The Days of Iron Horses

It is the 1960s. Horses retiring at the age of 3? Unheard of. Champions retiring with 10 career starts or fewer? Are you kidding? We’re not here to discuss the comparison between horse racing now and then. We are here just to bring to life the horses of a bygone era and what they were capable of. So sit back and relax and enjoy a time when horses did something they were put on this Earth to do – race. ~ Steve Haskin

The Days of Iron Horses

By Steve Haskin

So Essential Quality is retired after only nine starts. What’s all the fuss? Like this hasn’t become the natural order of things in Thoroughbred racing? We are all aware by now that “breed to race” has been pretty much replaced by “breed to breed.”

Yes, racing’s theme song could easily be, with apologies to the Clancy Brothers, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.”

We should be used to it already. We hardly get to know the majority of our male champions, especially with so many Kentucky Derby winners being whisked off to stud. A major part of racing was always about older horses running in handicap races. Now the only thing handicapped is the sport itself; handicapped by the unfamiliarity of our classic horses and major stars.

The last six Kentucky Derby winners (prior to question mark winner Medina Spirit) have averaged a grand total of nine career starts, with only one of them returning at 4, and that was for only two starts. The first 11 Triple Crown winners averaged 30 career starts. Just as a point of reference, the last two Triple Crown winners made 11 and six starts, respectively.

But rather than bemoan the fact that we rarely get to know our classic horses and majority of our 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions, let’s simply inform the newbie racing fans just what it was like when our top horses actually had a racing career and we got to know them as our Saturday heroes.

A warning, however, a good deal of what you are about to read may disgust and repulse you and give you the urge to hang trainers of the past in effigy; or maybe literally. But this column is not about what is right and wrong; it is about how dramatically the sport has changed. Just be aware that the horses you will be reading about all flourished and had safe, sound, and productive careers, many of them actually getting stronger the more they raced. And they became like good friends we looked forward to seeing almost every week.

I certainly am no expert on equine anatomy in terms of whether it is better for horses to race or spend most of the year in their stall, but I have no recollection of witnessing a single major star breaking down until Ruffian. You had to go back to 1959 when Black Hills broke down in the slop in the Belmont Stakes, and that was an extremely rare occurrence. I never gave injury a second thought before a race. Now, my first priority is just hoping everyone returns safely.

So, now that I have prepared you as best as I can for your trip in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine (us oldtimers will remember that), let’s go back, not so much way back, but back to the 1960s and meet some of the true iron horses of racing. And, please remember that no horses were injured during the filming of this movie, so hold back your wrath and just enjoy reading about what Thoroughbreds were, and perhaps are, capable of doing, even in the most extreme cases.

Let’s begin half a century ago with a colt and a filly, whose names were Carry Back and Cicada. Carry Back made his career debut on January 29, 1960 and Cicada made her career debut on February 23, 1961. So what, many horses make their debut in the winter of their 3-year-old campaign. The only difference with Carry Back and Cicada is that they were 2-year-olds, and both debuted going three furlongs. Carry Back actually made 13 starts and still hadn’t raced as far as six furlongs, while Cicada raced 10 times before stretching out to six furlongs.

At the end of their 2-year-old campaigns Carry Back had made 21 starts and Cicada had made 16 starts. Carry Back raced at least once every month from January to November, including three times in March, July, and August, and four times in October. Cicada raced at least once in every month from February to October with the exception of April, but made up for it by running on May 17, 25, and 30 and June 10, 19, and 28.

How much did such a ridiculously long and hard campaign take out of them as babies? Carry Back got better as the year went on, closing out his 2-year-old campaign with victories in the Garden State Stakes and Remsen Stakes and then went on the following year to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then the following year equaled the track record winning the Met Mile in 1:33 3/5, soundly defeated the great Kelso by three lengths in the Monmouth Handicap, and won the Whitney under 130 lbs. He concluded his career with 61 starts and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.

Despite her February debut, Cicada won eight stakes at 2, rattling off consecutive victories in the Schuylerville, Spinaway, Matron, Astarita, Frizette, and concluding the year with a 10-length victory in the Gardenia Stakes. Despite such an arduous 2-year-old campaign, Cicada went on to win the first two legs of the Filly Triple Crown, the Acorn and Mother Goose, before getting beat a half-length by Darby Dan’s great stayer Bramalea in the 1 ¼-mile Coaching Club American Oaks. Before that, Cicada was beaten a nose by the eventual even-money Kentucky Derby favorite Ridan in the Florida Derby and then won the Kentucky Oaks by three lengths. After running in the Delaware Oaks, Delaware Handicap, Alabama, and Travers, she was so knocked out she defeated the best older fillies and mares in the country in the Beldame Stakes, then the following year won four stakes, on dirt and grass, retiring with 23 victories in 42 starts and finishing in the money 37 times. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

Another filly in the 1960s, Straight Deal, got a late start at 2, debuting in September, but made up for it by racing 22 times at 3, 20 times at 4, 22 times at 5, and 22 times at 6, concluding her career with 99 starts. She won major stakes on both coasts at a time when Eastern horses rarely went to California. She actually made seven consecutive starts at Santa Anita from December 1965 to March 1966. In her career, she ran against colts 12 times, finishing third in the Whitney and third behind the great Damascus in the Aqueduct Stakes. She ended her career at age 7 making 17 starts in a seven-month period. As a broodmare, she produced six horses who made more than 20 starts, four of whom made over 35 starts, including three stakes winners and one grade 1 winner.

New York racing had its share of Saturday heroes who became like dependable friends week after week, but none, with the possible exception of Kelso, could match California’s hero Native Diver.

The California-bred gelding raced until he was 8, running in an amazing 76 stakes, 69 of them in succession. He carried 130 or more 10 times and won the Hollywood Gold Cup at age 6, 7, and 8. He made 13 starts at age 8, finishing in the money in 11 of them, with one unplaced performance coming in his only career start on grass. After getting beat five times by Pretense, who became the sire of Sham, he got his revenge in the Hollywood Gold Cup, defeating his rival by five lengths in 1:58 4/5, one fifth off the track record, in the 80th start of his career.

In 1959, T.V. Lark made his career debut on February 20 as a 2-year-old and would race 14 times that year before going on to a long fruitful career, in which he made 72 starts, winning or placing in 28 stakes on grass an dirt, while racing all over the country from coast to coast and winning stakes from seven furlongs to 1 ½ miles.

Not all iron horses of the ‘60s were defined by the length of their career. Damascus gained his reputation as an iron horse by racing 16 times as a 3-year-old and getting stronger with each race, nailing down Horse of the Year honors with a 10-length demolition of Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes. But it was as a 4-year-old that he demonstrated his toughness and resilience and his ability to improve with racing by finishing third to Dr. Fager in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Handicap in a track-record equaling 1:59 3/5 under 133 pounds, finish third in the 1 ¼-mile Amory Haskell Handicap after a troubled trip under 131 pounds and giving 15 pounds to the winner, and then defeating Dr. Fager in the 1 ¼-mile Brooklyn Handicap under 130 pounds in a track-record 1:59 1/5, which still stands, all in the span of 16 days. That’s three 1 ¼-mile stakes, all carrying 130 pounds or more, and setting a track-record in the last one, in just over two weeks.

When we think of long winning streaks in top-class company in the past 25 years, we think of Cigar and Zenyatta, whose streaks spanned over a period of three and four years. But how about Buckpasser, who won 15 consecutive races over an 11-month period, 13 of them as a 3-year-old?

Another filly who began her career in January as a 2-year-old was Affectionately, who, like Straight Deal, was trained by Hirsch Jacobs. She wound up running 13 times at 2, winning the Fashion, Polly Drummond, National Stallion Stakes, Astoria, Sorority, and Spinaway. She would go on to race until she was 5, winning 28 of 52 starts, finishing in the money 42 times, and winning the Vagrancy Handicap under 137 pounds. That victory came two races after finishing third to Gun Bow and Chieftain in the Met Mile. She had previously defeated colts in the Vosburgh and Sport Page Handicaps. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

No discussion of the 1960s would be complete without mentioning Kelso. Rather than rehash his 63-race career, let’s just say winning five consecutive Horse of the Year titles is a feat that not only will never be equaled, it will never even be approached. After his retirement, many New York racing fans were heard saying “It just won’t seem like Saturday without Kelso.”

Some other champions of the ‘60s were Gamely (41 starts), Gun Bow (42 starts), Lady Pitt (47 starts), Mongo (46 starts), Nodouble (42 starts), Roman Brother (42 starts), Tosmah (39 starts), and the indefatigable Parka, who was claimed for $10,000 and went on to race 93 times, closing out his career at age 7 with consecutive victories in the Kelly-Olympic, United Nations, and Long Island Handicaps.

Let’s go one year before the ‘60s and one year after the ‘60s. In 1959, Round Table completed an amazing 66-race career that began in February as a 2-year-old going three furlongs. He would go on to race 22 times as a 3-year-old alone, become the first ever great horse on both dirt and grass, win stakes at 11 different tacks all over the country, carry 130 pounds or more to victory 17 times, and equal or break 16 track records. He would then become one of the most influential stallions of the 20th century and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

In 1970 and ’71, racing fans witnessed arguably the most exhausting Kentucky Derby campaign ever. The plucky little Jim French hit the Derby trail in late December of his 2-year-old campaign having already crammed 11 races into a four-month period, racing four times in November alone, including a victory in the Remsen Stakes.

