He Had a Bad Hoof but Was No Tenderfoot on the Track
Assault, a colt that stepped on a surveyor’s stake and punctured his right front hoof when he was a weanling, was a horse with two strikes against him.
When Assault was sent from the King Ranch in Texas to a barn at Belmont Park, trainer Max Hirsch said: “I didn’t think he’d train at all. When he walked or trotted, he looked like he was about to fall down. The hoof wasn’t hurting him by then, but he had a habit of favoring it, and it gave him an awkward gait.”
Assault was a son of Bold Venture, winner of the 1936 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. As a 2-year-old, Assault won only two of nine starts, one of them at 71-1 in the Flash Stakes at Saratoga.
“Max pampered Assault the first year,” jockey Warren Mehrtens said. “He wasn’t a very big horse, but he was all heart. He was very gentle. Sometimes he’d forget about his bad foot and stumble.”
Assault began 1946 with two wins, one of them in the Wood Memorial, but he ran fourth in the Derby Trial and went into the Derby an 8-1 shot. This was the first year the Derby was worth $100,000, and the first year the crowd reached 100,000 at Churchill Downs.
Main Chance Farm’s three-horse entry of Lord Boswell, Knockdown and Perfect Bahram was favored at 11-10 on a track listed as slow. Mehrtens, 25, had never ridden in a Derby. He would never ride in another.
At the quarter pole, Assault was in third place, behind Spy Song with Johnny Longden and Knockdown. Longden’s horse carried Knockdown to the outside, making room for Assault on the rail. He was 2 1/2 lengths ahead at the eighth pole and won by eight, matching the Derby record. Lord Boswell, Knockdown and Perfect Bahram finished fourth, fifth and ninth, respectively.
The Preakness, Assault’s 14th race, was the first time he was favored. Lord Boswell was tougher this time, but Assault held on to beat him by a neck. Mehrtens might have moved with Assault too soon, and almost blew a four-length lead in the stretch.
Concluding that the Belmont’s longer distance would suit Lord Boswell, the Maine Chance colt was favored, by a nickel on the dollar, in New York. Mehrtens almost fell off Assault leaving the gate, but he recovered and his mount came from off the pace to win by three lengths. Lord Boswell was fifth.
Assault won the Dwyer Stakes after the Belmont, but then he went on a five-race losing streak and Mehrtens was replaced by Eddie Arcaro. Arcaro said later: “I didn’t give Assault the credit he deserved.”
Despite seven losses as a 3-year-old, Assault was voted horse of the year, and in 1947 he won five of seven, one of the losses to future horse-of-the-year Armed in a match race at Belmont Park.
Retired to stud in 1948, Assault was turned out to be sterile and raced intermittently for two more years. At 28, Assault broke a bone in his left foreleg and was euthanized.
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1946: THE BREAKDOWN
Date Race Distance (Time, Margin, Odds, Purse) May 4 Kentucky Derby 1 1/4 miles (2:06, 8 lengths, 8-1, $96,400) May 11 Preakness 13/16 miles (2:01, 2/5, neck, 7-5, $96,620) June 1 Belmont 1 1/2 miles (2:30, 4/5, 3 lengths, 7-5, $75,400)
The top three finishers in the races in 1946 and the $2 mutuel payoffs:
Assault $18.40 $9.60 $6.80 Spy Song $9.00 $6.60 Hampden $5.20 PREAKNESS Assault $18.40 $3.10 $2.20 Lord Boswell $3.10 $2.20 Hampden $2.30 BELMONT Assault $4.80 $3.10 $2.70 Natchez $5.70 $4.10 Cable $6.50
Starts 1st 2nd 3rd Purses 41 18 6 7 $675,470
TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
May 26, Sir Barton: 1919
May 28, Gallant Fox: 1930
May 29, Omaha: 1935
May 30, War Admiral: 1937
May 31, Whirlaway: 1941
June 1, Count Fleet: 1943
Today, Assault: 1946
Wednesday, Citation: 1948
Thursday, Secretariat: 1973
June 5, Seattle Slew: 1977
June 6, Affirmed: 1978