Secretariat

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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180 Responses to “The Days of Iron Horses”

  1. Laura L Lanham says:

    It is a shame they retire so young. You could turn Mr. Peabody’s way back machine a bit farther to Seabiscuit one of my favorites. Chrome raced past 3 as well.

  2. Helena Davis says:

    I loved reading about these iron horses. My old boy raced till he was 10 and lived to 32. I think iron is in some horses’ blood but it’s hard to tell unless they get tested on the track. It appears to me that there isn’t much patience these days to see what they’re capable of. I still get chills watching the old time greats, Damascus being my favourite.
    Thanks Steve, you have a horse’s heart for sure.

  3. Matthew W says:

    Steve you can name a bundle from back east….horses I knew and saw included Cougar II, Ancient Title, Susan’s Girl, Double Discount…tough, vesitile….and ran for many years, every year was like “I wonder if Cougat still has it…”…and he always did.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      As I noted in the story I only mentioned champions of the 60s except for Jim French because no horse was ever asked to do what he was. And Secretariat was mentioned briefly because of those 3 races. I could have named lots of horses from the 70s, but I think I made my point from the 60s without piling on more horses.

  4. Nancy says:

    Damascus lover I was and i believe he bowed a tendon in his four year old year so into retirement he went.

  5. pro vet says:

    Horses work once a week……the good ones…….they gallop many times a week……..there is a test that shows the bone of the horse has not changed from yesterday……Were horses flying all over back then like today?……the best horse at a track, didnt have many horses shipping all over like today….so they had much easier races….you can argue, but trains too…..people did not ship as much………many races, horses didnt want to run against a huge fav…if you had a good horse, would you avoid the great horse? or run against him….?

    This is bad science…..you talk only about great horses, not lower level ones……
    Again……huge fav champions owned the tracks they were running against WAY MORE than today……..So, running many easy races, helped them…..

    There is no science to this belief…no explainations……nothing…….

    Everyone is free to train how they want…………but most all train the same way…….for no reason?…………

    These are just a few factors not considered ,,,,,,,

    THE MAIN REASON HORSES SEEM MORE FRAGILE?……TRAINERS ARE SO MUCH BETTER NOW……THEY GET MAX OUT OF HORSES………..THE HARDER THE EFFORT……THE MORE STRAIN………

    But forget genetics…..forget you cannot weaken the horse that quickly…..the horse has been around millions of years

    • Matthew W says:

      Well sure you can injure a breed quickly, IF you have limited amount of foals, by limited amount of sires…you can add speed to the breed—-uou talk about horses, in natural state— Horse RACING is NOT natural, they breed them for something—.I don’t worry about inbreeding, since herds are all about that—maybe its me, but— Thoroubreds seemed skinny-er back 50 years ago….that said, your trainers get more out of them argument is compelling.

      • pro vet says:

        you are wrong……….so its breeding that is to blame?

        • Matthew W says:

          Well….after the success of Bold Ruler….I remember the push towards miler types—Mr Prospector…Fappiano…Icecapade….in the 70’s, and it continued…look at our leaders Uncle Mo…Quality Road…Into Mischief—this isn’t a giant Thoroughbred herd, they’ve consciously bred speed into the breed, and thats muscle…perhaps muscle strengh has surpassed joint strength, tendon strength, but I’m no expert on any of that….

          • sceptre says:

            Putting more “speed” into the breed which we have to some extent, doesn’t cause it to become inherently less sound. Actually, and all else equal, it’s logical to assume the contrary. It’s tougher on the horse to run faster, and as our races and, to some degree, the Euros’, etc. as well, are proportionally today run over shorter distances, requiring more speed from the performers. Thus, through selection, we are probably today breeding a structurally sounder horse than before, particularly in the US where dirt racing has always been less forgiving than the turf. That is why it’s rather silly to speculate that the influx of European breeding stock in the past, apart, perhaps, from their potential overall superior genetic quality, aided to the soundness of our breed here.

            • Matthew W says:

              Good post….but….I’m a Quarter Horse guy, and the breed has certainly become more heavily muscled, and its not uncommon to see winners, limping into the winners circle—they can run but not walk, soundly….and I wonder—as the muscle increases, do the tendons follow suit—but mostly I wish to see top horses develop into their 4, 5, and 6 year old seasons. There were more tough guys back in the day, I was there, in the Swinging Seventies, Cougar…Ancient Title…Susan’s Girl…Forego….now its rare to see a five year old HOY.

              • sceptre says:

                Well, I was there since the very early 60s, and solely with the thoroughbred racehorse. I can well appreciate that the quarter horse has increasingly become more muscled and, likely, overall faster at those short distances. I suppose there can be too much of a good think, though, and while having no knowledge personally, can see the possibility where this breed has become “unsounder” due to excessive muscle tissue. That said, I absolutely don’t buy your contention that they (some) can run/race sound, but at the same time are unable to walk sound. Those that exit the race unable to walk sound would also be unable to gallop/race, etc. sound, as the latter causes more impact, stress, etc. to the limbs. And yes, thoroughbred horses tended to race more often in the past, but I contend this doesn’t necessarily equate to the horses of the 50s, 60s, etc. being more sound. Again, it’s likely the reverse.

                • sceptre says:

                  re- your run but cannot walk point- Yes, they may have been sound going in (the race), but exited unsound. At this now unsound point they surely would be unable (for a time) to gallop or race soundly. You threw me with your- “They can run, but they cannot walk”– I shouldn’t have taken it literally.

                • sceptre says:

                  Now that I review your post again, I see where you’re using your point about today’s relative unsoundness of the quarter horse- despite, apparently, its faster times as a retort to my point that, all else equal, the faster they are, the more they’d tend to produce sounder types (relative to earlier). I suppose it’s all in the “all else equal” phrase, and when this isn’t “equal” as to excessive muscle mass relative to limb bone density, etc. then you can skew the breed away from relative soundness. But, with the thoroughbred, etc…. where is the proof that there is/was such a “package deal” wherein the greater speed was also ‘packaged” with some other negative trait such as to cause more unsoundness within the breed? Some may argue that Mr. Prospector has imparted overall unsoundness to the breed, but Mr. P’s supposed negative trait related to breathing issues, not limb unsoundness per se.

                  • Matthew W says:

                    The “law” of unintended consequences?

                    • sceptre says:

                      Yes, for sure that’s always a concern, but it would apply equally to any perceived positive trait, characteristic, what have you. Those many multiple genes governing performance-speed, lack of speed, etc.- have never been shown to be “coupled” (linked with, in close proximity to) with other genes that may be associated with unsoundness. Thee’s also no biological reason to suspect otherwise. So, if it happens to happen in the individual horse, it happens by mere happenstance. Know, though, that the genetically “faster” horse who competes as such would tend to exhibit more unsoundness than the genetically “slower” horse, assuming both share identical genes for soundness.

            • Davids says:

              In a 90s seminar I remember Dr Bramlidge being asked what he prescribed to solve the unsoundness problem in US thoroughbreds. For an effect he retorted “well, firstly, I would have cut two of the present three leading sires.”

              A. P. Indy was the sire who would have been kept, the other two were Storm Cat and Rahy. Fair point, I thought.

              • sceptre says:

                Yes, I catch the point. Within the breed, at any point in time, there are those sounder and others less so. Occasionally, but less than you may believe, an inherently unsounder type was so gifted otherwise as to become a popular stallion, etc. throughout his entire career. He’s suggesting that A.P. Indy sired sounder horses than Storm Cat or Rahy. (As an aside- Rahy wasn’t really a “leading sire”). The immensely successful Storm Cat was known to have and, at times, pass on some more apparent conformational issues. I knew what there were at the time, but the details now escape me. Keep in mind, though, that both Storm Cat and A P Indy had rather brief racing careers. Know also that the Storm Cats tended to be a speedier lot than the A P Indies, and being so tended to cause more impact, stress, etc. to their limbs. My point is that those that held up well, despite this, would, all else equal, be considered a sounder horse (for racing purposes) that would a son or daughter of A P Indy that competed over less stressful distances. Yes, again all else equal, if those “sound” Storm Cat sons who went to stud also happened to possess some of those aforementioned conformational defects, this could mitigate somewhat their ability to sire sound-ish offspring…I guess what I’m suggesting is that be careful what sound bites you embrace. Native Dancer was thought to be an unsound horse, particularly his feet, and was supposedly known to regularly “throw” it. Well, there’s no argument that his name is endemic to pedigrees today- largely through Mr. P. and Northern Dancer. —it’s easy to appear sounder if you’re also slower. Please keep this in mind, Dr. Bramlage’s comment notwithstanding.

                • Davids says:

                  Storm Cat had conformation concerns, he had off-set knees which hampered his training and prevented him racing much beyond his two year old races but they did try. Terlingua possessed a headstrong temperament and off-set knees which were passed on to Storm Cat. I remember Storm Cat had surgery to remove bone chips in the knees and later had a tendon injury. Didn’t Storm Cat require 3 handlers to manage him?

                  Yes, over the years, you can read/hear contradictory or conflicting opinions on various sires.

                • Davids says:

                  I just remembered- Giant’s Causeway (Storm Cat – Mariah’s Storm by Rahy) the Iron Horse of Europe.

  6. T.A. Sampson says:

    I have always felt the best and healthiest path for a horse was to keep them working and active as long as possible. I played polo in California and acquired off track horses from trainers who wanted to do the best by their horse and realized it was not cut out for racing. When I retired, I took three of my ponies with me and they all lived into their 30’s. I was still riding them at least 3 times a week bareback. If you listen, they will tell you what they want and need.

  7. Ms Blacktype says:

    Steve, you really struck a cord with this piece. I came of age as a horse racing fan in the late 1960s, when many of the Iron Horses you mention raced on Saturdays in races shown on TV — including Kelso’s amazing nip of Malicious in the 1965 Whitney. So many 60s mares are personal favorites — especially Gamely, Straight Deal, and the ill-fated Dark Mirage.

    I share Lynda King’s belief that the durability of these horses resulted from infusions of French and English blood in the first half of the 20th century. (We gave the Europeans hybrid vigor in the late 19th century, and they returned the favor in the 20th.) Now air travel and shuttling has given us homogenized thoroughbreds that all need a good outcross.

    • Laura L Lanham says:

      Isn’t it getting harder to trace all 3 of the founding sires back today? I had read somewhere in the past the Godolphin line was thinning out. Not sure how true that is. Could be they were just referring to US bloodstock.

      • Lynda King says:

        Laura, if you are referring to the 3 foundation Arabians (The Darley, The Godolphin, The Byerly Turk) You are correct. Because line breeding most modern day Thoroughbreds can be traced back to The Darley. There are still a few lines that go back to The Godolphin but that number is decreasing. The Byerly Turk has all but disappeared in the lines today.

        • Ms Blacktype says:

          I keep them straight by thinking of Matchem, Herod, and Eclipse. Eclipse is dominating sire lines today the way he did his opponents on the track. Me, I like the mares myself — although I believe the only thing royal about some of those original mares is that they were owned by kings.

    • Davids says:

      “When the entire pedigree was considered, it was discovered that just 10 foundation horses are responsible for 45% of the genetic makeup of modern-day Thoroughbreds. Foremost among these is the Godolphin Arabian, who contributed about 14% of the genes found in the average Thoroughbred today. “

      This snippet is from “Thoroughbred Pedigrees Show Little Genetic Diversity” = Rebecca Splan, MS, PhD which was in “The Blood-Horse” in March, 2002. You can read the full column online.

  8. Matthew W says:

    My first big horse I followed was Cougar II, and I think he ran in gr1 & gr2 races 33 times in a row….then the gelding, Ancient Title……long careers….I don’t think about running them MORE, but running them LONGER—-is what I want ….its the 150 mare books that is hurting the sport, and (perhaps) in more ways than one—if you have a $30k stud. Times 150 thats $4.5 million— per year…..

  9. pro vet says:

    The narrative was…….these owners and trainers over race their horses……horse racing is cruel…….
    To…….now, trainers race their horses too few races……..

    Being good to horses……..is now bad……….what are you complaining about?…..Trainers doing great to their horse?

    Everyone who is against this, has zero knowledge about the horse……

    • sceptre says:

      If they read any study about the effects of cumulative concussion on the bones of the limbs they may well change their tune. Too often, still, racehorses are not backed off on time.

  10. Paula Amols says:

    Ah, how I miss those days!
    And I will continue to beat the same drum, i.e., that the frequent racing is what made those horses stronger and more resilient. It was a form of interval training, and interval training in both human and equine athletes results in stronger musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. It’s how horses that compete in long distance(100 miles or more) races are trained, as well as eventing horses. Thoroughbreds aren’t getting more frail, they’re just not trained properly anymore, for so many reasons, most of them related to money and greed.
    And thank you for recognizing Buckpasser’s amazing winning streak, it never gets mentioned when people speak of more recent winning streaks.

