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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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Together,we saved over 20 horses from going to slaughter in Canada or Mexico in 2015. And every donation counted in this effort because no donation is too small. Hale, Trendy Cielo, Maya Littlebear, Felicitas Witness and 16 others, including two mares and their foals, thank you.

Please consider making a donation to a worthy cause so that we can help more rescue efforts in 2016.

Thank you.

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NOTE TO MY READERS: I have recently had a death in my family and this, together with the natural excitement about this year’s American Triple Crown and flat racing overseas accounts for the lapse between VAULT articles. But I will be back soon with more stories of great horses from around the world. Thank you for your understanding.

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It’s Derby time again here in North America and that familiar buzz is in the air. Everyone is busy choosing their favourite. But the best colt or filly doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the outcome depends on the Racing Gods who, as we all know, can turn the best laid plans on their ear. 

DEGAS' sculpture of a thoroughbred walking seemed a fitting opening to this article.

“Thoroughbred Horse Walking” by EDGAR DEGAS. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

1929: BLUE LARKSPUR VS CLYDE VAN DUSEN When it was all over, racing mogul Colonel Edward R. Bradley, who owned the favourite, Blue Larkspur, described the winner as “…the worst horse to win the Derby in twenty years.” If the winner, Clyde Van Dusen, had anything at all going for him it was that he was a son of the American racing legend, Man O’ War. The other thing he had going for him on that rainy and sloppy first Saturday in May were his caulk shoes, which enabled him to get some traction on the slippery Churchill Downs track. Clyde was described as a “mere pony of a horse with a weedy frame” and was bred by New York businessman Herbert Gardner. Somewhere early in his career, the colt became a gelding and was named by Gardner after his trainer, Clyde Van Dusen, who was a former jockey. Although he was the seventh gelding in fifty-five years to win the Kentucky Derby, it would be another seventy-four before the beloved Funny Cide would do it again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9flaRIstGXk#t=16 Blue Larkspur, on the other hand, was crowned HOTY in 1929 and he deserved it. The son of Black Servant and grandson of Black Toney was a really honest colt who almost always did his best. But his best was beyond him on Derby day, when the track played muddy and deep, and the assistant trainer (Herbert J “Derby Dick” Thompson, Bradley’s HOF trainer having succumbed to an attack of appendicitis) failed to shoe him properly for the track conditions. Blue Larkspur did brilliantly to manage fourth place and to come home in one piece.

BLUE LARKSPUR was a really handsome horse and this photo shows him to advantage.

BLUE LARKSPUR was a really handsome horse and this photo shows him to advantage.

MYRTLEWOOD, a daughter of BLUE LARKSPUR, during her racing days. She would go on to become a foundation mare of the American thoroughbred horse.

MYRTLEWOOD, a daughter of BLUE LARKSPUR, during her racing days. She would go on to become a foundation mare of the American thoroughbred horse.

And lucky for the American thoroughbred that he did, since as a sire Blue Larkspur had an enormous influence on the development of the breed. His genes passed most effectively to his daughters, among them the foundation mare Myrtlewood, and this allowed Blue Larkspur to top the broodmare sire list from 1944-1960, inclusive. His daughters produced some great, great thoroughbred champions, among them: Twilight Tear, Princess Turia, Bull Page, Durazna, Busanda, Cohoes and War Jeep. Clyde Van Dusen ran 42 times but the 1929 Kentucky Derby was his last major win. In retirement, the gelding was acquired by his trainer for use as a stable pony.

Trainer CLYDE VAN DUSEN with his namesake after the gelding's retirement from racing. CLYDE the horse lived to be 22 years old and was, by all accounts, a favourite of his trainer.

Trainer CLYDE VAN DUSEN with his namesake whom he bought after the gelding’s retirement from racing. CLYDE the horse lived to be 22 years old and was, by all accounts, considered a gem — albeit with a character all his own — by his trainer.

1933: HEAD PLAY VS. BROKERS’ TIP As recently as 1993, the outcome of the 1933 Derby was still being hotly debated. Racing fans will recognize the famous photograph of Head Play and Brokers’ Tip coming to the finish line. The latter, owned by Idle Hour Stock Farm’s powerful Colonel Edward R. Bradley (of Blue Larkspur fame) would be declared the winner. To his dying day, Head Play’s jockey, Herb Fisher, would insist that his colt had actually won and that the decision of the judges had more to do with Bradley’s influence than with an honest assessment of who-was-where at the finish line.

The famous photo of the 1933 Derby finish shows the jockeys fighting it out as BROKERS TIP (blinkers) and HEAD PLKAY come to the finish.

