11/21/2016 12:29PM

Of Springsteel and moving history


The owners of Rockingham Park held a liquidation sale in late September.  Although live racing at the Salem, N.H., track ceased in 2009, and simulcasting in August, countless fans and collectors streamed into the aging building one last time to bid on memorabilia and to reminisce about bygone days at ‘the Rock.’  

Among the hundreds of items auctioned off were photos, scrapbooks, jockey silks, benches, desks, and even the finish line sign and pole.  Heavy machinery, from tractors to horse ambulances, was also sold.

Out in the infield, near the head of the stretch, one item quietly remained behind.  Tucked between two overgrown bushes stood a gravestone, over 3 feet high and 6 inches thick.  The 15 lines etched thereon - 82 years earlier - reflected deep respect for a horse whose name has been lost to time. 


Springsteel, bred and owned by Sylvester W. Labrot of the famed Holly Beach Farm in Maryland, was a son of that farm’s popular 'house sire' Sir Greysteel. The few Springsteel photos that remain show a bright-eyed, medium-sized, light-shouldered gelding with long back and a high croup.  His dark grey coat was fairly uniform, with a few spots and spiderweb lines on his legs. He had dark points, stockings, and a dark tail that wisped down to light ends.  His face showed character and pride.

Springsteel, J. Burke up, at age 5 at Hialeah in 1934 - his final season. Keeneland-Cook photo

Born in 1929, Springsteel's racing career began at age 2 at Washington Park. He won his first stakes that October, the inaugural Maryland Breeders Futurity at Laurel.

Raced often and seemingly everywhere – 29 times at 3 alone – Springsteel, trained by William Irvine, added two more stakes in his sophomore year. Although a stakes win eluded him at 4 he won 4 of 18 starts, and at 5 he won the Miami Beach, Nassau, and Granite State handicaps.  The Granite State, worth a very impressive $10,000, was run on Rockingham's opening day in 1934.  Leading from the get-go before an enthusiastic crowd, Springsteel equaled the 1 1/16th-mile track record in 1:44 4/5.

Springsteel’s career highlights would include that track record-equaling race, as well as a record-equaling Hialeah win – a mile in 1:35 4/5.  Springsteel made headlines beating early Kentucky Derby favorite Tick On in the Shenendoah at Havre de Grace in 1932, and in 1933 he beat an invading Australian wonder horse named Winooka, at Laurel.  In his final season, in addition to equalling a Rockingham record and winning three stakes, Springsteel also ran second by just a length to the great Equipoise. 

Springsteel-related articles mention his penchant for speed, his affinity for off tracks, and the fact that he sometimes swished his tail when running.  His name appeared in many race recaps and numerous headlines over the years, but personal accounts are few.  Although he was very popular in his day – who wouldn’t root for a speedy, tail-swishing grey, with a powerful name, who ran often and tried his best - Springsteel simply wasn’t quite of the top echelon.

And so it came to pass that, in his 76th start, nearly ‘a week to the hour’ that he equaled Rockingham’s track record, Springsteel went wrong in the $5,000 Speed Handicap.

SPRINGSTEEL broke down while in close quarters on the back stretch. – Daily Racing Form chart note

Accounts differ slightly, but Springsteel fell down.  His shoulder broken, he regained his feet but would not move until his stable pony was summoned.  Then, accompanied by his pony friend, he was led slowly back toward the stable area where a veterinarian, and a .38, waited.

“They waited until the next handicap was on and the crowds were back to the rail…  When the race was over Springsteel lay on the Rockingham turf beneath a white blanket.”   -The Daily Boston Globe, July 1, 1934

The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, July 2, 1934

Irvine reportedly cried as his old warrior breathed his last.  And remarkably, during the race that took place while Springsteel was being euthanized, the winner broke Springsteel’s week-old track mark.

The next morning, Springsteel was buried in the Rockingham infield.

- Daily Racing Form, July 2, 1934

In the years that followed, Rockingham’s beloved general manager Lou Smith, a diehard Springsteel fan, walked a wreath out to the grave or had one sent there every June 30.   In 1941, while urging folks to contribute aluminum toward the war effort, Smith gave up what newspaper articles referred to as two of his most cherished mementoes - horseshoes worn by Springsteel and 1934 Kentucky Derby winner Cavalcade.  In addition, Smith added a Springsteel Handicap to the Rock schedule.

Fast-forward to 2016, when Rockingham Park – which opened in 1906 and where greats like Seabiscuit and Dr. Fager galloped – reached its finish line.   The property has been sold and is being developed, soon to be housing, retail stores, restaurants, offices.

After seeing photos of Springsteel’s gravestone on a Rockingham Facebook page, fans asked what would become of it. I wrote various ideas about saving it and friend Lorita Lindemann, who trained at the Rock for years, responded as well.  She contacted Michael Blowen at Old Friends in Kentucky to see if he would provide Springsteel safe haven. Michael, who long ago spent many happy days at Rockingham, not only has a main farm cemetery at Old Friends but another for waylaid horses.  In recent years, Skip Away and Noor were both exhumed and moved there.

But, alas, in Springsteel’s case, that couldn’t happen.  For you see, Springsteel’s earthly remains are someplace unknown in that Rockingham infield, perhaps thirty yards or more from his marker.  The monument was moved decades ago when a turf course was installed, but the horse’s remains were left where he lay buried.  No one remembers exactly where they are, and old photos shed no light on the mystery.

Lorita also called Rockingham’s longtime general manager Ed Callahan, who fought for years to keep the track going.  As there were no plans to preserve the stone, he kindly agreed to the move. Blowen, of course, did as well.

As a diehard racing history buff who has researched and photographed countless equine gravesites, it felt right that - although I yearned to find his remains - I transported Springsteel’s stone.   And timing wise, moving it the final day folks could pick up auction items, September 26, also felt right.

Measurements of Springsteel’s Barre Guild granite stone – a particularly lovely, heavy variety - indicated that, if the base were small, its total weight may be 800 pounds.

Several folks lent a hand, including friend Elizabeth De Smet, who lived near the track. Being sentimental, we stayed with Springsteel's stone well into his final night there.  Midnight-black skies and faint stars were dimmed by nearby lights, including those at the neighboring Rockingham Park Mall.  Far off, the grandstand and clubhouse were dimly lit as well, as a security guard therein kept vigil over the quiet property.  

I wondered how many star canopies, sunrises, rains, and snowstorms the monument had seen.  I thought of how the stars must have shown much more brightly decades ago, before the area was so heavily developed.  And I pondered, how many people had visited the stone over the decades – those who remembered the name etched thereon and, later, who did not?  

Springsteel’s last Rockingham sunrise was visually lovely, as a few red-tinged clouds painted the horizon.  Patchy fog slipped over the toteboard and drifted across the once meticulous, now weed-covered, turf course.  An overnight chill had resulted in frost but the sun soon warmed the stone's final New Hampshire day.
The helpful Rockingham folks no longer had heavy equipment, so I made a few calls from the track parking lot that morning. The first was to Enterprise Car and Truck Rentals, to rent their largest pickup.  Next came monument companies, to ask about lifting the stone into a truck, but none were open.  Just then, a truck rumbled by on its way into a nearby construction zone.  Some of the Rock barn area had been sold months earlier, and those barns were being razed.

We ran to the truck and asked its driver if they might have heavy machinery to help us.  He called his boss at J & J Demolition and Sitework Specialists, and they kindly agreed. 

That afternoon, a young man named Mark Delmonte drove up the track in a digger derrick truck - designed to move telephone poles and similar - through a gap to the infield and as close as possible to Springsteel’s stone.  With the assistance of track superintendent Ray Messina, the two good-natured men wrapped a thick strap around the stone, and up it came…and up, and up, and up.  I later learned that, while moving the stone in 1986, Callahan had a substantial base added to make sure it stayed in place.  The monument itself was about 40” high, but the base added about 3 feet and, we guessed, 600 or more pounds.

Above: Ray Messina, left, and Mark Delmonte prepare to move the stone.

With the marker and base dangling by a strap, Mark and Ray tried to hammer off the base, but it wouldn’t budge.  We feared the stone might break, and Mark had to return to work.  Luckily, at  about 6 ½- feet and maybe 1,500 pounds, the stone was a tight fit – but a fit – in the truck bed.  In addition, we filled a small bucket with earth from where the marker had stood.

Elizabeth felt it would a nice symbolic touch to drive Springsteel past the finish line, so a few of us hopped in and went for a spin.  Soon thereafter, Springsteel – or, at least, his stone - left Rockingham forever.  That night’s sunset, a brilliant display in which the world seemed ablaze, set a fitting goodbye.

It rained most of the drive to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where I lived and from where a friend of Michael Blowen’s had agreed to transport the marker the rest of the way to Kentucky.  Driving through the dark, in a Ford F-250 with Springsteel’s stone in the bed, felt surreal.

