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Jul 13, 2012



The following is an article from the Hoofbeats From The Past book by Howard Rowe. If you would like to order it call 1-800-645-2240.




            The only horse named for a president was Buchanan, our 15th occupant of the White House and the solitary bachelor to be elected to that high office. Three of his nieces shared the same domicile, and one of the trio served as first lady throughout Buchanan’s entire administration.

             James Buchanan had previously grown accustomed to high offices: minister to Russia, minister to England, secretary of state under President Polk. A superb diplomat, he established close personal relations with both the Czar and Queen Victoria, powerful leaders of two powerful nations.

            As for the equine Buchanan, he was undistinguished as a juvenile, as he never got to the races at two. He did, however, win the Kentucky Derby at three, achieving turf immortality for a few months. He was also the only horse named for a United States president to win the Run for the Roses.

            Omar Khayyam, the celebrated Persian poet, mathematician and scientist, flourished in the 11th century and is remembered for his “Rubaiyat,” a poem published in 1859 and translated by Edward Fitzgerald, who was not a Persian, but an excellent rhymester.

            Omar Khayyam, the horse, was a British fugitive who fled his native land during the First World War (he was not a draft horse) and was a multiple stakes winner after his victory in the 1917 version of the Kentucky classic.

            Omar Khayyam won the Derby as a 12-1 longshot and was the sold for $28,000 to an American. He brought a mere $1,500 as a yearling at Newmarket, and the price as a three-year-old at the time was exceptionally high. To vindicate the expenditure, Omar went on to win his next eight races in succession, including the Travers, Lawrence Realization and the Saratoga Cup. He wound up as the leading money-winning three-year-old in the nation at the same time another British import, Sun Briar, topped the juvenile list. Retired after his five-year-old season, Omar Khayyam ranked as a top sire.

            In 1920 another Derby winner popped up bearing the name of a famous naval hero of the American Revolution. Paul Jones was a Scottish-born gentleman, and his original moniker was John Paul. The reason for the change was an episode in his life when he was wanted for murder, as he had killed a mutinous sailor on one of his ships. As Paul Jones, he went on to become the man in charge of the American navy, and in this role he was responsible for sinking or destroying more than 26 British vessels. After the revolution, he sailed to Russia and became a rear admiral in the Russian navy, a job that didn't last too long.

            As for Paul Jones the thoroughbred, he ran the race of his life to win the 1920 Derby, defeating the notorious Upset, who had beaten Man O’War the previous season. It was the first year that Derby bettors had wagered over $1 million on the card, and the purse that year had been upped from $20,000 added to $30,000 added. Paul Jones was the first gelding to win a Derby carrying equal weight with colts.

            To my knowledge, the only Derby winner named for a celebrated gambler was the 1916 winner, a colt named George Smith. He belonged to Sanford Stud and was trained by the popular Hollie Hughes, reportedly released from military duty to saddle his horse in the Churchill classic.

            George Smith had compiled quite a record as a precocious two-year-old, winning nine of his 12 starts, five of which were stakes. He started his sophomore season by winning the Kentucky Derby and lost three of his subsequent races,

            But who was George Smith the famous gambler? You may have heard of him as Pittsburgh Phil, without a doubt the most heralded horseplayer of his era and a pioneer in modern handicapping principles at a time when most of the heavy-hitters were playing by ear. Bet-A-Million Gates, John A. Drake and others of their ilk were almost totally dependent on hearsay, in most cases listening to horsemen and touts and wagering fortunes on guesswork or skullduggery.

            Pittsburgh Phil clocked his own horses, hired his brother as trainer and staked the best jockeys available to do the riding. He made his own charts and knew more about the animal’s condition when he bet his money than the people who owned the horse.

            Smith was an extraordinary man. For 20 years he was known as the “prince of plungers” in every betting ring at every racetrack in America and deserved the accolades he constantly received from press and public alike. A poor boy who lacked a formal education, he decided at an early age that manual labor was not good for his health…or his bankroll.

            When he died at age 43, his health had been poor, but his bankroll rich. The tuberculosis, which was given as the cause of his demise, never hampered his ability to meet and beat a game that has defeated some of the smartest punters in the world. His methods proved successful most of his career as a gambler, and he never married. He was a devoted son and outstanding citizen, leaving at his death in 1905 well over $1 million in cash and investments, as well as considerable real estate.

            Clem McCarthy, a respected and knowledgeable journalist, in his book on Smith’s life, pointed out that Smith was fascinated by the great Domino, who was a two-year-old champion in the 1890s, winning 18 of his 19 starts. At three, Domino faced Henry of Navarre, the favorite of Riley Grannon, a sometime bookmaker and all-time gambler. Grannon followed Smith around the betting ring at the track, watching each bet Smith made and duplicating the wager himself on Henry of Navarre. Smith, of course, was backing the heavy choice, Domino.

            Smith suddenly turned on Grannon and asked, “How much would you like to bet on your horse?” Grannon replied, “A hundred thousand.”  This was one of the largest wagers that either man had ever made.

            The result was a dead heat at the end of the nine-furlong battle. In those days with the bookmakers, an odds-on favorite in a dead heat paid half of what the normal payoff would have been. This particular dead heat cost Smith well over $25,000. Domino never won a race of more than a mile and an eighth in his life, while Henry of Navarre proved to be one of the best distance runners of the century.

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