One of the challenges for writers of historical narratives is making the scene real to readers without an overkill on numbers and data, getting the smell right but not cluttering the scene.
Judge for yourself how Milt Toby did with the opening drama in his recreation of the Noor – Citation rivalry from 1950:
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.i
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 élite, 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.
“Good horses make racing fans,” Mori told Jones, “and there is no better horse than Citation. Furthermore, our $50,000 Tanforan Handicap looks like an easy race.”ii
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.
“We went to the well once too often,” Jones lamented afterward.iii
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).
“Weight brings horses together,” Jones said after the race.iv
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.
i James Dodson, American Triumvirate, Chapters 13 – 14.
ii Joe Hirsch and Gene Plowden, In the Winner’s Circle, p. 89.
iii Edward L. Bowen, Masters of the Turf, p. 272.
iv Bill Christine, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1996.
— from Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky