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Year-round employment: Many horses have returned to training after standing at stud
In 1949, trainer Henry Dailey and owner Alec Ramsey pulled their unbeaten star out of retirement to compete against his own Triple Crown-winning son. The older horse won in a battle royal and was promptly returned to his upstate New York farm.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but then again, maybe not altogether. Dailey, Ramsey, and their ebony-coated champion were penned to life by Walter Farley in his beloved novel “The Black Stallion,” but the scenario described has been played out in the real world for centuries, for better and, sometimes, for worse.
The olden days
In the early 1800s, three- and four-mile heat contests comprised the centerpiece of American racing. These multipronged events were determined by the combined outcome of two or more heats, with competitors often required to run eight, 12, even 16 miles in a day – a daunting task for even the fittest animal. That, along with the rigors of 19th-century transport – when horses were led, ridden, or hauled by cumbersome horse-drawn van to far-flung engagements – created a problem with only two possible solutions: kill the horse or allow for some time off from racing.
How to define time off was the question. Is it lolling in a grassy pasture or, as in the case of racing Hall of Famers American Eclipse and Boston, was it simply more work but of a different nature?
◗ American Eclipse (born in 1814). Old-school owners like Cornelius Van Ranst didn’t think twice about keeping their champions busy year-round, and pocketing money in the process. The undefeated champ happily exchanged saddle and bridle for halter and lead shank each winter during the early 1820s, covering mares at $12.50 a pop.
◗ Boston (1833). Col. William Johnson’s Boston was chestnut, but in every other meaningful way, he was a real-life incarnation of the “Black Stallion,” complete with satanic temper, ungodly talent, and a raging will to win. En route to the Hall of Fame, the incomparable four-miler shuttled from farm to track for several seasons, picking up $51,700 in purses and thousands more in $100 breeding fees.
Injury and aspiration
Racing’s economics changed in the 20th century, and as the monetary value of stallions escalated, fewer were asked to serve double duty. When they did, it was generally due to infertility, a healed injury, or an owner’s dream. But whatever the reason, it was a risky business.
◗ Seabiscuit (1933). Sometimes the track-to-farm-to-track routine worked out well, as with Hall of Famer Seabiscuit, who ruptured a suspensory ligament in 1938 and sat out the 1939 racing season, when he covered several mares. Owner Charles Howard was determined to win the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap with his champion and did so in 1940 – an epic victory that made Seabiscuit the richest equine athlete of his time, with earnings of $437,730.
◗ Stymie (1941). Hirsch Jacobs’s $1,500 claim matured into one of the most beloved racehorses of the 1940s, winning or placing in 63 stakes, becoming the first horse to earn $700,000, $800,000 and $900,000, and earning a place in the Hall of Fame. When a fractured sesamoid sidelined him in 1948, he made the most of his farm time.
Several pregnant mares later, Stymie returned to racing but flopped. The six foals he left behind included 10-time stakes winner Joe Joes and future California Broodmare of the Year Our Cricket.
◗ Khaled (1943). When cowboy Rex Ellsworth bought Khaled, a European champion, for $160,000, the young Irish sire was considered broken of wind. But in California’s arid climate, he soon regained his health, prompting Ellsworth to point the son of Hyperion to the 1949 Santa Anita Handicap. The notion tanked, as Khaled won just a single allowance race. He went on, however, to sire a California-record 61 stakes winners, among them the great Swaps.
◗ Fleet Nasrullah (1955). Acquired mid-career by the Johnstons’ Old English Rancho (of current Acclamation fame), Fleet Nasrullah was a major stakes winner when he covered a few mares in 1960. He returned to training to win three Southern California stakes, setting track records at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Fleet Nasrullah later became an influential West Coast sire until sold to a Kentucky syndicate.
◗ Candy Spots (1960). Ellsworth’s 1963 Preakness winner made the transition more successfully than Khaled had 15 years earlier. After suffering an ankle injury, he spent 1964 at Ellsworth Ranch in Chino, Calif. Candy Spots’s first foals were hitting the ground about the time he captured the 1965 San Pasqual Handicap.
The saddest and most common reason for a stallion to resume a racing career is an inability to get the job done at the farm. Following are a few such notable horses through time.
