Post cards from – Cajun Country

Gary Mcmillen Marshall Blevin

Take a quick look. See for yourself. A map of the United States shows the Mississippi River flowing north to south. The downward descent is more or less a straight line until it approaches the Gulf of Mexico where it begins to twist, turn and fold back on itself like the lower intestinal tract of the human body.

It was here on a vast expanse of bayous and grass prairies of what is now southwest Louisiana that the French-speaking settlers called Acadians arrived in the mid-17th century. Refusing allegiance to the King of England, they experienced a mass deportation from Nova Scotia in Canada. It wasn’t a Walt Disney movie. Thousands died on the ships.

Considered misfits, outcasts, resistance fighters and criminals by the British, the Acadians—later to be called Cajuns—would find their new home in the bowels of America.

A rowdy collection of renegades who loved good food, drinking and gambling, the Cajuns were determined to preserve their culture. One way to package their passion in a single event was through match racing at local “bush tracks.” Secluded on the flanks of cypress swamps, sugar cane and corn fields, the operating bush tracks had names like Hick’s Wagon Wheel, Mamou, Wild Cherry and China Bell Grove.

Glenn Delahoussaye learned the game from his father, Junius.
Glenn Delahoussaye learned the game from his father, Junius.

Needless to say, they were unsanctioned, unlicensed and uncontrolled by any state regulations or commissions. Stewards, placing judges and handlers at the starting gate were randomly selected from the crowd.

Some horses became crowd favorites. Runners like Black Mama, Popeye, Little Red Dice, Dusty Margo and Miss Law and Order may not have had lip tattoos or foal certificates, but they could generate attendance of up to 4,000 on a Sunday afternoon.

The card games, juke box and dance hall atmosphere began on Friday night, followed by cock fights on Saturday. The match races started on Sunday mornings after church. Admission was informal—people put a few dollars in a cardboard box. Beer sold for 45 cents and each bush track served its specialty lunch of pork chop sandwiches or a steaming bowl of “cowboy stew,” which contained parts of the cow most likely not served in restaurants.

The rough and tumble, broken collarbone bush tracks became the “cradle of civilization” for Cajun jockeys who would rise to national prominence and ride some of America’s most famous horses. The likes of Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye and Calvin Borel would get their starts there before amassing multiple victories in the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races.

“Stocked with ample provisions of whiskey, gin and ice chests of cold beer, Carencro Raceway was a weekend walk on the wild side.”

Nothing stays the same, though. The wild and wooly image of the bush tracks have been replaced by four sanctioned racetracks in Louisiana that operate under regulations similar to other racing jurisdictions across the U.S., and the incentive structure of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association is one of the most lucrative in the country.

Post cards from Cajun Country.
Post cards from Cajun Country.

Located in New Orleans, the Fair Grounds Race Course is the third-oldest track in America still in operation. With the longest stretch run in the country, the Fair Grounds’ winter and spring meet offers a series of graded stakes that are prominent prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Plus, the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies has produced eight winners of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, including 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. A few dusty photo albums and one
rusted starting gate buried in chest-high weeds are all that’s left of the Cajun bush tracks. The leaves have fallen, but the roots are deep in the rich bayou soil. As a society, the United States moves further away from the horse, but in Cajun country the passion for horses remains a way of life. This story is a collection of snapshots from the living descendants of those families and horsemen.

The Family Business

In southwest Louisiana, the apple does not fall far from the tree. The legendary trainer Junius Delahoussaye (a cousin of Eddie’s) was known as the “King of 2-year-olds” on the racing circuit there during the 1960s and ‘70s. Delahoussaye was a sharecropper, and his work ethic was rooted in the Great Depression. Men and women of that era knew there was no imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you outworked the other guy, the rent got paid. When he became ill, his son Glenn dropped out of college and took over the stable.

Working with horses is the only job June Rideaux ever had in his life.
Working with horses is the only job June Rideaux ever had in his life.

“My Dad taught me that it was possible to make something from nothing,” Delahoussaye says, guiding his stable pony Smarty to the track. “Just because you are on a small circuit doesn’t mean you can’t do big things. These horses have a small window of opportunity, so you have to learn when and how to maximize that potential.”

Concentrating his efforts on the breaking and development of young talent, Delahoussaye the younger (a winner of
multiple stakes) has persevered in the game for 33 years. With an abundance of common sense and a firm grip on his values, his success with a small stable is the result of a simple formula.

“When my father saw that I had the passion for the game, he told me to do two things every day of my life,” Delahoussaye explains. “The horse business is really the people business. Surround yourself—keep yourself—in the best company at all times. And then keep your horses in the worst company at all times.”

The Cajuns abide by the saying, “If you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.” Those salty words have served Delahoussaye throughout his career. “I’ll take a bad horse for a good man, but I refuse to take a good horse for a bad man,” he insists. “I just won’t do it. I’ve walked away from situations where I could have made some money, but I was not comfortable with the company. That’s something I’ve never regretted.”

Leap of Faith

Ashley Broussard has never clicked on the website, but there is a reasonable chance her Cajun lineage traces back to February 27, 1765. That’s when Joseph Broussard—leader of the Acadians’ resistance struggle against the British in Nova Scotia—navigated the first ship up the Mississippi River and delivered approximately 200 immigrant family members to Louisiana.

But for Ashley, who got her jockey license at the age of 18, the past no longer exists. She is hard at work, making her riding comeback at Evangeline Downs after having a baby.

Jockey Ashley Broussard is working hard to have a family and a career.
Jockey Ashley Broussard is working hard to have a family and a career.

It would be a mistake to discount Broussard’s credentials. Competing on the barrel racing circuit, she won several Louisiana state championships and has been ranked as high as fifth in the national competition.

“Maneuvering your horse at top speed, keeping your balance and rating your horse against the clock are all aspects that transfer to race riding,” says Broussard, who has three sessions a week with a personal trainer.

A sharp rider out of the gate, Broussard won eight races in the first four weeks after her return to the track.

“It’s all about fitness, working the weights, some cardio exercise and getting my timing back,” she says. “I was always underfoot at the farm with Dad during summer vacations, and I hope my son, Bentley, grows up with the horses and likes it as much as I do.”


Last Man Standing

As the only living past owner of a bush track facility, Don Stemmans qualifies as the Walking Wikipedia of the Cajun horse racing history. He operated Carencro Raceway from 1967-1974. Translated from Cajun-French, carencro is a word for buzzard.

The sandy loam track was a 3/8th mile straightaway for quarter horses and a six furlong oval for Thoroughbreds with bloodlines that read “by Trash Can out of Slow Motion.” Stocked with ample provisions of whiskey, gin and ice chests of cold beer, Carencro Raceway was a weekend walk on the wild side. Rules and regulations were few and far between. The Sunday racing programs were a single sheet of paper printed off a photocopy machine.

Calvin Borel (here on Rachel Alexandra) is one of the most well known Cajun jockeys. He won the Kentucky Derby three times: Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009), and Super Saver (2010).
Made physically tough and gate smart from the hand-to-hand combat of the bush tracks, Cajun jockeys have dominated racing in the United States over the years.

Calvin Borel (here on Rachel Alexandra) is one of the most well known Cajun jockeys. He won the Kentucky Derby three times: Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009), and Super Saver (2010).
Calvin Borel (here on Rachel Alexandra) is one of the most well known Cajun jockeys. He won the Kentucky Derby three times: Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009), and Super Saver (2010).

No less than six Cajun jockeys have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame: Eddie Delahoussaye, Calvin Borel, Mark Guidry, Randy Romero, Kent Desormeaux and Eric Guerin. Not to mention, Shane Sellers and Ray Sibille are retired with a combined 8,411 career wins to their credit. Cajun riders that are currently active and prominent on their respective circuits include Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez, Jr. and Gerard Melancon.

Bayou, pronounced Buy-you, is the French name for a slow moving river.

Boudin, pronounced Boo-dan, is a popular type of link sausage.
Recipes vary but the common denominator is rice mixed with other ingredients like pork, crawfish, alligator, celery, onion and cayenne pepper. Good for breakfast, lunch or dinner, boudin is also popular as a heated snack or car food. It can be purchased at grocery stores, gas stations and roadside food trucks.

Many racing and barn scenes in the critically acclaimed film Seabiscuit were shot at the Evangeline Downs Training Center.

The 1978 drama Casey’s Shadow remains the classic Cajun movie. Starring Walter Matthau and based on a true story of a down on his luck trainer with a big dream and a fast colt, watching Casey’s Shadow is required research for understanding the fabric of Cajun horsemen. The story is based on Lloyd Romero, Randy’s father.

Laginappe, pronounced an-yap, is a term that describes the tradition of a store owner giving the customer a small gift as an act of good will. Buy a dozen crabs at the seafood store, and you might find 13 or 14 in the paper bag when you get home.

Louisiana Crawfish Boil Cookout.
Louisiana Crawfish Boil Cookout.

Louisiana Crawfish Boil Cookout.

Creole people are the descendants of 18th century colonial settlers who are a racial and ethnic mix of French, Spanish and African. Typically well-educated and close to their European heritage, the Creoles have a unique style of cooking. Influenced by Haitian slaves, the traditional Creole dish is gumbo, which is a spicy and dark stew based on anything available like shrimp, crab, oysters, sausage, turtle, rabbit or duck.

Breaux Bridge is called “The Crawfish Capital of the World.” Either from natural habitats or from marsh water farms, harvesting crawfish is a major industry. Averaging production of 100 million pounds per year, Louisiana supplies 95% of the crawfish sold in the USA. The little crustaceans extracted from the muddy ponds in nets are so plentiful that a typical weekend house party would involve a 100-pound sack.

Cajun country has its own style of music, as well. Accordions and washboards are key instruments in zydeco.

Cajun country has its own style of music, as well. Accordions and washboards are key instruments in zydeco.
Cajun country has its own style of music, as well. Accordions and washboards are key instruments in zydeco.

Zydeco music is a genre that evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the area. Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and some form of a washboard, it was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.


“Whatever you were old enough to do, you could do it there,” Stemmans recalls of the track, which once promoted a memorable match race between a trotting horse named Sorrel and a Model T Ford.

Like an old gelding on cruise control, Stemmans’ life is quieter now. As the owner of Stemmans Horse Supply, his
contentment comes from sitting behind a giant oak tree stump in his work shop and repairing bridles, saddles, broken stirrups and halters for his many customers.

Jake and his brother, Jeff, grew up coming to the barn each morning to help their father.
Jake and his brother, Jeff, grew up coming to the barn each morning to help their father.

“I wouldn’t be in business today if I had not found small ways to save money,” Stemmans says over the whirring sound of an ancient Durkopp Adler industrial sewing machine made in Germany. “I buy local oats, corn and molasses in bulk and make my own brand of feed. I’ve been dealing with the same people for years. When I give them a call, the truck is on its way. They don’t have to worry about getting paid. Our contract is a handshake.”

The son of a blacksmith, Stemmans can fabricate, salvage or repair anything that comes in the door.

“Bring it on,” Stemmans laughs. “It can be any old piece of string, wire, leather, brass, chain or jockey silks. I can fix anything except a broken heart.”

Jack of all Trades

“I refuse to complain,” June Rideaux says with a smile that could light up a bat cave. “I woke up this morning on the top side of the dirt, and nobody was singing ‘Amazing Grace’. That’s good enough for any man with some sense.”

The 64-year-old Rideaux represents the ultimate truth when it comes to the phrase “job security.” After refusing to pick cotton at the age of 9, Rideaux’s mother brought him to Traders Rest horse farm to find work. The young boy never even glanced back over his shoulder.

“I started out galloping horses and breaking the babies,” Rideaux remembers. “I never wanted to take a day off or go on vacation. Being around these horses every day is what makes me happy.”

For holidays, Rideaux (who can speak fluent French and a few curse words in Spanish) puts on the apron and makes the pots and pans sing a delicious tune. His signature meal is barbecue goat, but a heaping dish of creamy red beans and rice is another tasty option.

The months of August and September are the height of
hurricane season in Louisiana, and Rideaux has a reputation for never evacuating during a storm.

“Sometimes it can get scary—barn roofs can blow off and fences come down or a flood,” Rideaux describes, sitting on a bale of alfalfa. “The wind gets the horses spooky and all riled up. Horses hurt themselves when they get excited, so I stay with them.”

Formal job descriptions are a foreign concept in Cajun
country. Rideaux does everything at the farm except file the taxes. Every morning at 5 o’clock he arrives to water and feed the horses. He is the groom and hot walker. During the
summer months, he cuts all the grass. He helps with sales prep of the yearlings and vans horses to and from the race track.

One particular instance even involved security patrol. The night before a $1,000 match race, the owner of a quarter horse named Little Red Dice brought Rideaux a gun and told him to guard the horse until dawn.

“That gun was bigger than me,” Rideaux says. “I stayed up all night, walking back and forth. Back in them days you had to be careful somebody didn’t sneak into the barn and do something to your horse.”

Black Gold

There is an advertising sign on the frontage road before you get to Jeff Delhomme’s barn at the Evangeline Downs Training Center. Under the flowing white robes image of Jesus, the
blaring words in orange and black read: “Are You Living in Heaven or Hell?”

Working with his two sons and training a small stable of blue collar Thoroughbreds, Delhomme is living his own version of heaven on earth.

It’s a Sunday morning at the barn and Delhomme is preparing to clean up and take his wife to church. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he sits down on one of three mismatched folding metal chairs that look like discards from a yard sale. The drainage ditch around the walking wheel is full of red mud from last night’s thunderstorm. Cobwebs hang from the wooden rafters.

Form and fashion are not a high priority. Rakes and rusted pitchforks are propped up outside the door of a tack room that looks like it came straight off the set of True Detective. As a row of humming electric fans coated with dust blow cool air on the horses, the 65-year-old begins to talk about his father, Sanders Delhomme.

“My Daddy never went to school—not one day in his life,” Jeff says. “All he could do was sign his name, but he was street wise. The biggest thing he taught me was to stay low, get small so other people don’t make a big commotion over what you do. Bragging was never allowed.”

Delhomme grew up poor on a small 20-acre farm in the woods outside of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The neighbors were few and far between. Every family had a horse or two and some made bootleg “white lightning” moonshine to supplement their income.

Sam Breaux, learned to ride before he learned to read, and has been training since 1980.
Sam Breaux, learned to ride before he learned to read, and has been training since 1980.

By a stroke of fortune, oil was discovered on their property, and Sanders was able to quit his job as a “roughneck” on the
derricks in the Gulf of Mexico. He began training quarterhorses. His visual trademark was a white Stetson hat that he wore everywhere, and he had a reputation for being head strong.

“You couldn’t tell Daddy what to do with a horse,” Delhomme remembers. “If an owner came to him with an idea or suggestion, he would put a halter on the horse, hand the lead shank over to the guy and wish him good luck.”

Keeping a family safe, comfortable and protected is part of the Cajun DNA.

“My father never laid a hand on me, but I sure knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do,” says Delhomme. “There were no cars or traffic on the gravel road outside our house, but I had to ask permission to ride my bike and tell Momma where I was at all times. You can respect discipline when it comes from love. I wouldn’t trade the way I was raised for nothing in the world.”

“A lot of things in this world don’t go right, and you just have to deal with it”

A Way of Life    

Collect enough sand and you can build a mountain. Sam Breaux took out his trainer’s license in 1980 and today has accumulated 1,506 career victories. In 2009, Breaux ranked 27th in the
United States with 126 winners. He didn’t learn the game from text books, Power Point presentations or seminars.

“Everybody in my family has ridden horses since we were
babies,” Breaux explains. “I was riding a Shetland pony before I could read. My brothers and sisters all rode in horse shows, and we galloped saddle horses up on the levee. That was our form of entertainment.”

In the late ‘70s Breaux cut his competitive teeth, entering horses in match races on the bush tracks. At the time, Calvin Borel rode many of the Breaux entries.

“Let me tell you, Calvin was barely a teenager, and he was cocky son-of-a-gun,” Breaux remembers. “For sure he could ride, but Calvin had an attitude. Believe me, he wasn’t all meek and gentle like he is now.”

Horse racing has been a daily life lesson for Breaux.

“A lot of things in this world don’t go right, and you just have to deal with it,” he says. “You try to follow a plan with a horse but most often the plan has to change. It’s like falling off a horse. You dust yourself off and get back on. It’s that simple.”

Welcome to Florida

— Sunshine, yachts, oranges and race horses

Amanda Duckworth Mats Genberg,

Birds fly south for the winter in the USA, and so do people. Often, many of the best race horses, trainers and jockeys find themselves in the Sunshine State of Florida.

Still, Florida’s position as a great place for horse lovers might not be so well known. The fact remains, however,  the same great weather that makes it a top vacation spot also makes it a perfect place for horses and horse people. Warm—but not steaming hot. Dry—but not a desert. And with everything you need for an easy life within arm’s reach. Living is easy in Florida, regardless of the number of legs you have…
And – in 2017 it’s home to the richest race in the world…


To find proof of what a spell in Florida can do to a horse you don’t have to look back more than a year. In 2013 the two biggest races in the United States—the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic—were won by Orb and Mucho Macho Man, respectively, and they both spent their winters in Florida.

But Florida’s equine heritage is deeper, more valuable and more entertaining than just a pleasant weather forecast, and it is worth your time to visit.

Land of flowers

Christopher Columbus is given credit for discovering “the new world,” but it was Juan Ponce de León who found the mainland of what is now the USA. In 1513, he landed on Florida’s northeast coast, and his ship’s last known navigational reading was 30 degrees, 8 minutes, off the coast of St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. He claimed the land for Spain and named it La Florida, or land of flowers.

For the last 500 years Florida has been influenced by its Spanish past, and with that past came a love of horses. Not only did Ponce de León give Florida to Spain (at least for a time), he gave Florida horses.

When he returned in 1521 the explorer brought 50 horses and other domestic animals with him. However, the natives were not thrilled with his attempts to move in, and Ponce de León and his men were attacked. They went back to Havana, Cuba, leaving behind the animals. The fight also cost the explorer his life, as it is believed he was hit with a poison arrow during the fight and later died of his wounds.

The horses, however, were in Florida to stay.

hialeah2Hialeah Park—home of the flamingos

In time, tourism became a big industry in Florida, and the tourists needed things to do. Just like in so many other places in the world, a race course was seen as the perfect entertainment venue for both the man on the street and the high rollers from high society. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon when you grew bored of the beach, and so began Florida’s love affair with horse racing.

One of the oldest existing recreational facilities in Florida is none other than a racetrack, but it is a racetrack with a bittersweet existence.

Hialeah Park, just south of Miami, opened in 1921 and is a name that still brings a gleam to the eye of old racegoers. In 1926 the track was damaged severely by a hurricane, and in 1930 it was sold to Philadelphia horseman Joseph E. Widener. He hired architect Lester Geisler to design a new grandstand, clubhouse facilities, and infield gardens stocked with native flora, fauna, and flamingos. It was meant to be a true Florida icon.

The result was stunning. Hialeah became known as one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world. An Australian totalisator for accepting parimutuel betting was the first in America to be installed, and the track became so famous for its flamingo flocks that it was  officially designated as a sanctuary for the American Flamingo by the Audubon Society. Remember the Miami Vice TV show intro?

Although a beloved venue, Thoroughbred racing ceased in 2001 after a change in the state law kept it from having exclusive dates in its competition with the other two race courses in the Miami area   – Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course. A filly by the name of Cheeky Miss won the last Thoroughbred race on May 22, 2001.

That was not the end of the track though. In 2009 it was announced track owner John Brunetti was awarded a racing permit, and in November of that year the historic racetrack reopened…but only for quarter horse racing.

Gulfstream is the powerhouse track in Florida.
Gulfstream is the powerhouse track in Florida.


Gulfstream Park

Today Gulfstream Park is the flagship of Florida racing. In 2014, the track celebrated its 75th year, and it is run by a group of people who have a lot of big plans down the road. The track is owned by the Stronach Group—which also owns Santa Anita, Pimlico, Golden Gate Fields and a number of other tracks—and most of the executives are horsemen, which gives it an unusual edge against most of its competition.
In 2017 Gulfstream is host to what will be the Biggest Race in the world – the Pegasus Cup!

“The whole area is like nothing ever seen at a racetrack. It’s actually like a small hispanic town, with dwindling streets, cool shops and restaurants”

Located between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Gulfstream opened in 1939 and has been one of the most important racing venues in the USA.

If you are hoping to see a future Triple Crown race winner, this is not a bad place to be in the winter. Gulfstream offers a series of prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby that has had a significant impact not only the Run for the Roses, but the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes as well.

The Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth are prep races for the Florida Derby, which in turn is a major prep for the Kentucky Derby.

History proves this to be true as in the first 62 runnings of the Florida Derby, 42 starters have gone on to win 57 Triple Crown events. In 2013, Orb won the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.

“Our winter meet is when all of the top trainers and jockeys in the U.S. come down here,” said Gulfstream’s marketing director Mike Nyman, who was an owner/breeder for more than 20 years before taking the job. “It is for several reasons, and obviously the weather is first and foremost. There aren’t too many tracks that are operable in the winter, and we have one of them. We have a lot of good things going on, and it is the tourist season, so a lot of people that are down here during the winter spend their time over here.”



When Orb crossed the finish line first in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, he became the 22nd horse to win the Run for the Roses after racing in the Florida Derby, and the 13th horse to win both contests.

Year Horse
2013 Orb
2008 Big Brown
2006 Barbaro
2001 Monarchos
1995 Thunder Gulch
1994 Go for Gin (4th in Fla. Derby)
1991 Strike the Gold (2nd)
1990 Unbridled
1984 Swale
1981 Pleasant Colony (5th)
1979 Spectacular Bid
1975 Foolish Pleasure (3rd)
1974 Cannonade (2nd)
1968 Forward Pass
1966 Kauai King (5th)
1964 Northern Dancer
1961 Carry Back
1960 Venetian Way (2nd)
1958 Tim Tam
1957 Iron Liege (3rd)
1956 Needles
1953 Dark Star (13th)


New visitors

The first time the track was redone, a casino was added. Furthermore the track added The Village, a center of shopping, dining, nighttime entertainment and cultural activities designed to engage entire families. The whole area is like nothing ever seen at a racetrack. It’s actually like a small Hispanic town, with dwindling streets, cool shops and restaurants where you can sit down outside and enjoy a glass of wine. It is a big change from looking at a parking lot. From Main Street, you can see the parade ring, surrounded by balconies from where you expect to see Zorro preparing to swing down onto a horse.

Far from the traditional American mall or shopping center, this is a place where ”not so interested in racing” members of a family can spend an afternoon while the others go racing.

“While the industry has been having some issues and most tracks have decreasing handle and attendance, we have made a real big effort on track to engage families, younger people, and women,” said Nyman. “You will see the mix of customers at the track is different than at most places.

“We do a lot of things to really engage customers, especially first time customers. We have ambassadors here to help them read a program or make a bet. We will take families into the walking ring, the winner’s circle, the jockeys’ room and the broadcast booth. The typical person people think of at a racetrack is a 65-year-old white male smoking a cigar, and that is just not the way the demographic is at our track now. It’s gotten a lot younger and we like that.”

Clearly the track is doing something right. At a time when many venues are struggling both with handle and attendance, Gulfstream is not. A record crowd was on hand to watch Orb’s victory in the Florida Derby, while total handle on Gulfstream’s 13 races that day was close to $25 million. On-track handle was $1.37 million, up 7.16 percent. General admission and parking are free.

“We have a lot of people who are very engaged in the business, are passionate about the business, care about the business and don’t believe in its demise. We believe we can bring it back to health, and we have done that,” said Nyman.

While it is true Gulfstream has found success in many of the changes it has made, one area where it might have misstepped is the grandstand. During the initial renovation, grandstand seating was reduced from around 30,000  to a few thousand. That is one of the issues being addressed by the current renovation.

“Obviously there were some mistakes, and nobody is perfect when you roll out these new innovative efforts,” said track president Tim Ritvo, who previously was a jockey and a trainer. “We are doing a lot of tweaking, and we are continuing to improve. We think what you see at Gulfstream is in its infancy of what you are going to see. We are trying to incorporate racing as an entertainment component so that people don’t just come to bet on horses.

“It is about the whole experience: having great dining, having some place cool to hang around if you are a young guy with a girlfriend, and a place to enjoy the thrill and excitement of a horse race.”

One of the main motivating factors for the second renovation in less than a decade is the desire to host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships again. Gulfstream has played host to North America’s end of season championship races three times in the past, but not once since it demolished its grandstand.

“We do want the Breeders’ Cup someday,” said Ritvo. “We need to do a lot of renovations, and we have plans for that. The reason you want to have the Breeders’ Cup is because it makes you a real viable and important player in the industry. The Breeders’ Cup is not a huge profit maker and it takes a lot of work, but it is an honor. It is the championship series of the sport, so who wouldn’t want to have it?”

Hosting events is important to Gulfstream. In 2013, it hosted the Eclipse Awards for the first time and will do so again in 2014. Eclipse Award night is the Oscars of horse racing  in North America, and most everyone had positive feelings about having it at a race track instead of a hotel or convention center. Gulfstream is a track that is trying to bring in new people while taking care of the ones it already has.

“You go to most places and there is next to no marketing for horse racing,” said Eddie Plesa, Jr., who is a leading trainer in Florida. “But if you drive down any road in south Florida or turn on your radio or TV, you see or hear them advertising. They are promoting the sport.”


”You can train 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to worry.”


Beyond the track

Florida’s climate means that it is a favorite spot not only for racing but also for training racehorses, especially young ones.

Keenly aware of that fact, the Stronach Group opened up Palm Meadows. It is a state-of-the-art training facility located on 304-acres just outside Boynton Beach. Another major training facility is Payson Park, a 400-acre facility, also located in south Florida. It is designed to offer a stress-free environment for horses and trainers alike.


Both operations draw top trainers, and with top trainers come top horses. The reason is two fold: both operations are catering to the horse and both can offer the kind of weather that many facilities around the country dream of.

“When you are training horses in the snow and cold weather, it is a problem,” said Plesa. “The weather is the biggest draw as to why people go to Florida in the winter. You can train 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to worry.”


600 Thoroughbred farms

A couple hundred miles north, one finds Ocala, Florida, which bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World (although it has to share that title with four other cities around the world). Whether that claim is accurate or not, it sure is a popular place for horse enthusiasts. If you are looking to see all the effort that goes into getting a horse to the track, Ocala is the place to go.

In 1956, the Ocala area Thoroughbred industry received a boost when Needles became the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, and in 1978, Florida bred and -raised Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

Today, Florida is home to around 600 Thoroughbred farms and training centers, and more than 75 percent of those are located near Ocala in Marion County. Ocala is also home to the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, which stages major bloodstock auctions throughout the year.

Fasig-Tipton also holds sales in Florida, and in fact, it was at its 2006 January sale that the world record auction price of $16 million was set. The colt, later named The Green Monkey, would go on to win just $10,440, reminding everyone of the fact that racing is a sport that involves taking chances.

“Florida is the best place I know of for breaking horses, training horses, and teaching horses what they need to do,” said Plesa. “Time is of the essence, especially with 2-year-olds. When you take them out of a routine because you miss a week of training because of a snow storm, it might take you two weeks to get back to the point where you were. In Florida, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Ritvo, who has dedicated his life to improving the sport of horse racing, agreed,  hitting on the fact that Florida has much to offer the equine enthusiast, be they in the industry or simply a fan.

“Obviously we can’t take credit for everything, since weather is a big factor,” he said. “But it is not just what the horses do here while they are wintering , it is what they do when they leave us that is important. We have more and more business coming our way every time they leave here from a good winter campaign.

“We are a huge state and we are known as a destination travel state and an agricultural state, but we would like to be known as a racing state. Some of the wealthiest people in the world have farms here, and it is important to us to continue to sell the sport. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes: the parties, the events, the beauty of it, and the love of the animals. Once people get in, you are hooked. There is no way you cannot fall in love with the sport.”

Or with Florida.

Lucky until The End

Camilla Osterman Historic

In 1834, at the age of 6, Elias Jackson Baldwin and his mother, father and three siblings moved from Hamilton, Ohio, to an 80-acre farm in Terre Coupee Town, Indiana. His father, William Baldwin, had previously served as a community preacher. Now he was going to operate the new farm and tend to its horses. Elias liked helping out, especially with the animals, and as the years went by he developed a special mind for buying and trading horses. By the time he was 19, his capital was already several thousand dollars.

Lucky Baldwin.
Lucky Baldwin.

With this money, Elias decided to take his skills and knowledge to a new level. He opened a grocery store and a saloon. By this time, he had also become a father, after having eloped with Sarah Ann Unruh one year earlier. They were married without their parents’ consent.

Elias then opened a hotel and a general store in New Buffalo, Indiana, and although business was good, it was also boring. So, he decided to try his luck in Wisconsin with yet another grocery store and a hotel, but after a while he found himself without a challenge yet again.


Elias then opened a hotel and a general store in New Buffalo, Indiana, and although business was good, it was also boring.


However, news had travelled about gold from California. Like many other men who sought their fortune in digging, this was something for Elias. He did not want to find the gold, but rather, the businessman that he was, he saw an opportunity to provide food and supplies for the diggers who did.

And so, Elias decided to sell out in Wisconsin and head for the west coast with four wagons, which carried only his family, their belongings and brandy, tobacco and tea.

The trip out west was quite an undertaking in those days. The Baldwin family joined a wagon train, and it suffered several misfortunes on the way. After a month on the road, Elias went out scouting by himself and got lost for days.

He was lucky enough to be saved by friendly Native Americans who helped him back to his party. That luck would change by the time they reached Salt Lake City. The wagon train was attacked by the Ute tribe and had to flee for dear life. They were ambushed another two times before they completed the 2,000 mile trail and reached California.

In 1853, they settled in San Francisco, and once there, Elias finally got down to business. With the cash he brought with him from Wisconsin, he bought and improved the Temperance Hotel. Only 30 days later, he sold it for a $5,000 profit. Later he built another luxury hotel, The Baldwin Hotel and Theatre, and started making big money.

Emperor of Norfolk was an outstanding race horse for Lucky, and he went on to be an influential stallion as well.
Emperor of Norfolk was an outstanding race horse for Lucky, and he went on to be an influential stallion as well.

In 1867, his luck took a little turn when he became a divorced man after his wife left him for being absent at home. Elias decided it was time for a change of scenery and took off on a grand tour across the Pacific. He went elephant hunting in India and partying in Japan. When he came back to New York, he brought with him a whole group of Japanese acrobats and became a vaudeville producer.

Meanwhile, back home in San Francisco, he had left his broker with orders to sell off his shares of the Hale & Norcross Mine if their prices fell to $800 a foot. Unfortunately, or fortunately as it would turn out, Elias had forgotten to leave the key to the safe where the stocks were kept. His broker couldn’t sell. Just in time for his return, the value of the mine had climbed to $12,000 a foot. He had now earned himself the nickname “Lucky” as he was not only rich, but very rich. In fact, he was a multimillionaire.

Lucky was now ready for more new adventures. He went south in 1875 and started looking for a place where he could fulfill his dream—being a great farmer. The Rancho Santa Anita caught his interest, and he approached owner Harris Newmark with an offer that wasn’t accepted. He was willing to give $150,000, but Newmark wanted $200,000. Lucky wanted that piece of land bad—as anyone who has been to Santa Anita can easily understand. So, he packed a tin box full of cash—several million dollars—and went back to Newmark and offered him $12,500 in cash as a down payment.

With Volante, Lucky won his first American Derby at Washington Park in 1885. His stable would win the famed race three more times.
With Volante, Lucky won his first American Derby at Washington Park in 1885. His stable would win the famed race three more times.

Furthermore, Lucky’s luck continued—a bank he had lent money, with land as securities, collapsed and left him with even more property. He was now one of the biggest, if not the biggest, landowner in the San Gabriel Valley.

Lucky’s racing stables became among the finest in the country, and he loved horses almost as much as he loved women. He was married three more
times and had a string of affairs.

He even was sued for broken wedding promises four separate times. During one court trial, the sister of a woman he had gotten pregnant took a shot at him, grazing his skull. But he, lucky as always, came out of the incident more or less unscarred.

But forget the women—it’s horseflesh we’re interested in. In those days there were several tracks in California, but they were mostly at fairs and kind of raggedy. The big races were back east, and the big race for 3-year-olds was the American Derby at Washington Park in Chicago. Lucky won it four times in nine years, garnering national attention for California race horses.

His first victory came with Volante in 1885, then Silver Cloud the following year, Emperor of Norfolk in 1888, and finally with Rey el Santa Anita in 1894. In doing so, Rey el Santa Anita defeated the previously unbeaten Domino, which was an accomplishment that turned out to be worth nothing in the breeding shed.


Rey el Santa Anita, one of Lucky’s homebreds, was something else on the track—placing in 62 of his 69 starts. He traveled around the east coast and won big races in Chicago, St. Louis and New York but was no success at stud. There, Domino beat him soundly. Domino, who died after his first season at stud, only sired 19 horses but eight of them were stakes winners, and he’s still found in the pedigree of some of today’s runners, often through Seattle Slew.

Meanwhile, Emperor of Norfolk was considered by many as the best California-bred runner ever until Swaps came along 67 years later. Not to mention, Emperor of Norfolk has made a major impact on today’s Thoroughbred through his son Americus, who was sent to England after a successful career in the U.S. The great flying filly Mumtaz Mahal traces back to Emperor of Norfolk through Americus, and she herself can be found in Northern Dancer’s pedigree.

But not many of Emperor of Norfolk’s descendants can match his race record. He made 18 starts as a 2-year-old and won three races in Chicago in eight days, then won two more in four days at Jerome Park in New York.

As a 3-year-old, Emperor of Norfolk won eight in a row for a total of nine wins from 11 starts. He was some horse, as shipping around the country in those days was not the air-conditioned luxury that today’s horses enjoy.

As the years went by, Lucky’s luxurious way of living meant his funds began to dwindle. He even had to sell the old star Volante for a mere $425 to settle a feed bill. Lucky was never one to worry too much, though. One of his favorite sayings is said to have been: “By Gad, I’m not licked yet!”

In 1900 at the tender age of 72, off he went to Alaska where he teamed up with another western legend, Wyatt Earp. It didn’t quite work out as planned—Wyatt didn’t want to sell the piece of land in Nome that Lucky wanted, so he went back to California empty-handed.

Even though he didn’t amass a new fortune during Alaska’s gold rush, Lucky’s farming skills did pay his bills and then some. It also appears he settled down a little in his old age, keeping expenses for patrimony suits down.

In 1907, Lucky was finally able to fulfill his dream of opening his own first-class racetrack, the finest in the western United States.

The first incarnation of Santa Anita racetrack had its grand opening on December 7, 1907, and ran a 108-day winter meet. Opening day featured a full card, including the Pomona Handicap, and by all historical accounts met with great success.

The place was Lucky’s. He built it up beautifully with a racing stable staffed by a variety of Mexicans, Chinese, and formers slaves. The racetrack had a place for everybody.

In sadly odd timing for Lucky, Emperor of Norfolk died in his stall several days later at the age of 22. His death warranted a story in The San Francisco Call, which reported: “Emperor of Norfolk, winner of the American Derby and one of the greatest race horses and sires in the history of the American Turf, died of old age this morning at Lucky Baldwin’s Santa Anita ranch. The closing hours of the famous stallion’s life presented a unique spectacle. When word was sent out that the Emperor was dying, racing men who are at Santa Anita track gathered in numbers at the Baldwin stable, and the grand old horse passed away like a king surrounded by his court.”lucky_baldwin_20150523

Lucky himself was also not long for this world. He died in March 1909 at the age of 81 as the result of pneumonia and was buried next to his first wife, Sarah, in San Francisco. Just one month later, on April 17, 1909, Santa Anita held its final race. It was a time of turmoil, as lawmakers fought over whether horse race wagering was legal or not, and without its leader, the racetrack fell victim.

Eventually, the lawmakers sorted themselves out, and Santa Anita Park as we know it now opened on Christmas Day, 1934. It quickly became one of the most respected racetracks in the world and remains so to this day.

But that is another story. For Lucky, his life had ended with what it had
started with—horses.

Get more good racing stories and great photographyin the world’s only feel-good horse racing magazine. 


AL CAPONE – and the fight for the gambling buck


When I first found myself in Chicago, back in the autumn of 1987, it was by pure chance. The first of many on my racing travels.
I visited Hawthorne Race Course in Sickney/Cicero on the south side of Chicago, and I soon got to know the owner, Mr. Thomas Carey.
That he and his wife, Sue, invited me to stay with them rather than in the cheap hotel I could just about afford was probably no coincidence. The Careys are Irish Americans and, in running the oldest family-owned racetrack in the United States, genuine hospitality is a way of life.


I was there visiting, curiously observing U.S. racing for the first time, and hoping to sell an article or two about my experiences when I returned back home. My first job as a racing journalist in the Windy City was another coincidence. One day Mr. Carey came up to the press box to fetch me. “I think I have small job for you,” he said. Back down in his office, Mr. Carey introduced me to his racing secretary and handicapper, Mr. Frank Arsenault. Frank was as laid back and easy going as the Careys, but he did give me a strange look as he glanced up from his handicapping sheets. I later heard that he had been a bit concerned, thinking I was after his job.
Perhaps I should have been but I wasn’t.

“We have the Hawthorne Derby here on Saturday, and a horse is coming over from Europe,” Carey said. “I believe his name is Z-something. Do you know this horse?”
I pretended to be effortlessly searching my brain, as one does in this situations. “Yes of course, sure Mr. Carey, I know the horse.” He smiled and said, “You called me Tom over dinner at my house last night…”

Then he turned to the in-house form expert: “Frank, I think we should have Geir write a press release on this horse, and give an assessment. How do you assess a horse like that, by the way?” Frank didn’t really answer that last question, but he agreed that I could do the job. “The name of the horse is Zaizoom,” he added and returned to looking busy.

Carey wanted to know what I knew about the foreign runner.


I also learnt more about Al Capone’s involvement in racing. And, no, before you ask, there is no “Al Capone Memorial Stakes” staged at Hawthorne.


I told him that he had been imported from England and that I believed he had won the Italian Derby that May.
“Is that right,” Tom chuckled. “We have an Italian raider on the grounds. Well, we are used to those here.”
Tom was of course referring to a more famous Italian, the mafia boss Al Capone, whose interest in gambling and horseracing made lasting marks on the sport in the Chicago area.

Turf Guide.
Turf Guide.

I wrote my press release, gave Zaizoom a rating comparing him to the local runners, concluded that he would probably win the race (which he did), and returned to Chicago as a freelance journalist for their autumn racing every season for the next 10 years. This was pre-internet days, and I specialised in providing information on horses visiting from and/or imported from Europe. I also learnt more about Al Capone’s involvement in racing. And, no, before you ask, there is no “Al Capone Memorial Stakes” staged at Hawthorne.

When you hear that the two racecourses in the area, Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne, were just stone’s throw apart, do not believe for one moment it is an exaggeration. The two tracks were literally built so close you could hear the sounds of farriers working from both tracks. When horses stabled at Sportsman’s raced at Hawthorne, they were simply led across to the other venue, a walk that would take no more than two to three minutes.



Sportsman’s Park, operating horseracing from 1923 to 2003, was built so close to Hawthorne for a reason. The reason was none other than Al Capone. Capone first turned up on the scene when he was 21-years-old, and he controlled the Cicero and Stickney areas by the young age of 25. His decision to run his illegal operations from Cicero and Stickney was quite simple. Out there, he could buy off most of the politicians and police forces. That was not so easy inside the Windy City itself, despite the fact that Chicago’s nickname originates from the time when politics there were known to be somewhat different to other big cities.

It was well known that it was rather windy in the political circles. Today, most of us think it is because Chicago is such a flat landscape by the huge Michigan Lake, making it very windy. Which is also true.
Working his way up to became the czar of organised crime in Cicero, Capone  soon set his eyes on Hawthorne. Several recollections of his life say that he did in fact control racing at Hawthorne, but official history on the Al Capone era has always been a bit flawed, since too many local historians were not interested in writing about Capone. When he was finally gone, they were more interested in closing that chapter.

In racing circles, the tales paint a picture which seems, if not totally accurate, somewhat plausible. Racing historians say Capone tried to buy Hawthorne, or at least become a partner in the racecourse, but owner Tom Carey Sr. was reluctant to sell to the mobster. Carey was determined to run the racecourse himself, though in fact he had become the owner of the course much against his own will in 1909. Carey had done extensive work for the founder of Hawthorne, but he was never paid. In the end he was handed the property as payment. It was the track or nothing. The value of the settlement must have been debatable, as they did not have a license to race. However, he managed to stage a meeting without one, running for 16 days in 1916.

Legal racing did not reopen until six years later though, and that was also when Capone surfaced and wanted to take over. Being heavily involved in the illegal gambling in Chicago, he wanted to take charge of the legalised gambling as well. That made perfect sense. To Al Capone. For a change, he came to a closed door. Whereas his rise in power in the area had been going generally unopposed, he could not get his hands on the racecourse. Who actually controlled the races staged in Chicago in those days is another question, however. Many of the races were almost certainly controlled, or fixed, by Capone. There was always talk of “the fix” and when Al Capone was involved, they never went wrong.


“Being heavily involved in the illegal gambling in Chicago, he wanted to take charge of the legalised gambling as well. That made perfect sense. To Al Capone.”


Looking back on this era, it is not at all hard to understand why horse racing struggled with a poor image in North America. To the man on the street, horseracing, gambling, criminals and dishonesty were pretty much synonymus words. Most have seen Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the brilliant film The Sting, and to believe that the plot in this winner of seven Oscars, including Best Film, was far from reality is naïve at best. It was set in 1936, when corruption and illegal gambling raced neck and neck in the Mid-West. There were con men everywhere, small and big, not least on the racetracks.
Even the publishers of tipping sheets in Chicago, two-paged A4 publications with previews and selections that are still very popular, were often crooked.

“They never work for me,” Capone allegedly said when challenged on the subject. And they probably never did.
Tipping sheets giving out false information were undoubtedly too small a con for Capone. That he had inspired these guys, however, is more than likely. One con they pulled off was to print thousands of sheets after the sixth or seventh races had been run. Naturally, on these sheets, they had “tipped” just about every winner and exacta in the first seven races. Since race days had 10 to 12 races, it gave them time to do a quick print-run and spread the false sheets. How? They simply got “runners” to jump on and off the trains and buses that would be taking horseplayers back home from the track – and leave the sheets on the seats they would be occupying. For the tipsters, this was an easier way to make money than backing their selections. Over the next few days, everybody wanted to buy THAT fantastic tipping sheet.

The 1930s and 40s were a golden age for horse racing in Chicago. That included Sportsman’s Park, despite its unfortunate location next to an oil refinery.
The 1930s and 40s were a golden age for horse racing in Chicago. That included Sportsman’s Park, despite its unfortunate location next to an oil refinery.

Not Al Capone, however. It’s a fair guess he did not bother with reading any tipping sheet or studying the form. He was not interested in who the horseracing experts thought would win. He was interested in what horses he could make sure would win, or, in most cases, what horses he could make sure would not win. He liked to bet. Did he need the money? Probably not. Was he hooked on gambling? Probably not. His way of betting wasn’t really gambling. So why go through all of the trouble to fix races? Well, it did make money of course, and just as importantly, he enjoyed the feeling of being in control. That was all that mattered. And he didn’t mind letting people know that he was in control of the races. So the answer to the question whether it was Capone or Carey who controlled racing at Hawthorne was purely a matter of definition – and most certainly dependent on who you asked.


In his book Capone, the Man and the Era author Lawrence Bergreen quotes Joe Berardi, a photographer working for the Evening American at the time. Berardi was covering the Hawthorne races, and to his surprise he found that Capone was at the track that day, accompanied by his usual squad of five or six bodyguards.

“Hey, Berardi, how you doin’ today?” Capone asked when he saw the man with the camera, always keen to be friendly with members of the media.
“I’m doing just fine,” Berardi replied.

“Why don’t you bet on the six-horse in the next race,” Capone said.
Berardi looked at the tote board and could not believe Capone was serious, as No. 6 was showing at 99-1.

“Before I knew it, one of Capone’s men came over to me and slipped a piece of paper into my jacket pocket,” Berardi recalled. “When they walked away, I looked at the paper. It was a $5 win ticket on the six-horse. Well, horse No. 6 broke out in front and stayed out in front, and I don’t think anyone dared catch him. The goddamn horse won by a block… Capone didn’t bribe me; he just put $300 in my pocket.”

In other words, the horse had been bet down from 99-1 to 60-1 just before the start. No prizes for guessing who placed that gamble on the six-horse, a no-hoper who was allowed by the other jockeys to lead all the way. Oh, and don’t forget Capone had just also paid just $5 for a $300 bribe. He was having a good day at the races.

Capone and his friend and partner, the infamous attorney Edward J. O’Hare, eventually gave up on acquiring Hawthorne, and we can safely assume that Carey Sr. was himself a strong and powerful man. Carey’s persistence paid off, as he eventually did get permission to conduct race meetings. A decade later, Hawthorne had been turned into a highly profitable business, though Carey soon also found himself in direct competition with Capone and O’Hare.

Al Capone and O'Hara.
Al Capone and O’Hara.

They built their own racecourse north of Hawthorne, but it was a course for greyhound racing, called the Hawthorne Kennel Track. Soon after, greyhound racing was made illegal in Chicago. The authorities were not all keen on gambling, and even less so when Capone got involved. This was their way of giving the man broadside opposition on the gambling field.
One morning O’Hare was summoned to Capone’s office.
“We shall move that Hawthorne Kennel track,” Capone said. “How about outside town; I mean somewhere way outside city borders?” He felt he had a simple solution to the new challenge, the new problem that had arisen from political corridors.

“No,” was O’Hare’s blunt answer. “Won’t help us Al. A bill is about to be passed making greyhound racing illegal throughout the state of Illinois.” It was never easy, but politicians in Illinois clearly did try their very best to stop Capone. And this time, they were one step ahead of him. Capone wasn’t used to that. The man, who had been expelled from school at the age of 14 for having hit a female teacher and never went back, was in no way comfortable with being restricted by others.

Capone was furious about not winning the battle over the gambling dollar, and what he still wanted the most was Hawthorne Park. After all it was right in the middle of Stickney/Cicero. That was his patch, his backyard. Horse racing was about to take off, and the future for racetrack owners was rosy. And this track was right next to one of his brothels, damn it. He was not happy about it.

That the O’Hare airport in Chicago is one of the biggest airports in the world is widely known. But did you know it also has a connection to Al Capone and to horse racing? Al Capone’s partner and lawyer was Edward O’Hare (aka “Easy Eddie”). As a lawyer, O’Hare represented the inventor Owen Smith – the man who invented the hare that is used in dog races – and once owned three dog race tracks. Together with Capone, he later started Sportsman’s Park in Chicago, where he also became the manager.

ohareIt was O’Hare who gave the tax man the information needed to sentence Capone in 1931. Capone was not exactly happy about this, and a couple of days before Capone was paroled 1939, O’hare was shot to death on his way home from the office at the racetrack.
The story would have ended there if it weren’t for Edward O’Hare having a son. Also named Edward, his son went by ”Butch” and became one of the country’s most famous fighter pilots during WWII. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor after becoming the Navy’s first flying ace when he single-handedly attacked a formation of nine heavy bombers approaching his aircraft carrier.
O’Hare the younger died at age 29 while he was leading the U.S. Navy’s first-ever nighttime fighter attack launched from an aircraft carrier. His aircraft was shot down and never found.
In 1949, Chicago’s airport was renamed in his honor and an estimated 200,000 Chicago citizens showed up for the event.

“We buy the land next door,” he said to O’Hare one day. “We buy that worthless piece of land and build our own track. That’s gonna show them!”
So they did. The two men purchased 79 acres of land right behind the Hawthorne grandstand and built Sportsman’s Park, another Thoroughbred racecourse. Talk about going into competition head-to-head. Then again, as the Americans would call it, the two racecourses were located back-to-back. Sportsman’s Park also conducted harness racing, as does Hawthorne through the winter months today. The course was also home to the famous Illinois Derby, inaugurated in 1923, a race that is today staged at Hawthorne and  used to be an important prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Sportsman’s Park was an arena for speedway racing, and only one of two tracks in the USA to race both horses and speedway cars, along with Dover International Speedway. The venue eventually closed in 2003. It has been a long haul. It took 80 years for things to return to normal for Hawthorne – and during these years the financial climate in Thoroughbred racing went through several phases. The bottom line of these phases has, unfortunately, been a relatively consistent and marked decline.
The Carey family’s course once staged the American Derby, the second most valuable race in America, but is now one of the lesser tracks on the North American circuit, with rather ordinary day-to-day racing and moderate purses. It was quite different in the good old days.

Arlington Park, the premier racecourse in Illinois and best known for its Arlington Million day, and Hawthorne managed to stay open during the years of World War II. Racing and betting at the family-owned venue thrived during these turbulent years. Tom Carey and his team were also forward thinking operators, often ahead of their time. They realised that consistent success was reliant on local support and introduced valuable races for Illinois-bred and owned horses. These days, virtually every course in North America puts on valuable stakes races restricted to state-bred horses.

Sportsman’s Park was closed in 2003 and torn down a few years later. However, you can still clearly see the old course (top) and how close it was to Hawthorne (lower). © 2010 Google Data SIO, NOAA, U.S.Navy, NGA, GEBCO
Sportsman’s Park was closed in 2003 and torn down a few years later. However, you can still clearly see the old course (top) and how close it was to Hawthorne (lower).
© 2010 Google Data SIO, NOAA, U.S.Navy, NGA, GEBCO

Already in the 1940s, Hawthorne staged meetings with a $1,000 minimum purses per race. Today, that would equate to about $12,500. Hawthorne also recorded its first $1 million raceday betting turnover as long ago as in 1943, and the following year the average daily turnover was a staggering $943,000. The average daily crowd was well over 14,000.
To put these figures into perspective, the first $1 million plus handle at Hawthorne was not achieved until 1966, and it took all the way to 1992 before Hawthorne’s average daily turnover exceeded $2 million. On Illinois Derby day in 2004, a record $5.5 million was wagered at Hawthorne. That is a healthy figure, but in real money value it is only 50 percent of the daily average in 1943.

In today’s world, the 1943 average of $943,000 would be almost $12 million. Was the horseracing business lucrative in Chicago in 1940s? I just think we can all agree it was.

Seeing these figures, one can understand why Al Capone wanted so desperately to get a slice of the action. Wanted it so much that he built a track next door to another. Horse racing men and women in Chicago can today be proud of the fact that it is Hawthorne, not Sportsman’s Park, that is still in operation.

Contrary to popular belief, Al Capone (or Alphonse, his real name) was not born in Italy. His father, Gabriele Capone, a barber, and his mother, Teresina, immigrated to the USA in 1894 from the small village Castellmarre di Stabia, barely 12 miles south of Neapel. The couple came to America with 43,000 other Italians, together with their two sons Vincenzo (later named James) and Rafaele (who became Ralph).

Alphonse was born in Brooklyn in 1899 and was at 10 years of age already associated with the neighborhood’s gang, which was led by Johnny Torrio. He left school at the age of 14 after beating a female teacher.

He came to Chicago in 1919 and ran Torrio’s alcohol and prostitution businesses before he started his own when Torrio retired.

On Oct. 17, 1931, he was convicted and sent to prison for 11 years because of tax evasion. By the time he died in 1945 due to a stroke, he was so physically and psychically affected by syphilis, he was said to have been at the intellectual level of a 12-year-old.


- Equine drag racing

Amanda Duckworth Ruidoso Downs, Dan Dry, American Quarter Horse Association, Los alamitos

Drag racing on horse back. Pure speed. All horse. If you are looking for the fastest equine on Earth, look no further than the quarter horse. At their swiftest, racing quarter horses can exceed speeds of 55 miles per hour, meaning the only faster animals on the planet are the cheetah and the Pronghorn antelope. Of course, as the name implies, they are only at their best for a short distance.


Rest assured, a quarter horse is 100 % equine. The “quarter” refers to their preferred running distance, not their pedigree.
The first quarter horses were bred in the late 1600s and early 1700s in the American colonies in what is modern day Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Because those areas were heavily forested, there was no real space for horse racing. As a result, horses either raced down village streets, or they raced on a “quarter path” of about 440 yards that had been cut through the forest.

Champion caliber quarter horses can sprint 440 yards in 21 seconds, starting from a flat-footed standstill.

As result, colonists began breeding horses to run this distance. Many of the matings took place between mares they got from Chickasaw tribes and “blooded” stallions from England, which were the forerunners of the thoroughbred. The Chicksaw mares were of Spanish blood and traced back to Mexico and Spain.
This mix of Spanish and English blood more often than not resulted in a stocky, heavily-muscled horse that could sprint a quarter-mile faster than its competitors. The best of them were called the “Celebrated American Quarter Running Horses” and were the ancestors of today’s American Quarter Horse. As colonists moved west, the wild Mustang was added to the mix.

Where there is quarter horse racing you often find paint horse racing. The American Paint Horse is basically the same breed, but allow multi-colored horses with large parts of white coat.
Where there is quarter horse racing you often find paint horse racing. The American Paint Horse is basically the same breed, but allow multi-colored horses with large parts of white coat.

In 1940 a registry was formed to preserve the American Quarter Horse breed.
Through the passing decades, the American Quarter Horse has drawn the attention of horsemen the world over. Currently more than 30 different countries have full-fledged quarter horse associations that are affiliates of the American Quarter Horse Association.
“There are always exceptions in any breed, but quarter horses tend to have good, tractable dispositions, they are easily trainable, and they tend to be much more ‘people horses’ than other breeds,” the AQHA’s Richard Chamberlain explained. “Part of it is also the cultural aspect. One of the American icons known around the world is the cowboy. If you are interested in that kind of stuff, you are probably going to get a quarter horse.”


■ If you want to know what it is like to ride reigning world champion Cold Cash 123, visit, type in ColdCashWork7 22 12, and go along for the ride as the champion works 220 yards in 10:87.

■ The American Quarter Horse Associa­­tion is the largest equine breed registry in the world. It has registered more than 5 million horses since its inception in 1940.

■ There are 17 recognized colors of American Quarter Horses, including the most prominent color of sorrel (brownish red). The others are bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, dun, red dun, gray, grullo, palomino, red roan, blue roan, bay roan, perlino and cremello.

■ Unlike thoroughbred breed registries which require foals to be the result of a “live cover,” the AQHA does allow artificial insemination and embryo transfers.

■ The breed has a smaller market share and smaller average purses that the thoroughbred market, meaning the average race-bred quarter horse yearling sells for less than $20,000 at auction. In 2011, a total of 16,724 horses started in an official quarter horse race in North America.

■ The current world record for the classic distance of 440 yards is: 20.274, set by First Moonflash in 2009. The record was set during the Grade 1 New Mexico Cham­pionship Challenge at Sunland Park.


Built for Speed
Racing quarter horses are bred for one thing: speed. Champion caliber quarter horses can sprint 440 yards in 21 seconds, starting from a flat-footed standstill.
“It is drag racing with horses,” said Chamberlain. “It is an all out sprint, and it is a pure test of speed. There is no laying back and waiting to make your move or any of that. They are the fastest horses on Earth, period. It is a different type of horse for a different type of racing.”

One of the easiest ways to understand the differences between a quarter horse and a thoroughbred is to think of Olympic runners. Picture a gold medal-winning sprinter like Usain Bolt, and now imagine a champion distance runner like Mo Farah. Both men are amazing athletes, but physically, they are completely different. Such is the difference between a typical quarter horse and a typical thoroughbred.

One Dashing Eagle won the 2012 All American Futurity. At that time the race was worth $2.4 million and is expected to carry a purse of $2.6 million in 2013.
One Dashing Eagle won the 2012 All American Futurity. At that time the race was worth $2.4 million and is expected to carry a purse of $2.6 million in 2013.

“The first thing most people notice is the fact quarter horses are much more heavily muscled, and they have a much heavier hip,” said Chamberlain. “That is where the engine is. Those first few strides are powered from the back. In human terms, the thoroughbred is like the guy that is a distance runner: long, lanky, skinny.”

The classic distance for champion quarter horses is 440 yards, but they can runner shorter and longer.
About the farthest you will see a racing quarter horse be asked to go is 1000 yards, but that is almost a novelty event. A “long distance” race for a quarter horse is usually 870 yards, which is about 10 yards short of a half-mile.
“They can be highly competitive at multiple levels,” said Ty Wyant, media relations director at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. “But purses are much lower at 870 yards than the shorter distances, so you don’t see the high quality horses stretching out. Nobody breeds 870 yard horses, that just doesn’t happen. You would be broke in a hurry.”

Every sport has the end-all-be-all event to win, and for quarter horse enthusiasts, that race is the All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs. The 440 yard contest is for 2-year-olds, and from its inception in 1959 it has been the banner quarter horse race. When Galobar won the first edition, it was worth $129,000, making it the richest purse ever offered in quarter horse racing.
Then in 1978 the All American Futurity became the world’s first $1-million race for any breed. The purse kept growing and in 1982, it became the first $2-million quarter horse race. In 2012, it carried a purse of $2.4 million, which was the richest race for a 2-year-old of any breed in North America. In 2013, the race is expected to be worth $2.6 million.

“The All American Futurity is the cornerstone showcase of quarter horse racing,” said Wyant. “It is the race everybody wants to win. We also have the premiere sale going on at the same time, so it is sort of like Keeneland and Saratoga combined. We have all the high priced yearlings and everybody is here.”

Ruidoso is also home to the All American Derby, a race for 3-year-olds, which is expected to have a purse of $2.5 million in 2013.
For those with older racing quarter horses, the race to win is the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos Race Course in California. The Grade 1 race carries a purse of $750,000, making it the richest event for older horses in the nation. In total 27 of the 40 winners have been crowned World Champions since the race’s inception in 1972.

Some of the legends
Perhaps one of the best known American Quarter Horses of all-time is the great Refrigerator, who won the All American Futurity and is the only three-time winner of the Champion of Champions.

During a Hall of Fame career that spanned from 1990 until 1995, Refrigerator won 22 of 36 starts for his owner, former AQHA president Jim Helzer, and retired as the sport’s all-time leading money earner. In all, he was a champion 10 times and was named the sport’s world champion twice.
The gelding, who was named after William Perry, the defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, retired in 1996. Tragically, Refrigerator died at the age of 11 after he suffered a traumatic head injury while in rope horse training. He was euthanized in February 1999 and buried during a private ceremony at the Helzer’s JEH Stallion Station near Pilot Point, TX.

Another American Quarter Horse legend is Easy Jet. From 1969-1970, Easy Jet won 27 of 38 lifetime starts and went on to be one of the sport’s most prolific sires. The world champion’s influence is so strong that even though he died in 1992, Easy Jet is still the sport’s all-time leading sire by wins and is No. 6 by money earned.

When it comes to quarter horse stallions, though, a horse named First Down Dash is alone at the top. A world champion runner in his own right, First Down Dash is the sport’s all-time leading sire by money earned.


Nuts and bolts
One of the reasons the American Quarter Horse has gained such popularity is because of the versatility of the breed.
“In general, it is also the greatest cow horse on earth,” said Chamberlain. “There are a few lines in the quarter horse breed that produce extreme speed, and these are the ones we race. But there are other lines in the breed that produce extreme agility and athletic ability. These are the cow horses, the cutting horses, the ranch-type horses. They don’t have the ability to run a quarter mile in :21 flat but they can jump out of a roping box and catch calf or run a barrel pattern. They have quickness as opposed to ultimate speed.”

While many breeds are extremely strict about preserving bloodlines, the AQHA does allow quarter horses to be bred to thoroughbreds.
If a registered quarter horse mare is bred to a registered thoroughbred stallion, or vice versa, the resulting foal still gets quarter horse papers. As a result, the racing quarter horse has a lot of thoroughbred blood in it, but there are some restrictions.
These hybrid quarter horses are “appendix” registered. If an appendix quarter horse goes on to perform well enough to get a register of merit, then that horse is advanced from the appendix registry to the permanent registry.

Perhaps this continued infusion of thoroughbred blood is part of the reason many of America’s best known thoroughbred trainers cut their teeth in the quarter horse world. For example, while Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert are best known for their Ken­tucky Derby victories, they got their start with quarter horses.

In fact, many racetracks in the United States will host cards that feature both thoroughbred and quarter horse races. In some cases, the breeds are allowed to race against each other.
“I can’t give you a number, but I can tell you there are a whole bunch thoroughbred trainers that started with quarter horses,” said Chamberlain. “When you start with quarter horses, it is a much smaller world and there is less money in it. Very often, the trainer is doing it all himself. He is the guy getting under the horse and doing up the legs; he is washing the horse; he is literally doing everything except riding races. It leads to a much more fully developed all around level of horsemanship. You learn a lot.”

Elizabeth Arden

Make-up and race horses

Mats Genberg

Almost everyone knows Elizabeth Arden as the woman behind a brand of cosmetics. But in the 1940s and ’50s USA she was almost as famous because of her horses.

Elizabeth Arden’s “Eight Hour Cream” is one of the cosmetic world’s classics. A product which goes up and down in popularity, but never disappears. And which people uses for all different kinds of things.
Use as shoe polish or to treat skin diseases.
Or you can use it on horses!

Elizabeth Arden sold it herself by saying “Try it, I use it on the horses.” And she did. The cream had therapeutic qualities that eased skin irritations such as chappy, scale, blushings, scratches and broken cuticles. Elizabeth Arden said that if the product was good enough for her beloved horses’ legs, it should also fit her clients.

Elisabeth Arden.
Elisabeth Arden.

Elizabeth Arden loved horses. Race horses. In 1931, she was one of USA’s most famous women. And wealthiest.
At an auction in Saratoga she bought her first Thoroughbred – the start of something that would be the beginning of an racing empire.
Arden had her own thoughts about a lot. Among other things, only her own creams and lotions could be used on her horses instead of liniment. Blinkers weren’t allowed because “It doesn’t look good.” And any jockey using a whip on her her horses could count on getting a real bashing.

From the old Coldstream Stud she built her own stud farm “Main Chance Farm.” Sucess came in thick and fast. During the ’40s and ’50s they were the leading horse owners and among the leading breeders in the country.
In 1945 her Star Pilot and the filly Beaugay won Eclipse Awards as USA’s best horses in their categories.

In 1947 Jet Pilot won Kentucky Derby.
In 1954 Fascinator won Kentucky Oaks.
She bought the super filly Busher, who would become one of the top 40 racehorses of last century.
In 1960 she was the breeder of Gun Bow, who would later get a place in racing’s Hall of Fame.
Gun Bow was the sire of Pistol Packer, who won several Group 1 races, including France’s Prix de Dianne.

At her death in 1966, Arden left her Main Chance farm to the University of Kentucky. Today it’s a breeding and nutrition research facility that breeds both Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses. One of those, Riddells Creek, was named he best 2-year-old in Canada in 1998.
Arden’s heritage lives on.
Both at the racetracks and in the perfumeries.


“Try it, I use it on the horses”


Elizabeth Arden’s “Eight Hour Cream"
Elizabeth Arden’s “Eight Hour Cream”

The 4th of may 1946. The first time Kentucky Derby was ridden after the war. In the shadow of the Derby one of the first races of the day was won by an unraced 2 year old. By nine lengths. His father was Blenheim II – winner of 1930’s Epsom Derby. Nobody gave it any certain attention because of the main attraction of the day. Not even the owner of the horse – Florence Nightingale Graham.
More known as Elizabeth Arden.

But a few who saw him race said “There’s next years Derby-winner!. The trainer was Tom Smith “Silent Tom”. The man who trained Seabiscuit. The week before 1947’s derby Tom just said – “We’ll win”.

The 3rd of may the prediction is true.
Jet Pilot wins one the closest wins the race has ever seen. And Elizabeth Arden isn’t just the owner, but also the breeder, of a Kentucky Derby winner.


TRUE COLOURS – your design on your horse

Mats Genberg Photo Trevor Jones/, Jon franklin,

Formula 1 cars. Soccer teams. Corporations. Everyone’s got identifying colours today. But the tradition of colours may be the oldest in horse racing. Racing authorities require that every horse owner registers a unique colour-and-pattern combination, called silks. It’s a tradition that was started more than a hundred years ago, and that goes back all the way to the knights.


IIn horse racing, all owners design their own unique silks, which are then worn by the jockeys riding their horses. You make up a colour and pattern, submit your silks for approval with the horse racing federation and wait for approval. If the silks aren’t already being used, you are normally approved and can have the silks sewn up.

You can have one pattern on the chest, another on the arms and a third on the cap. Stars, stripes, rhombi, polka dots and other patterns in different colours. The combinations are endless.

The most desirable are the single-coloured, distinguished silks, especially in the sport’s home country, England. In the UK (where there are auctions for sought after license plates!) there are auctions for the privilege to ride in certain silks in horse racing.

There are those who are willing to go far to get silks in the colours they really want their jockeys to ride in.

Susan Magnier, of the family behind the world’s leading breeding empire, Coolmore, is one of them. In 2000 at a Sothebys auction, she paid 69 000 pounds for the right to race in all pink silks!

When the British arrange auctions of attractive horse owner silks, you will see prices up to £69,000. That doesn’t include the silks as such, just the right to compete in them.
When the British arrange auctions of attractive horse owner silks, you will see prices up to £69,000. That doesn’t include the silks as such, just the right to compete in them.

Bear in mind that this wasn’t Ms Magnier’s first silks: she already had all-dark blue silks registered. The new pink silks are used only when she has two horses in race – a couple of times per year.

Auction program
Auction program

In 2005 the British Horse Racing Authority put bronze-coloured silks up for auction at Sotheby’s. The starting bid was GBP 60 000, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s sons were willing to pay. The next year, all-grey silks were up for auction for the same amount, GBP60 000.

The auctioneer, Graham Budd, said: ”Each time single-coloured silks are on the market, the request is big. Some of the large horse owners have them, and it’s seen as prestigious to race in them.”

All this began in the early 1760’s, when it became mandatory to register your silks. In 1762 the Jockey Club in England registered 17 different silks, “to more easily be able to recognise the horses in races and even to prevent disputes to begin as a result of not be able to identify the riders.”

In 1766 the use of silks spread to “the Colonies” (now the U.S.A.), when the Philadelphia Jockey Club first registered silks.

Royal Silks

Some of the silks in the world have their own history.

In 1875 the Royal Silks were registered by Queen Victoria: purple jacket with red arms, golden strings on the chest and a black velvet cap with a golden tassel (the golden tassel Her Majesty’s idea). The silks are still seen often, as Queen Elizabeth II is a majoir horse racing enthusiast and owner.

The Queen Elizabeth II in True Colours

In 1788 the 13th Earl of Derby (called Lord Derby) chose his black silks with a white hat. These are still used by the Derby family. The silks actually are not only a black jacket with a white cap, but black with a white button and a white cap. Those details are not registered, but the button has a good story behind it: In 1924 Tommy Weston rode the Lord Derby’s (The 17th Earl of Derby) horse to victory in the English Derby. In that race he wore what appeared to be a white button on Lord Derby’s black silks: in a hurry, Weston had accidentally buttoned the jacket with his white scarf covering one of the buttons. Since that day, the button has always been part of the silks.

Military Influence

Horse racing had its western beginnings in the military: in that sense, uniforms were the de facto first silks.

In Sweden horse racing from its beginning was a sport for officers, and the riders wore their uniforms. By the late 1800s, special jockey silks began to appear and even here some where Royal. All black and a silver tassel on the cap belonged to Prince Gustaf Adolf, father to the current King Carl XVI Gustaf, during the 1920s and 30s, when he successfully rode jump races on his own horses. Prince Gustaf Adolf was actually the second-best amateur rider in 1930, with five victories in jump races!

Who has silks?

All horse owners must have a unique colour combination on their silks. And a combination of owners is considered a new owner. If, for example, Mrs Smith owns a horse, she has her own silks. If she owns a horse with her cousin Mr Jones, and the horse is registered with “Mrs Smith & Mr Jones” as owner then that “stable” must have its own silks, even if it’s only the colour on the cap that is different.

Designing silks is fun. Is a horse owned by a company that has a graphic profile? Are there any symbols or colours that have a special meaning to you? Are the colours you consider visible?

From a long distance, it can be difficult to see the difference between dark green, burgundy or marine blue. But pink and yellow might not suit everyone…

The combinations are plenty, even though there is now a European agreement that prevents too much creativity in the patterns. There’s still some variety: for coloured jackets, 25 different body details are available, plus 10 different patterns for the arms and eight different for the caps. You are also allowed to use any of 23 different colours in the creation of new silks.

John Henry

Everyhorse, for Everyman

Marion E. Altieri Kentucky horse park

Many contemporary equine heroes are the inspiration for sentimental  movies and posters on little girls’ boudoir walls. John Henry, on the other hand, was the archetype, the encouragement, for Everyman.


The story of American Thoroughbred racing legend John Henry is a metaphor for America itself: Brash. Bold. Confident to the point of being arrogant. Charging in. Greatness grown from humble beginnings. Youthful exuberance. Of all the horses who’ve passed through the American equine pantheon, John Henry is the one who most symbolized the virtue of being blue-collar in a gold-collar world—the rough-and-tumble, poorly-pedigreed horse came from obscurity to become the highest-earning Thoroughbred, with more accolades and awards than his owner’s mantle could hold. John Henry was a man’s man. He was a woman’s man. He did life on his own terms and apologized for nothing. He was irascible, nasty and opinionated. He exemplified the term, ”grit”: an aggressive child, he became tougher as he grew into an awkward, smallish donkey of a horse.

If this is your first encounter with the legendary horse, this description may seem harsh-—but it’s an honest assessment. And John Henry, who died at age 32 in 2007 at the Kentucky Horse Park, was nothing if not honest. He raced 83 times and came in the money 63 of those races. He graced winner’s circles 39 times in all. He ran hard and hated to lose.
Truly, he exemplified the notion that anyone, regardless of breeding or advantages, could make it.


The great hero spent the last 22 years of his life being adored by legions of fans at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
The great hero spent the last 22 years of his life being adored by legions of fans at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.


From Humble Beginnings …

He came into the world in 1975, sans fanfare or great expectations. His parentage was nothing special. In a sport that’s pedigree-crazy—millions paid for an untested yearling who happens to be the product of an accomplished sire or dam—John Henry was a disappointment from his inception. His sire, Ole Bob Bowers, didn’t do anything of note on the track. (Although, to be fair, it should be noted here that both Princequillo and Bull Lea were Ole Bob Bowers’ grandsires.) Once Double, John Henry’s dam, wasn’t noteworthy either as a runner or as a producer (although her sire, Double Jay, was a fabulously fast graded stakes winner).

But all-in-all, the little foal who dropped onto the ground at Golden Chance Farm that cold March day had no reason to raise hopes for his breeder or owner: at the January 1976 Keene-land Mixed Sale, he sold for $1,000—a pittance. And the little horse with no name was nothing to look at that day: small and plainly-bred, he was a mess when he stepped into the sales’ ring. He had long hair and a weak chest. Was back at the knee and had blood all over his face from hitting his head in his stall just before he was brought out. It’s a wonder that even $1,000 was paid for the undersized yearling. But John Calloway saw at least something in him, so $1,000 exchanged hands and the nameless horse was on the first leg of the journey that would take him to racing stardom.


”John Henry came into this world doomed. He left it with millions of fans for whom his awkward head had become the embodiment of beauty, itself”


What’s in a Name? Destiny

Calloway is credited with naming the horse after an American folk legend, John Henry, The ”steel-driving man.” The horse, even as a youngster, had a habit of grabbing the steel water buckets off the wall of his stalls and stomping them flat. He was gelded both for his poor breeding and for his temperament. (Obviously the gelding did nothing to affect his attitude.) Did this horse have anger issues? No doubt. Could he be trained to channel that rage into something positive, and breathtakingly beautiful? Absolutely.

(Note here that the human John Henry was black, probably a slave or prisoner. The very fact that a black American hero grew out of 19th Century American mythology – at a time when civil rights wasn’t even a glimmer of a thought – is an indication of the power of the archetype. The power of such an archetype is the defining truth of these two beings who shared a name: that, being of disadvantaged birth, one could become a legend, a folk song, an American Hero. And the other, a racing Champion of monstrous proportion, the yardstick by which other horses are measured.)


No, a Champion, as John Henry proved time and again, is born—not of great parentage, but of spark, guts, spirit and sheer will.
No, a Champion, as John Henry proved time and again, is born—not of great parentage, but of spark, guts, spirit and sheer will.

Conformation of the Soul

His physical conformation never changed, of course: it was his attitude, his heart-—those untouchable attributes that define the difference between a horse who ends up pulling an Amish buggy and one of the greatest Thoroughbred Champions of all time. Lovers of all horse breeds know about heart: it can’t be touched with the hands, but we know it when we see it. John Henry came into this world doomed. He left it with millions of fans for whom his awkward head had become the embodiment of beauty, itself. It was that heart that gave him the drive to run faster, farther than hundreds of competitors. It was something from so far down in the horse’s self that probably even he didn’t understand it, he just went with it.

Eighty-three times John Henry entered a race, and 39 of those times, he chewed up his opponents and spit them out. Eighty-three entries is remarkable, by today’s American racing standards: many American horses who’ve received Eclipse Awards raced no more than five times last year. Most three-year-olds who did reasonably well in 2011 are now retired to stud or broodmare duty. John Henry, being a gelding, had no such lush retirement on the horizon: he raced through his ninth year, and resoundingly won six of his nine entries that year. Proving that Thoroughbreds really do get better with age—at least, that Thoroughbred – he would not be the poster boy for early retirement of a horse.

A Racing Record Par Excellence

From that first sale at Keeneland until Sam Rubin found him, John Henry bounced around from owner to owner until he was three. But then Sam Rubin bought him for $25,000, sight-unseen, in 1978, and the tide began to turn. The three-year-old had achieved a bit on the track at that point, but no records had been broken, no predictions of greatness made. His so-so race record was no doubt attributable to his unstable lifestyle.

Sam Rubin knew nothing about horses—he thought that ”gelding” was a color. Rubin needed guidance and insight from someone who knew horses, including colors. At first the horse was under the tutelage of trainer Robert Donato, who saw the horse’s grass potential. (He was small, but he had big feet.) Donato took the horse successfully to six straight victories that year, for a total of $120,000—and from cheap claimer to stakes winner. This was a tremendous leap for the awkward little horse who had been dismissed at birth.

The next year the owner and trainer had a disagreement on policy and parted company, and John Henry was given to a new trainer, Lefty Nickerson. With Nickerson, he won four of eleven races in 1979, but when the grass season in New York was over, Rubin suggested sending his horse to California. Nickerson believed that his friend, Ron McAnally, should be entrusted with the horse with rising potential. By now John Henry was four, and had earned $239,613. This new arrangement was a match made in Heaven – or at least in the Racing Hall of Fame. The team of McAnally and John Henry won 27 of 45 races, and earned $6,358,334 by the time the 83rd race was run and won. Apparently John Henry trusted McAnally as much as he could trust a human. And the trainer knew how to work with such a horse, to take that powerful rage and properly shapeshift it into the relief of running fast, far and leaving the competition in the dust.

What did John Henry accomplish?

At the age of five – five is the age at which Thoroughbreds are fully grown – John Henry discovered himself. It was as if he’d found his footing, and his role in Life. The lightbulb went off, and he Got It. That year his star shot up into the sky, as he won the Hialeah Turf Cup, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey and the Oak Tree Invitational. In 1980, John Henry won $925,217 and was given the Eclipse Award for named champion male turf horse.

The horse was on a roll: at age seven, John Henry won the first of his two consecutive Santa Anita Handicaps; the San Luis Rey; the inaugural Arlington Million and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He racked up many honors, including Eclipse Awards for champion male turf horse, champion older horse, and Horse of the Year. His earnings for 1981 totaled $1,798,030.

But at age six, John Henry was far from done—he had races to win, and money to take from his rivals. His eighth and ninth years did not see him slowing down—if anything, he got better with age. This flies in the face, completely, of the American ”wisdom” that dictates that a good horse’s best days are during that third year. As an 8-year-old, he won the American Handicap and the Hollywood Turf Cup. He was also named champion male turf horse. As if to put an exclamation point on his bold statement of superiority, John Henry won—earned–$2,336,650 when he was nine years old. That is absolutely unheard-of in American Thoroughbred racing. In fact, many three-year-olds retire with a bankroll that size after two successful years–and use the figure as bragging rights in the stallion advertising pages. In that ninth, final season of racing, John Henry won the Golden Gate Handicap, Hollywood Invitational, Sunset Handicap, Budweiser Arlington Million, Turf Classic and Ballantine’s Scotch Classic. That year he trounced the competition in these six extraordinary races, and was once again named Eclipse Champion Male Turf Horse and Horse of the Year.


Retirement and the Final Race: Elysian Fields

So how did retirement set with John Henry, whose only documentable moments of joy were known running with the wind in his mane and his back-end facing his opponents? Rather well, as it turns out. The great hero spent the last 22 years of his life being adored by legions of fans at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. From his stall in the Hall of Champions, John could nip those foolish enough to stick their hands through the stall bars and neigh jealously when Cigar or another warrior was being admired. He was as close to his public as he’d ever been—at last, the throngs who’d worshipped him at the track could get (almost) up-close and personal with the one horse in racing who genuinely represented The Average Guy.

With his own (large) paddock outside his backdoor, John Henry could run around, enjoying the luscious Kentucky sunshine, tearing the famous Blue Grass out of the ground and impressing visitors with his prowess. His ability to show off the moves that brought him fame and fortune diminished nary a bit through the years, until the summer of 2007, when kidney problems set in following a vicious heat wave that sapped him of his energy and ability to process fluids correctly. This writer met him in person just four days before he was euthanized in early October that year—and even four days before his end, he was standing; interacting intelligently and genuinely; and eating and drinking with the voracity of a pirate on shore leave. If he was in pain, he didn’t let on—he was true-to-form right to the end.

John Henry was euthanized at 7:05PM on October 8th, 2007, surrounded by many who loved him. Jockey Chris McCarron, who’d ridden the warrior horse in many remarkable stakes races, had the opportunity to spend several hours with him before the veterinarian arrived. He was buried on the night of his death, in front of the Hall of Champions and right in front of his paddock. Above him there is a stone inscribed with these words,
”If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to Heaven, and bring you home again.”

(John Henry may have thought that tribute to be a bit too sentimental for his cavalier taste, but it befits the ache in the hearts of those humans who knew and love him. We fans of John Henry love him because-of and in-spite-of his infamously incorrigible personality.)

There is also a statue of him standing proudly—how else could he be depicted?—holding court, staring at the throngs that flocked to see him wherever he appeared. Engraved under the bronze are the words used to describe his classic brilliance in his 1984 Arlington Million win: ”John Henry, A Living Legend.”

John Henry statue by Nina Kaiser
John Henry’s life siza statue statue at Santa Anita Park by Nina Kaiser. Stand 15.2 hands and weights 1,000 lbs!

John Henry was living, breathing, kicking proof that pedigree doesn’t tell the whole story. Contemporary horse purveyors and buyers would do well to look only as far back as 1975 – 1984 to realize that a horse is as good as he thinks he is. No amount of math, science, ritual or genetic calculations can accurately predict if the mating of This Mare with This Sire will produce That Champion. We have ample examples of horses who brought millions of dollars, only to trip over their own feet the first time they walk out of the stall, and languish with a lifetime of bucked shins.

Anyone can buy pedigree, but no one can buy a Champion if the horse doesn’t have the soul of a predator.

No, a Champion, as John Henry proved time and again, is born—not of great parentage, but of spark, guts, spirit and sheer will. There was no reason, by conventional breeding ”wisdom,” why John Henry should have done anything other than cross the road with some level of intelligence. Truly he represents America more than perhaps many Americans would wish to admit. Many in the US have risen from a birth of ashes to prominence and uncountable wealth—but they work hard to hide the story of their humble start. If anything, John Henry would have them proudly display their blue-collar heritage, because it is that gritty beginning, that hard-knocking, ugly-duckling determination—that is the stuff of a true Champion.


Anyone can buy pedigree, but no one can buy (with any degree of accuracy) a Champion if the horse doesn’t have the soul of a predator. Indeed John Henry was a predator, a hero, an example for Everyman. He was born a serf, and died the Emperor in the Sport of Kings.