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Black Gold -- 1924 Kentucky Derby winner
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Black Gold -- 1924 Kentucky Derby winner

by Kellie Reilly

The Black Gold S. was contested on closing day of the Fair Grounds meeting in exile at Louisiana Downs last Sunday, a tribute to "as game a horse as ever stood on plates," as the Thoroughbred Record eulogized him. For seven decades, Black Gold reigned as the only horse to win both the Kentucky and Louisiana Derbies, until the advent of Grindstone in 1996. That unique achievement elevated him to the status of a treasured icon at the Fair Grounds, where he is still revered. It was in New Orleans that he first showed talent out of the ordinary, it was at the famed Gentilly oval that he met his death unflinching, and it was in that infield, not far from the sixteenth pole, that he was laid to rest.

Black Gold's origins have become the stuff of legend. His dam, Useeit (Bonnie Joe), was a small Oklahoma-bred who outran her obscure pedigree. Purchased as a juvenile by Al Hoots, Useeit won 34 races, campaigning chiefly on the southwestern circuit but also running a few times at the Fair Grounds. She had brilliant speed, but she could not carry it very far, six furlongs proving her absolute maximum trip. On several occasions, Useeit chased the dazzling Pan Zareta, who was famous for capturing 76 of her 151 races.

Hoots cherished his mare but misjudged by entering her in a claiming race at Juarez, Mexico, in 1916, and another horseman promptly stepped in with a claim. Hoots flatly refused to hand her over and preferred to suffer the consequences of being banned from the track rather than part with her, absconding with her back home to Oklahoma.

The following year, as his health declined, Hoots prognosticated that Useeit's yet-to-be-conceived son would win the Kentucky Derby. Accounts of the episode vary, some casting it in the manner of visionary prophecy, others remaining earth-bound and relegating Hoots' statement to merely fond hopes and wishes. One version of the story is that he specifically told his wife, Rosa, to breed her to Col. E. R. Bradley's blue-blooded Black Toney; another holds that he urged her to be bred to a good stallion in Kentucky. It's also been reported that Bradley himself was so taken with Useeit at the Fair Grounds that he asked Hoots to contact him when she began her broodmare career.

Regardless of the precise details of the arrangement, Black Gold's incarnation of a deathbed wish, or promise, makes him a riveting character. His name holds special meaning as well. Rosa Hoots had Osage forebears, and that Native American tribe was among those benefiting from the discovery of oil on their lands. The precious resource was dubbed "Black Gold."

The black son of Black Toney and Useeit showed promise very early as a two-year-old, and he generated the proverbial racetrack buzz before his debut. His trainer, Hedley (variously rendered Hanley or Harry) Webb, unveiled him in a January 8 maiden at the Fair Grounds, which he won handily. Black Gold went on to capture nine of 18 starts as a juvenile, most notably the Bashford Manor S. at Churchill Downs. Keen-eyed observers took note, and Mrs. Hoots was said to have been offered $50,000 for her colt. Needless to say, she turned it down.

After starting 1924 with allowance victories, Black Gold tackled the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. He wasted no time in splashing to an early lead in the mud and, outclassing his beleaguered opposition, wired the field to coast home by six lengths.

Then he was deployed to Louisville. Once word spread how strongly he was training, and as top Derby hopefuls Sarazen, Wise Counsellor and St. James each fell by the wayside, Black Gold's odds dropped from 30-1 to 12-1. After he scored a facile eight-length win in the Derby Trial, contested four days before the main event, he catapulted into Derby favoritism, ultimately going off as the nearly 9-5 choice.

As 1924's renewal marked the 50th edition of the venerable race, it was the Golden Jubilee Derby. This running established two new traditions as well: the first golden trophy in the shape and style we are accustomed to today, and the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."

Black Gold overcame a rough trip to wear the roses. Breaking from the rail, he tracked the early leaders, then suffered interference and had to check. His rider, New Orleanian J. D. Mooney, managed to find a pathway at an opportune time. Recovering beautifully, Black Gold once more gathered momentum. While the classy Chilhowee appeared to be sitting in the proverbial catbird's seat, skimming the rail in the stretch, Black Gold was parked out well wide, but the Hoots colt still mowed Chilhowee down late to get up by a half-length. As respected turf writer John Hervey phrased it in his magisterial Racing in America, Black Gold "won it in race-horse style after a rough race, displaying rare determination."

While fulfilling Al Hoots' dream, Useeit's son also made Rosa the first woman to breed and own a Kentucky Derby winner. The media establishment marveled that a Native American woman had won this much coveted prize.

