one second under the track record. But since then, the Dancer had had trouble with one of his heels and Luro wanted no heroics in his maiden start.

Northern Dancer & Ron Turcotte

At the start, the Dancer leapt out of the gate, keen to take on the world. As Turcotte tells the story, in the home stretch the colt drew alongside the leader but seemed content to just go with him. Hiding his whip in his left hand so that Luro couldn’t see it, Turcotte simply touched the Dancer’s shoulder. Boom! He was off, crossing the finish line 8 lengths ahead of the nearest horse. To this day, Turcotte believes that had he brushed the colt when the field turned for home, the son of Nearctic would have won by 15-20 lengths instead of 8. As far as Turcotte is concerned, after Secretariat comes Northern Dancer — they were the two greatest thoroughbreds he ever rode.

The irony of Northern Dancer’s 2 year-old campaign was that even though he was the youngest of the Windfields’ contingent, he was also it’s only hope in the 1963 racing season. For one reason or another, all of the other Taylor hopefuls had dropped out of sight.

Happily, the little Dancer came a’ running to win the Carleton, Summer, Remsen and Cup & Saucer Stakes, as well as taking the Coronation Futurity. He had won a total of seven races in two months, but after the Carleton Stakes his groom noticed blood on the ground as he was bathing him. Northern Dancer was bleeding from the coronet of his left foreleg, the beginning of a quarter crack — the same career-ending injury (on the same foot) that had plagued his sire, Nearctic, years earlier.

El Gran Senor, Horatio Luro and the Dancer

Despite what was to prove a dark harbinger of the future, the Dancer ran against Bupers (1961) ten days later in the Sir Gaylord Purse at Aqueduct, both 2 year-olds carrying a top weight of 124 lbs. and won it by 8 lengths going away. But the quarter crack in the left front hoof was deepening and to give the foreleg better support and stability before the Remsen, a bar shoe was constructed. Despite the special shoe, the quarter crack had further deteriorated following his win. Even though the Windfields team was happy to rest on its laurels as the Dancer’s first season drew to a close, they knew that the 1964 Kentucky Derby was unlikely, given the state of his hoof. And this was a tragedy: both Luro and Taylor realized that Natalma’s son had the mettle of a true champion, maybe one of the best to ever come out of Windfields.

At this point, it’s important to stress that Northern Dancer ran most of his races at 2 and 3 handicapped by his troublesome foreleg. He was often sore, sometimes really hurting, as was the case in his final race, The Queen’s Plate. It was Bill Hartack who rode the champ that day and as the Dancer languished at the back of the field, Luro and the Taylor family watched in disbelief. The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most historic horse race and Canadians feel the same magic for it as they do for the fabled Kentucky Derby. By now, the little horse with the huge heart had become a Canadian legend. The thought of him losing the Queen’s Plate was unthinkable. When Hartack finally gave the 3 year-old the green light and Northern Dancer streaked from last to first in a heartbeat, there was a collective sigh of relief. But after the race, the colt came up lame, effectively ending his career. Northern Dancer had run 4 classic races in 6 weeks before his start in The Queen’s Plate. And he had won the Queen’s Plate on sheer guts — because he ran home pretty much on three legs.

(Luro and Taylor were of the opinion that Hartack had held the horse back — as he had done in the Belmont Stakes earlier — in a deliberate attempt to put on a real show for the legions who had come to Woodbine to see their hero. And although Ron Turcotte has gone on record to say, “…Bill Hartack would never do that. In the Queen’s Plate and the Belmont, the horse was hurting and Hartack was just trying to save him up for the finish…” Taylor was so furious with Hartack that it was Ron Turcotte he chose to ride Northern Dancer at his last public appearance before his retirement.)

Other than sheer guts, there was one other thing that kept the tough little bay running: he was a true “alpha” and by the end of his 2 year-old campaign he had made it clear: no-one was going to head him if he could help it. Northern Dancer apparently loved to come up on the leader, look him right in the eye and then steam away to the finish. Given his diminutive size, his competitive spirit endeared him to his fans even more than his victories.

Late in 1963, shortly before the Dancer travelled to Florida for the winter and a well-deserved rest, his trainer caught wind of an experimental procedure that had been used on the trotter, Adios Jr., who had also sustained a quarter crack. It was called a “vulcanized patch” and would only work if the quarter crack was in a certain position. Made of a rubberized material that was then vulcanized with an acetylene torch, once the patch had hardened, it would grow out in tandem with the hoof. Luro contacted the inventor of the patch, blacksmith Bill Bane, who confirmed that Northern Dancer was a good candidate for the procedure.

Luro and Taylor were hopeful, but the real issue would be whether or not their volatile colt would cooperate. Horses are actually one large, “integrated sound system,” from their ears to the soles of their feet. This is how they learn their world. A horse’s feet sense the slightest tremors in the earth and, being fight-or- flight creatures, this information is relayed in a nano-second to the brain through the blood, nerves and bones. Hooves are central to equine reality and interfering with them can cause distress in the calmest Clydesdale, let alone in a thoroughbred as hyper as Northern Dancer. The fear was that the colt would either resist from the outset, or else devise a way afterwards to relieve himself of the patch.

As it turned out, the Dancer shocked everyone by munching away on carrots as the patch was applied, just as though it was another ordinary day. He was then to be walked for about a week before resuming training. Arriving in Florida, the colt was turned out in a tiny paddock — one where he couldn’t charge around like a maniac — to ensure that the patch had optimum conditions to harden. Late in January 1964, the 3 year-old began taking long, leisurely gallops. Now that he was pain-free, it became apparent to everyone just how much the little Dancer had endured through much of his 2 year-old season. His stride was more powerful, his confidence peaking and he almost seemed to relish his daily works. You still couldn’t turn your back on him and he still disdained anyone who pushed him too aggressively. But he had matured and was becoming more professional. And he felt good.

There was one person that Northern Dancer adored: Mrs. Winifred Taylor.
E.P. Taylor’s wife was the Dancer’s greatest fan. He was always on his very
best behaviour when she came to visit.