The famous photo of the 1933 Derby finish shows the jockeys fighting it out as BROKERS’ TIP (blinkers) and HEAD PLAY come to the finish.

It was a very different story in the Preakness, where HEAD PLAY came home first under the great Charlie Kurtsinger.

It was a very different story in the Preakness, where HEAD PLAY came home first under the great Charlie Kurtsinger. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Neither colt went into the Derby as a favourite, although Head Play was without question the better prospect of the two. He was a grandson of Fair Play, the sire of Man O’ War, and had won the Hawthorne Juvenile and Cincinnati Trophy as a two year-old, both at a distance of 6f. Head Play also came into the Derby as the winner of the Derby Trial Stakes, run over 8f. An interesting contemporary note about Head Play is that his second owner at the time of the Derby and until his retirement, Mrs. Suzanne Burnett Mason, was the mother of H. Burnett Robinson. After WWII, Robinson hooked up with racing’s Hal Prince Headley and, under Headley’s advice, bought a property that would become Winter Quarter Farm. And Winter Quarter Farm, still under Robinson ownership today, was the place where HOTY Zenyatta, as well as her Blue Hen dam Vertigineux, came into the world. (For more photos of Head Play, as well as Zenyatta’s page, go to the Winter Quarter Farm at this link: http://winterquarterfarm.com/about-us/) The 1933 Derby became infamous for the shoving match that took place just before the finish, between Herb Fisher (on Head Play) and Don Meade (aboard Brokers’ Tip, in the blinkers on the inside). Believe it or not, the drama of the finish added some spice to an otherwise mediocre Derby field and gave horse racing what it desperately needed in America at the height of the Depression: a ton of publicity. For Brokers’ Tip, who was declared the winner, the Derby would stand as the only race he ever won. (Note: There is no voice over on the footage. Head Play is wearing #9 and Brokers’ Tip, in blinkers, is #16) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxBrMrj39uU   1942: ALSAB VS DEVIL DIVER, WITH REGARDS & SHUT OUT If the Derby field of 1933 was considered mediocre, the 1942 field was its polar opposite. Devil Diver and Shut Out were stable mates. Born at the Whitney’s Greentree Stable, Devil Diver was by the Whitney’s British import, St. Germans, whose son Twenty Grand had run himself into American thoroughbred history with wins in the 1931 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.  Shut Out was by an American legend, Equipoise, “The Chocolate Soldier.” Both Whitney colts were also trained by the HOF conditioner, John M. Gaver Sr. During a brilliant career that spanned thirty-seven years, Gaver also trained the champions Capot, Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny and Stop The Music.

DEVIL DIVER with the legendary EDDIE ARCARO.

DEVIL DIVER gets some loving’ from the legendary EDDIE ARCARO.

Devil Diver had major wins in the Sanford, Hopeful and Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at two and had opened his three year-old season by beating Whirlaway in the Phoenix Handicap. Shut Out was also a fine colt who, although beaten at two by Devil Diver in the Hopeful, would prove a better three year-old than his popular stablemate. But Devil Diver would have his revenge at four: beginning in 1943, the colt would win the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap for three consecutive years. Like many fine horses of his day, Devil Diver won at punishing weights — often more than 130 lbs. But this couldn’t stop him and as a five year-old, his efforts were rewarded by receiving the title of American Champion Older Male Horse. However, that was in his future; the thinking in 1942 was that Devil Diver would continue his winning ways at three. So it was that Eddie Arcaro chose the accomplished two year-old who had defeated Mr. Longtail, America’s latest Triple Crown winner, to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Shut Out got the services of another HOF jockey, Warren Wright.

SHUT OUT at work as a three year-old. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

SHUT OUT at work as a three year-old. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Shut Out’s chief rival as a three year-old was another famous name in American racing annals, Alsab. Taking his name from his owner, Albert Sabeth, the 1941 Champion Two-Year Old Colt, whose grandsire was the great Neddie, would chase Shut Out’s heels through the Derby and Belmont Stakes. Trained by Charles Swenke, Alsab quickly gained a massive fan base and at three, the colt annexed the Withers, American Derby, Lawrence Realization and the New York Handicap. Perhaps most impressively, Alsab defeated Whirlaway in a match race held at Narragansett Park on September 19, 1942: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlNaBhmLW_s Then there was With Regards, another terrific colt, winner of the Arkansas Derby and Myrtlewood Handicap. Owned by Josephine Grimes and trained by her husband, Ted, the son of Jack High was arguable the quirkiest of this distinguished group. It appeared that, among other things, With Regards had a “thing” about getting into the starting gate before mid-afternoon; in fact, retirement was forced upon him at age five for refusing to load two times in a row. By then, the colt had made 63 starts, with a record of 19-14-4 and winnings of just over $87,000 USD.  For the Derby, With Regards got the services of HOF Johnny Longden — in Longden’s future, and only a year down the road, was the next Triple Crown winner, the incomparable Count Fleet.

