05/23/2014 2:25PM

Hovdey: Remember the warriors on Memorial Day

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During the Civil War, the infield of Washington Race Course in Charleston, S.C., was used as an outdoor prison camp for captured Union soldiers. Upon the camp’s liberation at the war’s end, a mass grave with the bodies of at least 257 soldiers was discovered behind the grandstand. The bodies were reburied in individual graves, and on May 1, 1865, a celebration in their memory was held, featuring bands, picnics, and marching maneuvers by Union brigades, both black and white.

It was the first Memorial Day.

Since then, a day in May has been set aside to honor those Americans killed while in service to flag and country. For a long time, May 30 was the day. Then, in deference to the commercial advantages of a three-day weekend, Memorial Day was established in 1968 as the last Monday of the month.

Technically, it is a holiday of remembrance for the fallen, a day to adorn grave sites with bouquets. It is okay, though, to offer a nod of thanks to those who served in harm’s way and survived, eventually to be reunited with their families.

The sprawling world of Thoroughbred racing has contributed its fair share of citizens to America’s armed forces. There was naval commander Ogden Phipps and fighter pilots Alfred G. Vanderbilt and C.V. Whitney. Trainer Noble Threewitt was wounded fighting Germans in Italy. Owner Harry Aleo and trainer Leonard Dorfman had freezing, front-row seats for the Battle of the Bulge. Willard Proctor and Charlie Whittingham ended up in the South Pacific. Trainer Henry Moreno was in Korea at a bad time. Trainers Dickie Small and Greg Gilchrist fought in Vietnam. And so on.

The best way for Thoroughbred racing to celebrate Memorial Day is with good racing across the land. Hopefully, this Monday will be no different. In the era since World War II, when Memorial Day began to take firm hold, many of the greatest Thoroughbreds of the era cut loose with a special effort to commemorate the day. Among them were ...

◗ Citation, who was two-thirds of the way toward a Triple Crown in 1948 when Ben and Jimmy Jones decided to keep him sharp for the Belmont Stakes by running him at Garden State Park in the Jersey Stakes at 1 1/4 miles. The date was Saturday, May 29, in deference to the non-racing Sunday, the purse for the race was increased to $61,000, and Citation played his part to the hilt, winning by 11 lengths in a track-record 2:03. Two weeks later, he won the Belmont by eight.

◗ Swaps, who was whisked back home to California after defeating Nashua in their 1955 Kentucky Derby showdown. Swaps was not originally nominated to the Preakness, and Rex Ellsworth, his iconoclastic Arizona cowboy of an owner, was not inclined to cough up $7,500 to make his colt eligible. Nashua took advantage of the situation to win the May 28 Preakness in hand, then two days later on Memorial Day, Swaps unleashed a 12-length victory in the one-mile Will Rogers Stakes at Hollywood Park.

◗ Kelso, who was making his second start as reigning Horse of the Year in the Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day in 1961, carrying 130 pounds. The 65,569 at Aqueduct on that Tuesday afternoon watched with justifiable concern as Kelso and Eddie Arcaro dropped well off the pace set by All Hands, who was trained by Woody Stephens. Kelso got up in the last jump to win by a neck in what Daily Racing Form ’s Charles Hatton called, “one of the stirring incidents of the 1961 season.” It should also be noted that Kelso had 49 more races and was Horse of the Year every year through 1964.

◗ Dr. Fager, who was 3-10 to win the 1967 Memorial Day running of the Jersey Derby, formerly the Jersey Stakes. The Doctor did his job, beating the top colt In Reality by 6 1/2 lengths, but he also angled left shortly after the break in front of the Garden State grandstand. His rider, Manny Ycaza, “... was clearly and needlessly guilty of herding the field too close to the rail,” according to Whitney Tower of Sports Illustrated. The stewards agreed and placed Dr. Fager fourth in the field of four. It was the only time he ever “finished” out of the money in 22 starts.

◗ Forego, who celebrated Memorial Day every year from 1974 to 1977 by running in the Metropolitan at either Belmont or Aqueduct. Then again, every time the massive Forego appeared in public was memorable. He saved his best Met for last, when the three-time Horse of the Year carried 133 pounds in 1977 and came from far off the early pace to win by two under Bill Shoemaker. Co Host, the runner-up, carried 111.

By its very name and nature, Memorial Day encourages remembrance of things past, of precious loss and grateful preservation. When it comes to this, Thoroughbred racing is as rich as any American institution. And if you don’t believe it, check out tall stone columns flanking the Hempstead Turnpike entrance gates to the clubhouse end of Belmont Park – the same stone columns that once served as the gateway to Washington Race Course in Charleston, S.C.

michael More than 1 year ago
It is a day to remember the dead and honor them. No technically about it.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Can't remember what race Swaps won vs older after Derby win, thinking it was the 1st Californian 1955, in same race lost to Porterhouse the next year .
horseswriter More than 1 year ago
Vintage Hovdey. Excellent, as usual.
mikey More than 1 year ago
The horses of the past are only in our dreams.Today we take what's out there.The days of racing heros are gone.Today they race maybe 10 or 12 races and off to the breeding shed.I an thankful that i saw most of the greats.