Luro decided to give his “big horse” a prep race before the Florida Derby by running him in the Flamingo Stakes. Given the time he had needed to heal from the patch, Luro thought it best to run the colt in a pre-Flamingo prep race. Northern Dancer went off as second choice to another good colt, Chieftain. Luro had wanted to get Bill Shoemaker, but as he was unavailable, so he settled for Bob Ussery instead. Before the race, the trainer made it clear to Ussery that he was to take it easy on the colt and under no circumstances was he to go to his whip. Northern Dancer started off well enough when he was bumped and knocked off stride. Persevering, the colt moved up along the rail until he hit a wall of horseflesh. In the closing moments of the Flamingo, Ussery slashed the colt with his whip several times, but all for naught. Northern Dancer had been the victim of a bad trip and the best he could do was to finish third. An enraged Luro publicly denounced Ussery. Remember: Ussery was the same jockey who had whipped Natalma in the Spinaway at Saratoga, causing her to swerve in and, ultimately, to be disqualified.

Just as his dam had done after being flailed by Ussery, Northern Dancer refused to enter the track the next day. But whereas Natalma had simply — almost politely — refused, her son became enraged, bucking and lashing out with his hind legs. So Horatio Luro started all over again, just as he’d done with Natalma: under the influence of tranquilizers, Northern Dancer was inched closer and closer to the track, one day at a time. And, like it had for his dam, patience and something to calm the colt’s anxiety worked like a charm. As he was rehabilitating his colt, Luro also secured the services of the great Bill Shoemaker for both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. The Shoe’s quiet hands were just what the little guy with the big heart needed now.

Northern Dancer didn’t disappoint. With The Shoe sitting quiet in the saddle, the colt took both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. In the former, the Dancer scorched to a time just slightly off the track record set by Bold Ruler (1954), beating Mr. Brick(1961) and Quadrangle (1961) — who finished 10th — in the process. In the Florida Derby, the Dancer won by a length, although the win was a miracle in and of itself. The day before the race, with a new exercise rider up (always unwise with Northern Dancer) the 3 year-old took the bit in his mouth and ran the 5 furlongs in :58.6 seconds. So when the starting gates opened for the Florida Derby, Luro and company were holding their collective breath. But the colt came home first, even though he had been run hard over 2 consecutive days. Neither Luro nor Taylor were in any doubt: Northern Dancer was on his way to the Derby.

Dancer finds his Shoe: in the winner’s circle after the Florida Derby,
the great Bill Shoemaker up

Even though The Shoe knew what kind of a runner the Canadian colt could be, he chose to ride the promising Hill Rise (1961) in the Kentucky Derby instead, much to the disappointment of the Dancer’s team. As the Florida Derby win had been accomplished in moderate fractions, the press saw Shoemaker’s decision as further evidence that Northern Dancer was not up to winning the Derby. Hill Rise was a magnificent animal, who had started his career late compared to Luro’s colt; however, the big, handsome Californian was coming into the Derby off an unbeaten streak that included the Santa Anita Derby. He would be a formidable opponent for a 15 h. thoroughbred who had a fiery temper and a sometimes bum foreleg.

Bill Hartack was engaged to ride Northern Dancer instead and the colt started as second choice to Hill Rise. The duo got in a pre-Derby prep in the Bluegrass Stakes, which the colt won by a length without urging. It did nothing to silence his critics: they felt that Northern Dancer did not have the makings of a classic thoroughbred.

… When Northern Dancer appeared on the track in the Derby post parade, my grandfather rocked a little in his chair and muttered, “He’s so small….your mother’s Hackney pony was about the same size…” We all nodded in silent agreement. It would be a miracle if the blinkered bay won — firstly, he was a munchkin …… and secondly, he was Canadian.

Here’s what happened:

” The little Dancer is over a winner. Canada can be proud…” My entire family erupted into screams of shock and delight. My grandfather was crying silently and leaning forward in his chair. “Well I never,” was all he could manage to say. 

Northern Dancer’s victory was not only a track record but a historic Canadian moment and one that would see the 3 year-old entered into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame — the only non-human to be so honoured to this day. Eddie Taylor’s little horse — the colt nobody wanted with the sore foot and complex temperament — was the first Canadian owned and bred thoroughbred to ever win the Kentucky Derby.

Northern Dancer and Hill Rise race to the wire
Eddie Taylor leads in his champion

The win made Northern Dancer a Canadian hero. As Eddie Taylor led his royally-bred champion into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, Canadians across the land whooped and hollered, clapped and shouted.

We had found our inspiration. Now we knew what made Canada different from our beloved American cousins: Northern Dancer.

Canadian flag, adopted in 1965
Footnote: Northern Dancer would go on to win the Preakness. He lost the Belmont, however, and many still fault his jockey, Bill Hartack, for that. Shortly after his death, a wonderful 60-minute film was made by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) about Norther Dancer, entitled Northern Dancer: His Life and Times. The whole film, in 4 parts is available on YouTube for any who might be interested. Here’s a link to Part 1 (the other parts should come up on the right side of the screen): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2FrZY4mjL4

As well, the author wants to acknowledge Muriel Lennox’s wonderful book, Northern Dancer: The Legend and His Legacy (ISBN: 0-9699025-0-6), that was so helpful in providing information for this article.

NEXT WEEK: She remains the only filly to ever participate in all three legs of the Triple Crown….next week, we remember the 1980 Kentucky Derby and the incomparable Genuine Risk. 

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Allen F. Brewer’s famous lithograph hangs on a wall in my living room, a little above eye-level and just opposite my favourite old armchair. Since I climb into my armchair at least once a day, it’s a certainty that I meditate on the images and what they evoke in me daily, even if only for a few minutes …

I was first captivated by the image before I knew anything about Your Host. What captured my attention was the way the horse held his foreleg … something about the angle seemed so familiar to me. So many of us seem to be drawn to the thoroughbred, if not to horses in general, in this way: they call to us, we respond and then we dive down a little deeper, looking for something in a particular horse’s story that might explain our connection to them. More often than not, we find that horses who reach out to us in mysterious ways have come into our lives exactly when we needed them most. So it was with Your Host and yours truly….

