I love off tracks particularly when I have a mud horse and this running of the 2011 Belmont is no exception to how powerful the track’s surface can be in denoting an outcome. Most horses tend not to like sloppy heavy, muddy tracks. The good news is that in our modern times, most tracks if given half a chance and miminum of rain, can get a off track tight and hard with floating, etc. The bad news, some times they can’t.
This year’s Belmont is an example how the only horse in the field that had won a race on bad going, did it again. This brings to mind one of my favorite mud racing stories of all time and involves a Missouri bred horse winning the Kentucky Derby under Boots Durnell. The horse, Elwood.
By 1903 he (Boots Durnell) was racing during the summer in Chicago and heading to California for the autumn and winter. He was stabled in San Francisco that year when he heard one day that a horse sale was to be held at a local boxing ring. He and some friends decided to attend, but not with the idea of buying anything. According to Ransom, “the stock was ragged and the breeding rather poor, but finally, out came a slender colt, a bay yearling son of Free Knight out of Petticoat, by Alarm. Petticoat was a granddaughter of the great American Eclipse and her dam was a daughter of Leamington. Something about the youngster fascinated Boots, although it was not his looks, and he bid $100 on him. After three more bids, he was knocked down to him for $300, and he led the little fellow to his barn.”
Mrs. J.B. Prather of Faustiana Stud in Maryville, Missouri, had bred Elwood. The horse was not named at the time of the sale, and Durnell bestowed his mother’s maiden name — also his own middle name — on the colt. Elwood raced in the name of Boots’ wife, Mrs. C.E. (Lasca) Durnell.
At two, Elwood raced in some $300 claiming races, but he was not successful enough to attract a claim. He made seventeen starts and won only once, although he finished second in two little stakes, the Youngster Stakes and Competition Stakes.
The highlight of that California campaign came when three-year-olds were asked to go a mile and a half as early as February 27 in the Ascot Derby. Most of Elwood’s races had carried purses of $400 or less, but the Derby had a purse of $2,000. He finished second to Bill Curtis, beaten by four lengths on a muddy track.
His next start came nearly a month later, on May 2, in the Kentucky Derby.
Several elements of the lore of Elwood’s Derby tend to be questionable and contradictory but charming. A story recorded by Ransom was that “One day in … 1904, Boots’ brother-in-law phoned him from Kentucky and said ‘if you have any kind of a three-year-old handicap horse, put him in a car and ship him to the Derby. It has been raining for days and the track’s a quagmire. No one here has been able to train their horses.’ Boots hung up the phone, disconsolate, for he had no such horse in his barn. He yearned for that far-goal of glory, the Mecca of every breeder and race horse man [obviously a statement assigning the Derby’s later status retroactively]. He shrugged off the idea as an impossibility … However, when he walked back to his stable and ran speculative eyes over the awkward carcass of Elwood, his optimism rose. He suddenly remembered a workout when the horse was just flying in the mud, jumping and kicking like a bronc. He had a real mud horse.”
Ransom tells how Durnell, low in funds, traveled with Elwood, bedded down himself in a box car he shared with the horse. Elwood seemed stiff and sore after the long trip, and that, along with his origins, summoned snide reference to “the Missouri mule.” Durnell had difficulty finding a rider, and Frankie Prior agreed to take the mount only because he wanted to ride in the Derby.
The version attributed to Durnell is full of emotion, detail, and bravado:
“They finally got away in the deep slop and as they swung into (the) backstretch, I could see nothing of my awkward plater and I knew then the real heights of my folly. But wait. As the flying pack plowed into the gooey stretch, from far back came a mudplastered woeful sight, a horse eating up ground in great surging strides, and up there on his back was a ludicrous Ichabod Crane. Down through the long and boggy stretch the strange apparition continued his long furious jumps, simply running over horses at the end and coming out to open daylight at the wire. Somewhere along the line and with stunned disbelief, I might have sensed the real meaning of that long, awkward stride and who it was, with hoarse bellows of encouragement; I shouted the unknown horse home.”
Greatest Kentucky Derby Upsets
By the staff of Blood-Horse Publications