Roamer -- 1914 and 1915 Horse of the Year
by Kellie Reilly
With the renewal of the Aqueduct H. (G3) on Saturday, we will praise the memory of the mighty gelding Roamer, a grand old campaigner who captured the 1917 edition of this race. Small in stature but gigantic in ability, he won 27 stakes races (including a special race against the clock) from seven furlongs to 1 3/4 miles, placed in 28 more, successfully carried up to 133 pounds, and was reputed to have set more track records than any other American racer up to that time.
So renowned was he that turf writer Neil Newman took "Roamer" as his pen name. There was also a stakes named for him, the Roamer H., initially contested at New York's old Jamaica Race Course then shifted to Aqueduct from 1959 onward. Appropriately, another legendary gelding, Forego, would earn the Roamer H. laurels in 1973. The stakes race disappeared in 1987, but Roamer's exploits persist regardless of the vagaries of stakes schedules.
Roamer did not owe his existence to profound breeding theories or the keen intuition of a horseman's eye. Beyond that, however, accounts differ. The more colorful tale holds that either his sire, the teaser Knight Errant, or dam, *Rose Tree II (Bona Vista), jumped the fence to consummate their attraction without human intervention, which led to the offspring being named Roamer. Another more pedestrian explanation is that because of Rose Tree's blindness, Col. E.F. Clay did not want her to have to travel to be bred, so he chose to have her covered at home instead. Whichever is true, the mating had nothing to do with pedigrees and is another of the myriad examples proving that a good horse can indeed come from anywhere.
After racing several times for the Clay brothers as a juvenile in 1913, Roamer was purchased by prominent New Yorker Andrew Miller, secretary/treasurer of Saratoga, and turned over to trainer A.J. "Jack" Goldsborough. Then in a harbinger of glory days to come, he captured the Saratoga Special S. after dueling for the early lead and drawing off.
As a three-year-old, Roamer perfected his trademark style of running his rivals ragged from the start. His chief weapon was his ability to carry his early speed. When his pursuers had exhausted themselves in the chase, Roamer then famously coasted home. Like a boilerplate novel, the same plot recurs throughout his past performances: his leading margin increases at every pole, and the one-line summary says, "In a canter," or "Won under restraint," or "As the rider pleased," or "Won easing up."
Among his coups in 1914 were a smashing victory in the Carter H. against older horses, setting a track record for seven furlongs at Aqueduct in 1:24 4/5; an eight-length rout in the Brooklyn Derby; a 10-length tour de force in the Travers S. while establishing a new Saratoga mark of 2:04 for 1 1/4 miles; a bloodless walkover success in the 1 1/2-mile Autumn Weight-for-Age at Belmont; and his seal to a brilliant season, a 1 1/2-length score in the Washington H. at Laurel Park, giving 22 pounds to the runner-up and posting a final time of 1:49 3/5, breaking the American nine-furlong record.
At the age of four in 1915, he added more clips to his highlight reel, including the 1 1/8-mile Brookdale H. by five lengths, equaling the Aqueduct track record of 1:50 3/5 under a 128-pound impost; Saratoga's venerable Merchants and Citizens H. courageously toting 129 pounds over 1 3/16 miles; the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup by eight lengths; and the 1 1/8-mile National H. at Laurel lugging 132 pounds. For those sterling efforts, Roamer was officially named Horse of the Year in both 1914 and 1915.
Although unable to tower over his opposition during the remainder of his career from 1916 through 1919, Roamer was still an elite performer, more than capable of finding the fountain of youth on occasion and reminding racegoers of his front-running mastery. The 1917 Aqueduct H. is a case in point. Carrying 127 pounds, Roamer dictated the pace en route to a three-length win in the 1 1/8-mile stakes, spotting the second-place finisher 19 pounds and the third 26.
Remarkably, Roamer turned in two of his best performances at the age of seven in 1918. In notching his third victory in the Saratoga H., he shattered his own track record set in the Travers by nearly two seconds, completing the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 1/5 under 129 pounds.
Also at Saratoga 20 days later, Roamer eclipsed the mile mark of one of the giants of 19th century racing, Salvator, in a race against time with no effective opposition, carded as the Special. His sole companion in the affair was the juvenile Lightning, whose presence was called for just to trick Roamer into thinking that this was real competition and not a workout.
From a running start, the veteran quickly opened up on the outclassed youth. Toting a feathery 110-pound impost, the same weight Salvator carried when establishing the mile record of 1:35 1/2 (different splits in those days), Roamer skipped through fractions of :23 3/5, :46 and 1:10 1/5 and stopped the watch in 1:34 4/5. In a great display of sportsmanship, Salvator's trainer Byrne was there to congratulate the new record-holder. It was the last hurrah for the quaint practice of racing against time, with all future records being established in the context of competitive racing.
After starting only six times in 1919 with one victory at Aqueduct, Roamer was sent to the farm to convalesce. At the end of the year, reportedly within hours of his owner's death, Roamer lost his footing on an icy patch in his paddock and injured himself irreparably. He was humanely put down on January 1, 1920.
His career mark stands at 39 wins, 26 seconds and nine thirds from 98 starts, amassing $98,828 during seven seasons of racing at the highest level of competition. Roamer was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1981.
In one of those fascinating quirks of equine genetics, the female line of Rose Tree has experienced a renaissance in recent years, chiefly through her descendant La Eva (Barbizon), who figures in the maternal line of multiple Grade 1 king Formal Gold, multiple Grade 2 winner Even the Score (Unbridled's Song) and promising three-year-old Noonmark (Unbridled's Song), a 10-length Belmont maiden winner for Steve Asmussen.
Trainer Goldsborough and jockey Andy Schuttinger, his regular rider for the last three years of his career, get the last word on the great gelding. (The following quotations were originally published in the Daily Racing Form and reprinted in the British Bloodstock Breeders' Review, Vol. VII, No. 4, December 1918, p. 367.)
"He can't be handled like an ordinary horse," Goldsborough said, explaining how Roamer thrived on a heavy workload. "You must set him down -- flatten him out -- or he isn't worth a quarter...That amount of work would have cooked any ordinary horse, but it only put Roamer on edge, and he got it hot and heavy up to two days before he lowered the mile record."
Goldsborough also commented on his star's finicky eating habits.
"He has never weighed over 1,000 pounds and, as a younger horse, I had the greatest difficulty getting him to eat six or seven quarts of oats a day. He was given this at night, and you never saw a poorer hay eater. He wouldn't eat a mash until recently, and I don't know where he got his vitality."
"The old fellow is unlike any other horse I ever rode," Schuttinger said. "When he was younger, he wanted to dive into his bit and stand his opponents on their heads the first half-mile. Now, as he grows older, I have to ride him nearly all the way. He likes a fast, hard track, and on that kind of footing you would think you were in a rocking chair.
"He is as smart as they come, but is as honest as the day is long," his rider continued. "He will give up to the last ounce of speed he has on tap."
"His action is what makes him great," his trainer observed. "I never expect to see another like him."
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