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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.

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.”

“UGLY DUCKLINGS” #1: TOO UGLY TO EVER BE A CHAMPION

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:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/kincsem-the-mystery-and-majesty-of-an-immortal/

And on the film:

http://www.euronews.com/2015/10/06/multi-million-dollar-hungarian-movie-hopes-to-compete-with-hollywood/

 

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:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/my-coal-black-lady/

 

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:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/bribes-threats-bullets-phar-laps-melbourne-cup-1930/

 

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:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/war-admiral-the-little-horse-who-could-and-did-for-john-shirreffs/

 

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.

 

“UGLY DUCKLINGS” #2: STANDING IN THE SHADOWS

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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I have wanted to write about this great thoroughbred since THE VAULT first opened its doors, but the available information about KINCSEM was scarce and, well, boring…..

Then three great finds and one great “horse source” changed everything. The source was the fabulous website, COLIN’S GHOST ( http://colinsghost.org ) which I read with devotion. Its writer recommended a book called “STEP AND GO TOGETHER” by B.K. Beckworth (1967: A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc.), which I promptly hunted down on abebooks.com (international online bookseller who offers just about everything in print @ reasonable prices). “STEP AND GO TOGETHER” is indeed a little treasure, featuring stories by B.K. Beckwith that first appeared in THE CALIFORNIA THOROUGHBRED.  Within its pages, I was delighted to find Kincsem’s story, which Beckwith wove together using German sources, particularly Philipp Alles, a find that hadn’t been accessible to English researchers since Alles’ account of Kincsem had never been translated into English. (In fact, it may only still be available in German today.)  

Another invaluable (book) source proved to be Charles Justice’s “The Greatest Horse Of All: A Controversy Examined” in which I found the information cited here about Kincsem’s race record, annual racing schedules and imposts the great filly carried. 

A less sensational, but essential, discovery was a Hungarian to English translator. KINCSEM is a Hungarian thoroughbred and much is written about her in her native Hungarian. The translator helped me to read sources I otherwise would have found inaccessible. 

Without these resources, the article would have been much less than it became. 

KINCSEM'S sire, CAMBUSCAN (1861)

KINCSEM’S sire, CAMBUSCAN (1861)

The tale of The Ugly Duckling is a family classic. And the story, of course, is about a swan who was mistaken for a duck and who had to learn that he wasn’t so much an unacceptable duck as he was “a bird of a different colour.” Kincsem’s story is much like the tale of the little cygnet who transformed into a swan. And, as if that’s not enough, Kincsem’s life also features some unique twists on standard heroic myth.

Heroic myths begin with either a confused line of descent or an incident which results in losing one’s parents. In other words, all our heroes/heroines need to be orphaned, in order for them to tell their own stories of courage and resolve. And although Water Nymph’s daughter wasn’t literally orphaned, the dispute over Kincsem’s lineage gives her the kind of muddy beginnings that portend a heroine of mythic proportions.

…The filly was, by all accounts, not much to look at. That was the kind way to say it. Those attending her dam, Water Nymph, despaired: as tiny as she was, the filly foal was downright ugly.

Although some accounts of Kincsem’s birth, notably that of Horace Wade, claim that she was bred in Hungary by Prince Esterhazy, it was in fact a Mr. Ernest von Blascovich who owned and bred her. But something went awry when Kincsem was conceived: her dam had been booked to Buccaneer (1857) but as a result of a misunderstanding, she was covered by Cambuscan (1861) instead. By Newminster (1848), whose dam, the incomparable Beeswing (1833), was a heroine of the turf during her racing days, Cambuscan was a respected stallion. He just wasn’t supposed to meet up with Water Nymph.

Water Nymph (or Waternymph), Kincsem’s dam, was either the daughter of an illustrious  mare named Catherina  (according to Philipp Alles, quoted in Beckwith) or  the daughter of The Mermaid (1833) {according to the majority of English pedigree sites}. However, all the sources consulted do agree that Kincsem’s broodmare sire was the British stallion, Cotswold (1853), who was imported to Germany in 1858.

And it was in this haze of happenchance that the liver chestnut filly foal came into the world on March 17, 1874. She was born at the Hungarian National Stud, whose patrons included the leading horsewoman of her day, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. The best of the best were bred at the Hungarian National Stud; it was the home of Hungarian thoroughbreds destined for immortality.

