11/24/2010 1:32AM

Spending time with Eight Thirty

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Eight Thirty
(ch. h. 1936 – 1965, by Pilate – Dinner Time, by High Time)

Has a photograph ever moved you, for reasons you don’t completely understand? Such an image was nestled among the negatives I purchased years ago from the Lexington, Ky., photographer James W. Sames III.

The manila envelope is timeworn, and Sames’ crooked cursive writing sparsely details the 4x5” negatives therein: Eight Thirty 12-5-1947.

Among them are photos of a very amiable-looking Eight Thirty from all four corners – front, back, left and right. They must have been for reference...a sculpture, perhaps, as there are few reasons to photograph a horse's hind end. Or maybe the stallion’s owner, George D. Widener, wanted to record his stallion at his peak of majesty.

And nestled among those posed portraits is one simple image that absolutely enchants me.

 

I am drawn into the scene, undoubtedly at Old Kenney Farm, in a paddock that eventually became Spendthrift property. A well-muscled stallion grazes, his foretop shifting and long tail flowing outward. I can sense the crisp chill of that winter day of more than sixty years ago.  The wind shifts the deep grasses, grass so dry it rustles with the breeze.  Clouds drape the scene and yet the sun blazes through.

I ache to identify the location, although hints in the image are nearly nonexistent. Trees that offered shade all those decades ago are most likely gone. The paddock might have long since been developed. There are no visible buildings – just fences of black and, in the far distance, white. But on that December day in 1947, the field, the moment, became timeless.

And so I came to wonder about Eight Thirty.

American Race Horses 1940 stated that “Eight Thirty is considered by even the conservative horsemen as ‘great among the great’ – a truly magnificent performer that will never be forgotten and will long be quoted as a Thoroughbred of the highest chaste.”

But while racing fans might remember his name, it’s a longshot they remember much more. I remembered him simply as an old-time handicap horse and sire.

Yet Eight Thirty appears on the Blood-Horse’s list of the 100 best racehorses of the 20th century – galloping home as #78. He warranted photographs in both cherished historical books The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America and Racing In America 1937-1959, and he received a short burst of recognition in 1994 with induction into the Hall of Fame.

He raced 27 times from 1938 - 1941, with sixteen wins (thirteen in stakes), 3 seconds and 5 thirds.  He was only three times unplaced - which includes one race in which he finished first but was disqualified. So unsound was he at times that writer John (Salvator) Hervey called him “among the ‘illustrious cripples’ of history.” Yet how many unsound horses can claim thirteen stakes victories?

Although at two he was overshadowed by the brilliant El Chico, Eight Thirty won the 1938 Flash (in stakes record time) and Christiana. At three, he added the Diamond State Stakes, Wilson Stakes, Saratoga Handicap, Travers Stakes and - four days after the Travers - the Whitney over older horses. Those last four starts, all at Saratoga, were crammed into a one-month span.

Not surprisingly, an injury sidelined him the rest of that season but at four he returned to win half of his eight starts – the Toboggan, Suburban and Massachusetts handicaps and the Wilson Stakes. In the Mass 'Cap, he equaled Seabiscuit’s 1 1/8th mile record of 1:49.

Upon his return at five, it was back to winning ways in the Toboggan and the Metropolitan. The Met, which he won easily under 132 pounds, proved his final start. He became sore while training for the Suburban.

“Eight Thirty, George D. Widener’s great 5-year-old stakes winner, was taken out of training permanently today and will be retired to stud…” read a simple one-paragraph note in The New York Times. His retirement notice in The Blood-Horse mentioned that the stallion’s book would be limited to 25 mares.

Eight Thirty was unusually successful at stud and, by the time the magnificent stallion passed away as a 29-year-old pensioner, he’d sired 299 foals. Forty-four – an extraordinary 15% - were stakes winners. Sailor was perhaps his best-known son, and Bolero was certainly his fastest. As a broodmare sire, Eight Thirty was represented by topnotch runners like Jaipur and Rare Treat. His name carries on in pedigrees today.

 

The American Race Horses’ series chronicled the careers of exceptional racehorses of each season. These paragraphs were interestingly descriptive:

1938: Individually Eight Thirty was one of the most attractive two year olds of 1938… He is of high quality, beautifully turned and finished, with a fine head and hock and is noticeable for the fact that his knees and hocks are nearer the ground than is common in the modern junior, his cannons being rather short, with good bone.

1939: We regard Eight Thirty as not only a very high-class colt as a performer, but one of much potential value to the breed in the future as a sire. He represents the only ‘thin red line’ still surviving in this country from *Rock Sand also, being out of a mare by High Time, he brings in the Domino strain through one of the most potent stallions. …

Individually, Eight Thirty is admirable. In color he is a chestnut, …has a fine, masculine head, an elegant neck, is symmetrical at all points, combining power with quality his legs are of exceptionally good bone and chiseling.

1940:  On the score of individuality there could be no hesitancy if one were a “connoisseur of blood.” Eight Thirty was the patrician of the lot. In color a warm red-gold chestnut with a narrow strip in his face and two white pasterns in front, he was an exquisite type of the breed, all elegance, symmetry and grace, perfectly formed and finished, almost beyond criticism “from tip to tip.” If not a “picture horse,” a well-nigh perfect one.

And in 1941, after his final season, came these very interesting notes – some of which could have been written about racing even today:

This beautiful chestnut horse enjoys a unique distinction – at least as far as American Race Horses is concerned. He has appeared in this series of volumes, season after season, as a two-, three-, four- and five-year-old.

The struggle for pre-eminence upon the course in America of today is a strenuous one….  All too often, as our pages have borne evidence, a single season of stardom has been the limit. Many of our most successful two-year-olds have failed to train on. Many of our “classic” heroes have succumbed while the plaudits that greeted them still were making the air resound…

But to shine on successively, without fail, season after season, from the age of two to five, is something that very, very few animals in turf history have ever done. Especially since the twentieth century came in and with it racing of the modern type with its inordinate demands upon the performer…

Few racehorses of the first flight have received so much commendation and so little adverse criticism as Eight Thirty. Rigorous judges of form and class have united in their commendations of him, while on the score of individuality he has been pronounced one of the most beautiful that has appeared in many seasons, combining as he does fine size, exquisite symmetry and the highest finish.

 

Perhaps it was Eight Thirty’s remarkable beauty that so drew me into that photograph from so long ago. Perhaps it was simply that the photo seems like an etching of a generic perfect horse in a generic perfect scene.

Whatever the reason, I’ll always find peace through the image of Eight Thirty, grazing contentedly forever.