I’m delighted to welcome author Milt Toby and help him kick-off a blog tour for his book Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky
Excerpt of Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky
A few minutes after sunrise on a foggy West Texas highway, a Greyhound bus piloted by a substitute driver rushing to make up lost time slammed head-on into an automobile driven by golfer Ben Hogan. In the split second before impact, Hogan flung himself across the passenger seat to protect his wife, Valerie. The instinctive decision saved Hogan’s life, but the Cadillac was demolished in the collision, and the golfer sustained serious injuries. Complications set in early on, and for a time it was not at all clear whether Hogan would ever play golf again.
The year was 1949, and one of the world’s best golfers was out of action for the foreseeable future, maybe forever.
Another sports icon of postwar America, the Thoroughbred racehorse Citation, Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year, already was on the sidelines at the time of Hogan’s accident. After winning the 1948 Pimlico Special in a walkover when no other trainer could be enticed to run a horse against him, Citation was shipped to California to prepare for an assault the next year on two major records. Stymie’s career earnings mark of $918,485 was the first objective. Becoming Thoroughbred racing’s first millionaire was the second.
Achieving either goal was far from a sure thing, even for a stellar horse like Citation, but neither objective was outside the realm of possibility. California tracks offered more than their share of lucrative opportunities, including the rich Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup. For a stable with Calumet’s history of winning just about everything in sight, along with the general prejudice held against West Coast horses by the eastern elite, the rich California purses must have looked like low-hanging fruit, ready to be picked.
As often happens, things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Citation was coming off a hard three-year-old campaign, but he appeared to be fit and sound and ready to race when trainer Jimmy Jones and the Calumet string arrived in California. Rather than give the colt some time off, which he probably needed, Jones accepted an unexpected invitation from a close friend, Gene Mori, to run Citation in the 1948 Tanforan Handicap. Mori recently had purchased the Tanforan track, and he needed a box office draw for the Northern California track’s premier event. It would be a tuneup for racing at Santa Anita and quick money for Citation.
The Calumet colt fit the bill perfectly, Jones thought, and the winner’s share of the purse would move Citation even closer to Stymie in the money race. He said OK.
Citation dutifully won a prep race in the mud on December 3 (his fourteenth consecutive win) and the Tanforan Handicap by five lengths a little over a week later (number fifteen in a row, as expected). The victories boosted Citation’s earnings for the year to a record $709,470, but there was a hefty price to pay. The colt soon developed an osselet—a seriously enlarged joint—in his left front ankle. The stress injury was treated, and Citation was put away for all of the 1949 season.
Citation’s career earnings totaled $865,150, tantalizingly close to Stymie’s mark of $918,485. But with the Calumet star out of action, Stymie’s earnings record was safe for a while longer.
The year-long layoffs imposed on Hogan and Citation by their injuries set up 1950 as a much-anticipated year for comebacks. One turned out better than anyone could have predicted given the long odds against a successful return; the other, not so much.
Ben Hogan returned to competitive golf in January 1950, finishing second to Sam Snead in a playoff for the Los Angeles Open. Five months later, at the historic Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, Hogan put the crowning touches on his miraculous comeback, finishing tied for the lead in the U.S. Open after seventy-two holes and winning in an eighteen-hole playoff the next day. Hogan managed the exhausting feat on legs swathed in elastic bandages, walking eighteen holes on Thursday, eighteen holes on Friday, thirty-six holes on Saturday and an added eighteen holes in the Sunday playoff. His legion of fans was ecstatic, and any doubts about the Hogan legend were erased.
Citation didn’t fare so well. He won a six-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita his first time out in more than a year, on January 11, 1950, for his sixteenth consecutive victory. Factoring in Citation’s year-long layoff in 1949, the Calumet star hadn’t been defeated since April 1948.
The streak was broken two weeks later when Citation unexpectedly lost a six-furlong handicap to Miche. The race was aptly named the La Sopresa Handicap (Spanish for “the surprise”), and Jimmy Jones attributed the loss to the 16-pound spread in weight carried by Citation (130 pounds) and Miche (114).
