06/07/2016 2:10PM

Assault is gone, but his home remains

DRF Archives
Assault, owned and bred by King Ranch, won the Triple Crown inm 1946.

KINGSVILLE, Texas – Welcome to the land of Assault.

The story of the horse who 70 years ago this month became racing’s seventh Triple Crown winner can be relived vibrantly at King Ranch headquarters in the south Texas town of Kingsville.

Located about 120 miles from Mexico, it’s where Assault was bred and raised, received his early training, and eventually retired. The barn that housed him remains in use. The timing stand where trainer Max Hirsch would watch him being prepared for the track is intact. And the pasture from which he greeted visitors after reaching household-name status for a 1946 campaign in which he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Wood Memorial, and Pimlico Special pops off a path leading to the latest generation of horses at King Ranch.

“Assault became quite a celebrity,” said Bob Kinnan, area manager for the King Ranch main residence, which is home to Assault’s trophies from the Triple Crown. “People from town would come to see him. I think he was pretty gentle. They said he could be a little bit rough on people riding him. He would try to throw his riders, but I think when he got back here to the ranch and they put him out just like any old horse, he got used to the town people coming out and visiting. He got real gentle and would just come up and stand at the fence.”

Assault’s accomplishments added an exciting new wrinkle to the King Ranch legacy, which dates back to 1853 when Capt. Richard King bought 15,500 acres south of Corpus Christi, Texas. Today, the operation is still owned by family seven generations forward, and spans some 825,000 acres over four tracts of land in six counties. Assault lived on property that was one of the original land grants. It’s a sprawling landscape, dotted with cactus, palm trees, deer, historic structures, and 80 houses in a neighborhood for staff.

“We operate it like an independent city out here,” Kinnan said. “But it was pretty wild country back in the 1850s. Capt. King came here, and when he bought the first land grant, he partnered with a Texas Ranger by the name of Gideon Lewis. He was smart, because he realized he needed to bring an army down here to hold this land if he was going to operate it because it was so wild, with so many bandits. It was disputed land.”

It also was known as the Wild Horse Desert, said Kinnan, because thousands of horses were turned loose by Spanish missionaries who either vacated the area or were driven out by tribes in the region. One of King’s focal points was to improve the existing horse population in pursuit of ideal remudas, or ranch horses.

“You can imagine what a working horse was like in the mid-1800s – it was a little old spindly Mustang,” Kinnan said. “King Ranch, ever since Capt. King’s time, they’ve been breeder of quality animals, whether breeding up the cattle herd from the original indigenous longhorns, or upgrading remudas and bringing in good-blooded horses.”

The philosophy extended to Thoroughbred operations, which began in 1934 when Chicaro was brought to stand stud at King Ranch. Bold Venture, winner of the 1936 Kentucky Derby, followed in 1939 and sired not only Assault but also Middleground, winner of the 1950 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes for King Ranch. The pursuit of Thoroughbred bloodstock came at the direction of Bob Kleberg Jr., the son of Capt. King’s daughter Alice and her husband, Robert Kleberg Sr. Kleberg Jr., or “Mr. Bob,” took over management of King Ranch from his father in the 1920s.

“King Ranch has always had a history of raising quality animals, and Mr. Bob just took it to a level that it had never been taken to before in bringing in those Thoroughbreds,” Kinnan said. “I think in a lot of ways he was bringing in Thoroughbreds to maybe consciously go into the racing business, but maybe unconsciously – and I can’t say this as a fact – to upgrade the Quarter Horses.”

Assault famously was called the “Club-Footed Comet” during the Triple Crown, the title stemming from a deformed right front foot. Although he was not club-footed, the hoof did not develop normally due to an injury sustained as a young horse. Kinnan said it’s believed Assault stepped on a surveyor’s spike, according to documentation by King Ranch veterinarian Dr. J.K. Northway. At the time, it was a life-threatening injury.

“I think that they could have put him down,” Kinnan said. “But I think that Bob Kleberg and Dr.Northway recognized that he had such heart that he was worth trying to save. He was obviously a real special horse, even when he was a yearling.”

Kinnan said Northway designed a special shoe for Assault. It featured an insert and a clip. The horse eventually went into training at the farm and later launched his career in June 1945, at Belmont Park.

“They said he had a noticeable limp when he was walking, but they said when he would lope, or gallop, you couldn’t tell much of it,” said Kinnan.

And at a full rate of speed, Assault proved to be Hall of Fame material. He compiled a career record of 18 wins from 42 starts and earnings of $675,470.

Assault raced through age 7, his time on the track split up by a brief period when he entered stud alongside his sire, Bold Venture. Assault had a handful of foals that were never registered. He resumed training, and would go on to win five consecutive stakes over the balance of 1947 while continuing to race through 1950. Assault died in 1971, and a headstone near a barn where he was stabled at times is situated alongside six other key King Ranch horses, including Middleground and Old Sorrel, the operation’s foundation Quarter Horse.

These days, King Ranch no longer has Thoroughbreds. Helen Kleberg Groves, the only daughter of Bob Kleberg Jr., has remained active in the sport as has her daughter Helen Alexander, who has an operation in Kentucky. The whole family was thrilled with the results of last year’s Belmont Stakes, when American Pharoah became the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown.

“We had our annual family meeting after the Triple Crown races, and everybody was jubilant that there was another member of that fraternity,” Kinnan said. “It had been too long. That’s a great horse that won. Another great story.”