Most thoroughbred folk know about the great Exterminator. But who on earth is Bob Dorman?
I have been a collector since I was a little girl.
It started with rocks and model horses. There was a brief flirtation along the way with old quilts. And then about twenty-five years ago, I went back to thoroughbreds and horses, in the form of original photographs and press photographs. I began with photos of Secretariat and Terlingua, his daughter by Crimson Saint and dam of Storm Cat, then expanded to include Northern Dancer and his descendants. Then I branched out to North American thoroughbred champions.
I’ve been lucky: I got into the market before prices for original press photographs went through the roof. And along the way, I not only satisfied a passion for photography but also learned about thoroughbred racing history and the photographers who recorded it, men like C.C. Cook, L.S. Sutcliffe, Bert Thayer and “Skeets” Meadors, to name but a few.
Sometimes I get lucky, finding a “gem” that is not only a great addition to my collection but also provokes me to question, and to research its provenance.
A few days ago, during a woeful hockey game, I turned on my cell phone and was trawling through EBAY when I came upon this photo (below), for the unlikely sum of $24.99 USD (Buy It Now):
As a collector (of anything) you need to learn pretty fast how to recognize what’s rare and what’s fake. Marked up as it was, the photo was nevertheless stamped 1922 on the back and carried Exterminator’s name, neatly typed, in one corner. This was no fake. Photos of Exterminator are excessively rare, for reasons that simply may have to do with the state of photography of the day. Accordingly, an Exterminator photo can go as high as $500.00 USD in an EBAY auction. I had purchased from this seller over the years, one of a handful of enterprising people who have bought the photo archives of newspapers like the Chicago Tribune or The Baltimore Sun and are selling them on various sites on social media.
Naturally, I bought the photograph and I’m still flushed with delight about defining a photo of Exterminator at a price I can afford. Just before I bought it, I examined the back of the photo again:
There, neatly stamped in the centre was the following: “Photo by/Bob Dorman/Newspaper Enterprise Ass.”
After collecting, researching, reading and writing for over two decades I’ve learned a great deal about press photographs in general, thoroughbred photographs in particular and the photographers who took them. I knew the photo I had just scored at a ridiculous price was rare because I’ve never seen it anywhere before.
Exterminator is an American thoroughbred legend. The gelding raced 99 times and did one exhibition run before his retirement, winning the Kentucky Derby and thoroughly surprising his owner, horseman Willis Sharp Kilmer. Kilmer had purchased “The Goat” (as he sometimes called him) as a three year-old, on the advice of his trainer, Henry McDaniel.
But it was the fancy Sun Briar on whom Kilmer placed his hopes for the 1918 Kentucky Derby. McDaniel and the big, leggy gelding soon developed a relationship based largely on Old Bones’ intelligence and the trainer’s skill at noticing it. Exterminator was a hard-working colt who seemed to know that his job was to get Sun Briar ready for Derby honours. According to some reports, “Old Shang” (his stable name) was intelligent enough to cope with Sun Briar’s mood swings and knew exactly what to do to get his workmate to put in a really good run.
But when Sun Briar was scratched, and after some powerful convincing by Churchill Downs’ President, Colonel Matt Winn, Kilmer finally agreed to enter Exterminator in the Derby as a replacement. The result was a decisive win by a colt his owner didn’t much like. (The silent footage below shows Exterminator winning the 1918 Derby and is the only live footage of this superb champion.)
After his Derby victory, the chestnut was to race until he was nine, taking HOTY in 1922. His victories at eight and nine were probably unprecedented and many would say that Exterminator was the greatest of them all — including Man O’ War. By the time he had retired, this courageous and gritty campaigner had amassed thousands of fans and even today, all these decades later, there are many of us who still adore him.
I am one of those who loves Exterminator. C.C. Cook’s beautiful shot of him hangs above my bed, where his great heart dusts my dreams.
Images of Exterminator tend to be restricted to a few of the greatest equine photographers of the day, making it natural to be intrigued by this new photo I had just acquired by a photographer whose name meant nothing to me.
“Who was Bob Dorman?” I wondered — and what was his connection to Exterminator?
The search was on.
As it turns out, Robert “Bob” Paine Dorman was not only a very fine photographer, but he was a “Battle Photographer Extraordinaire,” according to Benjamin David “Stookie” Allen, a cartoonist best-known for his nationally syndicated series, “Mugsey.” Allen also created the cartoon series “Men of Daring” and “Women of Daring” for Argosy magazine and it is within its pages, on January 19, 1935, that the cartoonist portrayed the career of Robert Paine (spelled “Payne” in the issue) Dorman.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1885, Dorman’s obituary describes him as “a news photographer, 73,[who] had a varied career, covering the Mexican Revolution led by Pancho Villa, the Dempsey-Gibbons fight in 1923 and the first round the world flight of a U.S. Air Corps squadron in 1924.” As it turns out, this is a rather tame description of Dorman’s career.
According to “Skookie” Allen, in 1911 at twenty-six years of age, Dorman “…armed with a camera” set out for Mexico and what he imagined as the excitement of the Mexican Revolution. There, he joined the army of Francisco I. Madero as a Private. He earned no salary in this role, and so became a self-dubbed “unofficial” war correspondent and “sidelines” photographer. One assumes “sidelines” means exactly what it says: accompanying the Mexican revolutionaries into battle and trying not to get yourself killed in the process. But, maybe not…..because Dorman took part in at least two battles (Casa Grande and El Valle) and a number of minor skirmishes with “gun and camera in-hand,” according to Skookie Allen. Dorman may have known and partnered with another American photographer, Otis A. Aultman, who was also there recording the revolution.
Allen continues, “Because of his expert battle photographs, his first-hand reports to American papers, his fighting ability and his sage military advice to Madero, the Federals placed a large reward on his head. He taught Madero the trick of curling up rails …thus hampering the movement of Federal troops.”
By 1915, Dorman had risen to Colonel in Pancho Villa’s forces. He was, reputedly, one of “the few gringos that Villa ever trusted.” Once again, Dorman took gun and camera into combat, fighting in the battles of Tierra Blanca, Ojinaga, Monterey, Torreon, Leon and Zacarecas. While serving with Villa, “Don Roberto” (as he became known) photographed and reported scores of executions. One of these was carried out by “El Carnicero” (“The Butcher”) purely for Dorman’s benefit, since the executioner so respected El Roberto’s skills as a fighter he wanted to demonstrate his own ability to obliterate the enemy.
By 1923 Dorman had moved on, this time to another bloody conflict in Honduras. He clearly had returned to the USA before the Honduras spate, however, since the photo of Exterminator was taken in 1922.
The story of Dorman’s coverage of the first world-flight by the U.S. Air Corps (1924) is colourful, although it doesn’t quite compare with being a Colonel in Pancho Villa’s army.
The Air Corps had landed in Labrador at the end of their mission, and Dorman, then employed by ACME Newspictures, needed to get his glass slides and negatives to New York City as fast as he could manage it if he wanted to be the first to scoop the story.
As his plane was flying over Manhattan’s East River, the photographer threw his slides and negatives overboard. Waiting in a boat on the river was another ACME photographer of merit, Frank Merta, who recovered the bag. The slides had smashed to bits on impact, but the negatives were intact. So Robert Dorman’s images went to press well-ahead of any of the legion of photo journalists who had covered the event.
In 1951 when Dorman retired, he had become the General Manager of ACME Newspictures. Throughout his career, he had somehow found time to marry Mary McConnell and they had two children, Dorothy and Robert G., both of whom are now deceased.
My research still can’t account for how Robert P. Dorman and Exterminator crossed paths in 1922, although it’s a fair bet that the former was assigned to get a picture of the Horse of the Year.
When the photographer came calling on this particular day almost a century ago, I’m guessing that the big chestnut knew he was among equals. You can see it in his eye.
Did you know that on April 26, 2016……there’s a new book about Exterminator?
Allen, Benjamin David “Skookie,” Men of Daring: Robert Payne Dorman, in Argosy magazine, January 15, 1935
Faber, John. Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them. Dover Publications, 2nd Revised Edition, 1978
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