Archive for April, 2011

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.

The rugged and leggy Exterminator

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.

In retirement with his little buddy, "Peanuts"

Cover of young adult novel about Exterminator


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

Ira "Babe" Hanford and Bold Venture in the Churchill Downs winner's circle

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.

Just out of the starting gate, Granville almost goes down (circled) and throws his jockey, finishing last in the Derby field

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.  

Bold Venture in retirement with an unnamed visitor


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.                                                                                

Man O' War and 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     

Jet Pilot: Portrait of a champion

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.

Jet Pilot and connections in the winner's circle following the Derby


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.    

Dark Star edges out Native Dancer at the wire


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. 

Dark Star during one of his works

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.

Who me? The horse that upset the icon

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.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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(Reprinted with the permission of photographer, Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

So many colts come to the Kentucky Derby as something less than favourites. But Giacomo’s story reminds us that each colt who steps on the track that first Saturday in May wears the hopes and dreams of his connections. It is this truth that makes every Kentucky Derby a pageant of possibility….

Giacomo and Steve Willard
(Reprinted with the permission of photographer Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)
Going back in time a scant six years can feel like falling through a wormhole.

The 2005 Kentucky Derby went off with favourites like Bellamy Road (2002), who had won the Wood Memorial in a style that conjured up images of Secretariat’s Belmont, Afleet Alex (2002) winner of the Arkansas Derby, Wilko (2002) the 2001 BC Juvenile winner and High Fly (2002), the winner of the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth. But at the wire, it was a grey roan with a huge heart that grabbed the roses, in the form of Jerry and Ann Moss’ Giacomo (2002). The cover of the May 14, 2005 Blood-Horse said it all: “Shockomo.” But we doubt that trainer John Shirreffs was entirely surprised, even though he appeared overwhelmed. So overwhelmed that he had to be stopped by the press corps from simply leading his Derby winner back to the barn after the colt’s photo was taken in the winner’s enclosure.

The eye of a champion
(Reprinted with the permission of photographer Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

Today, the names of Giacomo’s owners, trainer and racing manager, Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs are familiar enough to feel like extended family to racing fans and turf writers alike. But in 2005, most of us would have needed a Steve Haskin or a Barbara Livingston or a Steve Byk to help us identify the members of “Team Giacomo.” As often happens, Kentucky Derby winners spotlight the careers of people who are no strangers to horse racing, even though they may never have had a horse that grabbed the public’s attention.

But for those who had fallen in love with Giacomo’s sire, the great Holy Bull(1991) and knew the bright-eyed and highly professional Mike Smith, the day must have been particularly sweet. Holy Bull, an extraordinary colt, had lost his bid for the 1994 Kentucky Derby and it had been claimed by his owner and trainer, Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll Jr. that unnamed conspirators had drugged the horse. To his dying day, Croll insisted that his horse had been given Halcion before the race, even though no blood test was ever taken. “They got to my horse,” Croll told the Los Angeles Times. There was no question that Holy Bull was not himself on Derby day. He broke slowly and appeared dazed and lethargic, finishing 12th in a 14-horse field. Holy Bull would go on to dominate his other races in such a convincing fashion that he won the 1994 Horse of the Year. For his many fans, witnessing a son of Holy Bull take the Kentucky Derby — and take it with a flourish — must have felt like the vindication of a loss that remains controversial.

The outstanding Holy Bull winning the 1994 Florida Derby

As for the rest of Team Giacomo, much could be said — even before Zenyatta danced into their lives. Jerry and Ann Moss had had their first stakes winner, Lovely Robbery(1978) in 1981 and at the time of their 2005 Derby victory boasted no less than 39 other stakes-winners. The Mosses owned some exceptional individuals, including Rulhmann (1985) a beast of a colt who set a track record at Santa Anita in 1989 that stands today, the 1994 Kentucky Oaks winner, Sardula (1991) and Set Them Free (1990), winner of the Pasadena Stakes, Debutante Breeders’ Cup, as well as the Very Subtle and Eloquent Handicaps. Their horses were trained by notables like Charley Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella and Brian Mayberry.

By May 2005, John Shirreffs’ name was associated with “millionaire fillies” like George Krikorian’s Hollywood Story (2001) and Starrer (1998), as well as Marshall Naify’s Manistique (1995). Shirreffs also trained Tarlow (2001), a filly who won the Santa Margarita Invitational and La Canada Stakes for the Mosses.

The “wormhole” aspect lies in the kind of relationship the Mosses, the Shirreffs, Mike Smith and Giacomo’s handlers formed with their grey colt. You can hear it in the quotes from Derby day 2005. You see it in the photos.

Jerry & Ann Moss in Giacomo caps (Copyright Getty Images)

“…It’s a dream come true to be here. This is a business filled with hope and I think our world needs hope…” (Ann Moss on Giacomo’s Kentucky Derby victory, 2005)

John Shirreffs and the Mosses meet the press at Pimlico, 2005

” …It started when my horse landed. I was with Jerry and Ann Moss and my wife, Dottie, and we’re following my horse to Churchill Downs and we’re behind the van. I was thinking this is just a great feeling coming back to Kentucky with Giacomo, running in the Kentucky Derby. It almost brought tears to my eyes just thinking about this Kentucky-bred horse running in the biggest race in Kentucky. It was sort of singular, spectacular –it was a great moment.” (trainer John Shirreffs, 2005)

An exquisite portrait of Giacomo, taken by photographer Emily Shields
and reprinted with her permission here. (Copyright Emily Shields)

“…She’s been a source of great faith and hope and if she says it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. She’s a great manager and I don’t know what we’d do without her.We live in a state of gratitude.” (Jerry Moss on Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the Mosses racing manager, 2005)

Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs (dark glasses) with Penny Chenery and Ann Moss

“…just to have made it here was amazing and to have won it, I can’t even describe it.” (Mike Smith after Giacomo’s Derby victory, 2005)

To the Winner’s Circle! Mike Smith shares a characteristic salute
following Giacomo’s Derby win

With the Mosses every decision made from morning until night is about what’s best for the horse. It’s a beautiful philosophy. Teaching is all about individual differences. You find that one thing that can help a child find a better life. You turn one key and that child’s life can change , and it’s the same with horses.” (Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, a former teacher and the Mosses racing manager, reflecting on Giacomo’s Derby win, 2005) 

Giacomo came to Churchill Downs as a 50-1 longshot, so things were pretty quiet for Shirreffs and company on the backstretch in the days prior to the Derby. But had anyone ventured by, they would have caught trainer and horse out enjoying a little “quality time” together. Shirreffs would tilt back his cap, lean forward and look deeply into Giacomo’s eyes. Then the two would just stand there for minutes at a time, eye-to-eye, speaking the language of equus. At last, there would be an affectionate rub on the forehead, another long pause and the colt would resume grazing. It was clear that trainer and horse shared a very special connection.

Eye-to-eye: John Shirreffs and Giacomo
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields.)

One can imagine the Mosses’ sense of the magic of thoroughbred racing, since their Derby winner didn’t particularly stand out as a youngster. He was a nicely balanced foal and grew into a yearling with physical attributes from both Holy Bull and his dam, Set Them Free. And –like all thoroughbreds — Giacomo was the product of a number of outstanding ancestors, going back on his sire line as far as American Eclipse (1855) and the 1898 Kentucky Derby winner, Plaudit (1895). Plaudit was also a half-brother of Hastings (1893), the grandsire of Man O’ War.

But it still would take pedigree knowledge and a trained eye to see the potential in the otherwise unremarkable grey colt.

American Eclipse

Every pedigree divulges great stories and Giacomo’s was no different. In an weirdly ironic twist, Plaudit’s grandson Spur (1913) produced a son named — wait for it! — Sting (1921). Owned and bred by James Butler, Sting won the Eclipse and Wakefield Stakes at 2, the Empire City Handicap at 3 and in his best season, at 4, he took the Metropolitan, Suburban, Montana, Excelsior and Salvator Handicaps. Sting set no less than three track records from 1924 through to 1925.

So it would seem that Giacomo had the influence of Sting on both the top and bottom of his pedigree! (Set Them Free was named after the song of the same name recorded by The Police.) And, as many of you may know, Giacomo was named after singer-composer Sting’s son. There has to be some magic in that kind of a coincidence, wouldn’t you think?

Sting of The Police with Stewart Copeland
Keeping an eye on John is a full-time job!
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

Nor did his sire’s genetic gifts end there. In Holy Bull’s fifth generation we find Better Self (1945), the son of Bimelech (1937) and Bee Mac (1941), a daughter of the great War Admiral (1934). Better Self went on to sire the American foundation mare, Aspidistra (1954) who, in turn, produced the remarkable filly Ta Wee (1966). And Ta Wee, through her son, Great Above (1972) was the grandam of Holy Bull.

War Admiral waits for his turn on the track.
NEW YORK, N. T., June 6 —James Butler’s Sting, the home-bre- dson of Spur and Gnat, winner of the Metropolitan Handicap, just about clinched h
Bee Mac, pictured here by artist and author C. W. Anderson
in his book, A Touch of Greatness (1945)
Ta Wee, Bee Mac’s granddaughter
is right to the top of the handicap division when he was a brilliant winner of the Suburban Handicap at Bel- mont Park this afternoon. He took up 122 pounds, set all the pace and nosed out the Greentree Stable’s Cherry Pie. a five-year-ol- d,
Giacomo and Steve Willard…one almost sees a family resemblance
to Bee Mac in this shot  (Reprinted with the permission of
Emily Shields.  Copyright Emily Shields)
with only 10S pounds In the saddle and the Rancocas Stable’s Mad Play was a close third. The race added just $11,300 to Sting’s earnings, but It added immeasurably mora In fame when the character of his victory is taken into consideration.NEW YORK, N. T., June 6 —James Butler’s Sting, the home-bre- dson of Spur and Gnat, winner of the Metropolitan — Handicap, just about clinched his right to the top of the handicap division when he was a brilliant winner of the Suburban Handicap at Bel- mont Park this a

Set Them Free brought gifts of her own. By Stop The Music (1970), a son of Hail To Reason (1958), Set Them Free also had a star-studded pedigree. On her sire line, both the champion Tom Fool (1949) and his sire, Menow (1935) are represented. Menow appears in the pedigrees of many distinguished thoroughbreds and traces back to Beeswing (1833), as well as a host of other champion thoroughbreds from both Great Britain and the USA. The Beeswing connection is always interesting — without fail, her name appears over and over in the pedigrees of outstanding individuals. The plucky little mare is always an indicator of both speed and stamina. (Readers interested in hearing more about Beeswing might go back to the post on Rachel Alexandra that appeared here in February.) Menow’s dam was Alcibiades (1927), another American foundation mare. Menow’s sire, Pharamond (1925), was a full brother to Sickle, a solid sire whose offspring include Reaping Reward (1934) and Stagehand (1935). Pharamond was also the half-brother of the influential sire, Hyperion(1930). A very successful individual on the turf, one of Menow’s most publicized races was his win in the 1933 Massachusetts Handicap, where he defeated War Admiral (1938). Set Them Free’s dam, Valseuse (1973) was a granddaughter of the mighty Bold Ruler (1954).

(Courtesy Blood-Horse Archives)
Reprinted with the permission of Barbara Livingston
Hail To reason, grandsire of Set Them Free
Tom Fool at 3 yrs. with groom. He was Set Them Free’s great grandsire.
(Copyright The Chicago Tribune)
Menow as a colt with trainer, Duval A. Headley. Menow sired Tom Fool.
(Copyright The Baltimore Sun)
Alcibiades, dam of Menow
Bold Ruler, another grandsire of Set Them Free, pictured here
with “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons
(Copyright The Chicago Tribune)
The power of Giacomo
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

There was wisdom in Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs reflections about the 2005 Kentucky Derby: students and thoroughbreds will always run their hearts out when they are handled with patience, love and faith. So it was that the 50-1 long shot, under the skilled hands of Mike Smith, threaded his way through horses and then unleashed his run in the final stretch, catching Closing Argument (2002) at the wire. It was the first Derby win for his team and, six years later, they still glow when they reminisce about Giacomo’s victory. It was a shining moment, meant to be cherished forever.

Giacomo and his faithful companion, Frank Leal, at the Breeders Cup
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

In a rare press conference before the 2010 Breeders Cup, John Shirreffs described meeting Giacomo in the winner’s circle just after the Derby. The trainer’s eyes were striking as he spoke, reliving the moment as though it were yesterday:

” … I looked up at Giacomo and I looked in his eyes and {I knew that} he gave it a hundred percent, everything he had, that afternoon … a supreme race horse … he found a way through and dug down deep. I looked in his eyes and they were a little cloudy. He was fighting fatigue…he had given it everything he had…” 

There is probably no greater acknowledgement of Giacomo’s victory on that first Saturday in May 2005 than John Shirreffs’ reflections. Calling upon a heart that had come down to him from a small army of courageous ancestors, Giacomo had answered all that was asked of him with the determination and grace of a champion.

Giacomo and Mike Smith (outside) get up to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby
(Copyright protected photo by Amelia Baldree)

Following an authoritative victory in the 2006 San Diego Handicap, the Mosses’ talented colt was retired with earnings of over two million dollars.

Giacomo stands at Adena Springs near Midway, Kentucky and is proving to be an outstanding young sire with a bright future ahead of him. Team Giacomo always visit their Derby winner whenever they are in Kentucky — there is no chance that the now snowy-white stallion will ever be forgotten by those who know and love him best.

Giacomo at Adena Springs
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)
Giacomo with his half brother, Tiago (2004). Tiago is a Moss homebred.
During his racing career, Tiago was trained by John Shirreffs.
(Reprinted with the permission of Emily Shields.
Copyright Emily Shields)

Recently, Blood-Horse visited Giacomo and below is the video report. As you watch, listen very carefully to the descriptions of Giacomo’s personality and what he has come to expect from people.

Could there be any better tribute to Team Giacomo than this?

FOOTNOTE: THE VAULT thanks Emily Shields and Barbara D. Livingston for allowing us to reprint their beautiful photographs in this article. Noted equine photographer Barbara D. Livingston’s work can be seen on the Daily Racing Form site and at http://barbaradlivingston.photoshelter.com/ 
Emily Shields’ work can be viewed at www.simhorseracing.com  
THE VAULT readers are reminded that reproduction of these photographs in any format without the written permission of the photographers is a federal offence.

NEXT WEEK: THE VAULT’s Kentucky Derby series continues with “A Derby Gazette,” featuring a number of thoroughbreds who won the Kentucky Derby between 1918-1953. 

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(NOTE from ABIGAIL: WE DID IT!!!  Thanks to all the clicks by THE VAULT readers, we have made — as of today — $102.00 (216 clicks)!!!!  This is VERY EXCITING.  I will put up more information & some suggestions this coming Monday, April 11th so we can begin to decide together how we want to administer our funds to support horse rescue in the USA and CANADA.  It’s just GREAT to know that over 216 people “clicked” their love for thoroughbreds and horses in a way that can make a difference. YOU ARE WONDERFUL, EACH & EVERY ONE.)

This is Pensive…

This is Pensive’s son, Ponder…

And this is Ponder’s son, Needles…

… three generations of Kentucky Derby winners.

In 1956, when Needles won the Kentucky Derby and thus completed the “hat trick” that began with Pensive in 1944, only one other sire line could lay claim to this feat. Reigh Count, who won the Derby in 1928 went on to sire the 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet who, in turn, was the sire of Count Turf who won the Derby in 1951, besting the Pensive sire line by 5 years. But despite the rarity of three generations winning the Kentucky Derby, neither Pensive nor Ponder ever became household names. Both horses had erratic — some even said “unfathomable” — performance records and both lived rather short lives, limiting their influence on the breed as a whole.

Pensive (Hyperion {1930} ex. Penicuik II {1934}) was born at the famous Calumet Farm in 1941, one of a crop of Calumet foals that included the incomparable Twilight Tear (1941). Pensive’s dam showed no appetite for the turf in England, where she was started in several stakes races. However, her dam Pennycomequick(1926) had won the Epsom Oaks and her granddam, Plymstock (1918), had been a good stakes mare in her day.

As a 2 year-old, Pensive was described by commentator Ed Johnstone, writing in the February 18, 1950 Thoroughbred Times as “… one of the best developed two year-olds this writer has ever seen — not a tall colt but one that weighed a lot. He had a nice, intelligent head that he carried rather high, and his frame seemed to be bulging with muscles. His chestnut coat gleamed and everyone in the trainers’ stand seemed to know it was Ben Jones’ Hyperion colt…”  But Pensive never lived up to the high expectations evoked by his looks and pedigree.

However, as a three year-old the handsome son of Hyperion did win both the 1944 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, losing the Belmont by only a half-length to a rather average thoroughbred named Bounding Home (1941). Even though he came within a hair’s breadth of becoming a Triple Crown champion, his 3 year-old season was baffling: he started out looking rather ordinary, followed by his Derby, Preakness and Belmont, only to close out the season with a string of losses.

As might be expected, Pensive was marginalized by breeders and it wasn’t until his son, Ponder, won the 1949 Kentucky Derby that he received the respect he deserved. Pensive died in the same year, prompting many to speculate that the industry had lost a promising sire. It was the highest compliment he probably ever got.

Pensive shown in the Pimlico winner’s circle after his Preakness victory with trainer Ben Jones,
owner Warren Wright and ecstatic jockey, Conn McCreary

Ponder, Pensive’s son, came into the world in 1946 — another “son” of Calumet — out of the unraced broodmare mare, Miss Rushin (1942), a daughter of Blenheim II (1927). Blenheim II was the first thoroughbred produced by HH Aga Khan III’s breeding program to win the Epsom Derby at Ascot for the dapper owner-breeder. HH Aga Khan III was a potent influence on the evolution of the modern thoroughbred, in part because he took his greatest pleasure in the business aspect of the sport. Even though he was an important breeder, his very best thoroughbreds — Blenheim II, Bahram (1932), Palestine (1947), Mahmoud (1933) and Tulyar (1949) — all found their way to different stables and breeders. Like Mahmoud, Blenheim II came to America. After standing only two seasons in France, Blenheim II was sold to an American consortium that included Claiborne, Calumet, Greentree and Stonercreek Stud.

Blenheim II in a traditional pose

So outstanding a sire did Blenheim II prove to be that the British have still not entirely forgiven the Aga Khan for letting him go to the USA rather than to England. In his first two crops alone, Blenheim II sired Mumtaz Begum (1932) the dam of Mahmoud and Donatello II (1934) — a thoroughbred the great Frederic Tesio considered his pride and joy. In the USA, Blenheim II is best known for his most famous son, Calumet’s 1941 Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway (1938), but he also sired the champions A Gleam (1949), Jet Pilot (1944), Saratoga2 (1952), Fervent (1944), Rose Beam (1945) and Thumbs Up (1939).

Blenheim II’s most famous son: Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway (1942)
Another champion sired by Blenheim II was Fervent, pictured above (1947)
The outstanding Twilight Tear, shown here with A Gleam as a filly foal (1949)

Despite the promise of Blenheim II’s influence, Ponder’s own racing history — like that of Pensive — was one of highs and lows. Joe H. Palmer, writing in American Race Horses of 1950, showed his ambivalence thus “… Ponder and Stymie resembled each other considerably more than either resembled Whirlaway. Put a slow pace ahead of them and either could be beaten by quite ordinary horses. Set the pace ablaze and either could whip the best horses in training…” (pp.47)

The colt’s 2 year-old season was slow to get going, so trainer Ben Jones decided to keep him in training into his three year-old campaign. Ponder finally broke his maiden at 3, followed by another 6 starts and one win before arriving at Churchill Downs for the 1949 Kentucky Derby. At this point, even his trainer had soured on the colt’s ability. Shortly before Derby day, Jones is reported to have said, “My horse hasn’t got any more chance than a Shetland pony. The only reason he’s going to run is that I don’t have to pay the $1,000 starting fee. If it was my money he’d never start.”

Ponder in action at Hialeah
Ponder shown winning the Kentucky Derby

Ponder was a closer in terms of running style and it was a colt called Capot (1946) who set things up for him on Derby day. The favourite (Capot) finished off second-choice, Olympia (1946), as the field turned for home. Ponder, coming off fourteenth place made his move, charging passed Capot to win by three lengths. By the time he was sent to stud, Ponder had also beaten the likes of Citation (1945), On Trust (1944), Noor (1945), Solidarity (1945) and the wonderful filly, Two Lea (1946). But that didn’t matter much. Even at stud,  Joe Palmer’s view of Ponder persisted — he was seen as a horse of dubious ability, one who relied on pace-setters to set him up for a win.

It was Ponder’s son, Needles (1953) who saved sire and grandsire from obscurity. Needles was the first Florida thoroughbred to ever win the Kentucky Derby — a “state treasure” who put Florida owners and breeders on the map. There had been other great thoroughbreds associated with Florida like Fred Hooper’s Crozier (1958) — a key stallion in the growth of the Florida thoroughbred industry and sire of Precisionist (1981), as well as his champion filly, Susan’s Girl (1969), the first filly to ever win over a million dollars. Too, there was Golden Shoe Farm’s Mucho Gusto(1932) who had beaten Seabiscuit as a 4 year-old. The Florida Derby was quick to become a hothouse for future Kentucky Derby winners. But Needles was Florida’s own — the pride of Marion County, where he was born.

Needles’ dam, Noodle Soup (1944) was a daughter of Jack High (1926) and her grandsire was the impressive and influential John P. Grier (1917). Noodle Soup had absolutely no interest in racing. For years during and after Needles’ racing career, his dam came in for harsh knocks from pedigree experts. That aside, it is likely that it was Noodle Soup’s family that balanced out the inherent inconsistencies of the Pensive-Ponder sire line. Jack High had, after all, descended from the Bramble (1875) – Ben Brush (1893) sire line, a bloodline noted for precocity, speed and durability — all qualities that young Needles showed he had in abundance. Ben Brush sired Broomstick (1901) and Sweep (1907), and these two still figure prominently in modern pedigrees. Broomstick was leading sire from 1913-1915 and leading broodmare sire in 1932, -33, producing 25% stakes winners during his stud career. Too, both Broomstick and his outstanding son, Whisk Broom II (1907) merited induction into the Hall of Fame, while Whisk Broom II was also awarded Horse of the Year and U.S. Champion Older Male in 1913. As a sire, Whisk Broom’s most important progeny — other than John P. Grier — are 1927 Kentucky Derby winner, Whiskery (1924), and Preakness and multiple stakes winner, Victorian (1925). He also sired Man O’ War’s nemesis, Upset (1917).