A steel engraving of KINCSEM. Date unknown.

A steel engraving of KINCSEM. Date unknown.

The humans surveying Water Nymph and her filly foal clearly believed that beauty was a kind of magic talisman. A magic that Kincsem would seem to have been denied. But whether she was as ugly as some reports contend is a matter of debate, like so many other details of her life.

For example, stories are told of de Blascovich selling the colts and fillies born in Kincsem’s year as a lot, to one Baron Orczy. Orczy took all of them except two — and Kincsem was one of the pair he rejected as “too common-looking.” So it was by still another intervention of fate that Kincsem remained under de Blascovich’s ownership at all.

One tale about Kincsem’s early life that appears consistently in almost everything written about her is that she was stolen by gypsies from de Blascovich’s stable when a juvenile-in-training. The stable was shocked to discover that Kincsem was gone. In fact, she was the only horse missing.  She was eventually located by the police in a gypsy camp and when the culprit was asked why he had snatched such a plain-looking horse, he replied: ” Gypsy gold does not chink and glitter. It gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark. This filly may not be as handsome as the others, but she will prove the greatest of them all ” (as recounted by Horace Wade).

Rudolph Valentino in white flannels with a young Horace Wade in 1925. Wade was a child prodigy who went on to author some 800 articles and books on horse racing, He also served as the General Manager at River Downs.

Rudolph Valentino in white flannels with a young Horace Wade in 1925. Wade was a child prodigy who went on to author some 800 articles and books on horse racing, He also served as the General Manager at River Downs.

Kincsem’s name (pronounced ‘kink-chem’) reflects the impact that the gypsy’s prediction had on her owner: in translation, Kincsem means “my treasure,” “my precious one,” “darling.” However moved he might have been by the gypsy’s prophecy, de Blascovich started Kincsem at two in Germany, worried that she might bring shame to his stable and reputation. And you couldn’t really blame him:

” 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”)

A popular, though less-than-flattering, painting of Kincsem during her racing years.

A popular, though less-than-flattering, painting of KINCSEM during her racing years. However, as appreciation for her grows, KINCSEM’s representation by artists and sculptors becomes more flattering. See, for example, her portrayal with trainer HESP, which follows.

Kincsem more or less went to post on June 26, 1876: in the absence of anything vaguely resembling a starting gate, the filly wasn’t forced to fly. So she waited awhile. But when Kincsem finally decided to run, it was all over for the rest of the field: she won by 12 lengths. In her second start, she was sent off against a field that included Germany’s best colt, Double Zero (1873). Not that it mattered: Kincsem won by daylight. (Double Zero would go on to win the German Derby that same year.) She ran eight more races, winning them all, and concluded her 2 year-old campaign with 10 wins in 10 different cities in 3 different countries. The average rest between races was slightly more than 14 days and in her debut year, Kincsem won at distances from 4 f. to 8 f.  (Ten would have been considered a reasonable number of races in the late 1800’s; in fact, some of the greats who ran before Kincsem raced as many as 20+ times in their juvenile season. )

KINCSEM, pictured here with her trainer, ROBERT HESP.

KINCSEM, pictured here with her English trainer, ROBERT HESP. HESP served as a huntsman and a member of the Secret Service in Hungary, as well as a trainer of thoroughbreds.

The filly was quickly becoming a Hungarian notable. No-one cared that she wasn’t as dazzling as Eclipse, who figured in her pedigree, as did many other thoroughbred giants. Kincsem seemed to overflow with personality and her antics won her the love and admiration of all who saw her.  The filly put on quite the show for her enamoured Hungarian racing fans in one of her last starts at 2.

Alles’ reports that Kincsem habitually walked to the start looking like “… an old gal with rheumatoid arthritis,” ears flapping and neck bobbing.  On this day, she wasn’t really thinking about racing, as her young jockey, Elijah Madden, a native of Manchester, England who rode her for 42 of her races, would later confess: in fact, she was thinking about grazing. At the start, Kincsem found a succulent plot and began to munch away. After repeated attempts to get her into line, the starter gave up and let the field go. Kincsem just stood there, chewing thoughtfully and watching the other horses recede into the distance. Then, suddenly, she seemed to decide that it was time to move and was off after them. She won with ease — some said with a mouthful of grass still hanging from her lip — and the crowd went wild.

