Posts Tagged ‘Imp’

Using history as a guide, if I was shopping for a potential champion, I’d be looking for an “ugly duckling.”


NORTHERN DANCER by Brewer, Jr. The colt was royally bred, but so tiny that E.P. Taylor failed to sell him as a yearling. In fact, potential buyers laughed when he was paraded out with the other yearlings!

Of course, none of the thoroughbreds discussed in this article were ugly. Not literally. But metaphorically, there was something about each one of them that hearkens back to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale: they seemed to be ugly ducklings but what no-one saw at the time was that they were not ducklings at all. Some weren’t good-looking enough. Others took too much time to come into their own. And still others were waiting for a special someone to come along, someone who looked into their eyes and saw who they really were.

The individuals whose stories appear here are only the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” — VAULT readers will certainly be able to name many others who fall into this category.

And it all adds up to this: If there’s any “secret” to finding yourself another Frankel or American Pharoah or Black Caviar or Treve, it has to do with looking “under the feathers.”


Perhaps we can’t help it. Horses are beautiful animals and thoroughbreds can be exquisite. And no matter how often horse folk remind us that beauty and talent don’t necessarily go hand in hand, it’s all too easy to ignore when you’ve got a plain bay standing next to a magnificent chestnut…….


KINCSEM (filly, 1874-1887)

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters.

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters. But it was painted in hindsight, when the world already had learned that she was incomparable, making one doubt its absolute accuracy.

She may well have been the greatest thoroughbred of them all, winning 54 times in as many starts on two different continents. Kincsem took on all comers and was so devastatingly good that she also ran in 6 walkovers when no-one would run against her.

But at her birth, she was declared by her owner-breeder, Ernest Von Blaskovich, to be the ugliest foal that he had ever seen — and most agreed with him. When Von Blaskovich offered the majority of that year’s crop of foals to Baron Orczy, the latter purchased all but two — and one of the rejects was Kincsem.

Here is one fairly accurate description of a thoroughbred that was so brilliant she actually paused to graze before taking off after the others, only to win going away:

She was as long as a boat and as lean as a hungry leopard … she had a U-neck and mule ears and enough daylight under her sixteen hands to flood a sunset … she had a tail like a badly-used mop … she was lazy, gangly, shiftless … she was a daisy-eating, scenery-loving, sleepy-eyed and slightly pot-bellied hussy …” (Beckwith in “Step And Go Together”)

As a broodmare, Kincsem was pretty decent, although she never duplicated herself. But through one of her daughters, she comes down to us today in the bloodlines of Coolmore’s fine colt, Camelot. In her native Hungary, Kincsem is a national hero and a film based on her life (although it appears that the mare isn’t its central protagonist) is due for release in 2016.

For more on this remarkable thoroughbred:


And on the film:



IMP (filly, 1894-1909)

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.


She was the 1899 HOTY and twice won the honours for Champion Handicap Mare (1899 & 1900). She had her own theme song (below): “My Coal Black Lady.” And she was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1965.

But when she came into the world, the tiny daughter of Fondling (1886) by the stallion, Wagner (1882) was looked upon poorly by her owner-breeder because she wasn’t pretty and her conformation showed not the slightest hint of promise. But her owner-breeder, D.R. Harness of Chillicothe, Ohio kept her anyway, perhaps because the fact she was bred in the purple overrode his misgivings. Her ancestry included direct descent from the Darley Arabian, Eclipse and Lexington.

Imp raced an unthinkable number of times: 171. But she won 62 times, with 35 seconds and 29 thirds and raced more against the boys than those of her own sex. She set track records from 1 3/4 to 1 1/16.

By the time she was retired, at the age of eight, she was a national figure.

For more about Imp:



PHAR LAP (gelding, 1926 – 1932)

“Bobby” as he was called by those closest to him, arrived in the stable of trainer Harry Telford looking like a very, very sorry excuse for a racehorse. Which, in turn, precipitated the first crisis in Phar Lap’s biography, unbeknownst to the scrawny, dishevelled colt who had been born in New Zealand and was a son of the promising sire, Night Raid. Trainer Telford had bought Bobby for owner, David J. Davis, who rushed over excitedly to see his latest acquisition. After a moment of silence, Davis went ballistic. The compromise was that Bobby would be leased to Telford for a period of three years, the trainer covering all costs and the owner getting one third of the colt’s earnings. Assuming he could run.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