The handsome WITH REGARDS and trainer, TED GRIMES. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The handsome WITH REGARDS and trainer, TED GRIMES. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Colonel MATT WINN, the President of Churchill Downs, played a huge role in shaping the sport. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Colonel MATT WINN, the President of Churchill Downs, played a huge role in shaping the sport. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The excellence of the 1942 Derby field prompted the hugest turnout since Colonel Matt Winn had taken the post of President of Churchill Downs. As Winn told a reporter from The Tucson Daily Citizen: “Son,” (Winn) said as the bright Kentucky sun outlined the faint stripes in his dark, blue suit, “I’ve been through four wars. I was born in the first year of the Civil War, I have weathered two others and now I’m in my fourth. And the one thing I have learned is that you should never sell America short nor America’s love of sport short. You take this race track. Now, I’m not talking about Saturday’s Derby, because Saturday’s Derby will be the biggest of all. I thought my dream of 100,000 people would come true last year but there were only 95,000. But I know my dream will come true this year because we can’t fill the demands we have had for tickets–from 50 cent tickets to $125 tickets. To me, this Derby is already history. It is the 1943 Derby  I’m planning now. And do you know what I’ll tell you this minute? Son, I’ll promise you the 1943 Derby will be even bigger than this one. Gasoline shortages? Tire scarcities? America can take them in stride. America will come here–and America will go other places–(even) if America is forced to walk.” Alsab went into the Derby as the favourite, with Devil Diver, Shut Out and With Regards getting a fair amount of play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw6r39Rj-QY Despite the fact that Shut Out went on to win the Belmont Stakes, this time with Eddie Arcaro in the saddle, it was Alsab who took the honours as American Champion Three Year-Old Colt that year. Arguably, Alsab’s defeat of the mighty Whirlaway was the clincher, together with the romantic notion of a colt with a rather ordinary pedigree, bought by a rather “average” guy, who goes on to become a champion.   1953: NATIVE DANCER VS DARK STAR Without question, the most famous of losers of the Kentucky Derby has to be the incomparable NATIVE DANCER. The loss would be the only one of his career. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBBvKILL1IM As the story goes, the “Grey Ghost” as he was famously dubbed by the racing public of 1953 had to weave in and out of horses just to get to the lead. And with each manoeuver, the colt lost ground on the leader, the aptly named Dark Star. In the third quarter, Native Dancer ran from the outside in a time of 23 seconds. But close to the final dash, HOF jockey Eric Guerin went back to the rail, only to be blocked again by Dark Star’s jockey, the cunning Henry Moreno. Guerin gave Native Dancer a couple of smacks and the colt fired, losing at the finish by a head. Which is to take nothing away from Dark Star, who ran the race of his life. His time of 2:02 was better than that of champions like Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Ferdinand, Swale, Winning Colours and Alysheba.

DARK STAR wears the roses in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

DARK STAR wears the roses in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

1957: GALLANT MAN VS IRON LIEGE This is the story of a great jockey who made a terrible mistake. It remains the most infamous of all of the “what-went-wrong” Derbies. The jockey in question, Bill Shoemaker, first said that his horse had taken a bad step, until he was remanded by the track stewards. Their verdict was to suspend “The Shoe” for 15 days. In his biography, published many years later, Shoemaker stated that as he crossed the finish line, “I knew I’d made a boo boo.”  Which would be to put it mildly. The horses at the centre of the controversy were the John Nerud-trained Gallant Man and Calumet Farm’s Iron Liege. But it was a prestigious field that went to the post on that cold, grim day, led by the favourite — Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons’ Bold Ruler. In the field was also the great Round Table, trained by Moody Jolley, the father of HOF trainer Leroy Jolley. Iron Liege and his stable mate, Gen. Duke, were both sons of Bull Lea and although the former had the advantage of War Admiral as his BM sire, he was the lighter-regarded of the two Jones-trained colts. However, Gen. Duke was scratched after coming home from the Derby Trial lame, so it was Iron Liege and jockey Bill Hartack who carried Calumet’s banner on Derby day.

IRON LIEGE works, wearing the fashion of the day for horses with sensitive ears.

IRON LIEGE works, wearing the fashion of the day for horses with sensitive ears. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Bold Ruler was well-regarded by racing pundits of the day and his trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, was a legend — the only conditioner to ever train two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and his son, Omaha. Although he would be more famous as the sire of the mighty Secretariat, as a three year-old Bold Ruler came into the Derby a winner of the Flamingo Stakes (in which he shattered the track record) and of the Wood Memorial.