Although you never would have guessed it by looking at him, Your Host (1947) was a regally bred colt, the son of Alibhai (1938) and the mare, Boudoir II (1938). The chestnut foal was born with an ear and eye that were set a full inch higher on the right than they were on the left, resulting in a tendency to tilt  his head as though he were in a permanent state of confusion.  As a weanling, he was either injured or stricken with a pernicious virus of the spine, leaving him with an unnaturally twisted neck. Either because of the misaligned eyes or because he favoured the neck, Your Host carried himself in an unusual way that was most noticeable when he cantered or galloped. In turn, this oddity earned him a number of unflattering nicknames: “Twister,” “Ol’ Sidewinder” and “The Freak.” However, the colt’s groom — the first in an impressive array of people who came forward when Your Host needed them — swore that his way of carrying himself was simply an intelligent response that allowed him to align his vision.The little chestnut also had four white feet — the latter a subject of negative superstition among horsemen — even though he had clearly inherited them from his grandsire, the great Hyperion.

Your Host was a “California boy,” foaled at the stables of movie mogul, Louis B. Mayer who also owned his sire, Alibhai. Bred by the Aga Khan, Alibhai was an unraced son of the great Hyperion (1930). Alibhai’s racing career had come to a screeching halt when he bowed his tendons during training; his subsequent success in the breeding shed indicates that he had very likely inherited the winning bloodlines of Hyperion and his damsire, Tracery (1909), a son of Rock Sand (1900). His 54 stakes winners include Kentucky Derby winner Determine (1951), the champion handicap mare, Bornastar ( 1953) and the wonder-filly Flower Bowl ( 1952) who, in turn, produced Graustark (1963), His Majesty (1968) and Bowl of Flowers (1958). Alibhai’s name appeared in the top ten sires list a total of 11 times.

Hyperion was quite the character and like the beloved Zenyatta (who descends from him), the little chestnut was a dancer even at the ripe old age of 24, as pictured below. In fact, during his entire career at stud, Hyperion was never ill. This was due to his tough constitution, as much as it was the result of great stallion management. During the mating season, he was habitually walked for 90 minutes a day and — again reminding us of Zenyatta  — he was interested in everything, leading to minutes where he would simply stand and study whatever caught his eye. He was then turned loose in his paddock for a good 3-4 hours. Jim Courtney, his caregiver, could bring him to hand by simply producing a carrot — Hyperion’s absolutely favourite treat.

Jim Courtney takes Hyperion for his daily walk. He was a familiar figure
in the lanes near Newmarket, taking his daily constitutional!
Photo copyright Baron & Clive Graham
Tracery, the damsire of Alibhai, was an excellent runner, winning the St. Leger, the St. James Palace and Sussex Stakes at 3, as well as the Eclipse and Champion Stakes. Bred by August Belmont III, he was campaigned by Belmont in Great Britain and retired there to stud, where he got the champions Papyrus (1920), The Panther (1916), Transvaal (1921) and an important sire of steeplechasers, Cottage (1918). In 1920, he was sent to Argentina, where he was destined to become the grandsire of Congreve (1924) one of the foundation sires of the South American thoroughbred. Congreve was the issue of Tracery’s son, Copyright (1918) and was born the same year that Tracery was re-patriated to England after his son, Papyrus, took the prestigious Epsom Derby. His beautiful daughter, Teresina (Alibhai’s dam) won the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Gold Cup against the colts, as well as 8 other races before being retired. When we look at Teresina we can see her influence, as well as that of Hyperion (above) on Alibhai’s confirmation and scope. 
Tracery, courtesy of The National Horse Racing Museum, UK
The exquisite Teresina, daughter of Tracery and dam of Alibhai
Alibhai, Hyperion’s son and the sire of Your Host

Little wonder that Your Host was a nervous and unpredictable colt! Other than his grandsire, Hyperion, noted for a personality that disdained — among other things — what his trainer wanted from him, Your Host’s dam, Boudoir II was a daughter of Mahmoud (1933) an equine character with a haughty personality. And, for all the jeering about Your Host’s odd running style, it was in every way identical to Mahmoud’s choppy way of going, indicating a strong genetic connection to the rugged little grey. No question: Your Host got a double dose of the kind of equine snobbery that seems to say, “Remember who the royalty is in this relationship, buddy!”

Boudoir II, as white as the driven snow, dam of Your Host

When he was two years old, the stables of Louis B. Mayer were dispersed and Your Host was bought by Mayer’s son-in-law William Goetz for $20,000. Goetz’s trainer was Harvey L. Daniels and the colt made his first start for the owner-trainer duo on July 15, 1949 at Santa Anita and was unplaced. In Your Host’s racing career at 2 and 3, being unplaced was to be very, very rare indeed. Eight days later, he ran again over the same track and won by 4 lengths, covering 6 furlongs in 1:11 with the great Johnny Longden in the irons. At Delmar, he was beaten by a nose but returned to win two straight, including the Del Mar Futurity. In the latter, Your Host won by 4 lengths with ease. Going on to Bay Meadows, he carried top weight of 125 lbs. and punters of the day attributed his narrow defeat only to the additional weight, pronouncing him easily the best 2 year-old in the field. Blue Reading (1947), the colt who had beaten him, was declared the winner in the Salinas Handicap when Your Host was DQ’d for interference in the home stretch. The colt finished his 2 year-old campaign with authority in the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes in December 1949, a race where he led the whole way, winning over a mile and 1/16 in 1:44. Your Host closed out his 2 year-old season with 8 races under his belt, winning 4 and placing in 3. (In California at this time, a horse who was disqualified from winning was placed second.)

The colt started his 3 year-old season in January 1950 in the San Felipe Stakes. By then, Your Host was a highly regarded candidate for the Kentucky Derby. And he seemed to know this, taking the first race of the year in style. Johnny Longden, who rode Your Host at 2 and 3 was very high on him, comparing the son of Alibhai to the phenomenal Count Fleet. Even though he was plagued by disparaging nicknames, Longden stressed that Your Host had “smooth” action and top trainer Jimmy Jones thought the colt likely to be “…ten pounds better than any other 3 year-old in America,” according to the Daily Racing Form. The colt’s next start was the Santa Anita Derby. It was a rather weak field and the Your Host-Longden duo triumphed, winning by 2 1/2 lengths.

