04/18/2014 3:12PM

The story of Old Rosebud, an American tragedy

Racing Hall of Fame
Old Rosebud won the United States Hotel Stakes at Saratoga as a juvenile in 1913 before winning the Derby in 1914.

On May 17, 1922, an 11-year-old gelding lined up against low-level claimers at New York’s Jamaica racecourse to compete for a thimble-sized purse. Perhaps he behaved badly; his manners, once kindly, had soured by this, his 80th career start. Did he even want to be there? Who knew?

He epitomized the term “unassuming” … bantam-sized, coat the color of mud, ribs reflecting dully in cloud-muted light, comically lopped ears swiveling on a corn-stalk neck and set atop a head the shape of a medieval scythe. Few would have paid him heed, but one man surely did – watching like a hawk from the rail, attending to every ear flick, cow kick, and side shuffle.

They reached the post at 2:32 p.m., milled about for six confusing minutes, then were off. The fourth choice sprang away in third and battled fiercely through the early furlongs, only to finish the race in progressively slower motion, as though struggling through quicksand. His rail-side observer most likely heaved a sigh and perhaps tore up a ticket or two before shuffling back to the barn, little knowing that this distinctly unmemorable moment represented the end of a long and winding road.

Days later, the diminutive gelding returned to the course for a morning gallop when an age-old tragedy unfolded: One bad step, a deep head bob, a sharp tightening of reins, rapid deceleration, and a staggering, three-legged halt.

Morning newspapers were mum, but just as surely, the story was writ.

Specifics are vague, but we might well imagine a 66-year-old trainer slipping under the rail and sprinting like an Olympian to a scene of devastation, eyeing there with sinking heart a ruined left fore ankle. Or, envision an agonizing return procession to the stable, where a veterinarian waited to deliver a dreaded prognosis. Or, conjure up the crushing guilt shouldered by one who had clung too long to a companion he had loved most dearly, and the anguish of a horseman who knew too well what now had to be done.

At some point on May 23, 1922, a bullet was dispatched between the loppy ears of an aging trainer’s pet, and by evening fall, a future Hall of Fame champion lay dead on a back lot in Queens, awaiting removal to a local rendering plant.

Every racehorse has a story, from lowliest claimer – which Old Rosebud certainly was in his final year of competition – to greatest of greats, which he also truly was during his days of wine and roses. Ah, yes, those very special petals, of reddest hue and sweetest scent. Old Rosebud wore that famous cascading garland of American Beauty roses, draped across his bony brown shoulders 100 years ago this month when he was Pride of the West, indeed, the pride of all America.

This is his story.

$500 bargain

In 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic sideswiped an iceberg before cruising off into the eternal depths of the North Atlantic, while ex-President Teddy Roosevelt escaped death from an assassin’s bullet by the mere thickness of a speech folded in his shirt pocket. In this season of angst and anxiety, America’s sporting world bore witness to something truly inspirational: After years of languishing in anti-wagering legislative purgatory, horse racing returned as the sport of kings and business titans.

That autumn in Kentucky, John E. Madden had a string of high-bred fillies for sale at his Hamburg Place farm … but, of course, he did. He always did, through good times and bad, for Madden – later dubbed by journalists the “Wizard of the Turf” – was the industry’s ultimate salesman. Story has it that Louisville-based distiller William Applegate showed up one day looking to buy stock for his son, Hamilton. Fillies, he correctly surmised, made the most sense, for once done racing, they could be efficiently recycled to the breeding shed.

The two men hammered out a deal, and to seal it, Madden tossed in a scrawny colt he generously valued at around $500. The boy did have some pedigree; his sire had once run the invincible Colin to a length at equal weights, and his iron-clad maternal granddam had rightfully earned the moniker “Queen of the West.” But as a physical specimen, this one looked like a string bean’s worth of nothing, and Madden likely felt well rid of him.

Col. Applegate (a “colonel” of the genteel Kentucky variety) hauled him back to Louisville, where the colt quickly morphed into a gelding, was transferred to the care of trainer Frank Weir (who gained part ownership), and was awarded the moniker “Old Rosebud,” for a whiskey produced by the Applegate family distillery.

Belying his looks and testifying to the truth of legendary trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons’s adage, “It’s what you can’t see that matters most,” Rosebud would evolve into a flat-out flyer of the most precocious type.

Weir meandered all over North America in 1913, from Mexico to upstate New York, with Old Rosebud in tow. The unprepossessing gelding won 12 of 14 starts, set four track records, and became the only juvenile then known to have clocked five furlongs around a turn faster than 59 seconds, a feat he accomplished twice within a single week. Weir, who apparently carried a magical stopwatch, swore to incredulous future Hall of Fame trainer T.J. Healey that Old Rosebud had scorched three furlongs one morning in 33 4/5. Unheard of then, and virtually unheard of for a 2-year-old today.

