Thoroughbred Racing Fans
May 28, 2023, 01:44:51 PM
Thoroughbred Racing Fans
Started by jjacks1, October 25, 2013, 12:58:11 PM
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
October 25, 2013, 12:58:11 PM
Dark Secret. As CS Anderson famously said - "his secret was courage."
by J. Keeler Johnson "Keelerman"
Ask any racing fan to name the best horses of the early 1930s and you are likely to hear names like Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Gallant Fox, Discovery, Cavalcade, Top Flight, and Sun Beau. That is to be expected. All were considered champions in their respective divisions; all are in the Hall of Fame.
But there is one name that rarely gets mentioned, and that is terribly unfortunate, for he was without a doubt one of the toughest and most courageous horses of his generation. During a career that spanned four years, he made fifty-seven
starts, won twenty-three of them and placed in eighteen others. He averaged 14.25 starts per year, and earned $89,375—a very respectable sum considering how small Depression-era purses were in the handicap division.
The horse's name? Dark Secret.
By Kentucky Derby winner Flying Ebony out of Silencia, full sister to Spur. Details regarding the early years of Dark Secret's life are difficult to come by. According to Edward Bowen's fine volume Masters of the Turf, Dark Secret was sold as a two-year-old at the Gifford Cochran dispersal, where he was purchased by Wheatley Stable for the sum of $5,700 & turned over to the legendary "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons for training. But aside from that, little is known about the colt's early life. Even his color is somewhat debatable—some sources describe him as a bay roan, others simply call him bay. Photographs of him, unfortunately, are black-and-white, making it very difficult to say with certainty what color he was.
As a juvenile, Dark Secret was a capable enough performer, winning a pair of races from eight starts and placing in five others, including the Hartsdale Stakes. However, he was in nowhere near the same class as Top Flight, the magnificent filly that swept undefeated through seven starts to gain recognition as the best two-year-old of the year, regardless of gender. Nor was Dark Secret in the same class as Burning Blaze, winner of the Post and Paddock Stakes, Richard Johnson Stakes, and Eastern Shore Handicap; or even Tick On, who won the Hopeful and was second to Top Flight in the Pimlico Futurity.
No, as a juvenile, Dark Secret was fairly unremarkable. But as a three-year-old in 1932, he began to come around. By the end of the year, he had won the Bowie and Potomac Handicaps, the Kenner Stakes, and the Speculation Claiming Handicap, in addition to placing in the Bay Shore, Jerome, Knickerbocker, and Southhampton Handicaps; the Saratoga Cup, and the Empire
City Derby. In the Potomac, probably the best race of his career to that point, he beat Belmont Stakes runner-up Osculator by a length, with Maryland Handicap winner Gallant Sir a nose further back in third and Top Flight still another length back in fourth.
All told, Dark Secret compiled a record of eight wins and six placings from nineteen starts in 1932, with earnings of $37,480. It was successful season.
But the best was yet to come.
Also competing as a three-year-old in 1932 was a horse whose name will forever be associated with Dark Secret, in the same way that Alydar will forever be associated with Affirmed.
This horse's name was Faireno. Owned and bred by Belair Stud of Gallant Fox and Omaha fame, Faireno had the makings of a great horse. His sire was Chatteron, a son of Fair Play that would become the leading general sire of 1932. His dam was Minerva, who would eventually produce four stakes winners from twelve foals, including Louisiana Derby winner Wise Fox and Delaware Oaks winner Wise Lady. She herself was a daughter of the foreign-bred Ambassador IV, a son of the great German stallion Dark Ronald. If a there was ever a horse that could be described as a personification of the iron stayer, it was Faireno. For him, it seemed, the longer the race, the better he ran.
Faireno (Only pic I have of him - a souvenir scarf)
Like Dark Secret, Faireno was trained by Fitzsimmons, but unlike Dark Secret, Faireno showed considerable class as a two-year-old. From sixteen starts, he won six, including the Junior Champion Stakes, Nursery Handicap, Victoria Stakes, and Consolation Claiming Stakes. He also placed in a trio of other minor stakes, stamping himself as a colt of respectable quality.
But as a three-year-old, Faireno metamorphosed into something entirely different. Instead of being a colt of merely respectable quality, he became one of the best of his generation.