The handsome Your Host as a 3 year-old, ridden by Johnny Longden.
(Copyright American Race Horses, 1950)

By now, Your Host was greeted by Californians with the same kind of enthusiasm we saw most recently for the great Zenyatta. So it was that the little hero departed for Kentucky by train, in a box car emblazoned, “Kentucky Bound, Derby winner 1950.” Arriving there in March, he began to train in a light snowfall, working a mile in 1:42 3/5 , the last quarter run in :24 3/5. The Derby prep race chosen by Daniels was the 7-furlong Scarlet Gate Purse: Your Host won by 6 1/2 lengths and set a new track record.  The field included Oil Capitol (1947), Mr. Trouble (1947), Theory(1947) and Wisconsin Boy (1947) but the California invader made them “look like hacks” according to racing analyst Joe Palmer. Kentucky fell in love with Your Host and he returned to Louisville amid gossip that he might well be the fastest horse since Roseben (1901). Certainly, he was one of the best thoroughbreds California had ever produced.

Your Host started on Derby day as the favourite, at 8-5 odds. The colt preferred to be on the lead and this was to prove his undoing. Having battled both Black George (1947) and Mr. Trouble (1947) before the field turned for home, an exhausted Your Host came in ninth behind the victor, Middleground (1947). Even though the California turf writers took a terrible beating from their Eastern colleagues over the loss, it quickly became apparent that Your Host’s performance on Derby day was an anomaly: never again would he run so poorly. Remember, too, that Your Host had not been given a break from racing since his very first start as a 2 year-old. This and his disappointing run for the roses persuaded his trainer to give him a well-deserved — albeit short by today’s standards — rest.

Footage from the 1950 Kentucky Derby can be viewed at the address below. (Just copy the address into your search engine and it will take you right there.) Be sure to watch the close-ups of Your Host — as mentioned earlier, he runs exactly like Mahmoud!


Your Host’s next start was in June (1950) in the Kent Stakes at Delaware Park, which he took handily under Johnny Gilbert, who replaced Longden for this and subsequent races. At Arlington Park, he won the Dick Welles Stakes over both Wisconsin Boy(1947) and Oil Capitol (1947). Then, after finishing third in the Arlington Classic, he won the Sheridan Handicap in 1:35 3/5, carrying a top weight of 126 lbs. only to lose again in the East, finishing well back in third place in the American Derby. Returning to Hollywood Park against older horses, he finished a game second carrying 125 lbs. to the 108 carried by the winner. But in the Golden State Breeders’ Cup, he rallied to win in a time that was 1 second short of a track record.

Winning the Golden State Breeders’ Cup in 1950.

Your Host’s final start of 1950 came in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap, where he got the better of two really fine horses — Ponder (1946) and Hill Prince (1947), an old rival and the 1950 Horse of the Year — and missed beating the track record by a fifth of a second. The tough little colt completed his 3 year-old season with a record of 12 starts, 8 wins, 1 place and 2 shows, with total winnings of $ 342, 345.

Records indicate that he was back on the track in 1951 as a 4 year-old, finishing second in the San Carlos Handicap and winning the Santa Catalina in a gut-wrenching display of courage and intelligence. Carrying a staggering 130 lbs., Your Host was on the move when his saddle slipped forward over his withers. His jockey struggled to stay aboard, dropping the horse’s reins to cling to his mane. As the spectators watched, the chestnut weaved his way with care across the track to keep his rider aboard. Your Host went on to rate himself and win the Santa Catalina, breaking the existing track record.

Tuffy Morlan and Your Host

Disaster struck in his next start, the San Pasqual Handicap. As is the case with many great thoroughbreds of the past, written records are quite sparse, suggesting that the people who knew about the event in detail have long since gone. What follows, then, is what can be pieced together from very scant sources, among them an issue of the Daily Racing Form from 1951.

Your Host came out of the gate smartly in the San Pasqual and, as was his habit, made for the lead. As they turned for home, the 4 year-old began to cut through traffic to take the lead. What happened next is somewhat obscure. While some reports claim that a horse called Renown II (1943) weaved in too close to Your Host causing him to swerve, others say that the colt came up too fast on the leaders and clipped heels. In any case, Your Host went down, throwing jockey Eric Guerin clear as he fell. The stands were silent, as people came to their feet in a single, horrified wave. The colt struggled to get up — and kept on struggling until he managed to stand. Tuffy Morlan, Your Host’s exercise rider, was the first on the track and he raced to the chestnut’s aid. He is reported to have described the scene thus, “There he stood, broken and in horrible pain, but his funny cock-eyed head was up and he whinnied at me….a faint, desperate sound. It was the first time he had ever asked me for help. I knew he needed me then and I could do nothing but take him by the head and weep. I don’t think I ever felt so empty and lost as at that moment.”

The colt had shattered his shoulder, fracturing the ulna in his upper foreleg in 4 places. There was disagreement as to whether or not Your Host should be euthanized right then and there, but the horse carried a hefty insurance from Lloyd’s of London and immediate action was deferred, since permission to destroy him needed to come from the insurance underwriters. Subsequently, Louis B. Mayer “persuaded” Lloyd’s to pay out the insurance on the colt to his son-in-law and ownership was transferred to Lloyd’s. The decision was made to do as much as could be done to save Your Host — but this was 1951 and the medical possibilities were very limited. It was likely less a humanitarian gesture on the part of his new owner and more a question of recovering some of the $250,000 that had been paid to William Goetz; if the colt could be saved, he would perhaps be able to stand at stud and/or re-sold.

Veterinarians began the work of trying to save Your Host, while the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) — reflecting the public’s concern for the popular colt’s well-being — monitored each and every intervention. Finally, after trying a range of treatments aimed at getting the bone to fuse on its own, the decision was made to bed down Your Host in sand, immobilizing him in an effort to buy time for the fracture to heal. Even though he was a high-strung individual and in great discomfort, Your Host cooperated in a manner that suggested he seemed to understood that he was in a battle for his very life. He didn’t struggle and he didn’t complain. He just hung in there, grimly. After several weeks spent in this kind of traction, the fracture showed signs of mending.

I’m Still Standing! Your Host with Dr. John D. Walker and
groom, Jack Stroka taken shortly after the colt’s ulna bone
had mended. (Copyright owned by The Thoroughbred Times.)

Once he was on his feet again, the colt had to learn to live with a right foreleg that was shorter than the left and lacked full mobility when extended. In between the accident and the horse’s miraculous recovery, Humphrey S. Finney, president of Fasig-Tipston sales had stepped forward to facilitate the young stallion’s transfer from California, where he stood briefly in 1952/-53, to the farm of F. Wallis Armstrong in New Jersey. Armstrong, who had suffered from polio, so empathized with Your Host’s story that he bought him for the asking price of $150,000 on behalf of a syndicate he had formed.

Here is how Oscar Otis of the Daily Racing Form assessed Your Host’s condition eighteen months after the accident.

” … Your Host, as everyone must know, has a “game leg” as the result of a shattered forearm sustained in a race at Santa Anita. What the son of Alibhai has accomplished in the way of learning to compensate for the injury has been under close scrutiny by students of equine psychology, and some of them have professed themselves as being utterly amazed at the way the stallion handles himself. The Armstrong’s have had countless suggestions and letters offering suggestions for his welfare and while everything has been done to make him comfortable, the horse has had to work out his own salvation, so to speak, if it were to be done at all. His fighting heart, which sustains him through each day, is clearly evident in his eye, which flashes. He has done any number of things which some have proclaimed impossible for a horse with only three good legs. One example of this is that Your Host has taught himself to stand while his feet are being trimmed, a process which, in his case, necessitates two feet being off the ground. He accomplishes this feat with a slight assist from the groom who gives him just a wee bit of support when the injured leg is one of the three on the ground...”

Cover boy: Your Host, looking fit and feisty, pictured on
a Blood-Horse cover in 1961
Otis goes on to point out that the popular young stallion received about 50 visitors on most weekends at the Armstrong’s New Jersey farm and had been so well-received in the East that his book was “dominated” by “stakes-winning mares and dams of stakes winners,” a goodly number from Kentucky.
Your Host turned out to be a very successful sire. His progeny include the stakes winners Miss Todd (1953), Social Climber (1953), Blen Host(1953) and Windy Sands (1957), who got, in turn, the multiple stakes winning champion, Crystal Water (1973). However, Your Host will best be remembered as the sire of one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time ………. the mighty Kelso (1957).
Kelso and his dam, a daughter of Count Fleet. (Richard Stone Reeves)

Your Host died in 1961, leaving the world a splendid son and several other outstanding offspring. Plagued all his life by ridicule, mishap and misfortune, Your Host met every challenge with both grace and dignity. His is a story that must always be remembered, since it represents the essence of what makes thoroughbreds unique and why they fill us with inspiration and awe.

Your Host’s grave.
Photo courtesy of LAW (Lydia Williams), equine photographer par excellence

The place where Your Host and my life meet:

My dog, Jericho, wears a brace to support a foreleg that was injured in a terrible accident. His life hung in the balance for 72 hours. Once at home, we went for acupuncture to restore feeling to his foreleg. Eighteen months later, having endured the sensation of nerves slowly returning to life, most of the feeling had returned, except just above Jericho’s paw which he carries folded over when he walks. Like Your Host, except with the aid of a jointed brace for support, Jericho continues to defy the odds. In so doing, he has become a local celebrity. I learned to cope with these changes a lot more slowly than my courageous soul-mate and during the darkest times, it was the image of Your Host and his story that gave me the strength to go on. As for Jericho, pictured here in 2010 at the age of 10, he goes on with his life, having brought comfort to troubled teenagers, handicapped people and the aged. 
(Photo courtesy of artist Liz Read. Her amazing portraits of dogs and cats can be viewed on her blog:http://lrpix.blogspot.com/2011/03/ariel-in-snowstorm.html  If you scroll down to the bottom of Gallery #2, you will see another photo she did of Jericho — laughing!)

NEXT WEEK: Derby days are upon us and its time to join in the fun! THE VAULT launches the first in a series about former Kentucky Derby winners with an article that looks at the first Canadian owned & bred thoroughbred to ever win the Run for the Roses.

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This is the story of a wonderful thoroughbred, one we don’t hear much about anymore. In fact, the most recent piece I encountered about Damascus was during Big Brown’s shot at the Triple Crown: the author wondered if BB was not really Damascus reincarnate, since on both the top and bottom of BB’s pedigree, Damascus is represented. Damascus is one of those thoroughbreds that only comes along once in awhile and when it happens — as we saw most recently with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta — a spirit of renewal washes over a venerable sport. As you read on, you might be surprised to learn that Damascus was also the horse that inspired an amazing (though modest!) thoroughbred writer to begin a career in thoroughbred racing……
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Damascus at work with Willie Davis up. A champion in body and soul,
his courageous heart seemed to light up his eyes like an eternal flame.

Imagine a moment in time that was flooded with thoroughbred titans facing off against one another on the tracks of the nation.

One such moment was certainly 1967, when Damascus (1964), Dr. Fager (1964) and Buckpasser (1963) graced the sport and gave racing fans some of the greatest thrills of the last century. And whereas history has been kind to Dr. Fager and Buckpasser, memory can be an arbitrary, fickle thing. So it is that our collective memory appears to have “dropped a stitch” when it comes to Damascus, who was not only a champion but also the conduit of at least two important sire lines, one of which might well have disappeared without him.

