So often we can be humbled by the results of the Kentucky Derby, perhaps because we discover and re-discover that it’s difficult to predict the result, even when there is a clear favourite. There are imponderables that can change the fortunes of great horses like a Native Dancer or a Sham or a Bellamy Road in a matter of seconds. The weather conditions, a stumbling horse, a racing strategy that checkmates the opposition….and, of course, the mercurial nature of thoroughbreds themselves. This Kentucky Derby Gazette brings you a glimpse of the serendipity and twists of fate that can bring a colt to the Derby winner’s circle.
To all our readers: A very happy Passover and Easter! Your support is very much appreciated.
News of the world
On November 11, 1918, World War I came to an end, leaving in its wake the realization that millions had been lost to the world forever.
In January and February, the USA was struck by a bitter cold. In the South, blizzards swept the land; elsewhere, factories were shut down to conserve fuel and schools were closed. For the first time in its history, the New York theatre district shut down.
March 11, 1918 saw the introduction of daylight savings time in a few states.
On May 15, 1918, regular air mail postal service was initiated: army fliers made it from New York City to Washington in 3 hours, 22 minutes.
Lenin was seriously injured in Moscow.
A new star was discovered in the Aquila constellation.
Kentucky Derby winner: Exterminator (ch.gelding, 1915. By McGee ex. Fair Empress)
His name reminds us of the superheroes of today: Exterminator.
Making his first start as a 3 year-old, the leggy colt who had been bought as an exercise mate for Sun Briar won the Kentucky Derby handily for owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer. Exterminator had gone to the Derby post a 50-1 long shot, even though he was undefeated as a 2 year-old. Exterminator’s Derby win was the beginning of an eternal love affair between a gallant horse and his racing public.
Exterminator was born in a time when the thoroughbred was king. In 1915, owning a thoroughbred brought membership into the pageantry and romance of the turf, a place where dreams unfolded and hope shone from the eyes of owner and spectator alike. Great thoroughbreds were headliners in newspapers and on the radio. Racing fans followed every detail of their equine hero’s progress with the same exuberance that they reserved for baseball legends. It was a time when people believed in magic — and Exterminator had it in spades.
The big chestnut would go on to start in 100 races and win 50. He ran in the mud, on fast and slow tracks and at a range of distances, often under crushing weight handicaps. Exterminator competed against thoroughbreds of all ages until he was nine years old. And he always — 100 times — ran his heart out.
Exterminator was soon christened with loving nicknames, the best known of which is “Old Bones.” In retirement, he was kept loving company by the tiny Shetland pony, Peanuts. So attached were the pair that when Exterminator was invited to make a guest appearance, Peanuts not only went along but led the procession!
The great horse lived to the ripe old age of 30. A kind, gentle and charismatic individual, Exterminator was cherished by his fans throughout his long life. School children visited him on his birthday and a book was written about him for adolescents. He was part of the culture, part of what it meant to be American. Exterminator remains one of the icons of North American thoroughbred racing, right up there with the likes of Man O’ War, Ruffian and Secretariat.
Great thoroughbreds really do live forever.
News of the world
A year of outstanding accomplishments: the Hoover Dam in Colorado was completed; the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, California opened on November 12th; and the world’s greatest ocean liner, the Queen Mary, was launched.
Kentucky Derby winner: Bold Venture, or the story of the kid and the colt
The kid and the colt went to the start at odds of 20-1, the longest odds since Exterminator in 1918.
Bold Venture (ch. 1933, St. Germans ex. Possible) was owned by Morton L. Schwartz and trained by the famous Max Hirsch. The colt was winless in his 3 year-old season and had never won a stakes race. Bold Venture’s Derby mount was apprentice jockey, Ira “Babe” Hanford, who had been riding in races for less than a year. The duo were taking on favourites like Brevity, record-breaking winner of the Florida Derby and Indian Broom, winner of the Marchbank Handicap, who had also set a new track record.
To say that the Derby that year was filled with calamity would be an understatement. When the gates opened, Brevity went down on his knees and Granville, who would be named 1936 Horse of the Year, threw his jockey. Indian Broom was in the thick of colliding horses. It was a chain reaction, set off when another horse slammed into Bold Venture with such force that it was amazing the colt stayed on his feet.
Hanford steadied Bold Venture and gave him a few seconds to get back into stride. On the back stretch, the colt took the lead and he held on, withstanding a late charge by the courageous Brevity. To make matters worse, Charles Kurtsinger,who was brining the Santa Anita Derby winner, He Did, in a late charge at the rail, claimed that a spectator had leaned over the rail and grabbed his whip.
But in the end, non of the chaos exacted a toll from a brave colt and a talented young jockey. The kid and the colt had won the 1936 Kentucky Derby.
Bold Venture also won the Preakness that year, but had to be retired before the Belmont when he bowed a tendon during a work. Sold to Robert J. Kleberg Jr., the colt was retired to Kleberg’s famous King Ranch.
It was very lucky that Bold Venture survived the events of the 1936 Kentucky Derby: he became the sire of Triple Crown winner, Assault and of Middleground, winner of the 1950 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
A colour photo of the handsome Bold Venture in retirement, courtesy of TVG community.
News of the world
It was a year of strikes and losses. On April 7th, 300,000 telephone workers and operators went out on strike in 42 states and a coal miner’s walkout was narrowly averted when the union got the biggest pay boost in its history. As well, 2,400 teachers took to the picket lines in Buffalo, New York, closing 80 schools.
Al Capone died. And the great Man O’ War passed on November 1st, less than a month after the death of his best friend, Will Harbut.
The state of Georgia started 1947 with two governors, newly-elected Herman Talmadge and retiring Governor Arnell, who refused to step down, claiming that Talmadge’s election had been illegal since the latter had been elected by the General Assembly. On March 19, the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld Arnell’s charge.
On April 16th, the nitrate ship Grandcamp blew up in the Texas City harbor, killing 468 people.
Kentucky Derby winner: Jet Pilot
The truth of the matter is that Jet Pilot was lucky to be alive.
In Chicago a year before the running of the 1947 Kentucky Derby, the worst race track fire in history had destroyed 22 colts owned by Main Chance Farm. Main Chance’s owner, cosmetician Elizabeth Arden, had shipped some 2 year-olds to Churchill Downs two days before the disaster. One of them was Jet Pilot (ch. 1944 by Blenheim II ex. Black Wave).
The plucky son of Blenheim II had started 12 times as a two year-old, winning 5 races including his maiden. Trained by the famous Tom Smith (Seabiscuit’s trainer), Jet Pilot was second favourite to Phalanx going to the Kentucky Derby post. Given a hand ride to the wire by legendary jockey Eric Guerin, Jet Pilot nosed out Phalanx in such a close finish that, for the very first time in Derby history, the judges needed to consult a photograph to determine the winner. In his 3 year-old campaign, Jet Pilot annexed the Preakness and won both the Withers and San Felipe Stakes.
News of the world
This was some year! Stalin died, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and Dr. Jonas E. Salk announced the discovery of a vaccine for polio.
In popular culture, Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel (Casino Royale) and Playboy magazine published its very first issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe as its first cover girl (and centre fold).
The New York Yankees won their fifth consecutive World Series. Walt Disney released “Peter Pan.”
The average wage per year was $4,000 and the average house cost about $9,700.
Kentucky Derby winner: Dark Star
Dark Star will always be remembered as the colt who handed Native Dancer his only loss — the 1953 Kentucky Derby.
It’s just one of those things. A very good horse can beat a favourite and never live it down. Dark Star was Native Dancer’s nemesis, his Birdstone or Empire Maker, if you will. But the colt who darkened the Dancer’s horizon was coming into the Derby off a win in the Derby Trial Stakes and by the end of his racing career, Dark Star had only ever finished out of the money three times in 13 starts. Regardless, history tells it this way: Native Dancer should have won the Kentucky Derby.
Dark Star seemed to have even gotten off to a strange start as a yearling. His owner, Captain Harry Guggenheim, had bought one of two bay colts offered by Warren Jones. But when Guggenheim got his purchase back to his own stable, it was discovered that he had the wrong bay. Jones was happy to put things right, but Guggenheim told the breeder he would keep the “other” bay because he liked the look of him. And that “other” horse was Dark Star.
On Derby day, a large field went to the post. Although Al Popara, Dark Star’s jockey, hadn’t planned to take the lead early on, that’s what happened. The stunning bay clicked off opening fractions of :23 4/5 and :24 before being slowed down by Popara. In the mean time, Native Dancer was threading in and out of horses, 11 lengths off the leader. But this time it was Dark Star and not the Dancer who dictated the pace. With Native Dancer closing so fast that bystanders saw his heels as he flew by, Dark Star hung on for a photo finish. The time of 2:02 was just off Whirlaway’s track record. The colt returned to the winner’s circle to a stunned silence.
At stud, first in the USA and then in France, Dark Star sired Hidden Talent (1956) who won the Kentucky Oaks in 1959 and was the broodmare sire of champions Jacinth (1969) and Youth (1973).
Dark Star was destined to always have his name linked to Native Dancer’s loss, even though he proved himself a gutsy little champion in his own right on Derby day. He even handed Native Dancer a consolation prize.
According to the Dancer’s groom, as the grey was being led off the Churchill Downs track, he stopped and seemed to look back at Dark Star heading into the winner’s circle. From that day forward, the Dancer’s attitude to pre-race works changed. He never relished training but his attitude towards it seems to have undergone an adjustment and his connections could see that the champion was putting some effort into his jogs and breezes. It was just as though Native Dancer had decided that he really needed to train, like it or not, if he was going to win. And he never lost a race again.
NOTE: THE VAULT will be taking the coming week off and be back the first week in May with a tribute to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro.