The important 19th century stallion Virgil was bred in Woodford County by H.C. Gratz of Spring Station. Foaled in 1864, the black horse was by the Glencoe stallion Vandal. The latter was bred by R.A. Alexander at his Woodburn Stud north of Lexington, Ky., where he stood Glencoe, the all-conquering Lexington, Vandal, and others. Foaled in 1850, Vandal became an important sire in his own right, and his most important breeding son was Virgil.
In the spring and summer of 1864, the nation was consumed with matters of greater weight than the foal out of Hymenia, by the imported stallion Yorkshire. Even with the Civil War in the rear-view mirror, Virgil was not raced as a 2-year-old but did come to the races at 3, when he raced with distinction but was thumped emphatically by the 1867 Belmont Stakes winner Ruthless, who defeated him for the Sequel Stakes at Saratoga, racing two miles in 3:37 1/2.
Racing historian James H. McCreery saw the race and offered up two columns of recollections of the racehorse and sire in the Thoroughbred Record of March 10, 1917. Virgil ended his racing career as a steeplechaser in 1871, and McCreery, who was overseer or farm manager of Milton Sanford’s Preakness Stud outside Lexington, said that at this time, “Sanford boarded his mares and stallions at T.J. Nicholas’s place near Paris, Ky., and under the management of Nelson Dudley, an aged Kentucky gentleman who disdained accepting recompense for his services, having experience of 60 years in the line of stock breeding.”
While at this farm, there was some sort of “epidemic,” McCreery recalled, that affected the other stallions but not Virgil. “Consequently, some of the mares allotted to [Baywood, Glenelg, and King Lear] could not be bred, causing Dudley to breed them to Virgil.” All four of the mares were by Lexington, McCreery wrote, and all the resulting foals were stakes winners, including 1876 Kentucky Derby winner Vagrant.
McCreery recalled that Sanford didn’t much appreciate the change in plans and ordered Dudley to send any of them not in foal to R.A. Alexander’s stud farm, presumably for breeding to other stallions.
All were in foal.
Before the happy results of these matings became racing lore, Dudley persuaded Sanford to get rid of Virgil, telling one intermediary to Sanford that “if he don’t get rid of Virgil, I will turn him loose on the pike.” Sanford gave the horse to B.G. Bruce of Lexington, who then sold or gave a half-interest in the horse to J.T. Williams of Eminence, Ky., where Virgil “was broken to harness and also ridden as a saddle horse.”
This was presumably in 1872 or -73, and after the foals by Virgil showed such high class, Sanford went looking for the formerly despised stallion.
Bruce bought Williams’s half-interest for $800 and “refused to accept anything for his half from Sanford,” McCreery wrote. Not too long after, Sanford told the writer that “I have been offered $30,000 for Virgil by Gen. Harding of Belle Meade Stud (in Tennessee), and I told him the horse was not for sale.”
Virgil sired many notable performers, including the great champion Hindoo and the unbeaten juvenile Tremont, who is memorialized in a stakes at Belmont Park. McCreery said that the “black thunderbolt, Tremont, he too, frail as was his sire, but speedier, and a victor in an easy fashion of sweepstakes, 13, in his colthood of 2 years, on dry, sloppy or heavy going, and it mattered not to him.”
McCreery related what would have made a difference, however.
In 1879, when training for the brothers John and William Sanford, McCreery went in search of a steeplechaser for them and was told about a 3-year-old filly by Alarm. “When I saw her, she suited my requirements as far as looks as an ideal steeplechase mare — lengthy, broad and deep-girthed, but unfortunately she was over nervous, and continually walked to and fro, from side to side of her paddock, which caused me to conclude she would not suit.”
Her name was Ann Fief, and she did become a broodmare for Daniel Swigert, however, producing Tremont in 1884. The black colt was unbeaten in 13 sprints at 2, the only season he raced.
In addition to Tremont, Virgil sired three Kentucky Derby winners: Vagrant (1876), Hindoo (1881), and Ben Ali (1886).
McCreery related a story about the second of these, heroic Hindoo. “During the month of March of 1877, Daniel Swigert sent six mares to be bred at the Preakness Stud. Among them was Florence. All shockingly thin and weak, and nearly exhausted by their long travel [they weren’t vanned over], causing the following message from his old friend Dudley to Swigert’s groom. ‘You go back and tell Dan Swigert that if he ever sends more mares here looking like them, we won’t let them in the gates.'”
Despite their lack of blooming condition, “Virgil was bred to the bright chestnut Florence, thereby producing the mighty Hindoo, in color a bay, and probably the best horse descending through this pedigreed line.”
Virgil died in 1886, aged 22, “and was laid beneath the sod of bluegrass he nipped from when a suckling, and grazed on when aged and blind, on the rolling farmlands that he assisted in making famous after his exile.”