Originally appearing on Aug. 4, 2008.
As the bright-eyed juveniles once again sally forth at Saratoga, hopeful of achieving honor and glory, it is a fitting time to honor the unbeaten Colin, who captivated the Spa crowd a century ago. Often ranked in the highest echelon of our sport’s heroes, in the rarified company of such legends as Man o’ War and Citation, Colin overcame unsoundness, illness and man’s poor judgment to retire with a perfect 15-for-15 mark. Nor did his travails end at stud, for he was neglected abroad and plagued by poor fertility at home, but he still found a way to exert a lingering influence. On the track as well as in the breeding shed, Colin defied the odds and escaped the laws of probability.
A true celebrity in his time, Colin was mobbed by enthusiastic fans and
marveled at by horsemen and turf writers alike. He had “it,” that “electrifying effect on racing men,” as Abram Hewitt expressed it. “The blood surges, and the pulses quicken at the very sight of such Olympians on the track.” Hewitt recalled that he had “listened to old-time horsemen talk about him with an other-world expression on their faces.”
The brown (a few later sources say bay) colt with an elegant stripe on his
face and three white socks hardly aroused that kind of reaction as a yearling — quite the opposite, with his ugly, enlarged hock a cause for grave concern. In fact, his owner/breeder, Wall Street wizard James R. Keene, doubted that the colt would stand up to serious training. That early misgiving must have been profoundly disappointing, as the youngster was one of only 25 (some say 27) foals sired by the 1901 Belmont hero Commando, who died tragically after a few seasons at stud, eerily like his own brilliant but ill-fated sire, Domino. Moreover, Keene had bought the colt’s dam, dual English stakes winner *Pastorella (Springfield), for the
sales-topping sum of $10,000 at Marcus Daly’s dispersal in 1901. Might
Keene have feared that this deformity was the latest blow to Domino’s star-crossed line?
Despite the inauspicious lump on his hock, the well-bred Colin was given his chance in the early trials in company with the other Keene fledglings. He seized it with alacrity, flashing dazzling speed along with that indefinable touch of class. Trainer James Rowe Sr. was suitably impressed. The future Hall of Fame horseman had been a leading rider in the 1870s, with two Belmont Stakes victories on his resume as a jockey and, as a trainer, he would ultimately win eight more. He had already conditioned a host of champions, led by the once-beaten Sysonby. Very much a hands-on trainer, he was well known for lavishing personal attention on his horses, so much so that he literally traveled in the same railroad car with them.
Knowing that Colin’s inordinate potential could not be realized unless his
hock was addressed, Rowe devised a regimen which included robust daily massages and bathing in cold water. The well mannered colt took it all in stride. According to a report in the Thoroughbred Record,
“He seemed to realize that the treatment was meant for his good, and he never gave his handlers the least trouble.”
Although the swelling was still pronounced, Colin was sent into battle early
and often as a juvenile, making his debut in a five-furlong contest at BelmontPark on May 29, 1907. It was no secret that the son of Commando was held in the highest regard by his connections, so even in a bulky field of 23, he went off as the 6-5 favorite. His backers never had a moment of doubt as he broke alertly and barreled home a professional two-length winner, easily outclassing his rivals.
Just three days later in the National Stallion S., the Keene colt set a new
record of :58 on Belmont’s five-furlong straightaway, appearing “immeasurably the best” as he strolled home by three. Wheeled back again on four days rest in the Eclipse S., Colin shouldered 125 pounds on a muddy track in the pouring rain. Bucking shins while fending off a stiff challenge from a rival carrying eight fewer pounds, he fought through the pain to win going away by a head at the wire. No one else would come that close to the budding star for the rest of the season.
With his tender shins given just 24 days to recuperate, Colin reappeared
under silks in the Great Trial S. at old SheepsheadBay and despite toting 129 pounds on a slow track, he “won with ridiculous ease.” The
Keene homebred humbled the opposition again in the Brighton Junior S. under 127 pounds. Off slowly, he was gunned to the front and pressed by a pair of lightweights. After disposing of them, he was confronted by a solid closer in Chapultepec, but Colin effortlessly dusted him as well, “pricking his ears.” In the Thoroughbred Record‘s view,
“He did not know he had been to the races.”
Breathless superlatives, and a generous amount of hyperbole, started rolling in, and even at this early juncture, that publication hailed him as potentially the best two-year-old in history. His future seemed all the brighter as the lump on his hock was slowly but perceptibly shrinking, and hopes were rising that it may never bother him.
Not long after this upbeat bulletin was issued, however, fate erected another obstacle in Colin’s path: he started coughing. Although Rowe treated the colt as best he could, the cough persisted for 10 days. His next engagement was one that his connections were determined not to miss — the prestigious Saratoga Special, offering a showdown with another undefeated juvenile, the well regarded Uncle. No one else dared to take Colin on at equal weights, so an intriguing match race was in the offing, if only the Keene colt could shake the cough.
Colin made the race, but he didn’t look particularly well, and both owner and trainer were worried about his condition. Rowe instructed jockey Walter “Marvelous” Miller, a teenage phenom who was the first rider to win 300 races in a year, to let Colin just stride along with Uncle and to rely on his heart to get him home. As it turned out, the colt was not about to let a pesky microbe, allergen, or whatever the trigger was for his cough, stop him.
In the early stages of the six-furlong contest, Colin maintained a narrow
lead over Uncle through fast fractions, and for a time it looked as though the two unbeatens were locked in mortal combat. As soon as Miller asked him, the Keene homebred sprinted away from his toiling rival and crossed the wire the winner by a decisive length. Miller’s post-race comments were revealing.
“I could have gone away at any time,”
the eventual Hall of Famer said, adding that he was particularly struck
by his mount’s startling acceleration. “Even if loafing along, he can get into
action quicker than any horse I have ever seen when it becomes necessary. Seems to me he can go right from a loafing gallop into his full racing speed in one stride,” but he “never wants to do any more than he has to.”
Colin became the toast of the Spa, and there was plenty of buzz about his
remarkable effort on the heels of a persistent cough. He exited his conquest of Uncle in terrific shape, with his cough gone and his hock nearly normal. Four days after the Special, Colin captured Saratoga’s GrandUnionHotelS. in similar style, idling until Miller urged him forward. The race was over in about six strides. He won under a hold, untroubled by his 127-pound impost. The Thoroughbred Record gave voice to the joy and relief of the crowd at his seventh straight score.
“Colin has become as much of a public idol at Saratoga as he was at BrightonBeach and SheepsheadBay and his defeat would have been looked upon as a public calamity.”
A vast throng of 50,000 crammed Sheepshead Bay to witness Colin’s Futurity S. There were a few moments of high drama when he was caught behind horses and cried out for room past the halfway mark. Watching from separate vantage points, Keene and Rowe each lost sight of him in the midst of the pack and feared that something was wrong. Their charge managed to find a seam and burst through to victory, “the absolute master of the situation,” in stakes-record time of 1:11 1/5 for the straight six furlongs.
Although Keene had announced that Colin would get a “much needed rest, which he richly deserves,” the colt lined up one week later and captured the
seven-furlong Flatbush S. by three commanding lengths, followed by eased-down victories in the Brighton Produce S. and Matron S., then run in a division for colts. The Thoroughbred Record was overcome by his dominance, exclaiming, “The more one sees of him, the more firm is the conviction that he is the best horse ever bred in America or ever raced here.”
Excitement was at a fever pitch for his seasonal finale, the seven-furlong
Champagne S. on Belmont’s straight course. A record Wednesday
crowd assembled to get a glimpse of the superstar’s bid to run his record to a perfect 12-for-12. As had become customary, Colin was “fairly mobbed in the paddock” by his ardent fans, eager to see him up close. His unflappable
temperament served him well in these scenes, which would likely have unnerved most horses. Only one juvenile, a filly named Stamina, turned up to oppose him, and he routed her in short order. The multitude roared as he drew off by six lengths. So effortlessly did he romp home, that spectators were stunned that he had established a new American record of 1:23 for the distance on a straightaway, and another ovation erupted for the conquering hero.
After Colin went into his winter quarters at Sheepshead Bay, jockey Joe Notter was signed as the contract rider for the Keene stable for 1908. Although Miller had piloted Colin faultlessly, he admitted that he was finding it ever more difficult to make the weight. That may well have been a factor in Notter’s taking over as stable jockey. Notter would enter the Hall of Fame himself, but judging by contemporary criticism, his rides on Colin were hardly worthy of his highlight reel.
The undefeated champion reportedly put in a tremendous work in advance of his sophomore bow in the Withers S., and he looked fit and well on race day at Belmont as the crowd applauded him during the warm-up. Colin went wire-to-wire in the mile test on a heavy track, but many onlookers believed that Notter made a hash of it, asking him too much far too soon, then easing him prematurely in the stretch, only to send him into a drive again when Fair Play (the future sire of Man o’ War) began to close in the last sixteenth. The Keene colt promptly opened up again to win by
two lengths and was apparently not discomfited by pilot error.