Damascus was a perfect individual in every way. At least, that’s how his trainer, Frank Whiteley — a man who trained great thoroughbreds like Tom Rolfe (1962), Ruffian (1972) and Forego (1970) — described him. Whiteley was not the kind of man who gushed with emotion, but he did say that of all the thoroughbreds he had been around, Damascus was indeed the greatest.
Damascus came into the world at John Bell III’s Jonabell Farm on April 14. His owner and breeder was Edith Woodward Bancroft, the daughter of William Woodward Sr., patriarch of one of America’s great racing dynasties and the breeder of 96 stakes-winners in America and Europe, including Gallant Fox, Omaha, Black Tarquin, Apache and Nashua. Damascus was the son of Sword Dancer (1956) out of Kerala (1958), a daughter of My Babu (1945). A handsome chestnut, Sword Dancer was only 15.3 hands, but he had the heart of a giant. A late-developer as a two year-old, Sword Dancer came back to wage a brilliant campaign at three, leading to his being crowned Horse of the Year in 1959. Damascus’ dam was unraced but had a superb pedigree that referenced back to individuals like Sweep (1907), Blandford (1919), Sickle (1924), Blue Larkspur (1926) and Tourbillon (1928). In 1967, Kerala was voted Broodmare of the Year, a title bestowed on her as a result of Damascus’ stellar racing accomplishments as a 3 year-old.
How big a heart? Watch this footage of Sword Dancer (#2) winning the 1959 Travers:
As a colt, Damascus didn’t look at all like his flashy sire, growing into a good, strong bay with touches of black — a coat colour that the Irish have long prized as the sign of a classic horse. In overall conformation, Damascus took after his maternal grandsire, My Babu. This likeness serves as a subtle reminder as to just how balanced his beautiful pedigree was: My Babu won 11 of 16 starts in England, including the prestigious Two Thousand Guineas and the Victoria Cup Handicap. He was the leading sire in the UK and the USA with winning progeny like Crozier (1958) who became the sire of Precisionist (1981), Milesian (1953) and Prudent(1959), 2 year-old Champion in France. His daughter Missy Baba (1958) is best known for her sons Sauce Boat (1975) and the lovely Raja Baba (1968), while another son, Our Babu (1952) won the Champagne and the 2000 Guineas in the UK and later stood stallion duty on three different continents.
My Babu is led in after winning the 2000 Guineas

At 2, Damascus was sent to trainer Frank Whiteley. Like his sire before him, Damascus was slow to develop, although Whiteley was quick to appreciate the colt’s strength, intelligence and willingness to do all that was asked of him. The colt’s responsiveness was a huge asset, since it opened the way to a seamless partnership between jockey and horse — the kind of synergy that not only lends the sport its breathtaking beauty, but also accounts for the making of champions. Responsiveness is another kind of listening — not to sound, but to a rider’s cues. Like stamina and speed, it’s an essential ingredient although not one that is necessarily in a youngster’s “tool kit.” But Damascus was quick to show that he was a “listener,” along with the fact that, yes, he could run.

His 2 year-old season started late in the year and was carefully orchestrated by Whiteley. The trainer was in no rush with the promising youngster and set about bringing him along at a pace that complemented Damascus’ development. His first start had him breaking from the gate slowly and although he kept pace with the field, he was obviously distracted by the sights and sounds of the race. Despite all this, he finished in second place. His jockey on that day was the great Bill Shoemaker, fondly known as “The Shoe” by racing fans and he was to be Damascus’ rider throughout most of his racing career. The colt won every subsequent race, thrilling sportsmen and fans alike with a 12-length romp in an allowance race at Laurel. In the Remsen, Damascus was caught against the rail as the field turned for home. Moving on cue with the grace of a gazelle,  he made it through a narrow opening to beat the leader by 1.5 lengths in a time of 1:37. The Shoe was convinced: he let Whiteley know that he wanted to ride Damascus in his 3 year-old campaign.
Starting in a prep race early in March of 1967, Damascus encountered puddles on an otherwise fast track and decided to jump them. In midair over the last one, a horse called Coral King cannoned into him. But the 3 year-old somehow managed — miraculously — to keep his legs under him. As he came after the leader in the homestretch, Damascus was knocked again but went on to win by a head. It was a stunning display of courage and determination for such a young colt.
Damascus next started in the Bay Shore, winning it by 2.5 lengths in a time of 1:25 and change. In the Gotham, he was to meet the great Dr. Fager in a race that would signal the beginning of a historic rivalry. Although Damascus broke from a good post position and ran head-to-head with Dr. Fager in the home stretch, it was not to be — the game Dr. Fager fought back, grabbing victory by a half-length. The Shoe blamed himself for the loss, but Whiteley chalked it up to the fact that jockey and horse were “learning” one another. His intuition proved correct. In the Wood Memorial there was no Dr. Fager, much to the disappointment of the racing public. But it certainly provided a venue for Damascus and Shoemaker to show just what they had learned from the Gotham defeat. This time, The Shoe took the colt back early in the race, giving him the green light as the field turned for home. Damascus flew, ears pricked, to a 6-length victory in a time of 1:49 and change. Next up: The Kentucky Derby.
The 1967 Kentucky Derby took place in a nation fraught with civil rights conflict. And although the world of thoroughbred racing might seem far, far away, social unrest visited Churchill Downs when protesters ran onto the track during the first race on May 2. There had been confrontations in Louisville that spring as well and the decision was made to have the National Guard on hand for the May 6th running of the Derby.
Damascus had arrived at Churchill Downs in April and Whiteley could feel the tension in the air which, coupled with the scrum of reporters around his barn, may have made it difficult to keep the favourite happy within himself. On Derby day, Damascus was not himself. A usually sensible individual, the colt was sweating and irritable, pinning back his ears in the saddling enclosure and stamping his feet. He went to the post an anxious horse, wearing himself down before the starting gates even opened; and although he tried his best Damascus came in third, behind Barb’s Delight (1964) and the winner, Proud Clarion (1964). His trainer was at a loss to explain his colt’s anxiety, since he had never seen Damascus this way before. Others, including the colt’s groom, were bitterly disappointed. They all knew that the best horse had lost.
Whiteley’s confidence in Damascus was unequivocal. Prior to the Preakness, however, the gifted trainer did make two changes to Damascus’ routine that were well-received by the colt. The first was to nominate the stable pony, Duffy, as Damascus’ companion on race days. Duffy and his famous charge took to one another immediately and by the time Damascus arrived at Pimlico, he was back to his old self. The second change was what The Washington Post referred to tongue-in-cheek as “isolationism.” This meant that Damascus would be removed from the public glare, sheltered in every way from the kind of environment that might provoke feelings of anxiety.
Feeling good! Damascus, Duffy and trainer, Frank Whiteley.
Frank Whiteley may never have been the “darling” of the press corps, but he was a very kind man who was most comfortable among his horses. During the weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, he kept Damascus — and himself — as far away from cameras and microphones as he could. He spent time lavishing care on his colt — hand-washing his leg bandages, walking him, mucking out his stall, delivering his feed, talking to him and keeping him company from an old deckchair outside his stall. When asked about what some saw as excessive “pampering,” Whiteley replied that it was “with pleasure” that he made time for Damascus. Trainer and colt were happiest in one another’s company.
The day of the Preakness, Damascus was shipped in from Laurel where he had been sequestered to Pimlico. Arriving in the saddling enclosure with Duffy only 3 minutes before the deadline, Damascus nuzzled his buddy happily while being saddled. Enroute to the post, it was the pony — and not his famous companion — that got somewhat carried away. Damascus went on to win both the Preakness and the Belmont, the former in the second fastest time since 1925, the year that the Preakness was changed to one mile and one sixteenth. In neither race had Damascus met his nemesis, the talented and powerful Dr. Fager, who was busy carving out his own legendary status with wins in the Withers, the NH Sweep Classic and the AP Classic, among others.
In the winner’s circle after the 1967 Preakness, Bill Shoemaker in the irons.

