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Great Racehorses Of The Forties

Feb 24, 2008
We remember the 1940s this way: as the decade when America stepped up, and everything changed. As the decade began, the US was an isolationist emerging world power hoping to avoid the latest bloody European conflagration; as 1945 closed, it was the dominant Western nation. The stories of the decade's greatest racehorses reflects this moment of upheaval, with an injured horse and a filly winning the sport's highest acclaim and Citation achieving a dominance not seen since Man O'War in the twenties.

As writer Kathleen Jones observes, this horse's first big move was an inauspicious one: "Assault's first act of note was to spear his right front foot on a surveyor's stake." But this seeming disadvantage, which was initially thought to have ended the horse's racing career before it began, ended up conferring a weird sort of advantage: it hurt Assault when he walked but not when he ran.

Assault (1943-71) took a Flash Stakes win during his two-year-old season but didn't attract serious notice until his victory over 9-1 odds in the Wood Memorial. Muddy boots (with the added weight) hindered him at the Kentucky Derby trial during his three-year season. At the Derby itself, however, he put eight lengths' distance between himself and the heavily favored trio of Lord Boswell, Knockdown and Perfect Bahram (the best of whom eventually sank to a fourth-place finish).

Lord Boswell hindered him at Preakness, where he barely held on to victory in the face of a blazing kick from the former; thus Boswell was again the favorite as Belmont loomed. But Assault, who seemed to perform the best when his backers had the least faith in him, took Belmont by three lengths.

His subsequent career was illness-plagued, with a kidney infection and a seeming lack of confidence, but he overturned both to win Pimlico and "Horse of the Year" honors. He was later put to stud, but found to be sterile. Trainers, however, remembered his vivacious personality - often leaving inattentive exercise riders in midair, or charging grooms who failed to feed him. He died at the relatively ripe old age of 28 at the same King Ranch, in Kingsville, Texas, where he'd taken, for better and for worse, that fateful step on the surveyor's stake.

It's fitting, and pleasurable, to know that in the years of Rosie the Riveter, 1944 and 1945, not only did women fill the places in the American economy left vacant by enlisted men, but that fillies left their best male rivals in the dust.

In 1944, filly Twilight Tear won champion three-year-old and Horse of the Year honors, setting a precedent for the following year's new three-year-old Busher. This young horse, a granddaughter of Man O'War born in 1942, was sold by her owner Colonel E.R. Bradley after winning five of seven starts in her two-year-old season. Bradley was frustrated by the horseracing ban instituted early in 1945, and Busher was sold alongside many of Bradley's other horses, winding up in the hands of movie producer Louis B. Mayer, the sultan of MGM (he put the "Mayer" in "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer"). This proved to be Mayer's wise investment, as the racing ban lifted in the aftermath of V-E Day.

In the resulting race season, Busher often outraced male horses who outweighed her, achieving an especially memorable upset over Armed, a heavily favored Calumet Farm horse, in the Washington Park Handicap, where she also set a track record.

Busher was the last three-year-old filly to win Horse of the Year. For her unusual achievement, her name has been memorialized - since 1978 - in the Busher Stakes Race for three-year-old fillies at Aqueduct.

Who's the greatest racehorse of them all? The question can't really be answered, of course; its only purpose is to start a fun argument. But as long as there are American racing fans, there will always be those who suggest's Citation's name in answer to this question.

At age two, the Calumet Farms standout - a powerhouse in a stableful of powerhouses - won eight of his nine starts. (The race he lost was informally thrown by Calumet trainer Ben Jones, who ordered that the first horse to reach homestretch be allowed to win.) During his three-year season - still technically only two years old at the start (his birthday being in April), but racing against older horses due to the Jockey Club rule that registered Thoroughbreds born in the same year all be assigned a birtdate of January 1 - he destroyed a Horse of the Year and several four- and five-year-olds, an achievement that resembles a junior-high track star suddenly winning the NCAA championships.

The victories piled up, the plaudits mounted, and comparisons were made to Man O'War, the 1920s legend. He eventually won 19 of his 20 1948 starts, including a Triple Crown, one of few in the post-World War II period: possibly the greatest season of the century.
About the Author
TRP Services offers Thoroughbred horse racing and horse racing tips online for horse racing handicapping and those who love thoroughbred horses for the horse racing tracks.
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