Horse Racing on the Radio ~ How Retro!

I just finished watching the live stream of The Whitney from Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York. I love that technology can connect you in real time with your passions no matter where you are.

Early this year I was driving home in the afternoon from a Pennsylvania dog show on Kentucky Derby Day. Most years I’m able to get back to Connecticut in time to tune in to the Derby, dubbed “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch the ultimate Thoroughbred race on TV for the first time in many years, because our showing time at the dog show was late in the afternoon. As post time approached I was heading up Interstate 287 in New Jersey towards the Tappan Zee Bridge when I thought, “Hey, I can listen to the race on the radio, how retro!”


Fortunately, NBCSports radio came up easily on my car’s display screen. I heard the TV broadcasters analyzing the race until the official race announcer took over for the call. Since I couldn’t see the sleek dark coats of the Thoroughbreds or the brilliant colors of the jockey’s silks as they made there way to the starting gate, I began to listen, really listen. I could hear when the horses got to the gate, each one slamming shut, and when they were all loaded up, the crown roared just before the bell. “And they’re off in the Kentucky Derby,” proclaimed track announcer Larry Collmus.

My mind mesmerized for two minutes listening to the names of the horses trade places “in the early going” and “on the backstretch” as they approached “the crucial first turn” in the “run for the roses.”  Then the excitement began “at the far turn” it was Looking for Lee “digging down deep” but Always Dreaming “was holding on” and then down the final stretch “the dream comes true as Always Dreaming wins the 143rd Kentucky Derby.”

First Radio Broadcast

After the race I was curious as to when the first race was broadcast on radio and who called it. Churchill Downs didn’t hire its first track announcer until 1940, so on that first live broadcast back on May 16, 1925, most likely, the race was called by a radio broadcaster sitting in the grandstand. According to The New York Times: For the first time in history the Kentucky Derby will go “on the air,” three radio stations having announced their intention to broadcast the famous classic tomorrow afternoon, beginning shortly before post time, 4:45 o’clock, Central Standard Time. WGN, The Chicago Tribune station, will broadcast the race on a 370.2-meter wave length. WHAS, the Louisville Times and Courier Journal station, will broadcast on a wave length of 399.8 meters. WHT, Chicago, will pick up the signal from WHAS and rebroadcast them on a 238-meter wave length.”

But how the race unfolded on air during the 51st running of the Kentucky Derby in 1925, we’ll never know for sure. For one thing, the Preakness came first followed by the Derby in mid May.  According to the New York Times coverage of that race, it was listed as the second biggest piece of “Turf” news in the Week in Sports on May 18, 1925. The headline news was that the late Major August Belmont’s famous Nursery Stud of Thoroughbred racing broodmares and sires had recently been sold as a whole to Mr. Widener. That was big news back in 1925, more so than a single race.

From the Times: The Kentucky Derby, unique among American turf fixtures, was more brilliant, more colorful than ever before in the more than half century of its history. But at the end the brilliance was dimmed, the rain putting a damper on the enthusiasm which always characterized Derby Day. A field horse as an easy winner, with the favorite nowhere  – such was the result of the race. It was a triumph for the veteran trainer, William Duke, recently returned from a long sojourn abroad, and one that is begrudged to him by no horseman. That he should saddle the winners of the Preakness and Derby in less than a fortnight is most remarkable under the circumstances. Flying Ebony had never raced more than six furlongs, nor trained more than a mile. Duke was merely hopeful that Sande would be able to hold him together and stick it out. Flying Ebony was stopping at the end, as the last quarter in 0:28 shows. The 1925 Derby winner merely outlasted a lot of poorer horses. 

Radio listeners in 1925 already knew that the favorite, Coventry, who won the Preakness, earning $52,700, trained by William Duke, was not running in the Derby. I imagined they heard the same markers around the track, first turn, backstretch, and far turn in the call. But I wonder if all the horses got a mention on air or if the winning trainer got as much media attention back then. I suspect the owners were more in the limelight than the trainers or jockeys. But in 1925, it would be the last racing season for William Duke, the trainer for Cochran Stables, who not only won the Derby and Preakness, but the Travers Stakes at Saratoga with a horse named Dangerous. Just six months later on January 26, 1926, he died of pneumonia at his upstate New York estate. The inaugural Kentucky Derby radio broadcast was the first and last to have any announcer call a winner trained by William Duke.

What that first live radio broadcaster did was begin something eloquently echoed in a May 1, 2014 New Yorker article “The Voice of the Kentucky Derby” written by David Hill. The piece was about Larry Collmus, the current Churchill Downs track announcer, who said, “We’re not the story. The story is out there. The horses, the riders. We’re just the narrators.

Man o’ War’s 100th Birthday – Let’s Celebrate!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Man o’ War. Foaled March 29, 1917, this large chestnut horse was dubbed the Horse of the Century, that’s the 20th Century, with his incredible 20 wins out of 21 starts. Man o’ War was bred by August Belmont, Jr. and sold at auction as a yearling for $5,000 to Samuel D. Riddle. His name originally was My Man o’ War, named by Belmont’s wife since her husband had gone off to serve in World War I. The auctioneer dropped the “My” and his name became Man o’War.


His two-year-old race year in 1919  started out with 6 consecutive wins. Here’s an example of the grueling pace race horses of the early 20th century faced. He started his career at Belmont Park with wins on June 6th, 9th, then another win on June 21st at Jamaica Racetrack followed by two wins at Aqueduct on June 23rd and July 5th. He had a short break before heading up to the Saratoga Race Course, then the premier racetrack in the nation, for four races on August 2nd, 13th, 20th and 23rd.


Man O’ War’s only defeat  

It was during his Saratoga appearance that he met his only defeat by a horse named “Upset” during the Sanford Memorial on August 13th. In 1919, there were no starting gates. Horses lined up at a wide ribbon, they would turn around once to line up and then the ribbon would rise up. At this race, Man o’ War’s first jockey Johnny Loftus was late in turning the 16.2 hand horse around in time for the start. He was not off to a good start, back by four lengths. It was a short race, just 6 furlongs, and by the time Man o’ War caught up, he managed to pass every horse but one. He came in second only by a neck’s length. Had the race been another furlong, he would have won.

The 1920 race season was the start of his undefeated 3-year-old career. By now carrying 138 pounds, more than any other horse he competed against, and a new jockey Clarence Kummer, his first race was the Preakness Stakes. His owner did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby because he thought a mile and a quarter was too long a race to start off the season.  Back then the term “Triple Crown”  had not been formally coined or commercialized.  Big Red’s next win came at Belmont Park on May 29th in the one mile Withers Stakes. It’s amazing that Riddle entered him in a race between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But then again the Belmont Stakes was only a mile and 3/8th, not the marathon mile and half of today.

But it didn’t matter, Man o’ War went on to win the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths. A record not broken for 53 years until Secretariat came along in 1973 with a 31-length victory. Big Red had 11 races in 1920, including big stakes races such as the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Gold Cup. He also broke the record for the longest win in a race of 100 lengths in the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park just a week before the Jockey Gold Cup. By the end of the season nobody wanted to race against him, and his record-breaking 28-foot stride, so a match race was set up with the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in Canada on Oct. 12th. It wasn’t much of a race as Man o’ War led from the start, won by 17 lengths, and took 6 seconds off the track record. And that’s with iron horseshoes! It was the first time a horse race was filmed in its entirety.

Racing Retirement

As with all great racehorses, Man o’ War went off to stud in Kentucky. But his retirement was different. He had become a national sports hero. All his races were broadcast on the growing medium of radio.  Everyone in America knew about this horse. He was so famous people traveled to see him. He had an African-American groom Will Harbut who cared for the horse and coined the term, “De mostest hoss that ever was.” He sired 64 Stakes winners, including War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. By 1926 he was named the top sire. In 22 seasons at stud he produced 379 live foals. Even American Pharoah has Man o’ War in his pedigree 17 times.


Man o’ War and his longtime groom Will Harbut

When Man o’ War passed away on November 1, 1947 at the age of 30, the country mourned. When he died, Faraway Farm called the Associated Press to announce, “Our big horse just died.” He died of a heart attack, but his longtime groom Harbut had suddenly passed away one month earlier, and many said that Man o’ War died of a broken heart. He was embalmed and lay in state for two days so all his fans could come and visit him one last time as he lay in a custom made coffin lined with black and yellow silk, Riddle’s racing colors. His funeral was broadcast on the radio.

He was laid to rest near a life-size bronze statue of him on Faraway Farm. Over the years, fans flocked to pay their respects. In the 1970’s the grave and statue were moved to the newly opened Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington where fans still come to visit. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest horse ever, the park has restored the bronze statue and planned yearlong events around history’s most famous racehorse.


A print of this painting by Robert Amick of Man o’ War hung in my childhood bedroom and fostered my love of Thoroughbred horses

Horses Parading Around ~ Including American Pharoah  

Horses and parades go together like peanut butter and jelly! This partnership began millennia ago when horses were paraded around to celebrate battle victories. More recently, the Horse Guard Parade, those beautiful black horses of the British monarchy stabled at the Royal Mews in London, codified the daily practice of ceremonial parades in 1745. There is even a type of horse in America called the Parade Horse. This breed is used in a sport the celebrates the Southwestern tradition where stylishly dressed ranch owners would ride into town on their high-stepping horses in saddles dripping with silver.

Today, I rode in my first parade, a mounted costume parade through the streets of downtown Danbury. Hosted by Happy Trails Farm, nearly 20 horses — and one donkey — ridden by a costumed clown, giraffe, queen of hearts, cowboy, ghost, Game of Throne’s winter, and even a pair of horseflies, paid homage to Halloween and horses. Dressed as Downtown Abbey’s Lady Mary out for a hunt my trusty steed Oz and I proudly marched across busy city intersections and bustling suburban woodlands with ease. He was such a good boy! And it was his first parade too.

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

But, the best part of the day was watching the spectators stare in awe at the horses. People came out of their apartments to wave. Others stopped their SUVs to watch the horses stroll down the cityscape. Dogs hung their heads out of car windows to get a glimpse, or bark a greeting. Many residents came to the curb to take photos of horses in their ‘hood. One man shouted, “You made my day!”

American Pharoah’s Post Parade

His remark reminded me how rare it is today to see a horse on any given day. On Halloween this year most people who saw horses, saw them in a different kind of parade, the iconic ‘post parade’ of Thoroughbred racing.The ‘post’ is the starting point of the race. It’s name comes from the early days of racing when only a post at the rail marked the beginning of the race. It’s why today, horses have ‘post’ positions, not starting gate positions. Before each race, the horses are called to the ‘post’ by a bugler playing some form of First Call. Once played, jockeys mount up, leave the paddock area and ‘parade to the post’ in front of the grandstand. It’s this pre-race parading that gives fans and bettors a good look at their favorite horses.

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

After his post parade, millions of TV viewers watched Triple Crown Champion American Pharaoh make history with his Breeder’s Cup Classic win at Keenland Race Course in Kentucky. A new achievement in America’s oldest sport was born, the racing grand slam — winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Classic. As a huge AP fan, I cheered him on as he pulled away at 6 and half lengths. Announcer Larry Collum screamed,  “He’s a horse of a lifetime!” as he crossed the finish line in a track record of two minutes. Jockey Victor Espinoza turned and smiled for the finish line camera to mark the end of AP’s triumphant racing career.

For most viewers of this historic achievement, sadly, television or social media will be as close as they ever get to see, not only a horse of a lifetime, but a horse in their lifetime. American Pharoah reignited the sport of horse racing and I’m hoping that with it the preservation of the horse, all horses, has truly begun. No longer are horses the mainstay of transportation. No longer do they pull plows for farmers to create food. No longer do small stables offering riding lessons or backyard barns to keep a pony for the children dot the landscape. There just aren’t as many opportunities for people and horses to cross paths and connect in the modern world. In cities we may occasionally see carriage horses, mounted police officers, or those in parades! In the suburbs, apart from secluded private farms, horses are even harder to spot in daily life.

I don’t want the horse to disappear from the landscape. We need horses in our lives. If you have never been in the company of a horse, go find one today, bring them a carrot, and say hello. They will change your life. They are magnificent animals with a deep, historic bond with humans. Oz and I may have done our post parade while following a black horse ridden by a bumble bee, but we were happy to share the beauty of horses with others. AP’s trainer Bob Baffert said it best about his charge — and all horses — when he called him, “a gift from God.” Let’s cherish them all.