12/11/2017 1:19PM

Remembering Cormorant

EmailThroughout the holiday season, I'll post some stories from my 2002 book OLD FRIENDS (Eclipse Press), reflecting the lives of beloved senior Thoroughbreds.  We can all use some feel-good stories right around now, and recently looking through the book brought back memories of each wonderful subject.  

Some were famous names, known to every racing fan; while, in other cases, they're remembered only by diehard ones.  As the horses were each 20 or older when the book came out 15 years ago, all are long gone now.  But each lived out his or her life with respect and dignity.

The story below, about one of my all-time favorites, appears as it was written for the book.


b.c. 1974, by His Majesty-Song Sparrow, by *Tudor Minstrel

Cormorant emerged from the stallion barn, prancing and grandly arching his neck.  If ever a horse ‘breathed fire’ it was he, and 27 years had done nothing to diminish the flame.  He stopped and stood for a mere moment, arrogantly surveying the lands for a challenger.  When none could be found, he decided to argue with the man at the end of the shank.

He could not be persuaded to stand still until, through a barn window some 50 feet away, behind a running pickup truck, he caught a glimpse of a mare.  While she was just barely visible, it was all Cormorant needed.  He stood unmoving for minutes, enchanted with the view.

"I used to go to the barn laughing, wondering what kind of antics he'd have on display that morning," trainer J.P. Simpson remembers.  "He was entertainment in extreme.  He was like a jazz band.  He could hit some high notes."

Now retired, 82-year-old Simpson speaks of Cormorant as if he trained him last week rather than a quarter century ago.  "He was a character that demanded your attention," he vividly recalls.  "He was the most notorious one in that regard I ever had.  His enthusiasm and energy would go on display every day, sometimes two or three times a day."

Mr. Simpson brightens at the mere mention of Cormorant, fondly remembering his time spent with the high-spirited son of His Majesty.  "I'd have to have two hotwalkers for him.  The first would take three or four turns, and then his alternate would take over.  He'd go three or four turns, and then the first one would pick it back up.  Cormorant was squealing and kicking and dragging them all over the place." 

One thing that Mr. Simpson still wishes, however, is that Cormorant had been born another year.  "I'm just sorry I had to run into Seattle Slew.  Most other years Cormorant would have been 3-year-old champion or even horse of the year."


Ten minutes after Cormorant won the 1977 Bay Shore, J.P. Simpson watched a televised race and said worriedly, “Devastating!  I don’t think we will want to go where he is.”  “He” was Seattle Slew, who had just won Hialeah’s Flamingo Stakes.  But J.P. Simpson and Cormorant did not avoid Seattle Slew for long. 

By winning the Bay Shore, Cormorant enhanced his already lofty reputation.  He had now won seven of eight starts including a win over Royal Ski in the Maryland Nursery Stakes, and Laurel clockers were used to putting a bullet next to his name.  There were those who thought Cormorant would be the one to dethrone the quickly rising star, Seattle Slew.

Cormorant's next start was the Gotham Stakes, a race for which Seattle Slew had originally been considered.  His connections decided against running, and Cormorant took full advantage of the easier company.  He won the 1 1/16 mile event in an impressive 1:43 3/5, just 3/5 off the track mark.

In his spare time, Cormorant amused himself by trying to rip off his leg bandages and buffeting the crew around. Danny Wright, Simpson's stable rider for 17 years and Cormorant's only jockey, galloped and worked Cormorant at first.  "I got to the point where I couldn't gallop him because he was so high strung," Danny remembers.  "He would hear my footsteps coming down the shedrow and start banging against the wall.  He thought I was coming to work him.  He would actually recognize my footsteps--he was that intelligent."

While being prepared for the Kentucky Derby, Cormorant came down with a fever, postponing a meeting with Seattle Slew.  Seattle Slew won easily, but Cormorant was waiting for him at the Preakness.

Cormorant sprung to the lead, and Seattle Slew raced near his throatlatch.  After a quarter in 22 3/5 and a half in :45 3/5, Danny Wright felt very confident on Cormorant.  He says he was stunned when, with a half-mile to go, Jean Cruguet turned and asked him matter-of-factly, "Where do you think you're going, jock?", as he and Seattle Slew roared past.

Cormorant had simply met one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of the century and, when Seattle Slew was shipped to Belmont, J.P. Simpson shipped Cormorant elsewhere.  The colt won the Gr. 1 Jersey Derby and finished second in the Ohio Derby.

On July 5, 1977, while working at Laurel, Cormorant suffered a slab fracture of his right knee.  After undergoing surgery, he was retired to stud where another chance at greatness awaited him.

After two years in Virginia, a syndicate headed by Tom Martin moved Cormorant to New York’s Schoenborn Bros. Farm for 1980.  Cormorant's sire His Majesty was by Ribot, a stallion known for his internal fire.  His dam was by the lovely *Tudor Minstrel, and Cormorant himself was a strong, handsome Grade-1 winning stallion.  As such, he was well received.

When a veterinarian named Dr. Jerry Bilinski began working with the stallion, he was immediately smitten.  When it was determined that Cormorant couldn’t tolerate seeing other stallions while in his paddock, Jerry had a nearly 10-foot closed-board fence erected.  A window was cut in one end so Cormorant could view the road without seeing adjoining paddocks.

Above/below: 20-year-old Cormorant peers out from his unusual paddock

When Cormorant was first let out, Jerry stood outside and listened as the horse circled the enclosure.  Within minutes, however, Jerry was humbled when a set of front hooves appeared over the fence. Cormorant was simply testing his constraints and showing his disapproval, but he soon calmed down and poked his head through the window.  “I couldn’t believe it,” Jerry laughs, still impressed 20 years later.

Cormorant moved several times as syndicates and farms came and went; yet he remained in the Empire State.  For entertainment he enjoyed attacking anything placed in the paddock: buckets, tires, and even a goat. Cormorant wasn't dangerous, but he had a strong lively streak that the farm crews respected.

Above/below:  20-year-old Cormorant, above with longtime groom Ellen All, at Waldorf Farm in 1994.  Cormorant's son Go For Gin won the Kentucky Derby that year.  

Cormorant led New York's sire list for five years and, in 1994, he not only led the state list but also reached the national top #10.

That year, his son Go for Gin - a Kentucky-bred - won American racing’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby.  But he was not Cormorant’s first nationally recognized runner.  His daughter Saratoga Dew earned the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old fillies in 1992, and another filly, Grecian Flight, was a Grade 1 winner who earned $1,320,215.  Both were New York-breds.

Jerry Bilinski received the news that Go for Gin had won the Kentucky Derby while Cormorant was breeding late one afternoon.  “There’s a word for that feeling,” he remembers.  “Bittersweet.  I had a horse where it was difficult to breed, and now there’d be more interest than ever.”

Cormorant had begun encountering insurmountable fertility problems and Jerry, who had since taken over the stallion’s management, worked hard with the stallion.  He bought mares that had already produced Cormorant foals, the horse underwent countless fertility tests, and he bred Cormorant at odd times—even late at night—when the moment seemed right.  But it was all in vain, and Cormorant produced few foals after 1994.

One of his finest runners was also one of his last.  Gander, a rangy gray New York-bred, was born in 1996 and has earned well over a million dollars. Cormorant's shareholders still receive bonus awards due largely to Gander’s exploits, and there is even an Internet fan club called the Gander Gang.

Cormorant passed his stubborn streak on to many of his offspring, and most colts were gelded.  A few weren't, and Cormorant is emerging as a successful sire of sires. Scarlet Ibis is a popular New York sire, as are Mighty Magee and Raffie’s Majesty.  Go for Gin, standing at Kentucky's Claiborne Farm, is already the sire of Gr. 1 winner Albert the Great.

Jerry was finally forced to pension his old friend, and Cormorant now leads a relaxed life at Bilinski’s Waldorf Farm.  Jerry still puts Cormorant in his stallion advertisements, the regal horse’s portrait above the others with the word “Pensioned” beneath.

Cormorant no longer has a 10-foot high paddock fence but, as he still can’t stand to see other stallions outdoors, he is let out when the other stallions are brought in.

Across the aisle from Cormorant, his son Mighty Magee carries on the family name.  Yet there is no family attachment for Cormorant.  When Mighty Magee was brought out for portraits, Cormorant could be heard complaining in his usual fashion: the staccato banging of a steel-shod hoof against metal stall rungs, as Cormorant methodically “voiced” his disapproval during the entire 15-minute session.

When Cormorant was led out for photos, Jerry asked to watch.  He proudly noted how good the horse looked, and how full of fire Cormorant still was. I asked Jerry if he’d like to be photographed with Cormorant and, as the saying goes, I didn’t have to ask twice.  Jerry beamed like a schoolboy with his first prom date.

When Seattle Slew's days come to an end, countless thousands will mourn his passing.  Many will recall his blazing wins and times they saw the dark bay colt.  Stories of his greatness will grace newspapers and magazines.

When Cormorant breathes his last, far fewer will notice.  But for those fortunate enough to have been entertained by him, the loss will be profound.

Above/below:  Jerry Bilinski with his beloved Cormorant.  Cormorant was age 27 in 2001, above, and 32 in 2006 (below).  

Above/below: Cormorant at Waldorf Farm in September 2005.  He was 31 at the time.

Below: Jerry and Cormorant in January 2016

Above: 32-year-old Cormorant, being photographed on January 5, 2006, by the very talented Phil Kamrass, for a Times-Union story

Above/below: 33-year-old Cormorant, the last time I photographed him, with his longtime friend Jerry Bilinski at Waldorf Farm, February 7, 2007.  By then, Cormorant had mellowed a bit and he was a bit more allowing of affection.  But, no doubt, he still had his spirit.

Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002, 25 years to the day after his Kentucky Derby victory.  He was 28. Newspapers across the country splashed the sad headlines on their front pages.

Cormorant died on May 4, 2007, at age 33, and those who loved him mourned.  Jerry Bilinski buried him at the farm.

I looked online for videos of any of Cormorant's races but, other than Seattle Slew's Preakness, was unable to find any.