In honor of this year's Kentucky Derby (won today by Medina Spirit), I'm posting a piece my friend Michael S. Green and I wrote together a number of years ago on Ten Famous American Horses. It has no deep meaning... it's just fun. It remains one of my favorite things I had a hand in writing, and I'm pleased to have an excuse to share it.
I'll be back on the usual beat tomorrow.
General Robert E. Lee rode Traveller (spelled with two Ls, in the British style) from February 1862 until the general’s death in 1870. Traveller was a grey American Saddlebred of 16 hands. He had great endurance for long marches, and was generally unflappable in battle, although he once broke both of General Lee’s hands when he shied at enemy movements. Lee brought Traveller with him when he assumed the presidency of Washington and Lee University. Traveller died of tetanus in 1871. He is buried on campus, where the safe ride program still uses his name.
Comanche was attached to General Custer’s detachment of the 7th Cavalry when it engaged the Lakota in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The troops in the detachment were all killed in the engagement, but soldiers found Comanche, badly wounded, two days later. They nursed him back to health, and he became the 7th Cavalry’s mascot. The commanding officer decreed that the horse would never again be ridden, and that he would always be paraded, draped in black, in all military ceremonies involving the 7th Cavalry. When Comanche died of colic in 1891, he was given a full military funeral (the only other horse so honored was Black Jack, who served in more than a thousand military funerals in the 1950s and 1960s). Comanche’s taxidermied body is preserved in the Natural History Museum at the University Of Kansas.
3) Beautiful Jim Key
Beautiful Jim Key was a performing horse trained by formerly enslaved veterinarian Dr. William Key. Key demonstrated how Beautiful Jim could read, write, do math, tell time, spell, sort mail, and recite the Bible. Beautiful Jim performed from 1897 to 1906 and became a legend. An estimated ten million Americans saw him perform, and others collected his memorabilia – buttons, photos, and postcards – or danced the Beautiful Jim Key two-step. Dr. Key insisted that he had taught Beautiful Jim using only kindness, and Beautiful Jim Key’s popularity was important in preventing cruelty to animals in America, with more than 2 million children signing the Jim Key Band of Mercy, in which they pledged: “I promise always to be kind to animals.”
4) Man o’ War
Named for his owner, August Belmont, Jr., who was overseas in WWI, Man o’ War is widely regarded as the top Thoroughbred racehorse of all time. He won 20 of his 21 races and almost a quarter of a million dollars in the early twentieth century. His one loss – to “Upset” – came after a bad start. Man o’ War sired many of America’s famous racehorses, including Hard Tack, which in turn sired Seabiscuit, the small horse that came to symbolize hope during the Great Depression.
Entertainer Roy Rogers chose the palomino Trigger from five rented horses to be his mount in a Western film in the 1930s, changing his name from Golden Cloud to Trigger because of his quick mind and feet. Rogers rode Trigger in his 1950s television series, making the horse a household name. When Trigger died, Rogers had his skin draped over a Styrofoam mold and displayed it in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in California. He also had a 24-foot statue of Trigger made from steel and fiberglass. One other copy of that mold was also made: it is “Bucky the Bronco,” which rears above the Denver Broncos stadium south scoreboard.
6) Sergeant Reckless
American Marines in Korea bought a mare in October 1952 from a Korean stable boy who needed the money to buy an artificial leg for his sister, who had stepped on a land mine. The marines named her Reckless after their unit’s nickname, the Reckless Rifles. They made a pet of her, and trained her to carry supplies and to evacuate wounded. She learned to travel supply routes without a guide: on one notable day she made 51 solo trips. Wounded twice, she was given a battlefield rank of corporal in 1953 and promoted to sergeant after the war, when she was also awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.
7) Mr. Ed
Mr. Ed was a talking palomino in a 1960s television show by the same name. At a time when Westerns dominated American television, Mr. Ed was the anti-Western, with the main human character a klutzy architect and the hero a horse that was fond of his meals and his comfortable life, and spoke with the voice of Allan “Rocky” Lane, who made dozens of “B” westerns. But the show was a five-year hit as it married the past to the future. Mr. Ed offered a gentle homely wisdom that enabled him to straighten out the troubles of the humans around him. The startling special effects that made it appear that the horse was talking melded modern technology with the comforting traditional community depicted in the show.
8) Black Jack
Black Jack, named for John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, was the riderless black horse in the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur, as well as more than a thousand other funerals with full military honors. A riderless horse, with boots reversed in the stirrups, symbolized a fallen leader, while Black Jack’s brands – a US brand and an army serial number – recalled the army’s history. Black Jack himself was buried with full military honors; the only other horse honored with a military funeral was Comanche.
Khartoum was the prize stud horse of Jack Woltz, the fictional Hollywood mogul in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. In one of the film version’s most famous scenes, after Woltz refuses requests from Don Vito Corleone to cast singer Johnny Fontane in a movie, Woltz wakes up to find Khartoum’s head in bed with him… and agrees to use Fontane in the film. In the novel, Fontane wins the Academy Award for his performance. According to old Hollywood rumor, the story referred to real events. The rumor was that mobsters persuaded Columbia Pictures executive Harry Cohn to cast Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. As Maggio, Sinatra revived his sagging film career and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Secretariat was an American Thoroughbred that in 1973 became the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His records in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes still stand. After Secretariat was stricken with a painful infection and euthanized in 1989, an autopsy revealed that he had an unusually big heart. Sportswriter Red Smith once asked his trainer how Secretariat had run one morning; Charlie Hatton replied, “The trees swayed.”