The rest, as they say, is history: Bobby aka The Red Terror aka Phar Lap (meaning “lightning/bolt of lightning/lights up the sky” in the Thai language) was a champion. His great heart, together with his victories, moved Australia and New Zealand — and the racing world– to fall in love. And, in 2016, we are still in love with him:

Bobby’s risky run @ The Melbourne Cup in 1930 should have been a movie:



WAR ADMIRAL ( colt, 1934-1959)

“Sons of Man O’ War ought to look different,” Mr. Riddle decided, as he looked at Brushup’s new foal. It was a bay colt with no real pizzazz to it …. and it was tiny. Riddle found it impossible to hope for much from the little fellow, who much-resembled his dam. And Brushup had been hopeless as a runner, pretty as she was. Riddle tried, in vain, to hand the colt over to his partner, Walter Jeffords Sr., but when Jeffords refused, it was decided that Brushup’s boy would stay in the Riddle stable until he showed what, if anything, he had as a runner.

War Admiral [2006 Calendar, Nov]


By the time he was a three year-old, Riddle had learned that even though The Admiral was the size of a pony (15.2h) he did, indeed, carry his sire’s blood.

And that blood would show in not only in War Admiral’s Triple Crown, but also in the breeding shed. As a sire, his contribution to the breed was as definitive as was the impact of sons and daughters like Busanda, Busher, Bee Mac, Searching, War Jeep and Blue Peter on the sport itself. War Admiral led the general sire list in 1945, the 2 year-old sire list in 1948 and the broodmare sire list in 1962 and again in 1964.

Although The Admiral’s sons were not influential as sires, both Busanda and Searching made a huge impact. Their descendants include the likes of Swaps, Buckpasser, Numbered Account, Iron Liege, Hoist the Flag, Gun Bow, Striking and Crafty Admiral, as well as two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Other descendants of note from the War Admiral line include Dr. Fager, Alysheba, Cigar and, most recently, Zenyatta.

To this day, breeders point with pride to War Admiral in the lineage of their thoroughbreds. What the name connotes is timeless, synonymous with the very essence of the thoroughbred.

For more on War Admiral:



ZENYATTA (filly, 2004)

As the tale is now famously told, the yearling daughter of Street Cry did not look her best in the sales ring as a yearling, due largely to a case of ringworm. But David Ingordo could see beyond all that. And Ann Moss has recounted how she and the filly seemed to “just click” at first meeting at Keeneland, just as though Zenyatta had chosen her.

When the hammer fell, the filly had been acquired by the Mosses. But she was not their only purchase that year and shortly after their yearlings arrived at Mayberry Farm, they received a call from Jeanne Mayberry. Jeanne had this to say,”Either you bought yourselves some very slow yearlings or else that Street Cry filly is very, very good. Because when they’re out together running, she leaves them all behind as though they aren’t even moving.”

Prophetic words.

But fast as Zenny was, it took time and patience to “get her right,” as the Mosses’ Racing Manager, Dottie Ingordo Sherriffs, has said. But when trainer, John Sherriffs, did get her right, the result was the birth of an American racing legend:

Retired with a record of 19 wins and 1 second place in 20 starts, Zenyatta’s fans have not diminished in the slightest. At this writing, Zenyatta is the only filly/mare to have ever won two different Breeders’ Cup races and the only filly/mare to ever have won the BC Classic.



In any institution, whether a school or a sport like horse racing, it works out a lot better if everyone develops in the same, linear way. Couple that with our love affair with speed — intelligence being linked to quickness and, in the case of thoroughbreds, ability with running fast enough to win, preferably at two — and you have the “cracks” through which genius and greatness all-too-frequently slip ……..


EXTERMINATOR (gelding, 1915 -1945)



EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

The story of “Old Bones” is famous. He’s as legendary a figure in American thoroughbred racing as Man O’ War — and some say he was the best of them all. High praise for a big, coarse gelding who was bought as a rabbity for a flashy colt named Sun Briar, the hope of  Willis Sharpe Kilmer for the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

The man who first saw under the surface of the lanky chestnut with the deep, dark eyes was trainer Henry McDaniel. It was he who studied Bones and Sun Briar as they worked, noting the intelligence of the former at dealing with his moody running mate. And when Sun Briar couldn’t run in the Derby — and after considerable lobbying by McDaniel and Colonel Matt Winn, the President of Churchill Downs — Kilmer agreed to let the ugliest of his horses run instead. And so it was that Exterminator stepped on to a muddy track and transformed, in three minutes, from an ugly duckling to a Swan King.

