Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 101 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 101 days to go!

101 Days!!! 1918 Exterminator, or "Old Bones" as he became affectionately known, won the Kentucky Derby in a year that saw the start of daylight savings time and the U.S. Air Mail Service.

He was bred by F.D. “Dixie” Knight at Almahurst Farm (now Ramsey Farm) near Nicholasville, KY. He was by the imported stallion *McGee, out of Fair Empress by Jim Gore. *McGee, also the sire of 1913 Derby victor, Donerail, became the sire of two winners that had the distinction of also being the two longest shots to win. In the fall of 1916, Knight sent the colt to the Saratoga yearling sale, where he was purchased for $1500 by J. Cal Milam. Milam gelded the colt, who suffered from ailments that kept him from starting early in his 2 YO season. 

Racing later in the year, he only raced four times, winning two and finishing fourth in the remainder. They weren’t big races, so the lanky gelding was heeded little attention.  It was while he was training at the Lexington Association track as a 3 year-old that someone else noticed him. Trainer Henry McDaniel, the conditioner of the 2YO Champion, *Sun Briar, was looking for a horse that he could use to push the champ into condition for the Derby. 

At the Lexington track, on April 25th, *Sun Briar had finished third, beaten by 13 lengths in a 6-furlong sprint. As a result, McDaniel felt that he needed a workmate that would give him the edge he needed to be ready for the Derby. He saw Exterminator work on the track, and feeling that he was the horse to do it, talked *Sun Briar’s owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, into purchasing the gelding.

The price was reported as being between $10-15,000, a price higher than Kilmer had wanted, although it is said that it included two fillies. On April 27th, *Sun Briar and his new workmate were on their way to Churchill Downs. In their first time on the track together, McDaniel worked the pair short, *Sun Briar working well ahead of Exterminator. Kilmer was furious, yelling at McDaniel that he had purchased nothing more than a cussed Billy goat with his money. A few days later they would work again, this time at a longer distance, with Exterminator reversing the outcome. At this, Kilmer just believed his champion not to be in the condition that he thought.McDaniel, however, realized that they had an intelligent and promising race horse; as Exterminator had realized his purpose in the works, performing as he was asked.

Rumor’s started going around that Kilmer had purchased Exterminator to run in the Derby, along with *Sun Briar. The talk outraged Kilmer, as he had no love for the rangy gelding. When the newspaper went so far as to write an article, saying that in their works Exterminator could outrun his stablemate at any asking, as well as having been bought to run in the Derby, Kilmer wrote a letter to the paper. In it, he wrote that it was his last thought, that he had purchased Exterminator only as a workout pacemaker for *Sun Briar, the only horse that would carry his colors in the great race. McDaniel had wanted a horse of sufficient speed to keep *Sun Briar on the jump, not knowing when they made the purchase that Exterminator was even Derby eligible. Unfortunately for Kilmer, *Sun Briar’s old ring bone ailment returned, forcing him to scratch the colt, leaving him heartbroken.

In having a conversation about it with Colonel Winn, Winn suggested to Kilmer that he run Exterminator, as he had been impressed with the gelding in the mornings. “That so and so plow horse?” Kilmer shouted and stormed out. The thought was painful for Kilmer, who hadn’t the connection to the gelding that he had with his champion. Later that same evening, he called Winn, asking if he owned Exterminator,would he really start him. Winn replied that he certainly would, so Kilmer stated, “Very well then, he starts”.

Rain poured down the morning of the race, starting at 8:30am, clearing in time for the races. 30,000 people were on hand, despite the infield being closed to the public. It was wartime, and there were outsiders that believed that the track should be closed for racing. The New Louisville Jockey Club however, had plans to raise several hundred thousand dollars for the Red Cross. They planted potatoes in the infield, which led to the closing to the public. The potatoes were auctioned in barrel lots, with the proceeds turned over to the Red Cross. There were also other various fundraisers that took place, one of them being the auctioning of a Pekingese puppy after the Derby which raised another $700.

Exterminator was the longest shot in the board at 30-1, with War Cloud the favorite. Contender Escoba had a huge backing as well, as his millionaire owner, Kenneth Alexander was serving in the war and donated all of his horse’s winnings to the Red Cross. *Sun Briar’s regular jockey, Willie Knapp, took Exterminator’s reins in the race, the pair making their way to the starter through the slushy mud. The starter sent the field away, the seven combatants storming away.

The Courier-Journal: “…the mud-stained contestants splashed by with hoofbeats as rapid as the fire of machine-guns, and that could be heard across the track to the furthermost limits of the grandstand.” After running toward the back of the pack for most of the race,Exterminator made his way through the mud, making it come down to a two-horse battle through the stretch, between Escoba and Exterminator. The* McGee filly, Viva America (who would win the Kentucky Oaks) was trailing in third. Escoba and Exterminator ran neck and neck, with Escoba one time putting his nose in front. As they reached the last 70 yards of the stretch, Exterminator had had enough, drawing away from his challenger, winning by a tight length in a time of 2:10 4/5. 