BOLD RULER (inside) narrowly beats GALLANT MAN (outside) in the 1957 Wood Memorial.

BOLD RULER (inside) narrowly beats GALLANT MAN (outside) in the 1957 Wood Memorial.

BOLD RULER arrives at Churchill Downs to run in the 1937 Kentucky Derby.

BOLD RULER arrives at Churchill Downs.

Travis M. Kerr’s Round Table, trained by William Molter, came into the Derby off a win in the Blue Grass Stakes. A “son” of Claiborne Farm, as was Bold Ruler, the colt had been sold to oilman Kerr by Bull Hancock with the understanding that he would stand at Claiborne after his retirement. Round Table dominated thoroughbred racing in 1958, but as a three year-old he was still a year away from his best form.

ROUND TABLE with trainer, William Molter.

ROUND TABLE with trainer, William Molter.

John Nerud’s Gallant Man was hardly a lightweight and 1957 saw him take some prestigious races, among them the Travers and the Jockey Gold Cup. But the press only seemed to give the Irish-bred son of HRH the Aga Khan’s Arc winner, Migoli, a lukewarm reception until Gallant Man chased Bold Ruler to the finish line in the Wood Memorial, only losing by a whisker. The little bay carried an impressive bloodline, albeit a European one, that he would pass down to two of the greatest American fillies ever: Gallant Bloom and Genuine Risk. These, then, were the best of 1957 Derby field. And as they broke from the starting gate, no-one could possibly have anticipated the outcome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkQ57ANF1KE

Bill Shoemaker inexplicably misses the finish line by standing in the stirrups on GALLANT MAN for a split second, allowing IRON LIEGE to charge through to win.

Bill Shoemaker inexplicably misses the finish line by standing in the stirrups on GALLANT MAN and allowing IRON LIEGE to charge through and win. It was a split second error that changed the course of history.

After the loss, John Nerud gave Gallant Man some time off, skipping the Preakness and entering him in the Belmont Stakes instead. Bold Ruler won the Preakness for Sunny Jim and his connections and was promptly entered in the Belmont. Iron Leige, who ran a game second to Bold Ruler in the Preakness, wasn’t entered in the last leg of the American Triple Crown. Silent footage of Bold Ruler’s Preakness, with the winner being chased to the wire by Iron Leige (#4): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6PuKjzWATs The Belmont Stakes belonged to Gallant Man. With The Shoe back in the saddle, Nerud’s colt ran a monster race, sailing home 8 lengths ahead of the second-placed Inside Tract, with Bold Ruler finishing up third. Gallant Man’s time for the Belmont stood until, ironically, a son of Bold Ruler, the mighty Secretariat, took it down.

GALLANT MAN wins the 1957 Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths, leaving Bold Ruler well behind at the finish.

GALLANT MAN wins the 1957 Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths, leaving Bold Ruler well behind at the finish.

When he heard of Gallant Man’s death, at the age of 34 years at Spendthrift Farm, HOF trainer John Nerud remembered his champion colt with pride, ” When he was sound and good, a horse never lived who could beat him…he had it all — speed and endurance.”  

GALLANT MAN, according to his brilliant trainer, John Nerud, "had it all."

GALLANT MAN, according to his trainer, John Nerud, “had it all.” This kind of praise from such a brilliant horseman is a fitting tribute to a colt who truly embodied what it means to be a thoroughbred champion.

GALLANT BLOOM, a daughter of GALLANT MAN

GALLANT BLOOM, a daughter of GALLANT MAN, was Champion Two and Three Year-Old filly in 1968-69. A winner of 12 races in a row, she was GALLANT MAN’S best daughter. GALLANT BLOOM was inducted into the HOF in 1977.

The Lady Is A Champ: Genuine Risk, winner of the

The Lady Is A Champ: Genuine Risk, winner of the 1980 Kentucky Derby, was only the second filly to ever do so. A beloved filly who will never be forgotten, GENUINE RISK’S BM sire was GALLANT MAN. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

SOURCES

http://www.horseracenation.com. Derby Remix http://www.jockeysite.com. Kentucky Derby: Legendary Losers

Bolus, Jim. Kentucky Derby Stories. Pelican Publishing Company (ISBN: 9781565544659)

Reed, William F. Duking It Out At The Derby in SI Vault (si.com)

Winter Quarter Farm website. About Us (winterquarterfarm.com)

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (www.racingmuseum.org)

Colin’s Ghost. Bold Ruler Wins The Wood Memorial, 1957 (colinsghost.org)

 

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