New book revives the magic of a racing hero from the 1920s - here's an exclusive excerpt!
Before Seabiscuit and American Pharoah there was Exterminator, a Thoroughbred who won more stakes races than Man o’ War and Secretariat combined, and whose success would change the world of racing.
In a new book Here Comes Exterminator!: The Longshot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero, the New York Times and Washington Post contributor Eliza McGraw tells the story of how this gangling, longshot entry in the 1918 Kentucky Derby became the Derby winner and one of the most beloved racehorses of his time.
But the Derby wasn’t all. Exterminator raced through his 9-year-old season, was a multiple champion, won 49 of 99 career starts (plus a timed exhibition) for owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer and primary trainer Henry McDaniel, appeared in Vanity Fair magazine and even captured the attention of author Ernest Hemingway. The horse nicknamed “Old Bones” made numerous starts in the Mid-Atlantic, winning at Maryland’s Laurel, Pimlico and Havre de Grace tracks.
This excerpt, Iron Horse, is chapter eight in the book and chronicles a trip from Kilmer’s base in Binghamton, N.Y., to Havre de Grace in 1922.
In the frigid, dim New York January of 1922, some turf writers took advantage of the lull in the eastern racing schedule and traveled up to Sun Briar Court. Along the straight outdoor track, lined by winterbare trees, the Susquehanna River sparkled and glittered. One reporter wandered into the warm stables and was surprised when he peered over a stall door and found a mild-mannered, large-eared animal loa?ng. “Exterminator, seen in his box, is not as attractive as when the bugle arouses his ?ghting spirit,” he wrote. The skinny horse he regarded bore little resemblance to the champion in his imagination, the great race-boldened Exterminator who bucked the conventional wisdom that a seven-year-old racehorse’s career should be on the wane.
Exterminator proved an unending surprise. And in that cold January, no one knew that 1922, which the poet Ezra Pound titled Year One of a New Era, would be an astonishing time for the country in general. In Constellation of Genius: 1922, his book about the birth of modernism, Kevin Jackson writes that “on all sides, and in every ?eld, there was a frenzy of innovation.” The ?rst AM radio station was founded, and Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago. Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics. James Joyce published Ulysses, and Alfred Hitchcock directed his ?rst feature ?lm. In Exterminator’s own way, he took his place in all this novelty. He was now the ?rst American racehorse to complete a “double triple,” which meant he had won two important races?–?the Saratoga Cup and the Pimlico Cup?–?an unheard-of three times each. He was considered the greatest distance runner in the country and was poised for greatness or cataclysm as he faced his ?fth season on the track. Exterminator had forged his own brand of innovation, ?ummoxing handicappers, racegoers, and turf writers by improving with age. Even though he had much in common with the star geldings of the past, he had far outpaced those old heroes. Now, he stood alone. To borrow the classical diction of the day, when turf writers blamed “old Jupiter Pluvius” for a wet track, Exterminator had become something of a Janus ?gure. He looked backward, to the surprise Derby win that propelled him to fame, but astoundingly for a seven-year-old, he was still looking toward the future.
The question now was whether Exterminator would remain a specialty celebrity?–?best gelding, best distance horse?–?or could he be more? What about greatest racehorse?
He had proved he was anything but typical. “A horse as sound and kind as he is is capable of almost anything,” wrote O’Neil Sevier. And in 1922, sports barriers were falling along with other cultural mores. Riding racers had been men only, but now a “real she-?apper,” a bobbed-haired dancer who claimed riding would improve her ?gure, exercised horses at Belmont. Stories about Exterminator shared sports pages with the record breakers Babe Ruth, whose 1921 season ended in his hitting the most home runs in history, and Jack Dempsey, whose Fight of the Century with Georges Carpentier yielded the ?rst million-dollar boxing gate ever tallied. Was Exterminator the equine Dempsey or Ruth?
Kilmer had his own plan to ?nd out, spelled out in dollars rather than fame or record books. He wanted Exterminator’s winnings, which were $173,000, to pass the $200,000 mark, and he had another new trainer in place to do it. Willie Knapp had quit.
No one had to ask anymore why a particular trainer left Kilmer. His rages and unreasoning tirades were so familiar that you had to wonder why anyone would work for him. The answer, of course, was stabled in his immaculately kept barn. Gene Wayland, who succeeded Knapp, was a decent trainer in his ?fties, and Exterminator was the most famous horse he had ever saddled. He was humble and delighted with his charge, his earnest cheer a good foil for Kilmer’s irascibility. He couldn’t say enough good things about his new situation. “Exterminator is a wonderful horse,” he said, “and I scarcely know how to bestow enough praise on the old fellow. He is as frolicsome and as jaunty as any youngster.” Wayland particularly appreciated Exterminator’s unique calm; he reminded the trainer of a child’s pony, the kind who hunted for sugar in your pockets. (McDaniel had carried treats in his coat, and Exterminator nosed newcomers with hope.) Wayland was entirely “in love” with Exterminator “as all his trainers have been,” reported the Daily Racing Form. Form reporters rarely skipped an opportunity to remind their readers just how many trainers Kilmer cycled through.