History of the Kentucky Derby, 1875-1921: "As they reached the half-mile pole backers of War Cloud implored Loftus to move up and for a moment it appeared that the rider had heard the cry across the field and was making an effort to comply. The English-bred horse, however, showed clearly that the task was too much for him, for despite his rider's vigorous efforts he could not get within hailing distance of the leaders. Rounding the far turn Viva America was ready to cry quits and Escoba, after shaking off Sewell Combs, forged ahead. If Notter, who was aboard of Escoba, exulted over the advantage gained, he was soon doomed to disappointment, for Knapp had gone to work on Exterminator, and under keen urging the Kilmer gelding rushed forward and was on even terms with the Alexander colt as they straightened out for the last gruelingdrive. After a brief struggle, Exterminator shook off his doughty antagonist and drawing clear in the last eighth, won in a mild drive in 2:10 4/5."

Kilmer, thrilled with the victory, became a believer in his purchase, although Exterminator would lose his next several starts. He returned to his winning form in the fall of 1918. After riding him, Willie Knapp became a huge fan of the horse, thinking that when he was at his best, he could have defeated anyone, even the great Man O' War. A match place was supposed to take place between the two, but never materialized. In the fall of 1918, the Bowie Handicap, ran at a mile and a half, saw Kentucky Derby winners run 1-2-3. 1916 winner George Smith won, with 1917 winner *Omar Khayyam second, and Exterminator third. 

Exterminator raced through his 9YO season, going through as many trainers, winning for them all. When Knapp retired, he even trained Exterminator for a time. The gelding won races from 5 ½ furlongs to 2 ¼ miles during his 100, or 99* starts. Some record books don’t count his race against time, that he didn’t beat, which resulted as an unplaced blemish on his tally. He was so intelligent that he knew he wasn’t running against anyone, so he wouldn’t go faster necessary. His intelligence became one of the traits he was known for; even making him a favorite of the starters, as he wouldn’t put up with horses that were misbehaving. If a horse was acting up that was near the rail, he would calmly move over and pin the horse against the rail so they could be off and running. He was also said to have a “look” that he could give to most horses that would make them quit misbehaving.

In his racing career, he was only out of the top three 16 (or 15) times. He won 50 races, was second 17 times, and 17 times was third. He could win carrying lots of weight; in 1922 he ran in 10 successive races carrying 132 or more pounds. The ninth race in that streak saw him carry a high weight of 140, which he lost. He then won the Brooklyn Handicap, in which he carried 135 pounds, giving Grey Lag (who was 5 of 6 in 1922) a 9-poundbreak.  He would win the Pimlico Cup three times at 2 ¼ miles, as well as the Saratoga Cup four times. He beat the great sprinter Billy Kelly at ¾ of a mile. In 11 days he won three straight at Belmont and Aqueduct, carrying 130 pounds each time.  25 of his races were won or lost by less than a length.

A leg injury would lead to his retirement at nine; with the consistent campaigner having won 33 stakes races, a record that has never been beaten. When he was retired, he became very angry, as he wanted to race. He saw the other horses getting to go to the training track on the farm, and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t able to join them. They tried to move him to another area, away from the track, however, it didn’t matter. In an attempt to give him company, they brought a Shetland pony as a companion. It did the trick, with Exterminator always having to be in “Peanuts” company. When the old pony passed away in their stall, Exterminator wouldn’t let the staff remove Peanuts. He wouldn’t eat and was inconsolable. The connections remembered they had a friend with another pony. They contacted the friend in hopes that they would let them have the pony to see if Exterminator would accept him. They agreed, so they drove through the night, hurrying to get the pony to the surly gelding, hoping to make him happy once again. After a brief introduction, Exterminator began to play with the new pony, which became known as “Peanuts II”.  The gelding was a huge fan of visitors, therefore when they would come to the farm to see the old warrior; he would show off and play games. His favorite was to “play race”, letting Peanuts get a large head start, then cantering after him, passing the pony at their finishing place. They were so inseparable that in 1941 when Exterminator led the post parade for the Exterminator Handicap, his pony accompanied him.

The Kilmers held birthday parties for Exterminator every year, inviting visitors as well as school children, giving the small children rides on him. When Mr. Kilmer passed away, he left provisions for taking care of Exterminator and his old stablemate *Sun Briar, for their remaining years. They were moved from the Virginia farm to their New York farm, where they both lived their days. Exterminator lived for a few months after his 30th birthday party, passing away in his stall. Because of an ordinance, the horses couldn’t be buried at the farm, so they were buried at a nearby pet cemetery.

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum