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Sunday, November 22, 2009

On Perspective and Bias

On November 23, 1918, the legendary Exterminator wrapped up his Kentucky Derby-winning 3-year-old campaign, prevailing by a nose over Clark Handicap victor Beaverkill in the 2-1/4 mile Latonia Cup. Five days later, he won the 1-1/16 mile Thanksgiving Handicap, and then shipped home to Binghamton, NY, to be turned out for the winter, after amassing for the year a record of 7 wins, 4 seconds and 3 thirds in 14 starts, and total earnings of $36,147. In addition to the Kentucky Derby (his first race of the year) and the two Latonia stakes, Exterminator also won the Carrollton and Ellicott City handicaps at Laurel in October, as well as the Pimlico Autumn Handicap in November. As the Daily Racing Form (DRF) noted on December 10, 1918:

“When he started in the Kentucky Derby his inclusion in the field excited no consideration, and when he won the big race it was put down as a fluke. But his subsequent career in racing dispelled this illusion, and when he returned to Kentucky in the fall to win the two miles and a quarter Latonia Cup it was with the well-earned reputation of being one of the best three-year-olds of 1918.”

Yet, when the DRF checked in on the nation’s third-leading money winner later in December, it was his Travers-winning stablemate who garnered the headline “Sun Briar Wintering Well.” The DRF reporter gushed:

“It is easy to express an opinion of Sun Briar’s appearance as he is today. He is the handsomest horse in America, and looks the exact part of what he surely is—a high-class, all around race horse at any distance. He is as sound as he ever was, and racegoers may have the pleasure of seeing this really wonderful horse under colors again the coming year, as Mr. Kilmer is undecided as to the future of his favorite.”

He continues, with considerably less enthusiasm:

“In the next stall stands Exterminator, the winner of the coveted Kentucky Derby and the only horse to win that cherished event and the Latonia Cup. While not as high a class horse as his more famous stablemate and nothing like as handsome, the unsexed son of McGee is a decidedly useful sort, as attested by the fact that he was third in the list of American winners for the racing season just closed.”

Rodney Dangerfield enjoyed considerably more respect than poor Exterminator.

Surely that unnamed DRF writer would eat his words, though, beginning with a near-track record performance Exterminator put on at Oaklawn in his 1919 opener, a 1 mile and 70 yard handicap on March 22 for which, carrying 126 lbs, he gave between 11 and 18 lbs to his competitors. Yet, after Sun Briar returned in August, victorious over his stablemate in the Champlain Handicap at Saratoga, the DRF ran another article heralding Sun Briar:

“It is gratifying to chronicle the fact that besides being one of the fastest horses in the country, if not, indeed, the fastest with scale weight up, Sun Briar is a superb specimen of the thoroughbred race horse in conformation, quality, finish and type. He is the color of old San Domingo mahogany, stands about 15.3 hands high and looks as much like an equine gamecock as any horse ever did. None of your lop-eared, listless, gross-looking, gummy legged ones is Sun Briar, but a living model for one of...the extremely bloodlike old English turf champions. No one would ever mistake him for a gelding...”

History proved Sun Briar’s worth as a stallion, as his progeny included Hall of Fame handicap horse Sun Beau, as well as 1925 champion 2-year-old colt Pompey and Pompey’s full-sister Laughing Queen, the third dam of the great Tom Fool. His daughter Suntica won the Test and Kentucky Oaks, and son Sun Flag took the 1924 Travers.

Yet, it is Exterminator—“Old Bones”—whose exploits on the track have become legend, winning 50 of 99 races over a career that spanned eight years, including 33 stakes—three consecutive Pimlico and Toronto Autumn cups, and four consecutive Saratoga Cups, in addition to the Brooklyn, Clark, Camden, Ben Ali, Philadelphia and Kentucky handicaps. It is gangly, 17-hands tall Exterminator who, in his 1945 autobiography, Colonel Matt Winn chose as the greatest horse he ever saw race “because when greatness is reckoned, the factors entering into it are speed, courage, stamina, intelligence, and perhaps, more importantly, durability.”

It is virtually impossible for contemporaneous writers to provide proper or unbiased perspective regarding the horses they see race—as with all historical observations, time must pass before a deeper understanding and appreciation sets in, and personal bias overcome. The same is true of the ongoing Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra “debate”. Right now, passions run high based on how one feels about their respective connections, as well as campaign issues including geography, track surfaces, competition and, of course, the fact that they did not meet on the track. I completely understand the desire to debate their relative merits, and even the swirling “Horse of the Year” controversy. While some agree the issue is hardly worth the battle royal that has erupted on boards, blogs and in print—and sharing the award a worthy goal—others are determined there can be only one—and most of those strongly prefer one over the other. And that’s fine.

As my prior comments on the matter have been criticized in various quarters—and it’s even been suggested that folks like me need to “grow a pair” (a revolting thought, to say the least)—I’ll put aside my historian’s inclination to be unbiased, and render my own just-as-prejudicial-as-everyone-else’s view. Don’t be surprised when, in years to come, the merits of one horse far overshadows the other. It will be the one who traveled from track to track all over this country, taking on open company multiple times and challenges no longer pursued by top race horses—and not the one coddled by her connections, and aimed for one race on a preferred home surface.

In a December 1922 Vanity Fair article entitled “Exterminator: A Wonder Horse”, O’Neil Sevier noted about the then-seven-year-old “Horse of the Year”:

“Wonder horses are of fairly common recurrence in racing. [They] are cropping up every season or so to crowd writers of racing hard for fresh superlatives. Fairly often, two thoroughbred whirlwinds show in a single season and it is necessary toward the end of such to organize special determine which is the champion in his class. At more widely spaced periods great outstanding fellows like...Man o’War appear each to be decorated, for a time at least, with some such grandiose title as “The Horse of the Century.” At very remote intervals one of these horses keeps winning long enough, or retires opportunely enough, to have such an appellation stick, as in the case of Man o’War. But horses like Exterminator are very rare....The career of Exterminator is an American racing epic. His racing glory is the glory of a fixed star, not the ephemeral, meteoric kind of the wonder horse or the horse of the century.”

Personally, I can’t wait for the next chapter in Rachel Alexandra’s epic—onward to 2010!

Sources consulted:

“Kentucky’s Racing Returns of Money Won By Owners at its Lexington, Churchill Downs, Douglas Park and Latonia Meetings” Daily Racing Form (December 10, 1918).

“Sun Briar Wintering Well. Mr. Kilmer’s Great Horse Not Likely to Go to Europe. Exterminator and Two-Year-Olds to Be Trained at Hot Springs, Ark.” Daily Racing Form, December 20, 1918

“Sun Briar Superb Type of Horse” Daily Racing Form (August 14, 1919).

O’Neil Sevier, “Exterminator: A Wonder Horse” Vanity Fair (December 1922) pp. 75, 114.


Anonymous said...

Another well supported, thoughtful essay. They should make you lead counsel for the Rachel camp.

(That would make a great TVG/HRTV feature btw, a televised hour of highlights with two panels, each making the case for their filly)

440yards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
440yards said...

After her February 15th win in the Martha Washington Stakes, you pegged Rachel Alexandra number 5 on your list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. At that time, none of us fathomed where the filly would eventually take us. AND we are still not sure how Rachel’s “epic” will end. Wonderful job, both in February and with this piece!

I have one though; I do not believe Zenyatta can simply be described as a wonder horse. O’Neil Sevier noted, “Wonder horses are of fairly common recurrence in racing. [They] are cropping up every season…. Fairly often, two thoroughbred whirlwinds shown in a single season….”

I think Sevier was describing horses like Big Brown, Charismatic, and Zensational (lol). Zenyatta’s whirlwind lasted longer than a couple of months. She was perfect over the course of two years! Sevier himself noted that, “It is necessary…to determine which is the champion in his class.” Perhaps the pronoun was meant to be all encompassing. Or perhaps in 1922 Sevier couldn’t imagine a mare and a filly competing for horse of the year, having beaten everything put in their paths.

Long story made short - neither horse is ephemeral.

the Source of the James said...

Wow, Sun Beau.
I have a picture of his grave ( along with Impreatrice, Hill Prince, and Blue)on my blog. It still exists, unnoticed, at the Meadow Event Park, birthplace of Secretariat. I visit it when in the park.

Horse of the Year? Rachel had it locked up after the Preakness regardless of what any other horse did.

It's just too bad the supporters of both Rachel and Zenyatta have descended into the mud to the point where both great horses (especially Zenyatta) are being demeaned by the lesser creatures that surround them.

Not the fans (or sports writers) finest hour, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was really, really good! Not only do I love "Old Bones", but your analogy to greatness in the thoroughbred racehorse was flawless!
After Zenyatta's Classic, the vast majority of poeple (including myself, a HUGE Rachel fan) were declaring Zenyatta deserved Horse of the Year. Now, given some time to think rationally and away from "the moment" the polls are begining to swing back to Rachel's favor.
Loved this post, great job!

Anonymous said...

You might consider changing country to continent. His final year started with Feb and March in Mexico then April and May in Maryland and wrapped up with two June races in Quebec.
I love horses that lose 50 or more races. Builds character.