The summer of 1967 was to prove a racing fan’s delight, with Damascus, Dr. Fager and Buckpasser chalking up victories. After a defeat in the du Pont, Damascus scored in the Dwyer and the very same day, Dr. Fager won the Rockingham Special Stakes in brilliant fashion. In the Travers that summer, Damascus scored by an astounding 22 lengths. By now, his swift, fluid charge to the lead had become a kind of signature, whereas Dr. Fager’s winning form was dictated by his refusal to be anywhere but out in front. In the mean time, Buckpasser, plagued by a quarter crack in one of his hooves, still managed to win the Suburban Handicap that July, marshalling a brilliant come-from-behind move that brought spectators to their feet.

Buckpasser: of all the horses he painted, the late Richard Stone Reeves
said that Buckpasser was the “most perfect” thoroughbred both in body and in mind

The stage was set for what would be billed as “The Race Of The Century” — the 1967 Woodward. This was what racing fans had been waiting for since the Gotham. The promise of another Damascus-Dr. Fager hook-up was made even more exciting with the entry of the 4 year-old Buckpasser. As the story goes, both Whiteley and Eddie Nelroy, Buckpasser’s trainer, determined to wear out Dr. Fager by throwing “rabbits” into the race. The Nelroy rabbit was one thing; the Whiteley rabbit quite another. Hedevar (1962), a grandson of Count Fleet and a champion sprinter was the perfect individual to run Dr. Fager into the ground — or close to it — as far as Whiteley was concerned. It was true that Dr. Fager’s running style made entering a sprinter like Hedevar a shrewd strategy. Given that Damascus liked to come with a determined rush from behind, blazing fractions would set things up exactly as the Whiteley colt liked it.

The exquisite Dr. Fager — a powerhouse of courage, speed and determination.
NYRA photo by Paul Schafer (1968)

On the day of the Woodward, Buckpasser started as the favourite. When the gates flew open, the rest went pretty much as planned. Hedevar battled Dr. Fager down the backstretch and, great horse that he was, Dr. Fager gave the speedster “no quarter” as they flew through the opening three quarters in a stunning 1:09 1/5. Damascus and Buckpasser lay back. In the home stretch, Damascus dispatched a tiring Dr. Fager to post a 10-length victory over Buckpasser, who finished second and his rival, who persevered to take third place. It was this race that handed Whiteley’s bay colt the mantle of 1967 Horse of the Year.

Damascus comes home in the 1967 Woodward.

Watching the Woodward all these years later, it is impossible to love one of these colts more than the others. Dr. Fager’s determination as he duels down the backstretch … Buckpasser’s drive in the home stretch … Damascus’ deceptively lengthening stride. They are the thoroughbred at his most majestic, at his most noble.

In 1968, Damascus returned to the track as a 4 year-old and acquitted himself with the kind of class that the racing public had learned to expect from him, beginning with the Santa Anita Derby in January of that year. He went on to annex the San Fernando Stakes before losing the Strub by a head. Ron Turcotte, his jockey for the Strub, felt that the champion’s performance had to do with the wet conditions of the track that day. Even though he finished a game second, Damascus did it missing a shoe on one foot and badly cutting up the other. Back east, the hardy campaigner got a short time-out, returning in an allowance race which he won. He then went on to post a third place in the Haskell and to win both the William DuPont Handicap, as well as the Aqueduct Stakes. Damascus also met up with his old nemesis Dr. Fager twice in 1968, beating him in the Brooklyn Handicap and placing third to him in the Suburban. Of interest is the fact that Damascus beat Dr,. Fager when Hedevar was in the mix — as he had been in the Woodward victory, but tired when trying to keep up with Dr. Fager in the Suburban, a race where Whiteley had had to scratch his reliable rabbit. (Taking nothing away from Damascus, it is generally accepted that Dr. Fager’s best year was 1968, a year where he “put it all together” on the track and earned Horse of the Year.)
Damascus’ career closed amid rumours that he was unsound. He lost his final three races and was pulled up in his last start, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and vanned off the track, much to the distress of his fans. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a bowed tendon. Although the JC Gold Cup was to be his last race, everyone wanted his final hurrah to be a winning one. But this was not to be and the tough campaigner ended his career with 32-21-7-3 and earnings of $1,176, 781.
He was retired to Claiborne where he stood his entire career at stud. As a sire, Damascus brought to the breed a mini-revival of the Teddy sire line. Teddy (1913) spent much of his career in France, arriving in the USA well after his two most famous sons, Sir Gallahad III (1920) and Bull Dog (1927) — full brothers out of the great producer, Plucky Liege(1912) — had taken up residence there. Sir Gallahad III’s most famous son was the incomparable Gallant Fox (1927), although he also got Gallahadion (1937) and Hoop, Jr.(1942) — three Derby winners and one winner of the Triple Crown. Bull Dog, by comparison, got fewer “superstars” as a sire with the exception of his excellent son, Bull Lea (1935), whose contribution to the breed was enormous. The feisty Teddy was also the sire of La Troienne (1926), the matriarch of one of America’s most important thoroughbred families. 
A rare shot of the mare, Plucky Liege, dam of both Sir Gallahad III and Bull Dog
Damascus was a direct descendant of Teddy, through another son called Sun Teddy(1933), who was the great grandsire of his sire, Sword Dancer (1956). Of course, it would be folly to attribute Damascus’ success at stud to only the Teddy line — as indicated above, his bloodlines were also rich with the influence of his dam’s family. However, his ancestry back to Teddy remains important since many of the males in that sire line — including horses like Citation — did not prove to be outstanding sires, resulting in the dilution of the bloodline.
The incomparable Teddy. Like Northern Dancer and a few other
notable sires, his line was deeply influential in shaping the modern thoroughbred
Damascus was a gentle fellow at stud, the kind of sweetheart whom children were permitted to pet. In the breeding shed, he got champions who went on to produce champions. Of Damascus’ progeny, Bailjumper (1974) became the grandsire of Skip Away (1993) and the damsire of Medaglia d’Oro (1999), sire of the wonderful Rachel Alexandra. Another son, Private Account (1976) sired the incomparable Personal Ensign (1984). Damascus also sired the champions Honorable Miss (1970), Highland Blade (1978) and Timeless Moment (1970), among others.
His progeny and their descendants are a fitting tribute to Damascus, a thoroughbred who injected such excitement into the sport and inspired such devotion that one of his fans, Steve Haskin, was so moved as to begin a new career in horse racing shortly thereafter. The folks at Claiborne loved him too and it was with the greatest sense of loss that all who had known Damascus received the news of his death, at the age of 31, in 1995. Pensioned several years earlier, the grand old stallion had laid himself to rest in his paddock, crossing the finish line one last time.
A summary of the careers of both Damascus and Dr. Fager, featuring live footage:
Next Week: A royally-bred colt reminds us of all the reasons we love the thoroughbred and goes on to give a nation one of its most-loved racing icons.