◗ Grey Lag (1918). After winning many premier races, including the 1921 Belmont Stakes, Hall of Famer Grey Lag proved subfertile, getting just 17 foals in three crops. He raced intermittently through his 13th year, and when worn out and competing at the bottom, he was found and brought home by former owner Harry Sinclair, himself recently released from prison for corruption.
Grey Lag died in 1942 at Sinclair’s New Jersey farm. John E. Madden, one of the great Thoroughbred horsemen of any era, always proclaimed that Grey Lag was the best he’d ever bred.
◗ Black Gold (1921). After failing to impregnate a single mare, the Kentucky Derby winner returned to racing, only to break down in his 35th career start. Trainer Hanley Webb wept at the side of his mortally wounded charge, exclaiming: “As God is my witness, I ran him in good faith!” Hall of Famer Black Gold was buried in the Fair Grounds infield, where his tombstone remains.
◗ Whiskery (1924). Harry Payne Whitney’s Kentucky Derby winner was gelded following a hapless stint at stud and returned to racing, but with little to show for it. According to late Derby historian Jim Bolus, Whiskery subsequently was used as a riding horse in Virginia and may have died there around 1936 after colliding with a tree.
◗ Twenty Grand (1928). The dual classic winner and Hall of Famer proved completely infertile and made a racing comeback at age 7. The Greentree homebred finished unplaced in the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap, after which he went home to Kentucky, where he became a member of Greentree’s famed “Gashouse Gang” of pensioned geldings.
◗ Assault (1943). The 1946 Triple Crown and Hall of Fame inductee retired to the King Ranch but fizzled in the breeding shed. He re-entered training and captured his second Brooklyn Handicap the following year. Following a brief 1950 campaign, Assault was put out to pasture with several Quarter Horse mares, which resulted in two fillies in 1951. He died a pensioner at age 28 at the Texas farm of his birth.
◗ Tomy Lee (1956). The $6,700 yearling turned Kentucky Derby winner had sperm with an unusually short shelf life, rendering him all but infertile. He got but 13 foals in four crops, and in between unproductive breeding seasons, the Tudor Minstrel horse won four allowance races. He died at 15 and was buried at Pillar Stud in Kentucky.
◗ Top Knight (1967). A champion at 2 and the winner of the Florida Derby, Top Knight was an utter failure at stud and failed to get a single foal. He raced unsuccessfully for years at lower-level tracks like Lincoln Downs. According to turf writer Steve Haskin, Top Knight ended up on a Massachusetts farm, living happily “in the company of donkeys, mules, and ponies.”
◗ Cellini (1976). He was Group 1 winner by and out of Hall of Fame champions – pedigrees don’t get any better than that. Unfortunately, the son of Round Table and Gamely got just three foals before heading to North America for a 1976 racing campaign. He won once in five starts before disappearing into the ether.
◗ Precisionist (1981). Fred Hooper’s Hall of Fame champion could navigate any distance but excelled at sprinting, taking the 1985 Eclipse Award in that division. Early on at stud, it was found that something was dreadfully wrong. Unable to impregnate his mares – though tests indicated live sperm – Precisionist returned to competition and won the Grade 3 Cabrillo Handicap in 1988. He ultimately sired just four foals and was donated late in life to the Kentucky rescue and retirement facility Old Friends. Suffering from an inoperable tumor, Precisionist was euthanized Sept. 27, 2006.
◗ Wake At Noon (1997). Infertility issues sent this Canadian Horse of the Year and millionaire back to the track at age 13. On June 29, 2010, the old warrior took a bad step on the Woodbine training track and never made it back to the barn – a death that sparked widespread outrage. Wake At Noon left behind 18 foals from four crops.
◗ George Washington (2003). One of the more heartrending recent returns was that of George Washington. The English 2000 Guineas winner and European champion stood briefly and unproductively at Coolmore and went back into training after getting just one mare in foal. In the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2007, he suffered a dislocated ankle fracture and was euthanized on the track.
◗ Shellscrape (2006). Australian Group 1 winner Shellscrape bred a full book in 2011, resulting in 33 foals. Weirdly, about 20 percent of the star sprinter’s offspring were born without tails, a genetic flaw that led to his being pulled from stud. As of December 2012, he was back in training but had yet to start.
This article really helps me to understand this unfortunate practice of returning stud horses back to the track. Thank you.
This article really helps me understand this business of returning stud horses to the track, which always seems so unfortunate. Thanks!