Needles’ broodmare sire, Jack High
Maternal grandsire,  John P. Grier
The handsome Whisk Broom II, great grandsire and his sire, Broomstick, below

Ben Brush, who started it all
A dark bay thoroughbred with a white star and two white stockings, Needles was a gorgeous foal. But a mere 5 days after his birth he contacted equine pneumonia. The farm staff, an attending vet and owner Bill Leach’s wife, Madeline (who was also a registered nurse) attended the foal around the clock until he was out of danger. The treatment involved a battery of injections and oxygen, hence the name chosen for the colt, “Needles.” According to Needles’ first trainer, Roy Yates, the colt could just as easily have been named “Oxygen”!!!
Despite a rough start, Needles grew to become even more handsome, winning the Florida Breeders’ Baby Show as a yearling. Days after, he was bought by Texas oil men Bonnie McCoy Heath and Jackson Curtis Dudley, with trainer Hugh Fontaine (who had brought the yearling to Heath and Dudley’s attention) rounding out the partnership. By the time his stellar 2 year-old season had ended, it was clear that Needles was nothing like his sire or grandsire.
Needles actually looks like he’s working here…and that was
a rarity! (Copyright the Chicago Tribune)

Needles was also a Florida hero by the close of his first racing season and a big part of his appeal — other than his obvious ability to win — was his personality. For starters, the colt had a mind of his own, reflected in his absolute disdain for training norms. What Needles liked to do was watch the world go by on the racetrack, not work himself into a sweat. The press enjoyed his antics and reported them with the greatest affection — how trainer and groom had been on the track pushing him from behind to get him to move, only to have Needles gallop a few feet and come to a dead halt. How Needles kicked and bounced his way to the track in the morning. How Needles loved to nap — something he seemed to do more than a good many young colts, much to the chagrin of visiting fans. And, of course, there was Needles’ passion for cats. At Belmont, the champion clearly fell in love with Boots the cat and the little tabby seemed quite happy to accept the attention Needles lavished on her. There are several photos of other felines in Needles’ company and the look on his face is always one of pure bliss.

Needles and Boots (Copyright the Chicago Tribune)

Derby superstition was against the Florida colt on the big day, worsened by the fact that — inexplicably — Needles had switched his flexible 2 year-old running style to the come-from-behind style favoured by his sire and grandsire. And, as everyone knew, no Florida thoroughbred had ever won a Derby.

But Needles proved them all wrong — and with a flair that silenced his critics and empowered his fans. The colt broke badly and then spit out his bit. And as jockey, Dave Erb, struggled to bring Needles back to him, the colt appeared to decide that he was in a race worth winning. So Needles picked up his bit and started to move. He was second to last and more than 20 lengths off the leaders at the half mile pole. Coming at the leader, Citation’s son Fabius (1953) from seventh place on the final turn, Needles put in the smoothest and classiest charge to the lead that pundits had ever seen in the 82 years of the Kentucky Derby, crossing the finish line going away. Residents of Florida went wild.
Needles and jockey Dave Erb in the winner’s circle
(Copyright Sports Illustrated)

Needles would lose the Preakness to Fabius largely because, coming from another 20 lengths off the lead, he ran out of ground. But in the Belmont, Needles would not be denied. The great horse had taken 2/3 of the Triple Crown.

Needles story sounds a note of caution about trying to force Mother Nature’s hand. And this can be a hard pill to swallow when the sire or dam is a Spectacular Bid, or a Winning Colours, or a Secretariat because our natural impulse is to expect that thoroughbreds like these will reproduce themselves. But it took over half a century for the bloodlines of Needles’ sire and dam to ferment into the champion he became – a fact that gives thoroughbred horse racing its attraction, its thrills — and its frustrations.

In a world where logic is bound by cause-and-effect, the perfect recipe for a champion thoroughbred still belongs to the gods.

Derby cover boy! (Copyright Sports Illustrated)
FOOTNOTE: The author particularly wishes to acknowledge Charlene R. Johnson’s terrific book, Florida Thoroughbred (ISBN 0-8130-1198-1) in the compilation of this article. 

NEXT WEEK: A long-shot captures the Kentucky Derby and, although not the only surprise winner in its long history, this fine son of Holy Bull was readied to give the Run for the Roses his best shot by trainer John Shirreffs.

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