As she was led into the winner’s circle, de Blascovich unwittingly added still another quirk to his already-quirky filly’s repertoire by fastening a bouquet of flowers to Kincsem’s bridle. In all of her subsequent races, Kincsem would refuse to enter the winner’s circle until she had received her customary flowers. Philipp Alles’ (in Beckwith) adds: ” On one occasion de Blascovich forgot them and she refused to be unsaddled until he hurried off to buy some {flowers}”

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.

KINCSEM ran low to the ground, as she is pictured here, keeping her head down until she hit the finish, ears whirling like egg-beaters. This manner of running, combined with her long body, effectively cut down on resistance and allowed her to eat up the ground in bounding strides as she accelerated.

Kincsem’s “come from behind” style never really deviated, although she gave a new definition to the term as a result of the mind-boggling advantage she gave her opponents at the start. It’s easy to imagine how she won the hearts of fans across Europe and in the UK when we think about the sheer excitement of watching famous thoroughbreds of today like Secretariat or Zenyatta, who also appeared to favour coming from well off the pace. And, whereas today we would say that thoroughbreds who run this way are always courting potential disaster, covering huge distances to get to the lead never fizzed on Kincsem.

Forty-four races lay before her and Kincsem became a veteran of railroad travels. She seemed to love travelling, watching contentedly from her box as field and town rolled by. Throngs of admirers habitually appeared to greet her and Kincsem acknowledged their affection with a regal dip of her head. Of course, she had her own railway car, which she welcomed with a spirited neigh. But she refused to board it without the company of her two very best friends: a stableboy named Frankie and a cat named Csalogany. In typical mythic tradition, some sources maintain that Frankie was, in fact, Kincsem’s trainer, although extant paintings of the great filly seem to picture Robert Hesp in that role. But there was without question a boy named Frankie with whom Kincsem shared a deep, loving bond and Frankie accompanied her everywhere, caring for her every need. The lad was known to the racing public as “Frankie Kincsem” and when he died, this was the name that appeared on his tombstone.

Csalogany was no less important to the filly than was her human companion. A rather famous anecdote illustrates the point.

When Kincsem disembarked from the ship that had carried her over the English Channel from Dover to France following her victory in the Goodwood Cup, the then-4 year-old filly refused to board her railway car because Csalogany was missing.  Kincsem stood on the pier for 2 hours, feet firmly planted and ears pinned back, making it clear that she wasn’t leaving without her feline friend. Finally the cat emerged, tripping down the gangplank. Kincsem turned her head and muttered a greeting, at which point Csalogany jumped up onto her back. Together, cat, filly and Frankie entered the railway car.

KINCSEM with her cat and trainer, ROBERT HESP.

KINCSEM with Csalogany and trainer, ROBERT HESP. Or is this actually FRANKIE KINCSEM?

The 1878 Goodwood Cup marked Kincsem’s only trip to  England and the only race she ran in the UK. Only two horses were prepared to face her: the 7 year-old Pageant (1871) and Lord Falmouth’s Lady Golightly (1874). Both of these were very good horses. Lady Golightly had won the Nassau and Park Hill Stakes, as well as the Yorkshire Oaks, while Pageant had won the Brighton Cup (1876), the Chester Cup (in 1877 and 1878), and the Doncaster Cup the same year he met up with Kincsem.

KINCSEM's arrival for the Goodwood Cup is reported in the London Daily News.

KINCSEM’s victory in the 1878 Goodwood Cup is reported in the Illustrated London News on August 10, 1878. The drawing depicts a much livelier mare than reports of her appearance as she went down to the start suggest.

As you might imagine, the race was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. For many, just a chance to see the fabled Kincsem was enough; the press hotly anticipated the meeting between the filly who was undefeated in 36 starts and the mighty Pageant. The build-up was intense and a sobering reminder that it is always the potential defeat of a superstar that oils the sport, giving it a cathartic appeal.

Crossing the English Channel has been the demise of many a seasoned sailor and it was Kincsem’s first — and only — adventure at sea. Predictably, the mare that stepped off the ship at Dover was shaken and sickly-looking. The press seized on this, speculating that Kincsem was doomed even before she set foot on the Goodwood course. Her appearance on the track on August 1, the day of the race, did little to dispel the feeling. Kincsem shuffled to the start, her head hanging so low that her nose seemed to scrape the turf, her neck bobbing crookedly. Thrilled as they were to actually see her, most in the crowd of thousands had no idea that Hungary’s National Treasure always went to the post this way. As usual, she stalled at the start, gazing at the heels of Pageant and Lady Golightly as they sped away. She seemed to be thinking about whether or not the race held any interest for her. Then, in a streak rather resembling a thunderbolt, she was off after the leader.

Kincsem won the 1878 Goodwood Cup by a solid 3 lengths, going away. At first, the crowd was stunned into silence by what they had seen. Then the applause and shouts began, until the roar was deafening. The besotted ran alongside the rail as the filly returned to the winner’s enclosure, getting as close to her as they possibly could. Kincsem, who always seemed to know when a race was over, just as she seemed to calculate how far to let the other horses run before she went after them, pulled herself up and headed back to the place where she would (of course) be presented with a bouquet of flowers by her delighted owner.

It is unclear whether or not His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was in attendance at Goodwood on the day, but the claim that he attempted to buy Kincsem after her victory may, indeed, be true. According to Philipp Alles, this is indeed the case. But Ernest de Blascovich refused, telling the future king, ” If I sold Kincsem I would not dare return to my native soil.”

The Goodwood Cup race, as depicted in the 1878

The Goodwood Cup race, as depicted in the August 10, 1878 ILLUSTRATED AND DRAMATIC NEWS. The artist took licence with the depiction of the race: there is no evidence that KINCSEM was ever touched by a whip.

Filly, cat, Frankie and the rest of her entourage went on from Goodwood to France, where Kincsem annexed the Grand Prix de Deauville. Her remaining thirteen races in 1878 were run in more familiar settings: Austria (5 times), Hungary (7 times) and Germany once. According to Charles Justice, in his book The Greatest Horse of All, Kincsem had had an average of 13.07 days rest between the 15 starts she made as a 4 year-old, winning 11 of her starts by an average of 2.45 lengths, distancing the field 3 times and cantering home once in a walkover. In the Grosser Preis von Baden, she finished in a dead heat to Prince Giles the First (1874), possibly due to the fact that she carried 137.5 lbs. to his 122. German racing rules stipulated that the two face off against one another again to determine the winner: the second time around, Kincsem dismissed Prince Giles by 5 lengths, going away.  Throughout 1878, the filly would carry an average of 144.9 lbs. — an incredible burden by modern weight-for-age standards. And she had stepped up in distance, winning races from 8f to 20f.

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.

Although a consummate traveller at this point, Kincsem was as fussy about certain rituals and traditions as might be expected of a thoroughbred Queen. Other than what’s already been acknowledged, it seems the filly would only eat the food and drink the water from her home, Tapioszentmarton, when she was on the road. At Baden-Baden on one occasion, Kincsem didn’t drink for 2 days because her home water supply had run out. Desperate, someone discovered a well in a town near Baden-Baden where the water had the same earthy taste as the water from the farm. (We’re betting that “somebody” was Frankie.) At any rate, much to everyone’s relief, Kincsem consented to drink it. To this day, that well carries the name “Kincsem’s Well” and is a treasured Baden landmark.

1879 was Kincsem’s final racing year. The mare went undefeated in 12 starts, 3 of which were walkovers, winning at distances from 12f to 18 f. The lowest impost she ran under that year was 136 lbs., with the heaviest 168 lbs., giving her an average of 153.3 lbs. to carry. An unbelievable weight by any standards.

Kincsem ended her career on the turf undefeated, with 54 wins in as many starts, including 3 consecutive wins in the Grosser Preis von Baden and an equal number in the Hungarian Autumn Oaks, which was her final race.

KINCSEM'S retirement was a worldwide event. Here is how it appeared in the St. Paul Daily Globe.

KINCSEM’S retirement was a worldwide event. Here is how it appeared in the St. Paul Daily Globe.

In retirement, Kincsem proved a very successful broodmare, only adding to the legendary status that Europe and particularly her homeland had conferred upon her. She produced 5 foals in all, including the filly Ollyan Nincs (1883), winner of the Hungarian St. Leger and the colt Talpra Magyar (1885) who went on to become a very successful sire. Ironically, both were by Buccaneer, the stallion Kincsem’s dam, Water Nymph, had been booked to (but never saw, going instead to Cambuscan) on the day that Kincsem was conceived. A third offspring, also by Buccaneer, was the filly Budagyongye (1882).

Kincsem's daughter,

Kincsem’s daughter, BUDAGYONGYE, by BUCCANEER, was very influential in assuring KINCSEM a place in modern-day thoroughbred racing. On the turf, she faced colts to win the Deutsches (German) Derby and ran third in the Austrian Derby.

Seventh Bride

SEVENTH BRIDE (1966), who descends from BUDAGYONGYE, won the Princess Royal Stakes at Royal Ascot. One of SEVENTH BRIDE’S daughters, the filly POLYGAMY (1971) won the Epsom Oaks and the Ascot 1000 Guineas.

ONE OVER PARR

ONE OVER PARR (1972) was another descendant of BUDAGYONGYE. She won the Chesire and Lancashire Oaks. Her son, TOM SEYMOUR (1980) by GRUNDY (1972) was a multiple stakes winner in Italy.

Kincsem had 2 other foals by the British stallion Doncaster (1870): a colt named Kincs-Or (1886) and her last foal, a filly named Kincs (1887). The former was an impressive stakes winner and American interests were mulling over his purchase from de Blacovich when the 3 year-old was found dead in his stall.

Shortly after the birth of Kincs, Kicsem sufferred a severe bout of colic. Less than a day later, the champion was gone. And like everything else about her life, even her untimely death was marked by the kind of “sign” one expects to find in a fairy tale or myth: Kincsem died in 1887 on March 17, the same day on which she was born. A circle had closed. But if there was an augury in such an odd coincidence, it might well be that, like a circle, the spirit of Kincsem had neither beginning nor end.

Hungary lost more than a great thoroughbred when Kincsem died: they lost a quirky and majestic figure who had raced right into their hearts. In her homeland, her passing was officially mourned for three days. Flags stood at half-mast and the borders of Hungarian newspapers were framed in black. And, as fate would have it (and depending on the source), either trainer Robert Hesp or Frankie, her beloved friend, died 39 days after Kincsem.

As a way of assuaging their grief, Hungarians set about punctuating the life and times of their beloved. Hungary boasts a Kincsem Park, a Kincsem Horse Park, numerous hotels and even a golf resort that carries the champion’s name.  Kincsem’s skeleton is on display in the Hungarian Agricultural Museum.  And statues were erected in her honour, the most famous of which stands in Budapest. As far away as America, Kincsem was remembered: another statue of her stood at the entrance to Keeneland’s walking ring for many years and a smaller bronze statue still inhabits the Chandelier Room of Santa Anita.

KINCSEM'S statue in Budapest. On this day, an admirer had left a token at her feet.

KINCSEM’S statue in Budapest. On this day, an admirer had left a token at her feet.

As befits a legend, Kincsem endures despite the ravages of two world wars. Although she only had five foals, one of whom died at three, the remaining four — one colt and three fillies — produced offspring that guaranteed Kincsem’s legacy.

The majority of Kincsem’s descendants were bred and raced in Europe. Their numbers are large and include exceptional individuals like Seventh Bride, Polygamy, Tom Seymour and One Over Parr (mentioned above), as well as Viglany (1900), Dicso (1906), Tokio (1892), Caplan (1953), Djurdjevka (1937), Morpeth (1903), Vaduva (1955), Sikar (1928), Well Made (1997), Welluna (1996), Wicht (1957), Well Proved (1980), Napfeny (1896), Miczi (1910), Bank (1945) and Waldcanter (1956).

Tokio-big

The brilliant TOKIO (1892), a grandson of KINCSEM, was an Austro-Hungarian Triple Crown winner.

the German champion, WICHT

The German champion, WICHT (1957), winner of the Deutches St. Leger, Grosser Preis Von Nodrheim-Westfalen and the Hansa Preis descends from KINCSEM’S daughter, OLLYAN NINCS.

Although America lost out on acquiring Kincsem’s son, Kincs-Or, her bloodlines found their way to these shores through the mare La Pastorale (1955) who was imported to California by a Major Pauley. And while La Pastorale failed to make much impact as a broodmare, Tarfah (2001) an American-born daughter of Kingmambo (1990) traces back to Kincsem’s daughter, Budagyongye, on her tail female. And Tarfah is the dam of the 2012 Epsom Derby winner, Camelot (2009), a colt brilliant enough to inspire hopes of the first British Triple Crown since Nijinsky (1967) in 1970.

It seems fitting that the breath of an Immortal should find its expression in Camelot.

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