Eighty-five years ago this month, a promising 3-year-old colt named Sunny Man was knocked off the Kentucky Derby and Preakness trail.
Unlike Eskendereya who will enjoy a healthy stud career or Endorsement whose leg fracture will likely heal to allow him to race again, Sunny Man suffered a truly horrific death—poisoned with chloral and arsenic, his mouth blistered and a deathly blue, in his last days of life Sunny Man crazily beat his head against the sides of his Pimlico stall. Just who was responsible for the demise of this prized thoroughbred was never discovered, but the details of his case, and particularly the lack of response by Maryland racetracks at the time, are appalling.
Sunny Man was thoroughbred royalty, son of Willis Sharpe Kilmer’s beloved Travers winner Sun Briar—the pre-race favorite withdrawn from the 1918 Kentucky Derby ultimately won by his bony workmate Exterminator. His English damsire Polymelus, who traced his ancestry back to the Darley Arabian, was the most successful stud of his era, siring among others the great stallion Phalaris. His dam Romagne had already produced a classics winner in Ray Jay, winner of the 1922 Dwyer Stakes.
Fresh off a smashing victory in the Whirl Stakes at Empire City race track, Sunny Man began his 2-year-old fall campaign at Saratoga with wins in the United States Hotel Stakes and the Saratoga Special. A July 20, 1924 Washington Post article lauded his merits and breeding:
“Sunny Man, a chestnut, is a typical Sun Briar—lengthy underneath, short of back and close to the ground. He has plenty of bone, an attractive muscular equipment and a pleasant disposition...[he] has the gait of a distance runner.”
Although he finished third to stablemate Sunsard in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes in his final Saratoga outing, and fourth in November’s Pimlico Special to close out his juvenile campaign, Sunny Man was working sensationally in late spring towards the big 3-year-old races, and if fact, when Preakness entries closed on April 20, the DRF noted: “They are many who believe that Sunny Man will be hard to beat in both the Preakness and Kentucky Derby.”
His 3-year-old debut in the fourth race at Havre de Grace on Monday, April 27 looked like an easy spot, going six furlongs in allowance company. However, much to the surprise of his connections, Sunny Man lost to recent maiden winner Prince of Bourbon who connections at Xalapa Farm “wagered heavily on their candidate, sending him to the post almost an equal favorite with Sunny Man,” a fact that was to be rather suspicious considering what transpired next. Sunny Man toted 124 pounds, 16 ½ pounds more than Prince of Bourbon, but still closed well enough to finish second.
When Sunny Man shipped back to Pimlico after his loss, he was a very sick horse. His trainer J.P. Smith consulted Maryland Jockey Club veterinarian Dr. H.J. McCarthy and called in Kilmer’s vet Dr. Robert McCully from New York, but nothing could be done for the colt whose crazed state finally ended on Saturday, May 2, at 10:15 p.m.—six days before the Preakness, and 14 days before the Kentucky Derby.
Despite initial accounts, Kilmer had only $45,000 worth of insurance on Sunny Man, but it hardly consoled the turfman who put his racing stable on hold while his hired detectives attempted to discover who had poisoned the colt. The Washington Post offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest; Kilmer added another $5,000 to the effort.
On May 5, Washington Post sports editor N.W. Baxter published a scathing editorial which hypothesized upon how events unfolded:
“The poisoning of Sunny Man was very evidently an effort to fix a single race—the fourth on Monday’s card at Havre de Grace. As the event was drawn it was strictly a two-horse affair. Sunny Man and Prince of Bourbon were the only two starters that appeared on form to have the slightest chance to win. The racing public, gullible and seldom given the benefit of protection by those in control of racing, made the Kilmer colt the favorite at odds of $1.70 to $1.00. Wise money, evidently aware of the foul tactics that had been practiced beforehand, made Prince of Bourbon an almost equal choice at $1.90 to $1.00. Too great eagerness to collect on a certainty, born of underhandedness, ran the price on the winner down even lower than the authors of the cowardly conspiracy probably intended. The winners, if they may be called that, certainly did not collect enough pieces of silver to satisfy a modern Judas. A splendid colt is dead—murdered—and racing races an ugly situation that must be cleared up.”
“The fact that such incidents are happening with frequency is no reason for ignoring their existence. An ostrich-like attitude will not bring about a cure. If, however, the various bodies in control of racing begin to take real disciplinary action—no matter who may be involved—against all infractions of the rules of racing, and punish to the limits vandals such as those that were implicated in the poisoning of Sunny Man, there would be an immediate improvement in conditions.”
“What right have officials charged with the government of racing to call it a sport and make an appeal for the support of the public and owners when it is approaching daily rules of conduct that are only approximated among East Side gangsters?”
“Why should a breeders of thoroughbreds send his horses to the races when, if he has any high-class horses, it is necessary for him to employ armed guards, mount searchlights and turn his stables into an armed camp to make certain that his property is not going to be harmed or injured?”
“The necessity for such precautions does not arise because an owner of thoroughbreds is an enemy of mankind in general, but because the racing associations who claim to foster the ‘improvement of the breed of thoroughbreds’ are derelict in the protection that they afford to honest man and by their weakness enable the criminals to operate virtually unmolested.”