    • pro vet says:

      Show me any top trainer that believes in interval training……

      • deacon says:

        Trainers do what what owners tell them mostly. Perhaps except for the great trainers who usually get to train the best horses.
        I think your logic is totally off base. Horses are born to run, period.
        No one speaking on this subject here mentions how drugs have affected the breed.
        Only in recent years has horse racing cracked down on the use of illegal drugs.

        Horses I believe were built to run, training methods have changed, and more sprint type races then ever before.
        If you say horses of yesterday are basically the same as horses today then I will emphatically disagree with you.

  11. Gale Harris says:

    I agree with all you say about how the iron horses enriched our lives. Today I feel the same deepening bond for those who race longer, but nowadays I worry about the careers of horses, like Stradivarius, when they get stretched beyond 5 years. The great ones never lose their enthusiasm or will to win. But are they truly sound enough to be made of iron with only 5 or 6 starts a year?

  12. Discopartner says:

    Essential Quality had 10 starts. What is it about his races that they seem to get miscounted? He had a paddle foot, I believe that was a hidden subtext for the spacing of his races and his retirement at 3. Isn’t Godolphin known for retiring them early?

    I’m old enough to remember the iron horses, but didn’t watch racing much until 2009, just the usual triple crown events which “everyone” watched. So I don’t have those memories. The times have changed and the 60’s were more agrarian. It seems like horse breeding is a growth industry but racing is not. Many of the trainers today seem coddled by wealthy owners or by their own wealth, and act more like caretakers of race horses than trainers. The spirit of competition is hurt by ducking competition to build a race record to enhance breeding fees. Every day racing is still pretty good though, and was always popular. In Boston, Suffolk Downs was lost partly because people didn’t want gambling in their town (Revere), from a casino, but also from horse racing. There’s that aspect working against racing too.

    • Mike Relva says:

      His paddle worked for him. Greed doomed his career going forward in ’22.

    • pro vet says:

      You say his races were spaced……did he not give this horse time off before the classic?……guess why?……he was tired, trainer said he didnt have a break…….

      It is unreal how “fans” know………but every good trainer, doesn’t know how to train……unbelievable…..

      • Matthew W says:

        Tired from 6 starts in 8 months….did Cox say he was tired? Horse had mad stamina..whats going on?…whats tiring them? There are hard trying old claimers racing 14 times a year, I wonder if the big breeding money isn’t keeping the top level horses in their stalls……The NBA had a one-on-one competition, from 1971-1973, teams put one player in, and they had it for 3 years, and it was incredible…..NO WAY would the NBA stars even THINK of doing that now—and I wonder about top horses today, are they really too tired to run? Or…are the breeders afraid to get beat?

  13. Nelson Maan says:

    thanks Steve for this nice remembrance !

    I see I am not alone in feeling a nostalgic yearning for the lost Iron Horses of the Past; a yearning that I try to fulfill by pithily enjoying modern horses winning a couple of Grade 1 races. The irony is that the better they run the greater the chances to retire them early.

    I am compelled to root for sires, stables, trainers and jockeys to fill the void of prematurely retired a super-star. I.e. for team Godolphin, Essential Quality is passing the torch to Mystic Guide and, perhaps, Speaker’s Corner might be able to shine in the Stakes stage…

    The preeminence of the breeding industry these days is evident.

    Even a giant of the past like Bold Ruler produced a total of 366 named foals (about 32 foals per crop). In a notable contrast, for instance, American Pharoah’s crops consist of 130 named foals on average so far (651 foals from 5 crops). The modern elite Stallions usually got 200 mares booked in any given year…

    Another remarkable aspect of the Golden Era of racing was the track attendance.

    In the 60’s the crowd mounted from 10,000 to 14,000 in a normal weekend of racing and grew to 100,000 for the greatest Stakes.

    As Steve has mentioned many times, we have lost the enjoyment of attending live racing … the magic encounters with the unique beauty of the horses and all the sentient colors around them.

    Aside from the mentioned Cigar and Zenyatta other champions resembling iron horses were Skip Away and more recently California Chrome and Gun Runner. These three campaigned at 2, 3, 4 and 5-year-old. Gun Runner, however, ran only once as a 5-year-old to fetch the 7 million dollars in winning the Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

    Their immense popularity was indeed kindled by their permanence on the track.

    Gun Runner is a great example of a win-win situation for both the fans and the breeding business.