Wheeling back on short rest in the Ohio State Derby at Maple Heights near Cleveland, Black Gold added a third Derby to his scorecard with an easy three-length tally. In his last illustrious win, he turned in a stylish performance while toting 129 pounds in the Chicago Derby at Hawthorne, recovering from a disastrous start and unleashing a sweeping move to win by eight lengths. Mrs. Hoots' colt had racked up four Derbies in four different states, a feat unmatched for decades.

As the traditional story goes, the heavy racing had begun to take its toll on Black Gold, and he reportedly came up with a quarter crack. Ironically, a similar fate befell his sire Black Toney, who was overraced and later suffered chronic foot problems. Unable to perform up to his usual standard, Black Gold finished last of three in the Raceland Derby, beaten by horses he had dismissed easily at Churchill Downs. Another loss was followed by a victory in an ordinary mile race at Latonia.

The Thoroughbred Record described his season as "about as vigorous a campaign as a horse could be called upon to undergo, one that knew no let-ups and that never dodged a single issue." Black Gold compiled a record of nine wins and two thirds from 13 starts, with $91,340 in earnings, but he was not named champion three-year-old. That honor was accorded to the deserving Sarazen, the Eastern star who capped a successful year with a dashing victory over French invader *Epinard in the third International Special in a sensational time.

Although it's an unprovable assertion, I have long thought that Black Gold at his best would have been a prime contender in that 1 1/4-mile International and may well have given Sarazen a real tussle had he taken part. Whenever fans engage in hypotheticals, past or present, they must confront the age-old question, "Who did he ever beat?"  To gauge Black Gold's merit, and to put a new twist on the familiar tale, it's worth trawling the form book.

The Kentucky Derby runner-up, Chilhowee, won three major stakes in 1924 – the Clark H., Latonia Derby (in stakes record time for the 1 1/2 miles, actually defeating Black Gold, who was giving upwards of eight pounds to his rivals) and Latonia Championship by eight lengths while setting a new American record for 1 3/4 miles.

The second and third-place finishers from the Preakness (run before the Derby then), Transmute and Mad Play, could do no better than 6th and 10th, respectively, at Churchill. (The Preakness winner was the filly Nellie Morse.) Mad Play would win the Belmont, along with the Brookdale, Continental and Yorktown H., and finish an excellent third in Sarazen's International Special. Transmute came a close second in the prestigious Lawrence Realization.

Derby fourth Altawood captured the Latonia Cup, Bowie H. and Pimlico Cup, and after suffering interference, exploded to grab a close fourth in that significant International Special #3.

In taking the Chicago Derby by storm, Black Gold gave favored Ladkin six pounds and a comprehensive beating. Ladkin defeated Epinard in International Special #2 and scored smart wins in the Dwyer and Edgemere H.

Although any one of these rivals may have arguably had a bad day now and then, an unambiguous pattern emerges from the evidence of the form book: when at his peak, Black Gold defeated a gang of tough customers, and he did it with verve. In the words of the Thoroughbred Record, "No more brilliant racehorse than Black Gold has been seen under colors in the past decade." Through the mysterious alchemy of genetics, the potent compound of Useeit's speed and Black Toney's stamina was transformed into Black Gold.

Black Gold was retired to stud, but like some other top horses of his day -- Zev, Grey Lag and Whiskery -- he turned out to be sterile.

In 1927, he was subjected to an ill-advised comeback. Despite failing to hit the board in three tries at six, Black Gold was led out again at the age of seven at the Fair Grounds on January 18, 1928. Although his flesh was palpably weak, his spirit was still willing. It is a testimony to his unflagging will that despite chronic physical discomfort, Black Gold did not sour, did not shirk, did not sulk. As he made a valiant attempt to make up ground in the stretch, he broke down, and after continuing to run to the wire on three legs, had to be destroyed.

In his burial spot at the Fair Grounds, Black Gold nearly came full circle. Close by lie the remains of Pan Zareta, Useeit's old rival.

A poignant devotion to Black Gold was on display annually at the New Orleans track. Following the running of the January stakes in his honor, appropriately carded in the month of his demise, the winning jockey would lay flowers at the hero's tomb, escorted by descendants of Rosa Hoots. Hopefully, the Black Gold S. will once again be staged at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, and the graveside ceremony revived.

Including his abortive comeback, Black Gold's career mark stands at 18 wins, five seconds and four thirds from 35 starts, with earnings of $110,553. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1989.

His story will continue to be told and retold as long as there is racing. Partly this is because his biography has the elements of a gripping page-turner – the son of an aristocrat and a commoner, deathbed dreams fulfilled, triumph and tragedy, love and loss, fatal misjudgments.

Still, the allure of Black Gold transcends the literary because he embodies the moral qualities of the racehorse, his unquantifiable heart, courage and sheer will. Black Gold exemplifies the spirit of the Thoroughbred, and there can be no higher praise than that.

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