When Joe Bokan greeted us at his historic Washington Inn and saw the stone, he was shocked.  Michael had told him the marker was small – you know, like you could toss in a back seat. With the counsel of Joe’s handy friend Leo Muller, we drove to the local Allerdice Hardware, where they used a forklift to shift Springsteel onto the back of Joe’s trailer.   Back at the Washington Inn, Leo chiseled off the stone’s base.

Weeks passed as I waited for Joe to drive to Kentucky but, finally overwhelmed by the cumpulsion to shake Springsteel from my waking dreams, I rented a van.  Joe and Leo carefully shifted the stone into the back and it was destination Blue Grass State - to a home Springsteel had never seen before. 

But not before Springsteel’s stone went on another adventure - around Saratoga Race Course.

In 1932, Springsteel ran in the Kenner Stakes there against three opponents.   The Associated Press story of the race reported the field was “below the standard” and Springsteel “a badly beaten last.”  That day's winner, coincidentally, Dark Secret, broke a leg while winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup two years later.

So, the van found its way to Saratoga where a friend, NYRA employee George Belch, had received kind permission from facilities manager Peter Goulet to take it around the oval.  Driving down the homestretch at 35 mph, it was easy to imagine Springsteel galloping down that same stretch eight decades earlier.  We passed the wire in a walkover.  

Then it was on to Kentucky where, in mid-October, the stone finally arrived at what is hopefully its final resting place.  At Old Friends, four helpful gentlemen used a backhoe and tractor to move the stone into a small cemetery at the front of the property.   There, countless farm visitors who wander over from the adjacent gift shop will now learn Springsteel’s name.  Perhaps some will want to learn about him.

We chose to put Springsteel next to Skip Away – fellow "galloping greys."   Volunteer John Bradley even asked which way the stone should aim.  As its face watched the sun set for decades at the Rock, the decision was easy.

Skip Away’s stone – its front also facing west – boasts:


Yet, no doubt, Springsteel worked at least as hard for the lines etched on his:


Throughout the move, something I wrote a few years ago kept racing through my mind.  In 2011, I wrote a Daily Racing Form blog called “Of Bull Dog and moving history,” about famed stallion Bull Dog’s gravestone being moved, but without his remains.  It began this way:

“What is the purpose of a horse’s gravestone? Need the body lie near the stone that memorializes it, or is the headstone enough to mark the memory? Why is the thought of an unmarked grave disturbing, especially when the remains lie on lands being developed? If a horse has a soul, would not that spirit have flown from its vessel even before the backhoe’s work began?”

I still don’t know those answers.  But welcome home, Springsteel.

Above:  SPRINGSTEEL's monument now waits, next to SKIP AWAY, for a new cement base to be poured, after which a small welcoming ceremony will be held.  Welcome to your new home, SPRINGSTEEL, the "galloping grey ghost."

Above:  This beautiful illustration, signed only with "TAB" and no date or other reference, is from Rockingham Park.  I've researched but can't come up with a possible artist match from the '30s-40s. (with thanks to Ed Callahan)

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More photographs related to Springsteel and his gravestone, below.

SPRINGSTEEL defeated 1932 Kentucky Derby early favorite Tick On in March, setting him up for an appearance in the Run for the Roses.  Although he was listed as a probable starter up till a few days before the race, he didn't run. Despite dozens of articles related to his being aimed toward the Derby, I haven't found one to explain why he didn't run. Burgoo King, however, shown at right, did - and he won.

Above:  Sylvester W. Labrot (left), nicknamed "Boots," with his brother William in Annapolis, Maryland.  Undated photo.

Above: Rockingham Park in Salem, NH, in September 2016. The track opened for racing in 1906 and closed permanently on August 31.

Above:  The location of SPRINGSTEEL's gravestone - although not his remains - since 1986.  The various items on the Rockingham racetrack were sold at the track's liquidation auction in September 2016.

Above:  The final night that SPRINGSTEEL's gravestone stood in his long-time infield location was chilly and still.

Above/below:  September 26, 2016, the final sunrise for Springsteel's stone at Rockingham Park.

Above:  Ed Callahan, the genial and popular general manager of Rockingham Park for over 30 years, approved the move.

Above:  Rockingham track superintendent Ray Messina proved of great assistance, as well as of great interest. Upon our asking his backstory, he revealed that he kept a small newspaper clipping from his youth in his wallet.

Above: Elizabeth De Smet prepares the stone for its move.  Had we known how large the base was, or how easily the truck would remove the stone without us, we wouldn't have spent time on such a fruitless effort.  The bucket at left is filled with dirt, in a symbolic effort to move a tangible part of Rockingham with the stone.  It also made the drive.

Above:  There is a typo on the stone - Springsteel won the Nassau Handicap, not Nashua.  The error was likely made because Nashua, NH, is close to Salem.

Above:  Yours truly with longtime friend and racing writer John Angelo, who hails from the Rock area and spent many days working there, Rockingham's Ray Messina, J & J Demolitions and Sitework Specialists' Mark Delmonte, and Elizabeth De Smet.

Above:  It was remarkable to learn how heavy those bushes were.  Try as I did to move the uprooted one back to its original spot, it wouldn't budge.

Above:  One last run up and down the Rockingham stretch for SPRINGSTEEL - including past the finish line. 

Washington Inn's Joe Bokan, at left, at Allerdice Hardware in Saratoga Springs, NY, where the stone was shifted from the pickup into Joe's flatbed trailer.

Above: Leo Muller, Joe Bokan, and Allerdice Hardware's "Miracle" Mel Lawyer, after moving the stone onto the trailer.

Above: Leo broke the oversized base from the stone, shedding approximately half its weight.  The estimate went from ~1,500 pounds to ~700-800.

Above/below:  After a couple of weeks at the Washington Inn (New motto could be SPRINGSTEEL SLEPT HERE), Leo and Joe carefully shifted the monument into the van for its final journey.

Above/below:  Before heading west, SPRINGSTEEL's stone made a visit to nearby Saratoga Race Course, where friend George Belch gamely drove the van around the track - at approximately 35 MPH, speed similar to a race - and past the finish line.   

Above/below:  The gravestone spent a night at the Red Roof Inn in Lexington, KY (above), before heading to its final destination.

Above:  After a journey of 16 hours, and just over a thousand miles, SPRINGSTEEL's stone arrives at its the final destination, Old Friends in Georgetown, Kentucky.

Above/below:  A backhoe was used to remove the tremendous stone from the van to a Kubota.

Above:  Old Friends' John Bradley, James Crump, Billy Darnell, and Zack Crump

Above:  Father-son team James and Zack Crump prepare to put the stone down in the cemetery.  It was touching to see the extra care Zack put in, cleaning the stone first.
Above:  SPRINGSTEEL's monument now waits, next to SKIP AWAY, for a new cement base to be poured, after which a small welcoming ceremony will be held.  Welcome to your new home, "galloping grey ghost" SPRINGSTEEL.

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The rest of the Rockingham property has been sold, but I haven’t given up hope of finding Springsteel’s remains and moving them.  Mark, who drove the digger derrick truck and moved the stone for us, promised to keep an eye out as they dig.  In addition, I’ve asked people to tell the new owner that we’d love to try to locate and move the gelding’s remains.  Perhaps this story will somehow help toward that end.  If someone has an old photo of the infield that shows the stone’s original location, or any other useful information, please be in touch.
  SPRINGSTEEL racing information was gleaned from many sources, including the Daily Racing Form, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Record, New York Times, and the Boston Globe, in addition to countless stories on newspapers.com. Thanks also to Paul Gibbin of the Kelley Library in Salem, NH, and to Kirsten Underwood of the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, MA.

Thanks also to the many people who lent a hand: Rockingham Park's Ed Callahan and Ray Messina; Mark Delmonte and J & J Demolition and Sitework Specialists; Peter Goulet and George Belch of the New York Racing Association; Elizabeth DeSmet, Sydney Margaret Brotherston and John Parker Brotherston; Dan Hendricks, Sandy Zaconick, Lynne Snierson, John Angelo, Chris Pettit, Eric Estevez, Michael Kessler, Tamison Rose, Joe Bokan of the Washington Inn, Leo Muller, Mel Lawyer, and Allerdice Hardware. Thanks to the Labrot family - Sarah Labrot Lientz, Biddie Labrot, and Gay Leonhardt - for their help; as well as to Old Friends' John Bradley, Billy Darnell, James and Zack Crump and, of course, Michael Blowen. 

Thanks also to Betsy Baxter and the Keeneland Library.  Betsy went far above-and-beyond in finding Springsteel information, including locating the C.C. Cook Springsteel photo that accompanies this story.