Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky
By Milton C. Toby
Published 2012 by The History Press, Charleston SC 29403; http://www.historypress.net; $19.99
As a writer and reader on the Thoroughbred since I was a quite young, the subject of Milton Toby’s latest book was well-known to me, but it is both pleasing to read about the first great son of Nasrullah to race in America and to note the connections between Noor and Seabiscuit, the most celebrated racehorse for millions of readers of popular literature in America and round the world.
Both Seabiscuit and Noor were owned by the same man, Charles S. Howard, a California entrepreneur who became fascinated with racing and had quite a lot of success in the sport. As part of his ride in the limelight, Howard purchased all his most famous horses from other breeders, acquiring Seabiscuit privately from the Wheatley Stable of Gladys M. Phipps and Noor from the stables of HRH the Aga Khan, grandfather to the present Aga Khan.
But whereas Seabiscuit was considered no great shakes among the stock in Wheatley Stable, Noor was a fine and stylish specimen who was a multiple stakes winner and had finished third in the English Derby at Epsom.
Noor’s other similarity to Seabiscuit is that both raced against and defeated a Triple Crown winner. Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral in the famous match at Pimlico in 1938, and Noor raced against Citation.
One of the notes for this book states that “in 1950 Noor was as good as any horse, anywhere. He defeated Citation four times in California that year, set three world records in the process, and would have been Horse of the Year if the voting had taken place after the Hollywood Gold Cup rather than before the race.”
Indeed, Noor was astonishingly good in taking on the great older horses from the Calumet Stable, led by Citation (after a year off for injury), Kentucky Derby winner Ponder, and champion filly Two Lea.
Citation finished ahead of Noor only once in their five meetings, and the crisp retelling of the race reports and the supplemental information about the horses’ rivalry makes good reading.
Toby delved into the history of this great racing rivalry with further research on Noor’s trainer Burley Parke and jockey John Longden, and the result is a bright picture of racing in 1950, which is fascinating in itself.
The final third of the book really concerns how we value the traditions of racing and racehorses in our lives because Toby was drawn into the research and writing of this book through the interest and passion of Charlotte Farmer.
After Noor died following a modest stud career in California, he had been buried in an unmarked grave on a Northern California farm. But when commercial development appeared likely to pave over the farm, Farmer wanted to preserve Noor’s memory and campaigned first to locate the old horse’s grave, then to exhume his remains, and finally to ship them to Kentucky for reburial.
Through the efforts of Farmer and the many people she mobilized in this cause, Noor now lies at Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement farm a few miles from Toby’s home in Georgetown, Ky.
As the author noted, Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky is Noor’s story, and Charlotte’s.
In their determination, energy, and enthusiasm for sport, there is a lot of common ground between the horses at the heart of racing and the people who take them into their hearts.