After beginning the year with a trio of moderate efforts, the colt was entered in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths over Osculator. Building on that success, Faireno proceeded to rattle off victories in the Shevlin Stakes and Dwyer Stakes, beating the fine colt Gusto in the latter. A sub-par showing in the Classic Stakes was followed by convincing victories in the Saratoga and Hawthorne Handicaps. He concluded the year with a runner-up effort in the Hawthorne Gold Cup and an easy victory in the Lawrence Realization. For his efforts, he was recognized as the co-champion of the division, along with
Kentucky Derby/Preakness Stakes winner Burgoo King.
All told, Faireno finished the season with a record of seven wins and two seconds from twelve starts, with earnings of $136,635. Although he was unable to compete in 1933—the reason why has eluded my research—he would be back in 1934, the year his name would become inseparably entwined with that of Dark Secret.
Just as the transition from two-year-old to three-year-old ushered in a remarkable transformation for Faireno, the transition from three-year-old to four-year-old did the same for Dark Secret.
As was becoming customary for the colt, Dark Secret began the year in slow fashion, performing below par in a number of early-season races before rounding back into form. In all actuality, however, Dark Secret didn't "round back into" his previous year's form. Instead, he sort of round right on past it, and became a terror on the racetrack.
Shipping from one track to another during a busy seventeen-race campaign, Dark Secret was nearly unstoppable. His first major score of the year came in the prestigious Brooklyn Handicap, and he followed that up with a victory in the Empire City Handicap. Sent to Saratoga for the Merchants and Citizens' Handicap—then a very prestigious fixture at the Spa—Dark Secret toted 120 pounds to a 2 1/2-length victory over Golden Way and Watch Him, whom he was spotting nine and ten pounds, respectively. This was followed by an equally impressive victory in the Manhattan Handicap, where he carried 124 pounds to
victory over Gusto, who carried just 114.
His next start came in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. At two miles in distance, it seemed perfect for a colt like Dark Secret, who was rapidly establishing himself as one of the best stayers in the country. Yet despite his stellar credentials, he was not favored. That honor went to Equipoise.
Equipoise, the Chocolate Soldier
Nicknamed "The Chocolate Soldier" by his adoring fans, Equipoise was a fiveyear-old son of Pennant and had been honored as Horse of the Year in 1932 following victories in the Hartford Handicap, Toboggan Handicap, Metropolitan Handicap, Stars and Stripes Handicap, Arlington Gold Cup, Wilson Stakes, Whitney Stakes, and Havre de Grace Cup. His defeats—which were few and far between—were typically close ones, and always came at the hands of horses carrying considerably less weight.
But as good a year as 1932 was for Equipoise, 1933 was even better. Coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Equipoise had not lost a single race all season, winning the Philadelphia, Metropolitan, Suburban, and Arlington Handicaps; the Wilson Stakes, the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Saratoga Cup in consecutive fashion. Furthermore, in both the Metropolitan and Arlington Handicaps, he had beaten Dark Secret, while giving him substantial weight to boot.
However, if there was one chink in Equipoise's armor, it was distance. True, he had won the Saratoga Cup at 1 3/4 miles, but in general, he seemed better suited to shorter distances, with eight to ten furlongs being his optimum range. Even at his best, the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup was probably a bit beyond his capabilities.
Unfortunately, Equipoise was not at his best for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Throughout his career he had dealt with numerous hoof issues, mainly quarter cracks, and it seems they were starting to bother him yet again. Thus, given the circumstances, it seemed possible that Dark Secret could make the race a close one.
It was not close at all.
Equipoise, bad feet and all, gallantly tracked the pace for over a mile and a half, but could offer nothing more in the homestretch and retreated to finish third. In the meantime, Dark Secret—clearly relishing the distance—romped to a four length victory over Gusto, who in turn was eight clear of the Chocolate Soldier.
It could be said that Dark Secret's victory was a meaningless one. He had already proven superior to Gusto on numerous occasions in the past, and beating poor Equipoise under the circumstances was hardly a stellar achievement.
Yes, you could say Dark Secret's victory was a hollow one; perhaps even undeserved. But one year later, he would prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was worthy.
The date was September 15, 1934. The feature race at Belmont Park was the sixteenth running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The field was a small one, and Dark Secret was the heavy favorite. After winning the race in good fashion the previous year, he had wrapped up his stellar 1933 season with victories in the Laurel Stakes and the Washington Handicap. Following his usual winter break, he had started his 1934 campaign with a number of so-so efforts, including a distant second in the Brooklyn Handicap behind the up-and-coming three-year-old Discovery, who would eventually retire with a reputation as one of the greatest weight-carriers of all time.
