08/07/2013 7:16PM

Hall of Fame profile: Tuscalee

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National Steeplechase Association
Steeplechaser Tuscalee won a championship in 1966, the year he set a single-season record with 10 victories over hurdles.

Forty-one years after his final race, Tuscalee is no longer with us, but he’s still steeplechasing’s all-time leader by wins with 37. His best season came in 1966, when he set a single-season record with 10 jumping victories from 13 starts, and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations named him the year’s champion steeplechaser.

Alfred H. Smith Sr. bought Tuscalee’s dam, the British Buddy mare Verna Lee, out of an auction in Timonium, Md., in 1959. The bay mare looked plenty sound – she started 134 times, winning 16 of those races – and she was already carrying the Tuscany foal who would become a durable and popular champion. Smith brought Verna Lee to his Blythewood Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., and that’s where Tuscalee was born.

After his championship season in 1966, the review Steeplechasing in America praised the TRA for voting the steeplechase title to the “country horse” Tuscalee, whose campaign mostly took place at smaller tracks and hunt meets (Daily Racing Form voters had gone with the more “metropolitan” Mako). But even Steeplechasing in America noted that the smallish, bay horse was relatively unprepossessing.

“As an individual, Tuscalee could easily be passed up in a crowd,” it stated. “He stands only 15.3 hands, and neither his shoulders nor his quarters give any indication that he might be an outstanding jumper.”

But he was built with strong timber. Trained by Leiter Aitcheson and ridden by Aitcheson’s son, Joe Jr., Tuscalee made 89 starts and won 39; two were on the flat and therefore do not count toward his steeplechasing record. By the time he retired at age 12, Tuscalee had earned $130,917 from races in two decades, from 1963 to 1972. He’d also become a hit with the public, recalled Smith’s daughter, Marilyn Ketts.

“Back in those days, all the newspapers in the Washington-Baltimore [area] and Virginia had articles about the horses that were running, whether at the flat track or over jumps, and he had a huge following,” she said. “I think he had a following because he was always a good, solid horse, and he was always in the money. He wasn’t a super-bold horse, but he was honest, and he always got the job done.”

Tuscalee’s 12 stakes wins included four National Hunt Cups and back-to-back scores in the Indian River Steeplechase and the Georgetown Steeplechase in the late 1960s. In his retirement, Tuscalee took to the hunt field with the Marlborough Hunt, first with Ketts and later with her daughter, Joy. He also tried a little showing.

“But he was jumping too big, and he scared the heck out of the judges because he’d stand so far back over the fences,” Ketts said.

Pedigree: 1960 b. g., by Tuscany—Verna Lee, by British Buddy
Breeder: Alfred H. Smith Sr. (Md.)
Owner: Alfred H. Smith Sr.
Trainer: Leiter Aitcheson
Race record: 89-39-14-10, $130,917
Championship: Steeplechaser (1966)
Major stakes wins: National Hunt Cup (four times), Midsummer Hurdle H., Indian River Steeplechase H. (twice), Tom Roby Steeplechase S., Georgetown Steeplechase H. (twice), Clark Cup Steeplechase S., Manly Steeplechase H., Fair Hill Steeplechase H., Noel Laing Steeplechase, National Steeplechase S., Piedmont Hunt Cup Steeplechase