Sitting in the peaceful spaciousness of Saratoga's elm-dotted paddock the other day a veteran trainer looked about him at the horses being saddled for the day's last race. "Some of them don't look like much, do they?" he said quietly. Then, as though he had unintentionally offended a friend, he added, "And yet there must have been a day in the life of every owner here when he said to himself, 'I think I've got a real good one this time.' "
That trainer had—knowingly or not—put his finger on the deepest roots of Thoroughbred racing: the endless search for a way to come up with a better horse. In a day when the perfection of some sciences is so complete that it would terrify the citizens of the last century, the science of Thoroughbred breeding remains so mysteriously inexact that today it poses more of a challenge than ever before to the world's roster of horsemen—a rapidly expanding group which is mounted somewhere near the economic top of the participant scale. As one breeder put it: "The dumbest guy in the world can guess right and the smartest guy in the world can guess wrong. If there was a set theory for breeding the best horses there wouldn't be any more fun in racing."
Ideally the best theory is "breed the best to the best—and hope for the best," but because all breeding is by necessity a compromise, the answer lies purely in genetics—a science in itself which is far from mastered. Great horses rarely reproduce themselves; conversely many of the great racers in history descended from parents who, although they may have earned great reputations at stud, were often only mediocre at best during their racing careers.
During the many 1956 yearling sales, regardless of whether they are at Keeneland (which concluded its summer sales a few weeks ago), Saratoga, Del Mar, Garden State or scattered points in between, thousands of prospective buyers will be seeking to acquire a youngster who some day may become as famous as the former racing champions whose pictures appear on the following six-page foldout. The selection of these 12 particular horses deserves some explanation. For one thing, all of them, ranging from 25-year-old Discovery to 6-year-old Native Dancer, are pictured as they recently appeared—walking, galloping and even posing proudly—in their present habitat. The 12, in their day, were champions all; not as well known by the general public (until television made Native Dancer a household word in 1953) as champions of today, but nonetheless considered by turfmen of their time as outstanding, if not great, race horses. They had different sizes, shapes and colors, different pedigrees and, most important of all, widely varying success upon retirement to stud—all the way from Discovery and Count Fleet (who has already sired two horses of the year) to Citation, Tom Fool and Native Dancer, whose value as sires it is too early to determine, and finally on down to Assault, who is now sterile.
The yearling sales shopper of today, although well aware of the correlation between looks and class, can be guided by any number of factors ranging from first impressions (which are often as valuable in judging animals as humans) to following a fad of buying the progeny of a particular sire whose get are momentarily enjoying great success. In the last analysis, however, no matter how well a horse is bred—or thought to be bred—conformation is really what counts. And most good horses, like all 12 in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S championship gallery, have good conformation. Where the difference of opinion among buyers usually lies is in the evaluation of pedigree and a willingness to overlook some weaknesses or deficiencies in over-all conformation. For example, had Calumet Farm offered Citation for sale as a yearling, his slightly peculiar stance and the manner in which he toed-out might have disinterested the stickler for perfect conformation. And yet Citation, not the picture horse that Eight Thirty was, substituted substance and strength for beauty. Power and ruggedness were his trademark. Citation, now 11 years old and the first million-dollar winner in history, has already sent his first crop of 3-year-olds to the races. Of this bunch the Preakness winner Fabius is the most distinguished, although by no stretch of the imagination could one say that Fabius has measured up to his sire's potential.
The task of evaluating the sire's worth must, of course, take time. Long ago John Madden ventured the opinion that the only way to judge a stallion is five years after he's dead. Another method is to employ the 12-year plan: 12 years after a horse has been among the top money winners, his reputation as a sire is established—either as good, mediocre or a failure. By this system Citation should not be judged for at least another half dozen years. A ready example of the 12-year plan at work is the 1943 triple crown winner Count Fleet, now 16 years old. For the last five years Count Fleet has been one of the top American sires (topping the entire list in 1951), having produced, among others, One Count, Counterpoint and the current California 3-year-old champion, Count of Honor.
Appearances often are deceptive. As a nondescript-looking bay was led into the Saratoga sales ring one summer night in 1940, most of the buyers in attendance glanced at their catalogs just long enough to note that his sire was Good Goods and his dam Winds Chant—neither of them distinguished runners—and then, with bored yawns, they flipped their pages to see what was coming in next. The bidding was soon over and within a few minutes a Chicago lawyer by the name of Albert Sabath had acquired a race horse for a total outlay of just $700. That colt, unoriginally named Alsab, won $350,000 for Mr. Sabath—an accomplishment which forever will mark him as the greatest of all yearling sales bargains (save, perhaps, Man o' War, which sold for $5,000 and earned $249,465).
The fact that a colt like Alsab went in and out of the ring unnoticed by the big buyers has, over the years, lent challenging encouragement to thousands of new Albert Sabaths, all looking for a new superbargain. The problem of judging how good a horse will be merely by looking at him is probably about as difficult an assignment as you could ask for. Faced with this chore for most of his 60-odd years as a trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons once remarked: "Think how easy it would be if we could look inside to see what sort of machinery was there. If the engine had all the proper equipment in good working order, we'd keep it. If not, we wouldn't have to waste time with it."
Despite the Alsabs, perfect conformation remains the ideal: an animal that gives one the impression of perfect symmetry and balance. Discovery serves as a top example of a horse who had ideal conformation as well as other prerequisites for greatness: a wonderful disposition, tremendous constitution, speed, heart, soundness and a racing brain. The same could apply to Assault who, although cursed by a lame foot from an early age, brought into play such a show of courage that his trainer, Max Hirsch, in recalling Assault's career recently, said, "He had the greatest heart in any horse I ever saw. Like a man with arthritis, his foot hurt him all the time, and yet he never once turned his tail to anything you asked him to do."
Tom Fool, Greentree Stables' 7-year-old bay, is another example of perfect conformation and beautiful balance. Voted the 2-year-old champion of 1951, Tom Fool was forced by illness to miss the following year's triple crown events, but his feat of winning all 10 of his starts as a 4-year-old has stamped him among breeders and horsemen as one of the greatest racers ever produced in America. This despite the fact that public acclaim (which bases far too much of its judgment on the results of a handful of overpublicized races) unfortunately will probably never accept him in the class with an animal like War Admiral, now a 22-year-old shadow of his former championship self showing the inevitable effects of old age.