Every once in awhile, a stellar group of juveniles appear on the scene at exactly the same time and this was the case in America in 1930. Although they spent much of their time beating each other, victory over peers of such excellence reinforced just how good each of these thoroughbreds truly was. When it was all said and done, it was Harry Payne and C.V. Whitney’s dark chestnut colt, Equipoise, who wrote himself into legend. Which is not to say that each of his competitors were not equally worthy of stardom. Jamestown, Twenty Grand, Mate, Don Leon, Vander Pool, Epithet, Tambour, Sweep All, Happy Scot, Polydorus and the wonderful filly, Baba Kenny, were all champions. But the racing gods can be fickle: of Equipoise’s challengers, only Jamestown, Twenty Grand and Mate are remembered today and two — Jamestown and Twenty Grand — are HOF inductees. Dubbed “The Big Four” by the Chicago Tribune when they lit up the two year-old ranks of 1930, Equipoise, Jamestown, Mate and Twenty Grand met and clashed a number of times, delighting racing fans, many of whom felt compelled to pledge their allegiance to one of the “Fab Four.”
Even famed correspondent John Hervey, who wrote under the pen name “Salvator,” got into the act. His choice was Equipoise.
But the world in which the “Big Four” ran was a troubled one, devastated by economic depression and climactic disaster. People were shaken to their very roots by circumstances beyond their control. And then along came “The Chocolate Soldier”: in his Eaton-blue mask with its chocolate piping, Equipoise quickly forged a reputation for refusing to go down without a fight. He was, quite simply, the epitome of the will not only to survive, but to thrive.
A dark chestnut colt was born in the spring of 1928 to the mare Swinging (1922), a daughter of Broomstick (1901) and granddaughter of the mighty Ben Brush (1893). Bred by Harry Payne Whitney, who died before his homebred became one of America’s favourite thoroughbreds, the colt was given the name Equipoise. The name was apt. Even as a foal, anyone could see how perfect he was and he appeared to have a temperament to match. Following the death of his father, Equipoise became C.V. aka “Sonny” Whitney’s first superstar.
The Whitneys are one of America’s most famous thoroughbred horse racing dynasties and played a huge role in the making of the American thoroughbred. The family is represented today by C.V. Whitney’s last wife, Marylou Whitney, who has continued to breed thoroughbreds along the lines that have distinguished the Whitneys as both breeders and owners.
The breeding of Equipoise provides insight into the knowledge that H.P. Whitney exercised in arriving at a champion horse.
Equipoise’s sire, Pennant (1911) was a direct descendent of the great Domino (1891). Equipoise’s grandsire, Peter Pan (1904) — not to be confused with the Peter Pan (1929) of Australian fame — was a son of Commando (1898) and, through his female family, Peter Pan also carried the bloodlines of the brilliant British mare, Beeswing (1833) as well as the legendary Eclipse (1764). America’s Peter Pan was a brilliant runner, starting 17 times and distinguishing himself with wins in the Hopeful, the Brooklyn Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Of his win in the 1907 Brighton Handicap, before a crowd of 40,000, the New York Telegraph wrote that Peter Pan “accomplished a task that completely overshadowed any previous 3-year-old performance in turf history.”
Whitney acquired Peter Pan in 1915 and as a sire, he was pure gold. Among his progeny are the exceptional sire, Black Toney (1911), as well as the champion fillies Puss In Boots (1913), Vexatious (1916) and Prudery (1918). Peter Pan was also a BM sire of champions, including the Preakness winner Bostonian (1924), Whiskery (1924) winner of the Kentucky Derby and Champion Three Year Old Colt of 1927, Victorian (1925) who won the Preakness and the filly, Top Flight (1929) who was Champion Two Year Old and Three Year Old Filly and a HOF inductee. Along with Equipoise, Peter Pan was also the grandsire of the ill-fated Black Gold (1921) and of champions Brokers Tip (1930) and Bimelech (1937), a son of La Troienne (1926) who won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and is also a HOF inductee. Bimelech sired Better Self (1945) and is the sire of Never Bend (1960) grandam. Nevert Bend, in turn, sired the British champion, Mill Reef (1968), winner of the Epsom Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Next to this kind of brilliance, Equipoise’s sire, Pennant, might seem pretty ordinary. But although he was lightly raced, the handsome chestnut never finished out of the money. Equipoise was his best son, but Pennant also sired the champions Bunting (1919), Crystal Pennant (1924), Dauber (1935) who won the 1938 Preakness, Jolly Roger (1922) a Champion Steeplechaser and HOF inductee, as well as that hardy campaigner, The Chief (1935), who made 101 starts before his retirement.
