Plenty of Tragedy and Success for 1900s Horse Racing


Horse racing in the 20th century was a crazy quilt of magnificent performances, shady doings, blue-blooded horses and owners, ne’er-do-wells, high-priced yearlings and bargain-basement buys that ran to glory.

The threads that tied it all together were chestnut, dark bay or brown, and gray -- that is, the thoroughbreds. From cheap claimers at bush tracks to Man o’War and Secretariat, who thrilled fans 50 years apart and were 1-2 in voting for The Associated Press’ Horse of the Century.

Another thread was the black one of tragedy, a constant reminder of the fragility of thousand-pound animals and the danger of riding them. Since 1940, 142 riders have been killed, according to the Jockey Guild. Stars such as the fillies Ruffian and Go for Wand and also relatively unknown runners broke down and had to be euthanized.

Racing’s story this century also has been written by horses named Citation and Cigar, who each won 16 straight races; Colin, unbeaten in 15 career starts; and Seabiscuit and Whirlaway.

Not to be forgotten were the geldings, such as Kelso, Forego and John Henry, who were named Horse of the Year a total of nine times; and the fillies Regret, the first female to win the Kentucky Derby, and Personal Ensign, who won all 13 of her starts.


They ran at tracks named Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Santa Anita, Pimlico, Saratoga, Hollywood Park, Ak-Sar-Ben and Havre de Grace and in such races as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, Travers, Cornhusker Handicap and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

They were ridden by men of grit, strength and, sometimes, soft hands -- men such as Eddie Arcaro, Angel Cordero Jr., Bill Hartack, Laffit Pincay Jr., Earl Sande and Bill Shoemaker. Horses they rode were trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Woody Stephens, Jack Van Berg and Charlie Whittingham.

Pincay broke Shoemaker’s record of most winning rides when he rode No. 8,823 on Dec. 10 at Hollywood Park.

Rich families named Belmont, Mellon, Phipps, Vanderbilt and Whitney and stables called Main Chance, Meadow and Calumet Farm bred and raced stars and disappointments. They were forever tied to the game, which once was called the Sport of Kings.

The magnetism of racing, or course, drew owners from all walks of life. Bob Lewis, who made his money selling beer, owned with wife Beverly Silver Charm and Charismatic, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, respectively, in 1997 and 1999. Mike Pegram, who made his money in hamburgers and fries, owned Real Quiet, winner of the Derby and Preakness in 1998.

The failure of those three colts to win the Belmont Stakes meant there has been no winner of the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds since Affirmed became the 11th in 1978.

As the 1900s end, racing seems to be becoming the sport of princes from Saudi Arabia and sheiks from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A major force in racing internationally was the Maktoum family of Dubai.

The bloodstock business boomed in the 1980s, fueled by bidding wars between Robert Sangster of Britain and the Maktoums. In 1984, 33 yearlings sold for $1 million or more at Keeneland’s July auction. The market slumped in the early 1990s, then began to rebound.

In July 1999 at Keeneland, 132 yearlings sold for $76.8 million, 3,011 yearlings went for $233 million in September and 3,461 horses, mostly broodmares and weanlings, were sold for $317.6 million at the November sale of breeding stock, making it the biggest dollar-volume sale in racing history.

Snaafi Dancer was sold for $10.2 in 1983 and never got to the races, and Seattle Dancer was sold for $13.1 million in 1985 and went on to a short, undistinguished career on the track.

Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, was bought for $17,500. Real Quiet went for $17,000.

In the early years of the century, the Derby was run in conjunction with the Kentucky Stare Fair at Churchill Downs.

The Derby has long been a slice of Americana. The Breeders’ Cup, inaugurated in 1984 and worth $13 million for eight races in 1999, was a major showcase for the sport, but the Derby was America’s Race.

Sir Barton in 1919 was the first horse to win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The races, however, did not become known as the Triple Crown until Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form writer, coined the phrase after Gallant Fox’s three wins in 1930.

Two of the Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), were trained by Ben Jones and raced in the famed devil’s red and blue silks of Calumet Farm.

Calumet’s record eight Kentucky Derby winners also included Pensive (1944), Ponder (1949), Hill Gail (1952), Iron Liege (1957), Tim Tam (1958) and Forward Pass (1968). Pensive, Ponder and Hill Gail also were trained by Jones, while Iron Liege and Hill Gail were trained by his son Jimmy.

After Citation, there wasn’t another Triple Crown champion until Secretariat, who in 1973 put together perhaps the three greatest races ever.

He became the first sub-2-minute Derby winner, with a time of 1:59 2-5 for the 1 1/4 miles, won the Preakness after going from last to first on the first turn, then set a world record of 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles on the dirt in winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. He won 16 of 21 starts, with three seconds and a third, and was Horse of the Year in his two seasons of racing in 1972-73.

Man o’War also raced only two years. He won nine of 10 starts as a 2-year-old in 1919, when he finished second to Upset in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. He did not start in the Kentucky Derby, but won the Preakness and Belmont in 1920 when he was unbeaten in 11 races.