07/04/2013 11:58AM

Suburban Handicap: One century ago, a race for the ages

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National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Whisk Broom II carried 139 pounds in the 1913 Suburban and broke the world record by three seconds.

Something extraordinary happened at Belmont Park on June 28, 1913, something no modern-day racing fan could hope to witness in a dozen lifetimes. That afternoon, a future Hall of Fame trainer hoisted a future Hall of Fame jockey and an armload of lead onto the back of a future Hall of Fame Thoroughbred, then sent them to post with history dead in their sights.

The race was for the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap, then America’s premier all-age event; the trainer was James Rowe Sr.; horse and rider were Whisk Broom II and Joe Notter. It wouldn’t take them long to carve their names profoundly into the record books.

Wagering was absent then from August Belmont’s magnificent racecourse. Religiously driven legislation known as Hart-Agnew had snuffed out that piece of public pleasure. No tipsters, bookies, or touts were to be found, no blackboards with posted odds. The once-busy betting ring stood empty. Pinkerton guards swarmed the track, elbow-to-elbow with society women and derby-hatted dandies, hauling off those clumsy enough to get caught exchanging money for chance.

The cynosure of the Suburban was Harry Payne Whitney’s strapping red Whisk Broom II, a 6-year-old relative newcomer to American racing. Half a decade before, Whitney had purchased the Broomstick colt for $7,250 − about $187,000 today − then sent him abroad on the eastward floodtide of bloodstock fleeing those draconian anti-wagering laws.

In Europe, Whisk Broom had been viewed as a gifted sprinter from eight to 10 furlongs, a winner of some decent races, and third-place finisher in the 1910 English 2000 Guineas. Good but not close to great.

After a two-year hiatus, New York tracks were set to reopen for betless exhibition racing in May 1913. Men like Whitney began tentatively shipping runners home, Whisk Broom among them.

His first public appearance here came in the May 30 Metropolitan Handicap, in which he carried 126 pounds and Whitney’s increasingly famous light blue jacket and brown cap, colors that two years hence would be flown to an epochal Kentucky Derby victory by a filly named Regret.

It was opening day at Belmont Park, New York racing’s long-awaited rebirth, and as thousands filed through the gates a centerfield brass band struck up Auld Lang Syne. Whisk Broom chose to mark the occasion by behaving like a spoiled 2-year-old, balletically leaping about like Nijinsky throughout the pre-race warm-up, then getting caught utterly flat-footed when the starter’s flag fell. Still, he was good enough to pull off a victory.

The Brooklyn Handicap came next. This time with 130 pounds up, Whisk Broom was again left stargazing at the start, and again he closed like a ground-consuming monster to win in a 10-furlong stakes record 2:03.40.

By this time Jimmy Rowe had gone head over heels for his crazy-talented new charge, hyperbolically assuring a New York Times reporter that Whisk Broom was the best he’d ever handled. This from the man who had previously tightened the girth on Colin, Hindoo, Commando, Sysonby, Miss Woodford, Maskette, Peter Pan, and Luke Blackburn, Hall of Famers all.
But then again, maybe.

On Suburban Day, Whisk Broom II stepped assertively onto the course, steel in his eyes. No more games, no more antics. The 139-pound package strapped to his back seemed to tether the normally skittish stallion firmly to the ground, a fact that elicited wrath toward handicapper Walter Vosburgh. Even by 1913 standards, 139 was a fearsome load, especially when his challengers toted 20 to 44 pounds less.

For once Whisk Broom broke fast and smooth, with Notter nearly standing in the irons to ease him back behind fellow Whitney runner Nightstick. By the homestretch, however, Nightstick was a rapidly receding memory as his long, low-striding entrymate snapped into high gear with two sharp cracks from Notter’s whip, then blasting across the line a length ahead of Lahore, his nearest rival, with 1911 Kentucky Derby winner Meridian a distant third. When the final time was posted, the Times reported “a momentary hush of amazement, followed by thunderous applause.”

Two minutes flat the big horse had run, smashing the world record by three-plus seconds (and approximately 18 lengths) and establishing a record that would stand for 35 years. Some swore it wasn’t possible, that clocker W. B. Barretto must have misjudged the wire; several horsemen claimed to have stopped their timers a second or two slower. Barretto eventually argued them all into submission by virtue of his prime position and angle on the finish line, and because he said so. But regardless of the final clocking, Whisk Broom’s performance was one for the ages.

Whitney later demurred when Vosburgh extended his star a 142-pound invitation to the Excelsior Handicap. When Whisk Broom soon after returned sore following a workout, it was over. The champion, retroactively recognized as the first of four winners of New York’s Handicap Triple Crown, returned to Kentucky, where he would sire 26 stakes winners before his 1928 death. Among his offspring were Kentucky Derby winner Whiskery, Preakness hero Victorian, and Upset, the only horse to outfinish Man o’ War. In 1979 Whisk Broom II would be properly enshrined alongside his trainer and jockey in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

As for Rowe, he apparently had a change of heart over time. Anticipating his own 1929 demise, he later directed that his epitaph should comprise three words: “He Trained Colin.”