It is fair to assume that hopes of the Whitney Stable were high for this beautifully-bred colt. But being both breeders and owners, they knew that superb bloodlines and great looks don’t necessarily add up to a champion. Happily, the youngster showed promise, winning his first two starts impressively. But in his third start, Equipoise ran into the more seasoned Vander Pool and came home third. (Vander Pool, owned by Mrs. W.P. Allen, chalked up fifteen straight victories from his maiden win in 1930 into 1931. Ending his two year-old season as a undefeated favourite for the 1931 Kentucky Derby, Vander Pool was injured and never hit the Triple Crown trail. His fifteen straight wins tied the record set by Colin in 1907-1908.)
Next came the Pimlico Nursery Stakes, in which the dark chestnut colt was partnered by the legendary Sonny Workman for the first time. It didn’t go well: Equipoise reared up at the start, pitching Workman. In the Youthful, Workman and Equipoise came home first by five lengths, but the colt was DQ’d for muscling his way to the front and the win went to Vander Pool instead. According to C.W. Anderson in his book, The Smashers, (Equipoise’s) “zest for battle” was strong “…if he couldn’t find racing room, he made it.” This tendency would not change and the Youthful wasn’t the only race Whitney’s champ lost through disqualification. Workman, a champion rider and HOF jockey who would be Equipoise’s steady partner throughout his career, was quick to learn how to handle the assertive colt and the initial contest between them was forged into a fabulous partnership by the end of Equipoise’s first season.
Equipoise’s next victories came in the Keene Memorial and Juvenile Stakes, beating another very good two year-old in Happy Scot. In the Keene, the colt showed he could handle the slop, running to a two length win at Belmont. Then, in the National Stallion Stakes, ” The Chocolate Soldier,” as he was dubbed by press and fans (on the basis of his dark coat) beat Polydorus and the filly Baba Kenny by six. Carrying 130 lbs. to Polydorus’ 115 in the Great American, Equipoise wired the field and crossed the finish line two lengths ahead of his rival.
Equipoise then met up with Jamestown at Saratoga in the summer of his juvenile season. Trained to a “razor’s edge” by trainer A. Jack Joyner, Jamestown built up such a lead in the Saratoga Special over the Whitney colt that Equipoise just couldn’t catch him, although he did beat Sun Meadow by eight lengths, to finish second. Carrying 132 lbs. to Mate’s 119, Equipoise lost by a head in the Champagne. The following week, The Chocolate Soldier went into battle again, facing both Mate and Jamestown in the Futurity, where each horse carried 130 lbs. In a furious stretch duel, Jamestown prevailed by a head over Equipoise. Mate finished another three lengths back.
After the Futurity, Jamestown was put away for the rest of the season. But Equipoise’s connections continued his campaign. The two year-old cruised to a five length win over Don Leon in the Eastern Shore Handicap before meeting up with still another fabulous juvenile, Twenty Grand. In the Jr. Champion Stakes at Aqueduct, with the Whitney colt carrying an extra 11 lbs, Twenty Grand prevailed by a length.
In their next meeting — the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes — Twenty Grand and The Chocolate Soldier had the crowd on their feet as they battled, head-to-head, to the wire. Twenty Grand won, but the two had set a track record of 1:36 — the fastest ever run by a two year-old over eight furlongs. H.P. Whitney died ten days later, and Equipoise became the first thoroughbred to race in C.V. Whitney’s name.
The Pimlico Futurity was a match of the titans, with Twenty Grand, Mate and Equipoise facing off against each other at the equal weight of 130 lbs. It was a battle called “The Most Spectacular Race Of The Decade” by the Baltimore Sun. And Equipoise won it in a way that not only established him as a champion, but as a colt with the heart of one. The track was muddy and at the start, Equipoise and Sonny Workman broke sideways, effectively hustling both of them back so that it looked as though the pair had been left at the post. Righting the colt, jockey Workman took off after the field. Twenty Grand and Mate got into a feverish duel down the stretch and so intense was their struggle that no-one saw the hooded Equipoise charging at the leaders. In a dazzling display, The Chocolate Soldier won by half a length. Not only was his win incredible, but Equipoise had scored barefoot, having lost his two front shoes somewhere along the way. He had righted a bad trip and won on a muddy track without the benefit of the kind of grip those discarded shoes would have afforded him.
The loss of his shoes hinted at a problem that would plague Equipoise throughout the rest of his career: he had thin, shelly feet. And they would plague him even as a three year-old. After three lacklustre performances, including the Preakness, it was discovered that Equipoise had sustained a three-quarter crack and he was retired for the rest of the season. His old rival, Twenty Grand, would win the coveted Kentucky Derby, as well as the Belmont, and had an absolutely brilliant season, annexing just about every major stakes race in the country.As a result, Twenty Grand was crowned Champion Three Year-Old Colt and 1931 Horse Of The Year. (Another of Equipoise’s rivals, Mate, won the Preakness, denying Twenty Grand the Triple Crown.)
Were it 2014 rather than 1931, the infirm Equipoise would likely have been retired. Happily, retiring a colt with such potential, as long as he was fit, was neither the ethos of the time nor the sensibility of Sonny Whitney. And a good thing, too, since The Chocolate Soldier’s campaign as a four year-old was nothing short of spectacular.
Right from the start, the concern was keeping the colt injury-free, since his feet were a constant problem, not unlike the great Northern Dancer, who ran throughout his career on a quarter-crack. But the four year-old had filled out and was otherwise a stronger horse and it didn’t take long before he showed the nation that the old Equipoise was back. In fact, he made his first four wins look so easy that it was hard to believe he was running on delicate feet, taking six in as many starts, including the prestigious Toboggan Handicap, as well as the Metropolitan.
In his seventh start, the Delavan Handicap in Chicago, The Chocolate Soldier met up with a rival of old, the brilliant Jamestown. In fact, the Delavan had been especially designed for the two of them. C. W. Anderson’s account brings the drama of their meeting to life:
“…The weights were 128 for Equipoise and 118 for Jamestown. The track was at its best, and Jamestown shot away from the barrier as if to make a runaway race of it, but he could not open up more than a length or two. The pace became faster as they neared the far turn and still Workman had not asked Equipoise for his best. Not until they were in the stretch did he call on him, and the effect was startling. Already it seemed that they were running at an unbelievable pace, but Equipoise flew past Jamestown in a dozen strides and came to the finish three lengths in front. The time, 1:34 2/5, was a new world’s record. That an ovation greeted the dark chestnut as he came back to the scales is putting it mildly. He was a horse that was more than a horse. He had personality and people felt it. Always a perfect gentleman he was as calm and unconcerned in the winner’s circle as if he had been out for an exercise gallop. Jamestown showed distress from his terrific effort, but Equipoise had evidently not been fully extended.”
His world record-breaking time of 1:34 2/5 for the mile stood as an Arlington track record for twenty-six years and as a world record for twenty. And when Equipoise’s record came to an end, it was a faster track and not a faster horse that did it, according to Anderson.
In his next two starts, the Stars & Stripes Handicap and the Arlington Gold Cup, Equipoise beat the champion filly, Tred Avon (1928), the hardy Dr. Freeland (1926), Gusto(1929) and another rival during his two year-old season, Mate, in the Gold Cup. Then, carrying a 134 lbs. to the 111 of the winner, Plucky Play (1927), the colt was beaten by a short head, breaking a winning streak that had seen him 9 for 9.