“Competent men, working with thoroughness and honesty, can clean up racing…It should be made a business, better a highly-skilled profession embraced by men with every qualification, including experience, and in these men should be vested full power to proceed against any individual or element that they consider derogatory to the well-being of the industry that racing has come to represent. That fact that the poisoning of Sunny Man is the most open and notorious effort to corrupt racing that has taken place in some time may result in a more active investigation than usual.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Baxter’s hopes to be crushed. It was announced in the Post on May 6 that:
“Dr. Frank A. Ingram, veterinarian for one of the insurance companies holding a policy on Sunny Man, was unable to recover the viscera of the dead colt, as the carcass was thrown into an acid bath at the fertilizer plant to which it was removed before he could take steps to remove the vital organs….Dr. Ingram wanted to know on what authority the horse had been moved from Pimlico and destroyed. Thomas Whiting, president of the fertilizer company, explained that the city health ordinances provide that all animals received at the plant be destroyed in as short a time as possible.”
No one took responsibility for ordering the colt’s body removed from Pimlico, and, even more shockingly, the Maryland Racing commission, the Maryland Jockey Club and the Hartford County Agricultural association refused to investigate the incident. As Baxter wrote on May 7:
“All of Maryland’s racing officials continue to close their eyes to the ugly circumstances in the case. They refuse even to explain satisfactorily why they will not take action. The poisoning of a thoroughbred is not a matter that should be allowed to become merely an issue between the owner and insurance companies...”
“There are at present too many contradictions in the stories that are being told to permit of the matter being dropped. Dr. McCully, Kilmer stable veterinarian, says that Sunny Man was deliberately poisoned by the administration of a combination of chloral and arsenic. Dr. McCarthy, veterinarian for the Maryland Jockey club, says that the horse’s death was caused by either an overdose of or wrongly compounded sedative. At the same time these two men and Dr. Ingram, veterinarian for one of the insurance companies interested, agree that the colt was poisoned.”
“The reasons behind the speedy destruction of Sunny Man also demand explanation. Examination of the organs of the dead thoroughbred might have given definite answer to many of the questions that may now remain a matter of conjecture. Lack of an autopsy only gives tongue to many ugly rumors.”
“The ‘oligarchy’ of the turf may take what comfort it can from the fact that it is able to ignore the stench that surrounds it. The odor is apparent, however, to both patrons and supporters of the sport...It is stupid to deny that cause for investigation exists.”
While Maryland officials refused to take any action, others did in regards to instituting greater protection. In New York, special police were hired to protect the horses stabled there, including at Belmont, Empire City, Saratoga, Jamaica and Aqueduct race tracks:
“It will be their duty to see that no unauthorized persons are allowed on the tracks. No one but employees of the stables at the tracks will be allowed in or around the barns except by special authorization. The owners and trainers will be held individually responsible for their own employees.”
Even as far away as Europe the incident resonated with owners anxious for their prized thoroughbreds. For example, the French colt Ptolemy—fresh off his runner-up effort in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas)—was accompanied by three private detectives when he shipped to England in preparation for the Epsom Derby. As his trainer Robert Denman told the body guards, “We don’t want any Sunny Man business.”
From what I could undercover, the circumstances of Sunny Man’s death were never fully explained, and no one was ever brought to justice for his poisoning. Kilmer never owned another Kentucky Derby winner, although he did breed 1928 winner Reigh Count, father of Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. As an owner, he also celebrated great success with another son of Sun Briar, Sun Beau who was thrice named champion handicap horse in 1929-31.
Another fascinating tidbit: after the death of the famed Australian race horse Phar Lap in April 1932—purportedly due to poisoning—Willis Sharpe Kilmer hired the gelding’s Australian trainer Treve “Tommy” Woodcock, veterinarian Walter Nielsen and jockey Willie Elliot to work for him, “given a free hand with eight or ten Kilmer horses. Unlike U. S. trainers who give their horses stiff, frequent tests for speed, Australia's trainer Woodcock believes in long loping canters to build stamina, stretch muscles.” Woodcock would eventually return to Australia in 1934, but how interesting that Kilmer, who had suffered the tragic loss of his prized Sunny Man just seven years prior, demonstrated great empathy for Phar Lap’s forlorn trio under such tragically similar circumstances.
“Kilmer’s Sunny Man is Present Leader” Washington Post, July 20, 1924 p. S4.
“Sixty-Nine Entries for Preakness Stakes” Daily Racing Form, April 21, 1925, p. 1.
“Star in the Embryo. Prince of Bourbon Makes Impressive Showing at Havre” Daily Racing Form, April 28, 1925, p. 1.
“Hint Poison Plot in Death of Great Race Horse. Sunny Man’s Mouth Blistered and Blue, Trainer Smith Says” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 3, 1925, p. S1.
“Derby Colt Sunny Man Dead” Daily Racing Form, May 5, 1925, p. 1.
N.W. Baxter “Poisoning of Sunny Man Must Not Be Whitewashed: Turf Can’t Survive if Officials Refuse to Do their Duty” Washington Post, May 5, 1925, p. 13.
“Colt’s Carcass Destroyed Quickly” Washington Post, May 6, 1925, p. 15.
N.W. Baxter “Officials Act to Prevent Vandalism. Widener Takes Action That Maryland Should Imitate” Washington Post, May 7, 1925, p. 13.
“Sleuths Guard Ptolemy; Fear Sunny Man Case” Washington Post, May 23, 1925, p. 13.
Time, May 2, 1932