Colin had already risen above an enlarged hock, bucked shins, and a bad cough as a juvenile, but he had another physical ordeal to suffer just days before the Belmont Stakes. He tuned up for the classic with a scintillating move at SheepsheadBay, drilling 1 1/4 miles in 2:05, with splits of 1:38 1/2 for the mile and 1:52 for nine furlongs. By the time he got back to the barn, however, something was painfully amiss, and a “much crestfallen” Rowe said that his star had broken down and may never race again, never mind make the Belmont two days hence. Offering a glimmer of hope, the trainer added that if he did come back, it would be at best weeks or months before he was fit to run.
The exact nature of Colin’s setback was not revealed, but rumors swirled
about bowed tendons. According to one account, as late as the afternoon of the Belmont, owner and trainer strenuously disagreed on the wisdom of adding their champion to the field, with Keene insisting that he run and
eventually overruling Rowe’s objections. A multitude came to the track, hoping against hope that the charismatic performer might still make an appearance, but most knowing that he could not possibly be sound or surmising that his perfect record would not be put on the line in such dicey circumstances on a sloppy track.
Against all odds, to the fans’ delight, Colin marched into the paddock to be saddled for his sternest test.
As the Thoroughbred Record put it, “One could not fail to be astonished at the apparent perfect condition of Colin.”
He sported bandages on all four legs, yet he “stepped out lightly and freely, his eye was bright, and not the slightest indication was there of any ailment whatever.” He bucked, hitting the wooden stall hard, prompting a racegoer
to say, “If only his forelegs were as good as those (planks), there surely is
nothing the matter with him.” For a horse who was routinely praised for being on his best behavior in the paddock, “always the gentleman” and not excitable in the least, could he have been trying to tell his handlers something? Or was he just feeling great and showing it like any three-year-old on the muscle?
The Belmont unfolded in a manner much like the Withers, at least what could be seen of it. Staged at 1 3/8 miles at that time, and turning right-handed instead of our modern left, the oldest classic took place amid obscuring sheets of rain, preventing time from being taken. With Notter once again in the irons, Colin took the early lead before the field disappeared in a shroud of mist. The Keene colt was the first to emerge from the gloom about a furlong from the far turn, and as far as could be
judged, was traveling comfortably several lengths in front. Into the stretch, Colin began to tire, and Fair Play, reveling in the slop and the added distance, came flying. On the edge of its seat, the crowd “hoped and prayed, begged and pleaded for Colin and Notter to come on and last the mile and three furlongs.”
Fair Play maintained his relentless momentum, nearing Colin’s throatlatch, as the two flashed past the usual finish line. Casual racegoers thought it was over, but the Belmont finish was 50 yards farther down the stretch, and the result still hung very much in the balance. In the view of many observers, Notter mistook the finish himself and began to ease his mount, then realized his error and belatedly urged Colin on. Exhausted after leading all the way, probably sore, pelted by rain, the undefeated colt once again refused to surrender, and he reached down deep to find more. Fair Play was “thoroughly beaten” by his exertions, and Colin “was almost out himself,” as the Thoroughbred Record saw it, but at the real wire, the gallant son of Commando kept his head in front and his perfect mark intact. It was 15 lengths back to King James, a classy campaigner in his own right, in third. There was jubilation in the Belmont stands and a crescendo of
cheers rose skyward, with scores of spectators braving the torrents to greet
Had Notter really misjudged the wire?
According to historian William Robertson, Goodwin’s official race chart says that Notter flubbed it. The Hall of Famer vehemently denied the charge, arguing that Rowe had told him to give the colt as easy a time as
possible, and that Colin had little left in the stretch as his leg began to
hurt. While it sounds perfectly in character for Rowe to want to protect Colin, and he similarly instructed Miller to handle him tenderly in the Saratoga Special, the way Notter rode him actually made it harder. For a kind but clever horse who would not unduly exert himself unless asked, was it really Colin’s idea to open up daylight on the field in the early and middle going of the longest race of his life? Rather, it would have made more sense to employ the tactics used against Uncle, to allow him to lope with the pack and then call upon him for maximum effort at the right time. Instead, he was wrung out and understandably tiring just as the race neared its climax. Considering that spectators skewered Notter for overriding the colt early in the Withers, is it too much to imagine that he may well have done the same in the Belmont? The Thoroughbred Record
credited him with a “great race” despite his mistake about the wire, since he
managed to keep Colin together. Perhaps he would not have had to be kept
together if allowed to relax early.
