The Derby

THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA’S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING.

 

The hills of Kentucky have a tempered roundness to them, as if cupped in the hollow of God’s palm. A man named Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., played out his life among them. Here, a century and a quarter ago, on a coil of land just south of Louisville, he christened the Kentucky Derby, a race that would dominate his life and ultimately consume him. When he died in 1899, friends laid his body in this soil, under a blanket of bluegrass.

 
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“Four Good Legs Between Us”

When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker, and a bicycle-repairman-turned-overnight-millionaire converged around a battered little horse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport

On a drab Detroit side street in August 1936, two hitchhikers hopped down from their last ride and walked onto the backstretch of Fair Grounds Racecourse. The stouter man was a jockey’s agent people called Yummy; he was with his client Johnny Pollard, a flame-haired former prizefighter. Yummy liked to refer to him by his boxing name, “The Cougar,” but most knew him as Red.Read more »

Ruffian

There was a miraculous and all-conquering horse, a filly, not a colt, who in nine out of ten races broke or equaled speed records that had stood for years and decades, who in fire and presence and appearance was Black Beauty personified, and was, the author of The Black Stallion said, the mental picture he had of his creation. In her greatest moment she was struck down. She struck herself down. What had made her great de stroyed her. Tens of thousands watched in person, and millions on television. No small number wept.Read more »

The Most Wonderful

Dan Patch never lost a race. But that’s not how he made his owner a multi-millionaire. America’s best-loved horse was also perhaps the most shrewdly marketed animal of all time.

In mid-September 1904 Americans reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s conquest of the Republican presidential convention and the decisive Japanese victory over the Russians at Liao-yang came across a brief news item from Kansas: Dan Patch had taken ill in Topeka and would probably die. The announcement sent tremors of anticipatory grief not only through horse fanciers and turf followers but through millions of people who had no particular interest in the track.Read more »

The “mostest Hoss”

Concerning the long life, fast times, and astonishing fecundity of Man o’ War

In 1920 William T. Waggoner of Fort Worth, Texas, possessed a string of racehorses, hundreds of thousands of acres of prime cattle land dotted with oil wells, and the firm conviction, apparently born of experience, that everything has a price. That year a lustrous chestnut colt was running away from the nation’s best three-year-olds with ridiculous ease, and it occurred to Waggoner that this colt was the greatest thoroughbred that he or any other American horseman had ever seen or was ever likely to see.Read more »