To read more about Exterminator: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/a-collectors-mystery-exterminator-and-bob-dorman/


DISCOVERY (colt, 1931- 1958)


Discovery, a brilliant runner and outstanding broodmare sire, won Horse of the Year in 1935 over Omaha. Discovery appears 4X5X4 in Ruffian's pedigree.

DISCOVERY on the track. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

The son of Display had a brilliant, dazzling chestnut coat and lots of chrome. Born at Walter J. Salmon’s Mereworth Farm and owned by Adolphe Pons, the colt was impressively bred and ran head-first into the accompanying expectations. Predictably, he disappointed, winning only 2 of 13 starts as a two year-old.

At three he appeared again, looking fit enough. However, among the 3 year-olds that year was a colt named Cavalcade, who had already beaten Discovery the year before. In the Derby, Discovery chased Cavalcade home; in the Preakness, he finished third to High Quest and Cavalcade.

But Discovery was just getting going. He went on that same year to win the Brooklyn and Whitney Handicaps, and then set a world record time for 1 3/16 miles in the Rhode Island Handicap.

But his finest years were at four and five. In 1935, the colt won 11 of 19 starts, carrying an average of 131 lbs., gaining him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” Retrospectively named 1935 Horse of the Year (over Triple Crown winner, Omaha) and throughout 1936, Discovery’s winning ways continued. Of his Whitney win, the New York Times wrote that the chestnut ran “…the most decisive victory to be scored in a big American stake in many years.”

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

As a sire, it was Discovery’s daughters who gave him purchase on immortality, producing the great Native Dancer, Bold Ruler and Bed O’ Roses.


SEABISCUIT (colt, 1933-1947)

Rejected outright as a colt foal because of his size and conformation, the little son of Hard Tack languished as a runner until he hooked up with trainer Tom Smith, who could see right through the disguise. In Smith’s hands, “The Biscuit” blossomed into a horse with fire in his blood. It was the Depression Era: a good time for a hero to come along. Especially one who had once been “not good enough,” through no fault of his own. He battled back from defeat. He battled back from injury. And he taught America how to look a setback straight in the eye — and vanquish it.

Enjoy this rare footage of The Biscuit at work and play:


RED RUM (gelding, 1965- 1995)



RED RUM at work on the beach. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun

RED RUM at work on the sands of Southport, England. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun


“Beloved”  is probably the first response when someone speaks his name. Or “Immortal.” Something like that.

In its long, distinguished history the National Hunt has known many great horses, but none who rose to the standard of Red Rum. He was, quite simply, the greatest steeplechaser who ever lived.

By the time Donald “Ginger” McCain got his hands on the bay gelding, he had won a few one-mile races over the flat before being passed from one training yard to another. The horse who had descended from the great St. Simon, and whose name originated from the last three letters of his dam (Mared) and sire (Quorum) was never going to amount to much, running in cheap races with modest purses.

GINGER McCAIN WITH RED RUM PICTURED AT HIS STABLES BEHIND SECOND HAND CAR SHOWROOM. SOUTHPORT 1975. pic by George Selwyn,119 Torriano Ave,London NW5 2RX.T:+44 (0)207 267 6929 M: 07967 030722 email: george@georgeselwyn.co.uk Vat no:3308110 05

Ginger McCain with RED RUM, pictured at his stables behind his used car dealership in Southport, 1975. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

The first thing that McCain set out to do was to rehabilitate the gelding, who suffered from the incurable disease, pedal osteitis, a disease of the pedal bone. (This was discovered after the trainer paid a goodly sum for “Rummy” on behalf of owner, Noel le Mare.) The “cure” was swimming and long works on the beaches of Southport. And it worked miracles. Red Rum blossomed into a tough, rugged individual. (It should be noted that Ginger adored Rummy and the horse was never put at-risk in any of his races, unlike the situation when he was running on the flat.)

The result was not one, but three, wins in the Aintree Grand National, arguably the greatest test of any horse’s courage and stamina in the world. His first win came at a time when the Grand National was flirting with extinction. It needed a hero and it got one, in the form of a thoroughbred once-destined to run on the flat until he could run no more, and a used car salesman who “also” trained National Hunt horses — and saw something quite different in his Champion’s eye:


JOHN HENRY (gelding, 1975-2007)

“For the first two years of his life, John Henry had been peddled like a cheap wristwatch.” (Steve Haskin, in John Henry in the Thoroughbred Legends series)

JOHN HENRY at work.