Then the real racing began.

—On Dec. 26, he engaged in a thrilling stretch duel with Sir Dagonet to win the 1 1/16-mile Miami Beach Handicap at Tropical Park.

—Two weeks later, he just got up to win the 1 1/16-mile Dade Metropolitan Handicap at Tropical by a nose, carrying top weight of 125 pounds and conceding 10 pounds to the runner-up.

—Eleven days later, now at Hialeah, he dropped back to six furlongs and finished a fast-closing fourth in the Hibiscus Stakes, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by the brilliant Executioner.

—He was back two weeks later, coming from 10th at the top of the stretch to win the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes by a head, with the regally bred His Majesty third.

—Two weeks later, he was beaten a head by His Majesty in the 1 1/8-mile Everglades Stakes, but was disqualified to fifth for bearing in down the stretch.

—Like clockwork, he was back in the gate two weeks later, coming from 19 lengths back to finish third behind Executioner in the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes.

—Instead of waiting for the Florida Derby, Jim French not only ran 17 days later, he shipped up to New York, where he finished third to the early Kentucky Derby favorite, the brilliant Hoist the Flag, in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, run in a scorching 1:21.

—Just one week later, he was back in Florida, where he closed fast to finish third to Eastern Fleet in the Florida Derby, run in 1:47 2/5, just a fifth off the stakes record.

—Not content to wait for one final Derby prep or train up to the Derby, trainer John Campo put Jim French on a plane to California and ran him one week later in the Santa Anita Derby, which he won by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:48 1/5.

—Two weeks later, he was back in New York, where he rallied to finish a close fourth to stablemate Good Behaving in the Wood Memorial.

Nowadays, if a horse runs four times in four months it’s a lot. Jim French entered the grueling Triple Crown series having competed in 10 stakes at five different racetracks in a little over four months, traveling from New York to Florida, back to New York, back to Florida, to California, back to New York, and then the Kentucky Derby. Although most horses would have been totally wiped out by then, Jim French went on to finish a fast-closing second to Canonero II in the Kentucky Derby, third in Canonero’s track record-breaking Preakness, and a fast-closing second in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made up more than five lengths in the final furlong to be beaten three-quarters of a length.

Instead of being given a well-earned vacation following arguably the most ambitious Triple Crown campaign ever, Jim French amazingly was back in the starting gate two weeks after the Belmont, finishing a fast-closing fourth in the one-mile Pontiac Grand Prix (formerly the Arlington Classic) at Arlington Park. Following his first three-week “vacation” since the previous November, he shipped to California, where he finished second in the 1 ¼-mile Hollywood Derby, giving the winner, Bold Reason, 13 pounds. One week later, he was back in New York, winning the 1 ¼-mile Dwyer Handicap, conceding 12-15 pounds to the rest of the field.

In less than seven months, Jim French had run in 16 stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, never finishing worse than fourth (except for his disqualification). During that time he competed at 10 different racetracks, made two round trip cross-country flights at a time when Eastern horses rarely flew to California for one race, and logged some 20,000 miles of traveling.

The rest of Jim French’s career reads like a crime and mystery novel, which has no bearing on this column. But he eventually wound up standing at stud in France and then Japan, where he left an indelible legacy as a sire and grandsire of classic horses. This year, his great-great grandson Bolshoi Ballet captured the grade 1 Belmont Derby.

Finally, we have to mention Secretariat’s underrated reputation as an iron horse. After setting track records in all three Triple Crown races and having to bounce back from a bad viral infection and 105-degree fever, he returned to set a new world record for 1 1/8 miles in the Marlboro Cup, finish second in the 1 ½-mile Woodward Stakes in the slop as a last-minute substitute for stablemate Riva Ridge without being trained properly for the race, and then set a new course record in the 1 ½-mile Man o’ War Stakes in his grass debut, all in the span of 23 days. Just 20 days later he concluded his career with a victory in the 1 5/8-mile Canadian International Championship. That is an aspect of Big Red’s career that has gone overlooked and often underappreciated.

This is just an example of what racing was like from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s when horses were sound, tough, and durable and thrived on racing. They earned their place in history over a period of time, and when they finally were retired they left us with years of memories, and we were happy to bid farewell to them knowing how much they had enriched our lives.

Yes, they became like friends to us. We as fans got to know them and were grateful for all they gave us. And racing was a better sport because of them.


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