    At least we the fans will be gratified with about 30 wonderful three-year-old horses who are bound to continue running next year… we won’t see them twice a month but, nevertheless, that qualified group will be captivating a good number of fans for most of the year…!

    • Steve Haskin says:

      “As Steve has mentioned many times, we have lost the enjoyment of attending live racing … the magic encounters with the unique beauty of the horses and all the sentient colors around them.”

      This is so true and so well said.

  14. Tetrarch says:

    Carry Back started my fascination as well, and who can forget any of the others.

    Two recent events helped highlight the difference of then and now for me:

    1. Knicks Go– perfect example of an ‘unfashionably’-bred horse who needed to grow up to be a racehorse, and a racehorse who could carry Thoroughbred speed 1 1/4 miles in under 2 minutes at that. You hope he’ll get decent mares at only $30k, and have offspring who won’t be burned out as 2YO and given time to develop into top older horses.

    2. Zayat Stables. In 2015 they have the first Triple Crown winner in 42 years. Six years later bankruptcy, litigation, and a two-horse stable. The owners who buy to race rather than breed.

    I actually liked this year’s 3YO because they were indeed racing each other rather than lolling in barns.

    Thanks for your continued writing, Steve.

  15. deacon says:

    Wow Steve what an amazing read. I remember all of these great iron horses you mentioned. I watched all 3 of Native Diver’s Hollywood Gold Cup wins. Jerry Lambert in the saddle & I believe Buster Millerick trained the “Diver”, 37 wins in 81 starts.
    Simply amazing.
    We are kidding ourselves if we think horse racing will ever return to what it once was.
    These ridiculous purses out there nowadays gives the owners no incentive to run their horses past the age of 3.
    Plus the breeding money they get, us fans are left out in the cold.
    John Henry is another iron horse, ran 83 times & won 39 races. I think he made something like $6 million career dollars, and that was back in the 1980’s.

    Loved this read Steve, you are always on top of your game. If you were a relief pitcher for the Yankees you would be better then Mariano Rivera.

    Happy Thanksgiving

    • Steve Haskin says:

      LOL. Wow that is some compliment, Deacon. Thank you very much. You are so right about the gigantic syndication offers, always by the same few farms who are now stallion collectors. Cant have enough stallions. This wasnt meant to knock racing today (it is what it is) as much as it was to show some people what it was like back then and let us oldtimers reminisce about the great days of racing when we actually got to know our stars

  16. Debbie says:

    Though the racehorses of today are indeed beautiful they seem to more and more resemble that glass Breyer horse on my dresser growing up. I agree we have lost the grit and maybe even some of the heart that makes that breed so special. But alas… the almighty dollar talks. I understand it is a business and an expensive one at that but what has it cost the sport. Would America have been happy if Tom Brady had hung up his cleats after two or three seasons? I doubt it because this is what makes him special. We need to get back to giving the youngsters a bit longer to grow, a bit longer to stretch out, a bit longer to grow in to the champions that they could possibly become, the ones that stand the test of time. Infuse those bloodlines in the racing world and I think with a bit of time racing would become the Sport of Kings with the royalty it had in the past. Just my two cents worth.

    • Lynda King says:

      I enjoy studying pedigrees and one common denominator for these Iron Horses seems to be the influence of Thoroughbreds from England, Ireland and France in their bloodlines and they were not as deeply inbred as Thoroughbreds are today.

      • Steve Haskin says:

        The inbreeding to Mr. Prospector is unbelievable/ It seems like 75 percent of the horses are inbred to him

        • Ms Blacktype says:

          Or Northern Dancer. That covers about 99 percent of the breed today.

          • Steve Haskin says:

            Definitely. But Northerrn Dancer usually adds stamina and soundness

          • discopartner says:

            I think of Northern Dancer as a broader influence, on both turf and dirt. His lines have held up well, exported to the UK, Europe and Australia and imported back with great success, and recently started winning Kentucky Derbys, courtesy of Bob B., three recently. I still like the Mr. P’s though. It’s amazing how certain horses have that ability to pass on superior racing genes over decades.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Very well said, Debbie

    • Nelson Maan says:

      I am 100% with you Debbie…!

      I even mentioned in one of my old posts that some modern horses seem to have the fragility of fine crystals… and curiously I was also using Brady as an analogy to durability, talent and popularity.

      However, it occurred to me the fiction of someone paying Tom Brady $200,000 for each of his babies … then he might have retired long ago …
      or not… he could just train, play and reproduce in his spare time… not a luxury horses have … LOL

  17. Another gem Steve. After reading your column I will no longer use the saying “when men were men” when measuring how much times have changed. It is now “when horses were horses”.

  18. EddieF says:

    Thanks for another great column, Steve. It certainly puts the modern era into proper perspective. “Breed to breed,” indeed! When you wrote that Jim French raced four times in November of his 2yo season, I couldn’t believe it. Turns out that, by the time he was entered in the Derby, he had raced more often than any of his rivals. Could it be that the grueling schedule was the difference between winning the Derby and finishing second? Or maybe he wouldn’t have done as well as he did if he had a lighter schedule. Who knows?!

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thanks Eddie, he simply got beat by a horse, who in the Derby and Preakness especially. was s super horse, as e was in the following year’s Stymie when he set a new American record crushing Riva Ridge. Bottom line is, youre right, who knows?

  19. sceptre says:

    For the period you mention, Steve, just quickly off the top of my head: Hoist The Flag, Dark Mirage, Sir Gaylord, Tim Tam, Lamb Chop, Creme De La Creme, Graustark, Raise A Native…Some were saved, some were not. Famous enough for you?

    Also, much the same can be said for NBA stars past vs present re playing time, games played/season, etc. Are we to assume that players of the past were also “sounder”, heartier, what have you? More likely science intervened/better able to detect injuries and potential injuries for one.

    • deacon says:

      The Thrill of Victory & the Agony of Defeat…………Wide World of Sports, way back in the day.
      It is difficult to truly fall in love with a horse anymore. We only get to see them 6 or 7 times.

    • Davids says:

      sceptre, with reference to the horses you mention above, you often read that the jockey or trainer didn’t want to run the horse but the owners insisted for whatever reason. I’ve often wondered why the racetrack veterinarians didn’t spot what the jockeys/trainers knew. Any thoughts?

      • sceptre says:

        Hi David,

        I tried to respond before, but apparently it didn’t go through, so I’ll try again. Of the ones listed, it is only Graustark, to my recollection, that fits your narrative. That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened often, and Buckpasser may be a good example. It’s been often noted that Buckpasser was well below par prior to the 1967 Woodward, the epic race. His quarter crack was again acting up, and there was some knee issues. Despite this, Mr/ Phipps decided- as a “sporting gesture” to run him, and the horse performed below his best. it was his last race. To be fair, I’m sure that Mr. Phipps sought veterinary counsel before making his decision and, likely, was given the green light. Also, it’s almost certain that this would be Buckpasser’s last start in any event. I’m also rather sure that today’s veterinary advice would have been to scratch the horse, as it would have been based on more sophisticated testing procedures. As to your question about why so many were permitted to race after having received “routine” pre-race vet checks– Know that these quick, “lick and a promise”, track vet once overs are anything but thorough, particularly back then. It is my belief that almost ALL racehorses need far more veterinary scrutiny than they receive, and this was truer back then.

        • Davids says:

          Hi sceptre, thank you for the overview. From my recollection at the races, which was limited at the time, the pre-race vet was more a functionary rubber stamp – “able to run” – than determining suitability. Probably too harsh but it was an impression that stuck.

          Even now, a recollection/rereading of the 1967 Woodward is a painful experience- childhood memories. Buckpasser was adored and Dr. Fager was an idol. Over the years, Damascus was appreciated. Damascus had an even worse departure from the racetrack.

          Allez France, Zilzal, like Buckpasser, among many, that shouldn’t have run in their last race but it was the fashion at the time. Hopefully, with the implementation of the USADA regimen everything in racing will improve.

          • sceptre says:

            If we even think of relying on your “USADA regimen” the horse will be in yet more dire straits than it is now. The government has absolutely no expertise in such matters, and when reviewing how this legislation came to be it’s striking how little input was asked for and received from the veterinary community. For example, had they been more thoroughly consulted, I can assure that the potential outlawing of race day lasix would be off the table. Don’t get me started.

  20. John Goggin says:

    The greatest American female racehorse of all – Zenyatta – beat the winners of 69 Grade 1 races including over twp dozen multiple Grade 1 winners and ran down every horse she faced except Blame.
    Then you have the great Big Cat (Cougar 11) whom I previously mentioned racing nine times as a seven year old, started in 50 races with 44 those in the money including no less than 13 Grade 1 turf race wins and about four Grade 1 dirt race wins.
    Now compare that with the mentioned early retirement of Essential Quality….whom Friday’s Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs will have twice the number of Grade 1 winners than EQ faced in both the Travers and Jim Dandy combined.
    Finally, on the female side there is the “Iron Lady” (Lady’s Secret) whom started 45 races….won 25 of them and finished in the money 37 times.