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Wow! Your answers were amazing! 93% accurate of all those who posted answers. I’m glad that you had fun!!!!!

#1- SPEARMINT (1903)
A wonderful competitor who won the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix du Paris (FR). This game son of Carbine produced Johren (1915), who won the Belmont in
1918 and Royal Lancer (1919) who won the St. Leger and the Irish St. Leger.
#2 — SIGNORINETTA (1905)
This lovely girl raced at the same time as the equally brilliant Pretty Polly. Sadly, she had a very “bloody-minded” owner and failed to reproduce herself as a broodmare. But she was one great filly!!!!
#3 — ROCK SAND (1900)
This is an original cyanotype photo of the broodmare sire of Man O’ War during his racing days. Rock Sand won the British Triple Crown in 1903. Sold to August Belmont II, he came to the USA to stand at stud and sired Mahubah (1910). He was sold and returned to France in 1912.
#4 –WAR ADMIRAL (1934)
Such a cute photo of one of the greats, napping shortly before he was to make history!
#5 –YOUR HOST (1947)
Sire of Kelso. To my mind, one of the absolutely bravest horses of all time. I won’t say more since I intend to tell his story sometime soon — he deserves a space all his own!
#6 — TOM ROLFE (1962)
#7 — RON TURCOTTE (jockey)
Tom Rolfe was another thoroughbred champion and sire of Bowl Game and Run The Gauntlet. The mighty son of Ribot also carried the Teddy line on the bottom of his pedigree. And Ronnie Turcotte — we sometimes forget that he was an accomplished athlete long before the Secretariat days!


Hi everyone. 

THE VAULT has many more readers than those of you who leave (terrific!) comments or have joined as followers (thank you!). I have just realized that all of us can do something IMPORTANT for horse rescues in the USA & Canada, as well as for organizations that are actively involved in the fight against horse slaughter. All you have to do is to CLICK on ONE or ALL of the ads on this page. (When you click, you are under NO obligation to buy anything!) This way, the blog makes money and anyone wanting to contribute to a worthy cause, or causes, can make their voice heard in a very real way. (I actually CLICK every day on the CARE2 web site — they have important causes there that rely on clicks for funding. That was how I realized that our community @ THE VAULT could do the same thing!)

I propose to make this request of ALL of THE VAULT readers through to the end of March to see what we can raise. 

I’ll post our earnings @ the end of March on THE VAULT. Then we can decide together if it’s worth the effort or not; and, if it is, who should be on our list of donations. I have ideas of my own about that, but would like to add them to your views and decide together how to proceed. 

If you like the idea, please CLICK on one or more of the ads. 
Do it for the horses you have loved, love today and will love tomorrow — and for the many, many volunteers who are trying to assure their right to a long, safe life after they leave the sport or the breeding shed!


A wee bit of fun. 
Here are a few of the cherished photos from THE VAULT, together with a quiz question(s). Record your answers in the comment box below. The answer key will be posted on Monday, March 7. Have fun & please let me know if you would like an “open vault” like this periodically! (It doesn’t need to always take the form of a quiz….)

#1.  CLUE:  I was born very early in the last century in England. Even though I was known for my bad front legs, I won the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp in the same year. One of my sons won the Belmont Stakes in 1918 and another son was the leading sire in the USA 5 years later. A daughter of mine is one of the most important brood mares of the 20th century and another is the granddam of Phar Lap. 

#2. CLUE: I am a very famous filly who was also born at the beginning of the last century. Some say I was the greatest filly of the twentieth century — although I did have some competition for that title, in the form of Pretty Polly! I won the Epsom Derby and the Oaks (England) in the same year.

#3. CLUE: I am a British Triple Crown winner born at the turn of the last century who was purchased by August Belmont and shipped to the USA in 1905/1906. Without me, there would never have been a “mostest horse”!

#4. CLUE: I was one gutsy horse, even though I was a “little guy,” unlike my famous sire. I’m a Triple Crown winner. This is me at 5 a.m. the day of the Belmont….and as history was to show, it’s a darn good thing that no-one woke me up!

#5 CLUE:  Going by names alone, I’m the most hospitable guy in this whole gang! I may also be the one with the biggest heart. Even though my running style got me the nickname “The Twister”, I got the better of them all: I gave the USA its “K-Man”!!!!

#6 CLUE: Here I am winning the Preakness. I was trained by the same man who trained Damascus and Ruffian. 
#7 CLUE: Who is my jockey? 

Next Week: At the request of one of THE VAULT’s readers, next week’s article will look at Damascus, a thoroughbred champion who came down to us from a quite amazing bloodline…..

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