It would become a common lament for Citation’s supporters during the next few months.
Citation lost to stablemate Ponder in his next race, the San Antonio Handicap. It was the first time the horse ever lost two races in a row, and the defeat was a harbinger of things to come. Jones next saddled Citation for the rich Santa Anita Handicap, a $100,000 race that had been one of Calumet’s principal goals for the horse before the injury in 1948. The Big ’Cap is where the wheels really came off the Calumet express.
Noor, an Irish-bred, English-foaled horse owned by Charles S. Howard, upset Citation in the Santa Anita Handicap and then handed the Calumet star three more defeats, in the San Juan Capistrano, Forty Niners’ and Golden Gate Handicaps. The handsome Irish import set three world records in the process, and by summer, Noor had established his credentials as the best handicap horse—maybe the best horse in any division—in the country.
Unable to beat Noor, Citation was shipped east. He already had eclipsed Stymie’s career earnings mark, and he became racing’s first million-dollar winner in 1951.
Noor was retired from racing after winning the richest race of the year, the $100,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, in December 1950. He clearly was the year’s best older horse and arguably would have been named Horse of the Year if the Gold Cup had been run before the championship voting was conducted instead of afterward. The Hollywood Gold Cup had probably the strongest field of any race that year. Among the horses Noor defeated in that race was Hill Prince, the year’s champion three-year-old male and overall winner on Horse of the Year ballots.
The passage of time, inexplicably, has not been kind to Noor, despite his remarkable string of wins over one of the best horses ever to race. It could be that he simply needed a better press agent.
Charles Howard was a tireless promoter of Seabiscuit when that horse raced during the post-Depression years, and the press elevated the horse to the status of a national hero. By Noor’s year, 1950, Howard was seriously ill and unable to court the media as he had done on behalf of Seabiscuit. He died midway through the year, leaving Noor a rising star in California but without the national attention he deserved.
There also was a certain stigma associated with beating one of the best horses ever to race. Citation got good press coverage when he won because he was supposed to win; when Citation lost to Noor, however, it was so unexpected that reporters focused on the loser rather than on the winner.
Critics of Noor argued that the Howard runner benefitted from a significant break in the weights in the Santa Anita and San Juan Capistrano Handicaps and that Citation at five was not the same horse he had been at three. Even trainer Jimmy Jones dismissed Citation’s losses to Noor with an excuse.
“He was a true champion and a great horse,” Jones said of Citation after the trainer’s retirement from Calumet Farm, “up until he sustained his injury at Tanforan at the end of his career as a 3-year-old. Citation should not be judged by his races after that time; he was merely trying to reach a goal of being the first winner of one million dollars, racing on an injured ankle. Possibly, he should have been retired earlier, but he was after a record and he attained that goal.”
Conveniently forgotten are a couple of important facts. First, Noor won the Golden Gate Handicap in world record time while giving weight to Citation, and second, the Calumet star still was good enough as a five-year-old to set a world record of his own in the Golden Gate Mile, a race that Noor sat out.
Noor died in 1974 after a moderately successful career at stud. He was buried in the infield of the training track at Loma Rica Ranch in Northern California, where he had been pensioned for several years. No one gave a thought to Noor for decades, until ambitious development plans threatened the Loma Rica property. Charlotte Farmer, an energetic Californian who has never understood the meaning of the word “no,” was upset about the lack of respect being shown to Noor, a horse that had played an important role in legitimizing the quality of California racing.
She eventually launched a campaign to locate the horse’s unmarked grave—not an easy task after forty years—and move Noor’s remains to a suitable burial site where the horse’s memory would be safe from encroaching development. She raised money and recruited others to the cause, and like Noor in his races with Citation, she succeeded beyond all expectations.
In August 2011, Noor’s remains were driven across country and reburied at Old Friends, a retirement farm for Thoroughbreds in Central Kentucky.
This is Noor’s story, and Charlotte’s.