JOHN HENRY at work.

To say he was “difficult” doesn’t even come close: for what ever reason, John had a nasty disposition, despite his workmanlike performances on the track. It would take trainers (and there were many) like Phil Amato and Ron McNally to work their way around temperament issues to gain the gelding’s trust before the John Henry we now know and admire emerged.

In his 3 year-old season, there were glimmers of ability. But from 1980 to his final win, at the ripe old age of nine, John Henry turned out to be the stuff of greatness. And not only was it his “arrival” as a turf star: John’s rags-to-riches story captivated fans who even today, almost nine years after his death, still revere his memory. Indeed, for many, John Henry is one of a pantheon of superstars, right up there with Exterminator, Man O’ War, Secretariat, Ruffian and American Pharoah.

By the time he was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, John had twice won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year (1981, 1984), with 39 wins in 83 starts and earnings of over six million dollars USD. His 1981 election as Horse of the Year was unanimous and at the time, unprecedented for a nominee to receive all votes cast. In addition, John was inducted into the American Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.


ISTABRAQ (gelding, 1992)

Unlike John Henry (above), whose bloodlines were blue collar, Istabraq came from a royal line: a son of Sadler’s Wells (Northern Dancer) whose dam, Betty’s Secret, was a daughter of Secretariat. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum.

The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty's Secret (Secretariat).

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty’s Secret (Secretariat).

The colt foal seemed to understand from the very beginning that he was “someone special.” And indeed he was destined to be — but it took time.

The colt’s name was Sindhi for “brocade” but the weave of him proved inferior on the flat, where he managed only 2 wins. His jockey, the great Willie Carson, described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”

As a three year-old, he developed foot problems. He was, in fact, flat-footed, making shoeing him a problem. When Istabraq refused to quicken in his last race as a three year-old, despite Carson’s aggressive ride, Sheikh Hamdan let trainer John Gosden know that it was enough: Istabraq was to be sold.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey before becoming an assistant trainer to the great John Gosden.

When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him.

“He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.

"No soft

“He is no soft flat horse…” Durkan counselled J. P. McManus. And you see it here, in the power as ISTABRAQ launches, even though he’s a good distance from the hurdle.

But the young Durkan would soon be beset with tragedy, although not before watching his beloved gelding take ten hurdle races in a row from 1996-1997. Durkan was battling cancer and was shipped to Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York City; Aidan O’Brien took over training duties. By 1998, John was dying and moved home to Ireland, succumbing on the night of January 21, 1998.

Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, was a national hero and thousands turned out to watch him begin his 6 year-old season in grand style at Leopardstown:

And then this gallant thoroughbred just went on and on and on, beginning with a win two months later at Cheltenham in what would be the first of three wins in the Champion Hurdle:

Retired in 2002, Istabraq is now in the fourteenth year of a happy retirement at his owner, J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud. There, the horse who was voted in 2009 the favourite of the last 25 years by the Irish people, hangs out with his BFF, Risk of Thunder, and continues to greet fans who visit from all over the world:

For more about Istabraq, one of Secretariat’s greatest descendants: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/secretariats-heart-the-story-of-istabraq/



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Imagine a filly you can throw anything at ….. and she comes home in the money 126 times.  

IMP, aka THE COAL BLACK LADY, pictured as a juvenile in the Turf and Sport Digest.

IMP, aka THE COAL BLACK LADY, pictured as a juvenile in the 1955 Turf and Sport Digest.

In his seminal book “Racing In America: 1866-1921,” W.S. Vosburgh confers pride of place to three of the greatest fillies to ever race in North America: the bay dynamo, Miss Woodford (1880), the diminutive great-grandaughter of Stockwell, Firenze (usually spelled “Firenzi” in racing texts of the day) who was born in 1884, and the pride of the Buckeye State, Imp (1894). Vosburgh wasn’t noted for handing out compliments blithely. He served as a track official, as well as establishing himself as an authority on thoroughbred conformation and bloodlines. Vosburgh’s assertion that Miss Woodford, Firenze and Imp swept all before them is not to be taken lightly, since he was committed to the development of the American thoroughbred and noted for his shrewd analysis of the champions of the day.

Little FIRENZE (FIRENZI) earned $100,000 before her retirement. Racing in the years following MISS WOODFORD'S retirement, FIRENZE was without question one of the greatest fillies of the nineteenth century in America.