Another pointed out that “Exterminator is the kind of stout, sound, kind and always willing thoroughbred that would be formidable in a training tyro’s hands.” The idea that even a rookie could train Exterminator may have diminished Wayland, who had trained a leading ?lly named Careful, but the trainer was so humble that he probably would have agreed. He felt lucky to train a horse he adored.
On March 15, Exterminator led a midnight procession of seventeen Kilmer horses to board a train bound for Maryland’s Havre de Grace racetrack. Guests at Binghamton’s Alfred Hotel and hundreds of locals lined the streets to watch. If Exterminator’s renown was growing in the racing world, Binghamtonians already knew him as their hero, and Kilmer, with an impresario’s sense of production, made even the night his racehorses loaded on a train worth staying up for.
Eddie Campbell, Exterminator’s exercise rider, led the parade through town to the Lackawanna freight station astride a white pony. The other horses trailed behind, their legs swathed in shipping bandages, metalshod feet sounding a tattoo on the pavement. Campbell shuttled the horses up the plank to the platform and into their accommodations?–?rolled hay and a freshly bedded stall.
Fourteen Kilmer employees would make the trip, including a private farrier. “Binghamton is just right. I like it,” jockey Albert Johnson graciously told the gathering, as he fussed over Exterminator. Finally, the white pony was loaded. A kitten, stashed aboard to keep Exterminator company on the long ride, meowed from inside his stall. Exterminator eyed the carrots waiting for him, and the train chugged south.
The attention only ramped up when Exterminator arrived at Havre de Grace, Maryland, a sleepy town about forty miles from Baltimore, on the banks of the Susquehanna. Maryland’s Pimlico and Laurel tracks primarily drew fans from D.C. and Baltimore, but “the Graw,” as northerners called the track, often brought spectators from Philadelphia, too. An iron grandstand seating six thousand overlooked the homestretch.
One of the best sights at Havre de Grace was Dr. and Mrs. Tubbs exercising their horses. Dr. Tubbs was a local veterinarian, and his wife was the stable’s “exercise boy.” She rode sidesaddle, in a full riding habit. She “would be the jockey if women were given all the privileges they seek,” reported the Morning Telegraph, especially since she had no trouble controlling her “bad acting mare that runs away any time they put a boy on his back.”
The track at Havre de Grace provided a perfect gathering place for bootleggers, middlemen, and customers. One supplier had contraband delivered by air. Prohibition agents, learning that a plane regularly hovered over the track, believed that the “ether ship” had something to do with reports of a man entertaining what seemed like far too many friends in his two-story house near the track. Inside, they found “one hundred pint-bottles of gin, two cases of Jack Cranton’s cocktails, ?ve quart-bottles of Benedictine cordial, one 10-gallon keg of whiskey and 200 quarts of whiskey bottled in bond.”
Other agents, intrigued by the long lines at the lunch stand next door, found twelve and half jars of corn whiskey in a nearby ?eld.
One day, the same bootlegger was moving pints when police arrived, but they caught only him, because someone had already told the Havre de Grace racing crowd that “dry” of?cers were heading that way. “An incident on the way up, according to John M. Barton, agent, added color to the tipping-off suspicion,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “Their machine was passed near Aberdeen by another containing three men. A little farther on the agents’ car was stopped by State police, who told them they were under arrest for speeding. The three men who had passed, the police said, had informed on them.”
There was a Prohibition joke about Exterminator: They said the anti-saloon leaguers bet against him, because he was always “in his cups.”
Some visitors to Havre de Grace, however, were actually there to watch racing, not buy whiskey. They streamed in to catch a glimpse of Exterminator, lining up to look in his stall as Wayland stood proudly by. They saw more horse than last year. Exterminator had put on about a hundred pounds over the winter, going from a “lean and hungry-looking Cassius” to a more hefty ?gure.
Johnson, meanwhile, was trying to sweat off his own excess weight before the spring campaign. He likely joined other jockeys swaddling in wool before running, spending hours in saunas, and subsisting on lettuce and water. Exterminator was readier. The off-season spent in steady endurance training had left him ?t, with legs “like hickory saplings and thews [muscles] as tough and supple as tire rubber.”
Kilmer made an offbeat decision to enter Exterminator in the Harford Stakes, the ?rst stakes race of the season at Havre de Grace. Typically, the race was suited for sprinters, not distance runners like Exterminator.
Henry McDaniel now trained Ross’s three-time winner Billy Kelly, and when he saw that Exterminator was entered, too, McDaniel confessed that he still liked Exterminator as much as he did the day he bought him. He said he worried his old Chang?–?he still used the stable name he had given Exterminator?–?could beat Billy Kelly in the Harford.
On April 15, the pocked track showed remnants of mud from recent rains, but skies stayed blue, and ?ocks of people turned out, clambering off special opening-day trains from Washington and Baltimore. Ross arrived in a private Pullman car laden with his Montreal friends, planning to see Billy Kelly seize his fourth Harford. Even during Prohibition, the Pullmans offered luxury: white-jacketed porters, baize seats, lamb chops. Instead of alcoholic cocktails, passengers could order from an extensive dessert menu. The “Pullman Special Sundae” included preserved ?gs, maraschino cherries, chopped nuts, and sweet wafers, and sold for 40¢. Of course, passengers could always add any of their own contraband beverages to orangeade (30¢), Perrier water (30¢), or imported ginger ale (45¢).
The ?fteen-thousand-person crowd proved a little too big for the Graw; it was hard to move around and the betting ring was shoulder to shoulder. Bettors managed to stay jovial, but not without plenty of shoving. Kilmer was there. Wayland boosted Johnson into the saddle and said to let Exterminator run his own race. For his part, Johnson thought that in a sprint like this, if Exterminator ?nished even close to the winner, it would be a “good workout for the horse.”
Most everyone liked Billy Kelly for this short six-furlong race, even with Exterminator in the running; the Harford belonged to the little speed horse. Also, like Exterminator, Billy Kelly was a personable gelding, ewe-necked and undersized, and people appreciated his quirks. Fans cheered for both horses as they paraded to the post for the race, pausing only for no-name Dextrous, wedged in between. The race started clumsily, with the horses, staggered, almost taking off in single ?le, raggedly running after each other. Johnson conserved Exterminator’s speed, while Billy Kelly pulled ahead of the rest, which brought the crowd to its feet to see what looked like Billy Kelly making history with his fourth win. Then, so deliberately that it looked like the horses were slowing down, Exterminator’s nose appeared in front of Billy Kelly’s. Next came his head, and then his shoulders. By the time the two horses were before the judges’ stand, Exterminator had won.
Exterminator’s effort so dominated the ?eld?–?and his size so dwarfed Billy Kelly’s?–that reporters likened him to various natural phenomena. He was “a chestnut avalanche” to the New York Times’s reporter, and a “mountain” to Omar Khayyam in the Baltimore Sun. Johnson explained how the race had felt from the saddle. “Passing the eighth pole, I looked up. I quickly saw that Billy Kelly had the opposition anchored, but in less time than I can tell it I also noted that ‘Bones’ was closing ground on Kelly with every jump, and at a rate that would soon bring him up to even terms with the Ross gelding. No, I didn’t set down to ride. It wasn’t necessary. I had an electric dynamo under me that was fairly burning up a wet track. Had I hit ‘Bones’ again we would never have made the clubhouse turn. A sixteenth out we passed Kelly so fast I could smell the hair singeing on his side. Billy Kelly, nor any other horse, could have withstood that charge of Exterminator. Going by the paddock gate I barely recognized Weland [sic] standing alongside the fence. His features were spread with a grin, but to me it appeared as though he was chuckling into his own ear. I reached over, took a good, strong hold, deciding to take ‘Old Bones’ up. The old fellow turned his head ever so slightly, but I could see the white in his eye. Any one?–?owner, trainer, rider or horse?–?who has ever looked ‘Bones’ in the eye when he had his dander up, knows just what to expect. I called upon him with both voice and strength. It was so much wasted effort. As we swung around the clubhouse turn I again caught his eye, and if ever a horse grinned he did right then, as much as to say, ‘Well, young fellow, you’ve had your fun. Guess I’ll have mine.’ When I ?nally slowed him down to a canter we had circled the track and were well into the main stretch for the second time. That is one jockey fee I earned. I couldn’t balance a spoon of soup for ten days.”
Exterminator all but winking, Wayland grinning, Johnson shaking with excitement and sheer exhaustion, and a brilliant victory. The performance was the exact kind of stretch run Exterminator had grown famous for, and every patron, even those who had wanted Billy Kelly to win, thrilled to see him do it. For years, Exterminator had been taught to hang on to his speed until late in the race, but now he had won a sprint against horses trained to unleash their power right away. The “ ‘lion of the turf,’ surprised the spectators at Havre de Grace when he was returned winner,” reported the Daily Racing Form. “Few believed the champion American Cup horse and long-distance racer would show to advantage at such a short distance as that of the Harford.” But he had.
“His quality, long accepted,” wrote the New York World’s George Daley, “is now raised to the nth power.”
From Here Comes Exterminator! by Eliza McGraw. Copyright (c) 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.