Next stop was Saratoga, where The Chocolate Soldier annexed the Wilson and Whitney Stakes. These were both weight for age races, giving Equipoise a break from the bone-crushing weights of the handicap division. The Havre de Grace Handicap under 128 lbs. was his next victory. Burdened by weight, Equipoise lost his final two starts of 1932. But his earnings for 1932 stood at a staggering $107,375 USD — the equivalent of $1,819,915.25 today. More than enough for him to be declared Champion Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year.
As C.W. Anderson notes about horses racing in the handicap division in the early part of the last century, ” For three years, Equipoise was at the top of the handicap division, where the reward for a victory is always more weight. Two- and three-year olds may finish a season undefeated, but that is absolutely impossible for a handicap star. There is a limit to what he can carry, but there is no limit to what the handicappers can put on him. He may be the best horse on the track by twenty lengths and still win less than half his races. This was the road Equipoise had to travel…”
…And, in 1933, Equipoise not only travelled, he positively triumphed.
Winning the Philadelphia, Metropolitan, Suburban and the Arlington handicaps in succession, carrying as much as 135 lbs., it seemed impossible to believe that the chocolate beauty could be conquered, either by the handicappers or chronic foot issues. At this point in his career, the hoof that had sustained the quarter-crack had frequently to be pared down so severely that it was almost to the extent of growing a new hoof. Other researchers who have written about Equipoise claim that he never ran 100% sound. But by the time 1933 had come to a close, the Whitney champ had run up a 7-race winning streak, a feat rarely accomplished by any horse in the Handicap Division. One marvels at his courage and determination, but it’s easy to see why Equipoise was a racing hero of the Depression — and why his mere presence on the track evoked a sense of hopeful anticipation.
The last two years of his racing career saw the burden of being a high weight in the handicap ranks start to tell on The Chocolate Soldier. The quarter-crack was becoming harder and harder to patch up and the Whitney Stable became even more diligent in monitoring his overall condition. But Equipoise loved to race because he lived to dominate his opposition on the track, in spite of his easy going temperament off it. And his fans…..the stands continued to shake each and every time he appeared. But soldiers soldier on, and at six Equipoise won the Philadelphia and Dixie Handicaps, before running in the Metropolitan. It was a tragic race. Chase Me (1929), an undefeated former hunter, much beloved in Maryland, went down while leading the pack home and was euthanized on the track. Equipoise came home first, but was disqualified for banging into Mr. Khayyam (1930).
In the Suburban Handicap Equipoise carried 134 pounds, and although he came to the wire in a blaze, beating War Glory (1930) by ten lengths, it wasn’t enough to stop Ladysman (1930) from edging him out by a nose. After running third in the Narragansett Invitational, Equipoise beat Mr. Khayyam in the Whitney Trophy Handicap. It was enough to earn him a third consecutive Champion Handicap Horse award. At the age of seven, Equipoise ran only three times and all were on the West Coast, beating his old rival Twenty Grand in the Oakwood Handicap, only to again be disqualified for bumping.
Here’s rare footage of Equipoise winning the Whitney Trophy (Gold) Cup in 1934. It was found for us by a VAULT reader, Lorelei! (Just CLICK on the link below. Then, on the site, click on the number 57983 in the red box. You can also make the clip full-screen. Just look for the 2-way arrows at the bottom.)
The Chocolate Soldier ended his career with twenty-nine wins (plus ten seconds and four thirds) in fifty-one starts, and earnings of $338,610 USD.
Sadly, his stud career was short: by 1938, Equipoise was gone. However, out of only four foal crops, the stallion produced the 1942 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, Shut Out (1939), helping to make him America’s leading sire that year. Happily, Equipoise’s story doesn’t end there: he is also the BM sire of Triple Crown winner, Assault (1943), and through a daughter, Alpoise (1937), he is represented in the third generation of the great Tom Fool (1949), who would go on to sire Tim Tam (1955) and Buckpasser (1963).
Anderson, C.W. The Smashers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
EQUIPOISE in The Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame @ http://www.spiletta.com/UTHOF/index.html
“Horses In Arlington’s Hall of Fame” in The Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1989
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