…The New York legislature had recently outlawed gambling, and …
About three weeks later, Colin faced the starter for what turned out to be
the final time in the Tidal S. at SheepsheadBay. As the story goes, Keene ran him primarily to make a political point. The New York legislature had recently outlawed gambling, and Keene set out to prove that the fans would
still come to salute their hero even if they could not bet on him. It was an
anticlimactic affair. Only half of the expected crowd turned out to see Colin
dismiss a weak group in a new stakes record time of 2:04 for the 1 1/4-mile
event. Although the Thoroughbred Record boldly projected that the
undefeated colt would win all of his remaining engagements to “quit the season of 1908 unbeaten and the greatest horse in the history of the American turf,” that smacked of whistling past the graveyard. Colin was tiring and bearing out in the Tidal, and given the cloud of unsoundness around him, the proverbial handwriting was likely on the wall. By the end of July, reports again surfaced that his forelegs were “under suspicion.”
With racing in New York crippled by the betting ban, Keene shipped Colin to England in hopes of getting him right for a four-year-old campaign. English horseman Sam Darling described Colin as broken down upon arrival. He nursed the champion until he regarded him as sound enough for a serious six-furlong trial in company with a good sprinter named Jack Snipe. Giving his workmate 14 pounds, Colin defeated him handily, and Darling was astounded at his ability. Unfortunately, the strain on his legs proved too much, and he soon suffered another setback that formally ended his
career. The unbeaten colt’s earnings from his 15 victories have been variously tabulated, but the figures are in the vicinity of $180,000.
Entering stud in England, Colin was not an attractive proposition to breeders. English purists frowned upon his American sire line, believing it sullied by the presence of questionable blood that could not be traced back in every particular to bona fide Thoroughbreds in the hallowed Stud
Book. After Keene’s death, Colin was repatriated and sold in 1913 for $30,000 to James Corrigan and Price McKinney. Being back on his
native soil did not help him much, as he had difficulty getting mares in foal.
Sold in 1918 for $5,100 to E.B. McLean, he changed hands again and finally ended his days with Captain Raymond Belmont, dying at his Belray
Farm near Middleburg, Virginia, in 1932. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Colin sired only 81 foals in the course of 23 seasons at stud, but a remarkable 14 percent of them were stakes winners. One of those was
Neddie, the paternal grandsire of the mighty Alsab, subject of our Historical Cameo for the Preakness S. (G1). Alsab’s best son, Armageddon, was actually inbred 4 x 4 to Colin. Another of Colin’s stakes winners was On Watch, who figures as the broodmare sire of 1945 champion handicap horse Stymie. Stymie’s dam was herself inbred 2 x 4 to Colin. Slow and Easy, a daughter of Colin, produced Easy Lass, named Broodmare of the Year for producing Coaltown, better known to posterity as Citation’s stablemate but voted Horse of the Year in two of three polls in 1949, as well as that year’s co-champion three-year-old filly Wistful.
Two other daughters of Colin appear deep in the maternal line of two potent families. Colin’s daughter Herd Girl produced 1935 champion handicap mare Late Date, herself the ancestress of 1982 Broodmare of the Year Best in Show, whose descendants include champions El Gran Senor, Try My Best, Spinning World, Xaar, Aldebaran and Peeping Fawn. Moreover, a granddaughter of Best in Show, Better Than Honour, was honored as Broodmare of the Year for 2007 after producing back-to-back Belmont winners in Jazil and champion filly Rags to Riches. Better Than Honour might have produced a third straight Belmont victor, if impressive Peter Pan S. (G2) hero Casino Drive (Mineshaft) had not been withdrawn because of a stone bruise on the morning of the race.
Another daughter of Colin, Comixa, is the ancestress of Golden Trail, whose female descendants have produced the likes of elite stallion Dynaformer, champions Sunshine Forever and Ryafan, and multiple Grade 1 winners Brian’s Time and Memories of Silver.
Colin has an indirect connection to champion sprinter Lost in the Fog, who
had his own unbeaten streak going for quite some time. Lost in the Fog’s female line traces to Colin’s dam, Pastorella.
As Lost in the Fog’s odyssey illustrates, it is desperately hard to preserve
the exalted status of unbeaten. After Colin, 80 years passed before another
major performer retired perfect, the glorious Personal Ensign, who like Colin, displayed inordinate courage in the mud.
With the passage of time, Colin’s achievements have receded from popular
memory, but in the opinion of the most savvy horsemen and judges before the era of Secretariat, he ranked in America’s top four, along with Man o’ War, Citation and Keene’s other wonder, Sysonby.
Each of those had tasted defeat, as would Secretariat and other truly great
individuals. As Kent Hollingsworth wrote in The Great Ones, “Great horses
have been beaten by mischance, racing luck, injury and lesser horses running the race of their lives. None of these, however, took Colin. He was unbeatable.”
Rowe deserves the final word. Although he developed Sysonby and a galaxy of other champions, Rowe wanted his epitaph to read, “He trained Colin.”