Little FIRENZE (FIRENZI) earned $100,000 during her career. Racing in the years following MISS WOODFORD’S retirement, FIRENZE was without question one of the greatest fillies of the nineteenth century in America.

Imp was bred and owned by D.R. Harness of Chillicothe, Ohio, a horseman distinguished by the victory of his General Duke (1865) in the 1868 Belmont Stakes, a success story of the then McConnell-Harness Stable in which he was part owner. Imp was an ungainly foal, but in spite of this Harness kept her, perhaps because she was bred in the purple. A direct descendant of both the Darley Arabian and Eclipse, Imp’s sire was the British stallion Wagner (1882), a grandson of Prince Charlie (1869), who traced his roots back to Blair Athol (1861). Prince Charlie’s best progeny was undoubtedly Salvator (1886), although Exterminator(1915) also traced back to him on the distaff side. Imp’s dam, Fondling (1886) who only raced once before sustaining a career-ending injury was a Harness homebred. The mare traced back to Lexington (1850) through her granddam, Kitty Heron (1875), who was by another Harness champion, Chillicothe (1867).The black filly with the white star on her brow was Fondling’s first foal.

Harness turned Imp over to trainer Charles E. Brossman, another Ohio native, even though he doubted that she had any real talent. Imp had an eccentric personality — going to work, she appeared indifferent. Once urged to breeze, her leggy, developing body took time to gather and organize itself. And when she ran, Imp kept her head low to the ground, loping along in a seemingly half-conscious state. Had he known about the idol of Hungarian racing, KINCSEM (1874), Harness might have seen Imp’s odd sensibility and running style as a precursor of greatness.

It was said that KINCSEM ran low to the ground, as she is pictured here and kept her head down until she hit the finish, ears whirling like egg-beaters.

It was said that KINCSEM also ran low to the ground, as pictured here, keeping her head down until she hit the finish, ears whirling like egg-beaters.

IMP descended from the great British thoroughbred, BLAIR ATHOL, who won the Epsom Derby on his very first appearance on the turf. He followed that up with a win in the St. Leger.

IMP descended from the great British thoroughbred, BLAIR ATHOL, who won the Epsom Derby on his very first appearance on the turf. He followed that up with a win in the St. Leger.

It was probably just as well that there weren’t high expectations for Imp, since her juvenile season gave no hint of what was to come. The filly did, however, manage to win 4 of her 11 starts.

The three year-old Imp was a stronger, fitter filly who had filled out enough to persuade her trainer to step up her racing schedule: between April 1 -November 15 she went to the post 50 times, averaging 3 starts about every two weeks. In her final race of the year, the rich Lakeside Handicap, Imp won by 15 lengths. Throughout 1897, she had run in everything from sprints to longer courses, her best performances being 1:13 1/4 (6f) and 1:26 3/4 (in a dash @ 7/8). Even though she carried enough weight that an impost of 90 lbs. was considered “a feather,” Imp was in the money 35 times, winning 14.

Following a brief rest, Imp returned in 1898 looking so superb that she was described as “…one of the fanciest pieces of horseflesh ever seen” and “the Ohio mare with the black satin coat.” Trainer Brossman, who split all winnings with owner Harness, had mapped out an even more arduous campaign for his four year-old star. And Imp obliged, winning her first 4 starts over distances of 5 1/2f  to 1 mile 50 yards. Carrying imposts as high as 119 lbs., she nevertheless set a track record going the mile and fifty. Brossman, described by Vosburgh as “a man of talent and education, who brought her [Imp] through a campaign that reflected the greatest credit to him” was beginning to wonder whether the West could offer his mare the kind of competition that builds a thoroughbred’s stamina.

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track in Chicago. The filly had blossomed into a beauty and her solid, sensible conformation only made her appearance on the track even more sensational. Courtesy of the Ross County Historical Society.

Sure enough, in less than two months, Imp had captured 10 of 11 starts. At this point, she had run out of any serious opposition, prompting Brossman to bring her to New York where, for the very first time (in the New York Times) she was hailed as “The Queen of the West.” The aim was for The Queen to capture The Suburban, which carried the exceedingly rich purse of $10,000. Handicapped by 102 lbs., plus another 4 for a recent victory at Sheepshead Bay, Imp went to the post. A sixteenth of a mile from the wire, it appeared that she would win it. But just as suddenly, the great black body began to tire and she finished sixth, even though she was only beaten by less than 4 lengths.

However disappointed he may have been, Brossman was quick to start her again and the track officials were as nimble: Imp ran carrying 135 lbs. in a race she very likely could not win since, to quote one observer, “…she found the burden too troublesome.” Imp’s trainer was sufficiently enraged by her impost to ship his entire stable to Chicago. Once there, the Queen of the West continued to race: in her two final starts of the year — run back-to-back in November — Imp carried 125 lbs. to place and then bounced back the very next day to take the Lakeside Handicap in what the chart noted as “…a common canter by 6 lengths.”  At the close of her 4 year-old season, Imp had started 35 times, winning 21, with 6 seconds and 3 thirds. She was given a rest while Brossman plotted her 1899 campaign, the crowning jewel of which was to be a win in the rich Suburban.

Imp seemed to find it tough going at the start of her 5 year-old season: it took her seven attempts before she found her way into the winners circle, four weeks before the Suburban Handicap. Running under the highest weight and giving 17-35 lbs. to her competition, she nevertheless won a 9f. race at Morris Park by a length going away. Were she running today, Imp probably wouldn’t even have been started in the Suburban, but Brossman not only started her, he ran her five more times at Gravesend before she appeared on the track at Sheepshead Bay to make her second attempt at a race that had never been won by a filly or mare before.

IMP with her groom, TOM TANDY. Although precious little is known about either Tom or his relationship with the champion, it would seem that he was her greatest admirer and very likely her one close friend. Photo and copyright, Ohio Historical Society.

IMP with her groom, TOM TANDY. Although precious little is known about either Tom or his relationship with the champion, it would seem that he was her greatest admirer and very likely her one close friend. Courtesy of the Ross County Historical Society.

Her groom, Tom Tandy, never doubted that she would win and was her greatest fan. Tom knew his big black mare better than anyone and the kind look in Imp’s eye whenever Tom is near speaks louder than words. He was the man who washed her down, hot-walked her, fed her and travelled with her from track to track. His life was a hard one but Imp must have brightened it with the kind of glow a man carries when he’s loved a champion thoroughbred. The little we know about Tom comes, once again, from W.S. Vosburgh whose shrewd eye missed very little when it came to horses and the people around them. It was the groom’s habit to stand close to the rail when Imp ran and, as the field streamed by, he would shout to her jockey, ” Let her sleep! Don’t wake her up!” — a reference to Imp’s deceptive, somnolent racing style that nevertheless allowed her to pick off the competition and get home well ahead of most of the field. W.S. Vosburgh goes on to say that as Imp became a racing idol, Tom Tandy was sought out by racegoers, punters and sports writers alike. (NOTE: In fact, Vosburgh never referred to Imp’s groom by name, although the New York Times [December 23, 1900] names Tom Tandy as Imp’s “rubber” and associates him directly with the call to “Let her sleep,” adding that Tom’s view was that Imp did her best running when “sleeping.” The same article goes on to say that when Imp heard Tom calling out the familiar phrase she quickened and usually won. In another account of the great mare’s career, her groom’s name is given as Heber. This kind of confusion isn’t unusual when we look into the past. It is possible that Heber and Tom Tandy were both close companions of Imp. It’s also possible that the source of the Heber account was mistaken. What we do know is that Tom Tandy is the groom most pictured with Imp.)

The cast of the 1899 Suburban was the cream of the East: Bannockburn (1895), Warrenton (1895), Previous (1895), Black Candle (1895) and the great Banastar (1895), who had already defeated the Queen of the West twice that year, in the Toboggan and the Metropolitan Handicap, respectively. Happily for her connections, Imp was given an impost of only 114 lbs. which was fortuitous given the events of that day.

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A sketch of BANASTAR, who was one of the best 3 year-olds of 1899, after his win in the Brooklyn Handicap.

Nash Turner, who would jockey Imp in her 1899 Suburban run cut a dashing figure.

NASH TURNER, who would jockey IMP in her 1899 Suburban run, cut a dashing figure.

The track was a hub of activity well before the Suburban was run and would, in fact, break attendance records. Although many of the racing elite were in absentia, the crowd swelled and betting reached an almost hysterical peak before the horses paraded onto the track. Imp ambled out, the handsome Nash Turner on her back, her black coat gleaming. She cut a stately figure in spite of her habitual look of being half-asleep. Those seeing her for the first time might very well have wondered what all the fuss was about, but what they didn’t realize was that when the sleepy lady was awoken she made her competition look as though they were swimming in treacle.

At the starting point, things went amuck as W.C. Whitney’s George Keene (1895) threw a fit that had an onerous effect on the champion colt, Banastar. The filly Briar Sweet (1895) added to the chaos. It took eight tries before the field was sent on its way, a delay of almost 45 minutes. Between starts, Turner opted to rest one leg on a fence post, thus lightening Imp’s burden significantly.

At the break, Banastar was left at the post and once off, bolted sharply, ruining his chances of winning. His jockey, Maher, pulled out his whip and began beating the colt over the head so savagely that he would be fined $200 and banned for 10 days by the track officials for abusing his mount. (Whitney’s George Keene was banned for the whole race meeting, on the grounds that his trainer had “…failed to teach him to break properly, as other horses were taught to do.”)

Incredibly, two of the triad of trouble-makers — Briar Sweet and George Keene —  led at the mile turn, with Imp and the colt Filligrane in stalking position right behind them. At this point, Turner saw that he needed to move Imp off the rail, and digging his heels into her they moved to the outside and at the leaders. Imp, with Nash flapping the reins and working her furiously, was ahead at the final turn when Bannockburn came calling. But, as it was described in the New York Times, “…Imp…seemed to have the wings of the wind to help her busy feet along.” The Queen of the West “…came on with a marvellously easy stride that ate up space rapidly and acting as though she could go a couple of miles further, should that be necessary” Imp turned for home, 2 lengths in the lead.

Turner’s eyes were riveted on the finish line. Just as Imp reached it, there was a loud crash: spectators in the infield had torn down the fence and were pouring onto the track. Even though the first three horses were across the finish, a wall of oncoming horses bore down on fans streaming towards the winner. There was much screaming and blowing of whistles but, miraculously, neither person nor horse was injured.

IMP'S Suburban Win as reported in the San Francisco Call.

IMP’S Suburban win as reported in the San Francisco call.

Imp had not only won the Suburban, she also became the first filly/mare to do so AND she ran the fastest 10f in the stakes’ history, cruising across the finish in a time of 2:05 4/5. Harness, Brossman, Tom Tandy and other Ohioans present fairly ripped out their lungs cheering her into the winner’s circle to the tune of “My Coal Black Lady,” played by Lander’s uniformed band. (NOTE: Different accounts differ as to when “My Coal Black Lady” was first played. The New York Times reported that Turner was lifted up on the shoulders of the crowd to the tune of “All Hail The Chief.” Presumably, Lander’s band could have played both tunes that day. Regardless, it is around this time that Imp and the song that was to become her theme are first associated.)

After the Suburban, Imp would often be called “The Coal Black Lady” and her theme song accompanied her into the winner’s circle every race thereafter. Below is an old music box playing “My Coal Black Lady” as it sounded in the late 1800’s.

Although she struggled in two of her next three starts following the Suburban, by June of 1899 Imp was back in form. Remaining in the East, the Coal Black Lady gave Landers and his band lots of opportunity to play her song. In 14 starts, Imp won 8. Her brilliance flashed again in the Brighton Handicap, where, giving weight to champion colts Ethelbert (1896) and Bangle (1895), she came home in 2:05 2/3, smashing still another stakes record. Imp and her connections were now racing royalty and the handsome mare had groupies who followed her from track to track. Newspapers swelled with stories, gossip and rumours about Imp and her entourage, at times to their despair. Brossman came in for much criticism over the fact that he seemed to pick second-rate jockeys to ride the mare, to which he retorted, “I pick jockeys who will ride Imp exactly as I tell them.”

But Imp wasn’t quite finished with her 5 year-old campaign. In what was the best racing season of her career, she won the Ocean Handicap with ease and, carrying 128 lbs., went on to annex the Turf Handicap. One of her final races was the Double Event, involving two races at 10f and 12f, respectively, run at Gravesend over a span of a few days. Since its beginnings in 1886, only three horses — Kingston (1884), Lamplighter (1889) and Ben Brush (1893) — had managed to win it, all champion colts. In 1899, Imp became the fourth  — and the first filly/mare — to win the Double, under the guidance of jockey Pete Clay. She concluded her 5 year-old season by winning the Islip and with that win, completed a year of racing that had put paid to the very best thoroughbreds racing in New York state with a consistency that was stunning, earning her Horse of the Year.

Another shot of IMP, date unknown.

Another shot of IMP, date unknown.

It would be fair to say that Imp’s 6 year-old season was a roller coaster ride. The black mare with the whimsical personality and heart of a lioness was no longer a girl — and she had already gone to the start an astonishing 122 times.  Her 1900 season began with a string of defeats, in part as a result of carrying weights as high as 133 lbs. and of meeting colts and fillies that were half her age. There were other times when she was absolutely brilliant — at Aqueduct where, having given the advantage to the superstar Jean Beraud (1896), easily the best colt that season, Imp pushed him so hard that he only managed to beat her by a whisker. And in her return  to run in the Brighton Handicap, she set a sizzling pace, losing to Ethelbert by the tip of her nose.

ETHELBERT edging out IMP (who had led most of the way) in the 1900 Brighton Cup. This depiction of the mare's running style owes more to accuracy than artistry. IMP did, in fact, run very low to the ground.

ETHELBERT edging out IMP (who had led most of the way) in the 1900 Brighton Cup. This depiction of the mare’s running style owes more to accuracy than artistry. IMP did, in fact, run very low to the ground.

That year, Imp smouldered in the Advance Stakes, which she won by 30 lengths, setting a new American and world track record going 1 3/4 miles. The final win of her career came in the Mahopac Handicap, although she continued on, always valiantly, facing whatever conditions were thrown at her. The press began to refer to her as “The Old Mare” and pressure was put on trainer and owner to retire her.

By the time she was led off the track for good in 1901, this amazing mare had started 171 times with a career record of 62 wins, 35 seconds and 29 thirds and earnings of $70,119 (approx.). It was hard, hard work for total earnings that, by 1951, were six times less than for a winner of just one race of the calibre of the Suburban Handicap. Today it seems even more unreal.

Imp set records over 1 1/16, 1 1/4, 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 miles and defeated the most important colts of her era. But her most important contribution was undoubtedly to the sport itself, which she made thrilling for punters and fans alike, race after race.

In 1965 Imp was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

IMP pictured outside the

IMP pictured outside the Pioneer Bowling Alleys, likely taken in 1899. Courtesy of the Ross County Historical Society.


Kindly forwarded by a VAULT reader recently:

“Imp was originally buried on what was Hamburg Place Stud owned by John E. Madden. Mr. Madden began a horseshoe shaped cemetery on the farm for his most cherished racers – thoroughbred and standardbred. In 2005, due to encroaching development, the cemetery was moved from it’s original location to another spot off of Sir Barton Way in Lexington, Ky. I discovered this information by accident a few years ago and my husband and I were able to visit the cemetery on one of our trips to Lexington in 2013. Interestingly, the cemetery is located at the bottom of a Walmart parking lot. Busy Sir Barton Way is on the other side. What surprised us was how peaceful the little cemetery is even in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of every day life. There’s a sweet paved trail to walk along from the parking lot with lots of trees and a little creek meandering past. The cemetery itself is surrounded by a brick wall and the original iron gate from Hamburg Place. To be completely honest, I’m not sure that Imp’s or any of the other horse remains actually made it in the move. I wondered while we were there if only the grave markers were moved. Regardless, I decided to not let that detract from my visit to the mighty Imp; she was there in spirit whether her earthly remains were or not. While it’s sad to think of the once great Hamburg Place property being reduced to Walmart’s and urban sprawl, I was very thankful that someone during the process of development took the time to recognize the importance of keeping this grand horse cemetery intact. The next time you have a chance to visit Lexington, Ky, I highly recommended taking this little detour to visit the cemetery.”


Below, a golden oldie of the running of the Gravesend Cup (Brooklyn Handicap) at Sheepshead Bay in 1904, won by The Picket (1900). Note how long it takes the track officials to line the horses up…..and we wonder if the cameraman was buried under the dust as the horses rushed by. It sure looks that way! Imp had been retired by then, but the footage still gives viewers a look at Sheepshead Bay as it was when The Coal Black Lady raced there:


Vosburgh, W.S. Racing In America: 1866-1921. NY: The Jockey Club.

O’Keefe, John. The Queen of the West in Turf and Sport Digest, 1952.

Duke, Jacqueline, ed. Women of the Year. Lexington, Kentucky: Blood-Horse Publications, 2004.

Archives of the New York Times, and the San Francisco call (Library of Congress)

A very special thank you to the staff of the Ross County Historical Society for permission to include photographs of Imp from their collection in this article.

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