Nothing could stop this rapidly rising star but misfortune, which occurred as he crossed the finish line in his 14th start – a free-style triumph in Saratoga’s United States Hotel Stakes. A bad left fore sidelined him for months.

The Derby

The Kentucky Derby was not on the national radar a century ago; Churchill Downs pitchman Matt Winn wanted to change that. In 1913, he’d had a lucky windfall with Donerail’s headline-grabbing $184.90 payoff for a $2 bet, but to continue onward and upward, he needed more than a one-shot freak show; he would require a true champion – the real deal – and that is exactly what fate handed him.

Old Rosebud’s return to health that spring appeared so complete that ketchup magnate Jefferson Livingston was roused to offer $35,000 for the privilege of owning him on Derby Day (approximately $816,000 in 2014 dollars). While Applegate’s nose perked at the scent of money, Weir quickly upped the ante to $40,000, at which point Livingston politely declined the bidding war. Old Rosebud was, after all, a gelding – and an ugly one at that – and the 1914 Kentucky Derby purse was just $10,000, albeit doubled from the previous year. So, as luck would have it, he would become Hamilton Applegate’s one and only Derby starter.

It rained Derby Eve, but the big day itself was sunny, and society turned out in large numbers, with perhaps more well-dressed women than usual as President Wilson had proclaimed May 9, 1914, the very first Mother’s Day.

Old Rosebud pranced out in his customary shadow roll, the 4-5 favorite in a good field of seven. He burst away on top at flag-drop and sprinted away “under hard restraint” from the muscular Johnny McCabe, eventually winning a laughably lopsided contest by eight lengths in 2:03 2/5, over a surface not considered the least bit “fast,” yet establishing a Derby record that would stand untouched for 16 years. Remarkably, his margin of victory has not to this day been surpassed.

For three weeks, Old Rosebud reigned as the toast of racing and the king of the sporting headlines – until it all came crashing down May 30 – the day he finished dead last in the Withers Stakes, in one of the weirdest, most godforsaken performances ever witnessed at a New York racetrack.

Curse of the photograph

Years later, Louisville Times turf writer Vernon Sanders had a shame-faced confession to make: It was he who was responsible for Old Rosebud’s Withers debacle. Certainly, Weir believed this to be so.

Sanders had been assigned by his editor to obtain a post-Derby photograph of Old Rosebud in action at the Downs; Weir adamantly refused the request. Such a shot, he growled, would be the “worst luck in the world!”

Nevertheless determined to get it by hook or by crook, Sanders and a photographer cohort sneaked out one morning and surreptitiously snapped the golden shot depicting Old Rosebud’s “wonderful stride.” Within a day or so, the Derby winner was on a van headed east. Within a week, he was hopelessly broken down.

When Weir learned of the contraband photo, his head imploded. He never forgot, and he never forgave.

On Withers Day, the Applegate gelding blasted like a missile off the line, looking every bit the 1-5 shot fans had bet him down to, but within a furlong, he clearly wasn’t himself. He began running erratically across Belmont Park’s strange clockwise course, fighting McCabe like a horse possessed, appearing ready to take a flying vault straight into the dollar field. At the finish, Old Rosebud looked exactly like what he was – a very tired, very well-beaten horse.

The New York Times waxed eloquent on the western champion’s downfall.

“If every blade of blue grass in Kentucky withers tonight, it will be little surprise … for Old Rosebud was made to look like the commonest-selling plater at Belmont Park yesterday. Racing surprises are common enough, as he who tries to ‘pick a winner’ knows. But one where the layers were so sure the favorite would win they practically refused to lay anything against his chances, makes Old Rosebud’s defeat almost a tragedy. It surely is one to Kentucky, which loves its horses only one degree less than it loves its beautiful women and its incomparable whiskey. Old Rosebud staggered from the track with downcast head, leaden heels, and the look of an immigrant far, far from home.”

The “immigrant” had bowed badly in his near fore, the same appendage that had cut short his previous season. Weir fired the damaged tendon, then put the gelding to a cart for light training.

Comeback kid

The world was an unsettled place that summer. On June 28, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and within weeks, World War I was officially launched. A world apart, an oblivious Old Rosebud trudged along in front of a wagon, but to little effect; he remained dead lame. Weir eventually threw his hands up in defeat and by summer’s end had exiled the de facto 1913 juvenile champion to a friend’s west Texas farm, where he would more or less be forgotten.

Months passed, then years. Old Rosebud hung lazily with a herd of draft horses, where days were hot and flies were bothersome. The equine pals spent long hours escaping nature’s torments by standing in a stream that cut across their vast pasture. Weir would later dub this “the water cure.”

Sometime late in 1916, Weir thought to visit his former star. Old Rosebud by then presided over a field of rising 2-year-olds, placed there, perhaps, as a calming influence. As Weir looked on, a passing automobile’s exhaust pipe popped explosively, sending a pack of young Thoroughbreds bolting across the flat Texas plains – with one formerly crippled 5-year-old leading the way.

Weir later told sportswriter Frank Menke how he immediately slapped some tack on Old Rosebud and watched in amazement as the fresh-out-of-pasture gelding ripped off six furlongs in 1:14 with his mouth wide open, a story no doubt embellished with love and the assistance of Weir’s mystical stopwatch. While actual facts are lost in the mists of time, they were clearly enough to convince Weir that the lemon still had some juice in it.

It did, indeed. In 1917, Old Rosebud returned as good as ever, winning 15 of 21 starts, shading a few speed records, hefting super-hero chunks of weight, and beating the best in training, including a future Hall of Fame speedball named Pan Zareta. But again, it wasn’t all easy street, as a late-August incident underscored.

As Weir tightened the girth on Old Rosebud in Saratoga’s paddock that August for a final drill before the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, the gelding’s knees weirdly buckled, and he hit the ground as if stone-cold dead. Say, what? Ice packs brought him around, but again, his future looked cloudy. Bizarre medical prognoses were not uncommon then, and Old Rosebud received a doozy, delivered by none other than respected veterinarian R.W. McCully. His diagnosis of the champion’s terrifying paddock swoon? “Acute indigestion” combined with “reflex action of the heart.”

Whatever. Three weeks later, the tough old crow was back on track, toting 133 pounds to a record-equaling victory in Aqueduct’s Bayview Handicap, one of seven stakes victories he scored that incredible season. He was that kind of horse.

Yet another injury sent Old Rosebud to the sidelines for his entire seventh year, and yet again he would return, though not as good as before, for time will take its toll. But his heart remained oh so willing, even as his legs began the inevitable deferment to time. At age 8 in 1919, Old Rosebud won or placed in 21 of 30 starts, and over the next two seasons, he was still capable of finding the winner’s circle, albeit at ever-diminishing strata of quality. By 11, however, it was pretty much finis for the old warrior. Then came May 23, 1922.

Different times

Ninety-two years have passed since this champion of the highest order lost his life in such a common, heart-wrenching way. He was gone on that fateful afternoon, but certainly not forgotten. John Madden no doubt recalled him fondly for the remaining seven years of his life, as the first of five Kentucky Derby winners bred at Hamburg Place. Johnny McCabe, who never rode another remotely like him, still reveled in his glory more than half a century later when speaking at Old Rosebud’s 1968 induction into the Racing Hall of Fame. Then there was Frank Weir, who loved him most of all.

Barely a year following the death of Old Rosebud, Weir was driving one night outside of Chicago when something felt amiss. He pulled to the side of the road, and there was found the following morning, gone to meet his maker, or, perhaps more to his tastes, to be reunited with the best horse he had ever laid hands on.


In 1922, horse-rescue organizations did not exist. Nor were they extant six years later, when a used-up ex-Derby winner named Black Gold died needlessly on the track at New Orleans. (“As God is my witness, I ran him in good faith!” his tearful trainer exclaimed.)

We like to believe that we live in a more humane world these days, a more aware one when it comes to horse racing, and in some ways, we do. Organizations have sprung up across the country to rescue and provide second chances for Thoroughbreds whose racetrack shelf lives have expired. But despite those noble efforts, our sport remains a bull’s eye for animal-rights groups like PETA, and not entirely without reason.

And while focus has been placed on saving renowned racehorses, being rich and famous is not necessarily a silver bullet. Case in point: Nine-year-old Grade 1 winner Monzante, whose breakdown in a $4,000 claiming race cost him his life in 2013.

Still, we try. Chances are good that had Old Rosebud been around today, he would not have died ignobly on the racetrack. Because of his golden résumé, he likely would have found his way to a marquee retirement home like the Kentucky Horse Park or Old Friends, where he’d have become a fan favorite – the kind of guy people would have traveled from afar to see, taken pictures of, fed peppermints to. He might have lived a long and happy life at a place like that, tossing his head playfully and jogging the fence line, chasing Michael Blowen on the other side as he ran along with a bucket full of carrots.

He could have struck poses for busloads of laughing schoolchildren, shared quiet moments with pilgrims who came to recall his days of glory, basked comfortably with aging companions in the warm Kentucky sunlight, knee-high in aromatic bluegrass. Maybe, in another lifetime,  that might have happened – had Old Rosebud lived today.