  21. Lynda King says:

    Thank you Steve! Love reading about these iron horses that I came to know as a child reading the newspapers, never attending an actual horse race.
    Some of their back stories like that of Carry Back’s just adds to my fascination with them all.
    As you know Carry Back was a plain brown wrapper horse from humble beginnings who went on to be called “The People’s Choice”. A sportswriter described him as a little, scrawny horse who weighed no more than 970 pounds”.
    In 1958 a man named Jack Price took over ownership of a mare named Joppa for $300, of which $150 was a past due boarding fee. Joppa never amounted to much on the track and was eventually banned from racing for her refusals to leave the starting gate.
    Price bred the mare to a stallion named Saggy for a breeding fee of $400. Saggy’s only claim to fame was handing the great Citation his only loss in his Triple Crown year.
    Have to admit, I got a little teary eyed reading “The Days of Iron Horses” because it brought back wonderful memories reading the sports section and looking at the black and white photos of the horses on Sunday mornings while my Dad read the rest of the paper. And your last line perfectly defines what horse racing was to me (and sometimes still is), “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.”

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thank you very much for sharing Carry Back’s story. One of my closest friends and the managing editor at DRF was the son of the editor Saul Rosen during the Telly days, who was very close to the Jack and Kathryn Price. They were friends of the family. so I knew all about Jack, who was as unconventional a trainer/owner as there ever was. Carry Back was the horse who exposed me to Thoroughbred racing for the first time when I was 13. I couldnt understand why all horses didnt run the way he did by saving themselves and coming on late. Made a lot of sense to a 13 year old who knew nothing about racing

      • Lynda King says:

        I think it was because of Carry back that I fell in love with the closers.
        Maybe someday you can tell us more about Jack Price and Kathryn.
        Something you and I have in common, Carry Back introduced us both to horse racing!

    • Matthew W says:

      It was before my time, but a small filly named Cicada, was prominent in the early 60’s, I think she was under 900 lbs, but not sure of that…

      • Steve Haskin says:

        I guess you havent read the column yet. Thats her picture under the headline

        • Matthew W says:

          Oh, I did read the column, thats probably how I remembered that beautiful little filly! I just thought about small, and remembered reading about Cicada—-probably from you!

    • sceptre says:

      I remember well Carry Back. Saw him several times. I certainly wouldn’t call him a little, scrawny horse. Rather, he was medium sized, very well balanced, certainly athletic-looking, and overall a quite handsome specimen. Too bad he didn’t have a better pedigree, because he certainly had both the looks and ability.

  22. Cynthia Holt says:

    “Johnny, we hardly knew ye.” You could not have written a better column on the 58th anniversary of JFK’s death. I dearly miss that era, and those Saturday afternoon heroes. Thank you for giving them the opportunity to shine again. I had forgotten all about Straight Deal, whom I saw run several times at Santa Anita. How great to see her name in print once more.

  23. Sharon Brock says:

    Thank you for the column. You gave me the chills Steve. I was a teenager when Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Damascus, John Henry, and Forego raced. If my memory serves me correctly, the Doc and Buckpasser set their world records for the dirt mile within a month. The loss of Ruffian shattered my heart. Secretariat was chillingly awesome to watch and the 1978 Belmont Stakes is still the best horse race I have witnessed in my lifetime. American Pharoah’s Belmont still makes me weep.
    .

  24. Carla Restivo says:

    Those sound like Thoroughbreds.

  25. Matthew W says:

    What a career did Round Table have! All that racing, turf and dirt, and 16 track records! Then the stands at stud, and becomes a major influence….and finally his business savvy, opening up all those Round Table pizza joints—-,HUH? Oh, my bad……

    • EddieF says:

      Ha! Hey, Matthew, are you sure that the horse didn’t open those pizzerias? Round Table was retired from racing in 1959, the same year that the first Round Table Pizza opened. 😮

      • Matthew W says:

        Friday nights were pizza nights, for me and my sons….I liked a little Italian NY style pizza place, but they liked the games at Round Table better, so we went there. ..I was too young for the horse, but am certain Round Table the horse—-was better than Round Table the pizza!