But as was typical of Dark Secret, he got better as the year progressed. He was coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup off of strong victories in the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup—which he won by three lengths—and the Manhattan Handicap, which he dominated by four.
The post parade was surely a bittersweet occasion for his fans, as it had been announced previously that the Jockey Club Gold Cup would be Dark Secret's final race. To go out with a win would be a fitting conclusion to his wonderful career.
Here is how Jimmy Breslin described Dark Secret's courageous final run:
"In 1934, when he was having trouble with Omaha, then a 2-year-old, Mr. Fitz ["Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons] had a barn full of horses who could run. One was Faireno, owned by [William] Woodward, and the winner of the 1932 Belmont Stakes. The other was Dark Secret, owned by Mrs. [Gladys Mills] Phipps and Ogden Mills. Dark Secret was the outstanding distance horse in the country in 1934, and won 19 races in his career.
"On September 15, he took the track with Charley Kurtsinger on his back to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, which is a two-mile race. There were only two other horses. One was Inlander, which didn't seem to fit in, the other Faireno, whom Dark Secret had defeated in a race at Saratoga - the Saratoga Cup - a month earlier. The sky was black and a sheet of rain covered the track.
"There was a crowd of 25,000. The big event had been the Futurity, won by Chance Sun. Omaha had finished fourth. Everybody was writing about that when the three horses came up to the starting gate for the Gold Cup. The gate opened and the horses began running. It was a match race from the start. Kurtsinger got Dark Secret out first, Tommy Malley had Faireno
right on him. Inlander was out of it from the first strides. The two horses ran evenly around the huge, sweeping mile-and-a-half Belmont Track, Dark Secret on the inside, Faireno, the outside. Mr. Fitz was in the grandstand at the head of the stretch, watching his two horses run. Dark Secret and Faireno settled down into a duel of legs and lungs and hearts. These were two thoroughbreds out to do exactly what they were born for, and there was to be no stopping. Dark Secret kept in front, now by a half length, now by a length as Faireno held on. At the top of the stretch they started to pick up the pace. Malley's right arm began to go up and down as he whacked Faireno. The horse lowered his belly, as race people say, and came on. Alongside him, Dark Secret picked up. His stride lengthened and came faster. This was one hell of a race and the crowd started to pick it up. The roar started way up the track, when the people in the grandstand saw the two begin their charge. Then it rolled through the stands and now the whole of Belmont Park was roaring. The two horses came down the stretch, with Faireno's nose now even with Dark Secret's flank. Both had come nearly two miles, but they were running straight, and harder every step. Kurtsinger had his face buried in Dark Secret's mane, his arms pumping forward with everything he had in his little body. He was trying to get home a winner and he was oblivious to everything else. But as they neared the wire Kurtsinger felt a lurch. Dark Secret had bowed a tendon in his right front leg. Dark Secret faltered. But only for a tiny piece of a second. So tiny only Mr. Fitz remembers seeing him do it. Then Dark Secret reached out with his injured right leg again and one thousand pounds of horse and Charley Kurtsinger's 118 pounds and the saddle and the lead pads all came down on the torn ligaments. He swayed. He kept going. He was a race horse, he was racing. He was not going to stop until he was finished with what he was supposed to do. His feet slammed into the mud, his body strained, his head bucked up and down and he kept even with Faireno. He had the kind of pain you do not live with. But with yards to go Dark Secret kept charging while Faireno flew. He had to catch the crippled horse. But Dark Secret did not stop until he had his nose laid out so everybody could see he was the winner. Then he stopped. His right leg shattered directly under the finish line. Kurtsinger tumbled off, picked himself up and looked.
"Belmont Park was silent. The rain beat down on Dark Secret's back as he hobbled in the mud. The rain dripped from his coat. But he was up. He was up straight, looking up the track. And his head was high, as high as a proud thoroughbred can hold it. He had won the race."
And so ends the story of Dark Secret, a story that still brings tears to my eyes to this day. It encapsulates all that is noble and proud and horrible and tragic about horse racing.
The next time anyone asks you to name the best horses of the early 1930s, be sure to mention Dark Secret. When discussing the century's greatest stayers, don't forget to nominate Dark Secret. And when conversation turns to the most courageous horses in history, by all means endorse Dark Secret. CS Anderson was right - his secret was courage.
My own humble wallpaper tribute.
Just another sh*tty day in Paradise
ECLIPSE Award Winner
Re: Dark Secret
October 26, 2013, 07:00:53 AM
What a great horse. Now you have me crying, too.
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