Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 73 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 73 Days to Go!

73 Days!!   I couldn’t read enough about Citation and Assault, for this reason it’s been a lot of fun getting to write about some of my childhood heroes.

Assault was the first Kentucky Derby winner that was bred in Texas. Born at the famous King Ranch, the chestnut colt was sired by Bold Venture, the 1936 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Assault’s dam was the unraced mare Igual, a daughter of the great Equipoise; her dam was out of Masda, a full sister to Man O’ War. Igual was sickly as a foal, although by the time that they figured out what was wrong, she was too small to make it to the track. Instead of trying to wait to she if she was going to be able to race, the decision was made to just keep her as a broodmare. She was a successful producer, though she would unfortunately pass on some of her issues to Assault, her third foal. As a yearling while he was turned out in one of the fields, he stepped on a surveyor’s stake, which ran through his frog and out of the hoof wall, causing a small deformation that barely became noticeable as he got older. The only remnant of the accident was that he always walked and trotted with a limp, however he could run like the wind. He earned the nickname “The Club-Footed Comet” from the newspaper writers, although that wasn’t the case.

Owner Robert Kleberg sent Assault to Max Hirsch, another Texan, who had gotten his start as a Quarter Horse jockey.  Hirsch trained all of the King Ranch youngsters that had hopes of making it to the races. When he first saw Assault, he was unsure as to why he was sent to the barn. The gimpy colt always looked liked at any minute he could fall with his odd gait that he developed from his injury. Throughout his career, he would always have to wear a special shoe on the bad hoof. Due to a thin hoof wall as a result of the stake going through, it was tough to keep a shoe on. Finally they found that if they had a clip on the shoe, it was more likely to stay on. Once they got one that stayed on, when he was shod, the remaining three hooves would get changed, while the odd one would keep its shoe until it came loose. Assault would every once in a while clip himself while running, leading to Hirsch sometimes running the colt with adhesive strips or boots to protect his legs.

As a 2YO, Assault didn’t make much noise, taking 4 tries to break his maiden. He won the maiden race as well as winning the Flash Stakes at odds of 70-1 for his only two victories out of nine starts. In his first start as a 3YO, he captured the Experimental Handicap #1 by 4 ½ lengths. He would then win the Wood Memorial by 2 ¼ lengths over Hampden. From there he shipped to Louisville to prepare for his Kentucky Derby run. While there, he contested the Derby Trial over a muddy track wearing only slick shoes, causing him to only manage fourth.

The 1946 edition of the “Run for the Roses” was a special year as it was the first peacetime Kentucky Derby in five years. There were many improvements to the plant as the Totalisator was in use for the first time, in addition to a new tote board on the back of the stands that read “Kentucky Derby run each year on this track for 72 years”. The price for the best boxes was $136.50, grandstand terrace seats cost $9.15, clubhouse seating was $6.15, regular grandstand seating was $2.55, while the infield cost $2.55 to $.50 depending on where you were located.

The track had been under a week’s worth of rain; however Derby Day was partly sunny with a breeze that helped to start drying out the dead track. The chance of sun brought in an enormous crowd of approximately 100,000, who were all too happy to place their wagers. The happy race-goers were treated to a spectacular performance during the first race, when the lucky 2YO Jet Pilot won by 9 lengths in his first race, a 5 furlong sprint. The way that he won led many people to comment that they had just seen the winner of the next year’s Derby, which proved to be true.

The big race of the day would take place over a strip that had been upgraded to slow, even though it was still fairly sticky. The mass that was in attendance made Assault the forth choice at 8-1 in the field of 17, as they also broke the world record for the amount wagered on one contest when they bet $1,202,474 on the Kentucky Derby itself.

Making their way to the starting gate, the field of horses was well behaved for the starter who got them away in short order. Assault broke in third, then was running in fifth as they passed the half mile pole. Ridden by Brooklyn jockey Warren Mehrtens, the duo improved to fourth as they reached the ¾ marker, then 3rd by the time they ran one mile. As they turned into the stretch, Assault took the lead, passing the pacesetter Spy Song, who would finish second. Assault would turn on the after-burners, romping away to an impressive 8 length victory, equaling the largest winning margin, in a time of 2:06 3/5. The victory made Assault the fifth Derby winner sired by another, as his sire Bold Venture won ten years prior. It also made Hirsch the third trainer to win the Kentucky Derby with a father and son, having trained Bold Venture.

In the Preakness a week later, Assault was made the favorite at 3-2 in a field of ten. Traffic problems would cause Mehrtens to have to use up Assault early, resulting in their four length lead in the stretch quickly diminished. Mehrtens knew that he couldn’t use the crop on Assault, as it would make him swerve, so he had to hand-ride him. Luckily they managed to hold on to win by a neck. People thought that he was used up in the race, so he was again overlooked going into the Belmont. Choosing to make the Preakness closer Lord Boswell the favorite, Assault was the second choice. After stumbling at the start, Assault and Mehrtens managed to overcome an 8 length deficit, while Mehrtens waited until they reached the stretch to send Assault. The Club-Footed Comet went on to win by three lengths, becoming the 7th Triple Crown winner.

Two weeks after the Belmont, Assault won the Dwyer. Then after losing the Arlington Classic, he was found to have kidney issues that would sideline him for a month. He continued racing with several defeats, although in those a rivalry with the great Stymie was born. In the Gallant Fox Handicap versus older horses, Assault was passed in the stretch by Stymie, leading to his second defeat to his foe. Hirsch knew Stymie, as he had been claimed from the connections, and believed all along that Assault could defeat the older horse. With his first ride aboard the chestnut, Eddie Arcaro would turn the tables on Stymie, as he waited until Stymie made his move on Assault before letting his mount have his run, leading to their winning the Pimlico Special by 6 lengths. His final start of the year would be in the Westchester Handicap that he would also win, making his 1946 racing season the richest of any 3YO to that time. He would also earn 3YO Champion in addition to Horse of the Year.

His 4YO season saw him winning the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps, in a 7 race win streak. He was eventually sidelined by splint issues which would impact his running, causing him to fall off and halted the streak. Assault would be rested, even though they tried to bring him back he still kept fighting with more issues. He did win a second Brooklyn Handicap, all while exchanging the title of richest Thoroughbred with Stymie, who he defeated 4 times at 4.

Assault was retired to stud, proving to be sterile. After returning to King Ranch, they would turn him out into a field with Quarter Horse mares where he managed to get three in foal.  They would be his only offspring. He would live his remaining days at the ranch, passing in 1971. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

James Roach as a special to the New York Times who visited Churchill:

“Bourbon foundries in this area will have to work triple shifts in the immediate future to compensate for the inroads made on the liquid stock by this Derby Week assemblage. Horse racing in these parts is definitely not a dry pasttime; apparently if you want to pick a winner you have to wet your whistle.”

(Plate and Print courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum