Busher -- 1945 Horse of the Year
by Kellie Reilly
Looking forward to Aqueduct's homage to Busher on Sunday, we will take for our subject one of the most remarkable fillies ever to grace the American stage. Racing first for a titan of the turf and then for a movie mogul, Busher refused to be typecast as the shy damsel cloistered in the safety of her own division. Rather, she resembled the tough leading ladies of the silver screen who were more than a match for the men, earning her the Horse of the Year title as a mere three-year-old. Although Busher's accomplishments on the track have secured her place in racing history, she's also noteworthy for factoring in the pedigree of 1977 Triple Crown hero and top sire Seattle Slew.
Bred by the renowned Col. E. R. Bradley, Busher was sired by 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral from Baby League (Bubbling Over), herself a daughter of the profoundly influential mare *La Troienne (*Teddy). Bradley's bloodstock manager, Olin Gentry, later related that he had to persuade the Colonel to send Baby League to War Admiral, as Bradley was biased against the Fair Play/Man O'War sire line whence War Admiral sprung, believing it yielded ungenuine types who would not heartily exert themselves. According to noted author Abram S. Hewitt, Gentry convinced the Colonel by pointing out that War Admiral's small, dark bay physique resembled his dam's sire, the great Sweep, so using War Admiral equated to using Sweep. This vignette serves as a useful reminder of how little we know of the backdrop to momentous breeding decisions. What on paper may look a straightforward match, gilded with the misleading sense of inevitability that comes with hindsight, may in reality have been anything but.
A chestnut with an elegantly drawn star on her forehead, Busher raced for Bradley during her championship two-year-old season in 1944 under the care of conditioner Jimmy Smith, a former jockey who had ridden for Bradley. She contested six of her seven races at Belmont Park, where the elderly Colonel had a glass-enclosed observation post on the roof to shield him from inclement weather, not to mention the boisterous crowd. After capturing her first two outings, Busher made her stakes debut in the six-furlong Spinaway S., but she spoiled her chances by breaking poorly as the last of 12 away from the gate. She did conjure up a ferocious closing burst to get fourth.
In subsequent contests, Busher would turn the tables on the Spinaway's top finishers. Next time out in the Adirondack H., Busher once again caused herself problems by bobbling at the start. With the legendary Eddie Arcaro in the saddle, however, she recovered quickly enough to stalk the pace, then drive clear to a two-length victory. She narrowly lost her allowance tune-up for the Matron S. when failing to give the winner Nomadic 11 pounds, going down by a head in a final time of 1:08 3/5, but the scrappy Busher paid her back with interest when notching a hard-fought victory in the Matron itself, relegating Spinaway winner Price Level to third and Nomadic only fourth.
Busher crowned her juvenile campaign with a comprehensive three-length score in the Selima S. at Laurel Park. As the Daily Racing Form chart describes it, she was again away slowly, but "well handled (by Arcaro) to escape interference on the first turn," she advanced along the backstretch and "displaced (Spinaway runner-up) Ace Card when asked and drew clear without being placed to pressure." Reporting home third that day was Gallorette, who would later achieve greatness as the champion handicap mare of 1946.
These early races already revealed a flinty element of Busher's character that would be on display throughout her career -- Busher never allowed a rival to savor victory at her expense for good. She had a penchant for getting the final word in an argument, as if to emphasize the point that any setbacks she encountered were purely temporary, and that she was clearly the best on merit. Turf authority William H. P. Robertson phrased it well in his essential History of Thoroughbred Racing in America.
"The salient attribute of War Admiral's little daughter," Robertson said, "was she always took revenge."
Busher's three-year-old trajectory was altered by the course of World War II. At the request of the Director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, James F. Byrnes, tracks suspended racing as 1945 dawned in order to concentrate manpower, transportation and gasoline resources for the war effort. Racing was to resume once the Allies achieved victory in Europe, but in the midst of uncertainty as to when exactly this would occur, Col. Bradley sold some of his racing stock, including Busher.
In March 1945, Busher was snapped up for $50,000 by Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios fame. The movie mogul was well versed in collecting female star power, as MGM at one time or another boasted such sirens as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford and the spitfire Katharine Hepburn, like Busher a redhead who thrived in competition with males and dished out better than she got.
Busher took her lessons from new director George Odom. Soon after V-E Day was celebrated, Santa Anita eagerly kicked off its meeting in May, and Busher was likewise spoiling for action after her long holiday. Under Hall of Famer Johnny Longden, who partnered 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, the chestnut easily drew off by five lengths in a six-furlong allowance to win "as (the) rider pleased." She came right back a week later to stroll home by seven lengths in the Santa Susanna S.
With no sophomores of her own sex to challenge her, Busher squared off against colts for the first time in the one-mile San Vicente H. and was sent off the 3-5 favorite. Unintimidated by the riderless Quick Reward, who managed to interfere with several in the field, the filly simply rolled with the punches, weaving to a 1 1/4-length score in an impressive time of 1:36 3/5, reportedly the fastest mile of the year at Santa Anita. Busher did not deliver in the Santa Anita Derby, however, as the 1-2 choice. In front by three in the stretch, she was just caught by Bymeabond, another former Bradley-owned runner, under an inspired ride by George "The Iceman" Woolf.
After shouldering co-topweight of 126 pounds in a decisive victory over older females in the Santa Margarita H., Busher traveled to Chicago for her Washington Park premiere. She dusted her rival from juvenile days, Twosy, in the Cleopatra H., then confronted older males for the first time -- giving some of them weight -- in the Arlington H., posting a 4 1/2-length, wire-to-wire score in her first attempt at 1 1/4 miles. Those successes literally saddled her with a 128-pound burden in the Beverly H. In a stunning upset, Busher was unable to give away 12 pounds to champion Durazna and wound up third.
That reverse prompted a match race between Busher and Durazna over the Washington Park mile at level weights. In a "thrilling spectacle of gameness," as Robertson put it, the two battled every yard of the way on the good track, neither giving an inch. Racing on the inside, Busher had her head in front through the opening quarter in :23, but Durazna scraped to a neck advantage at the half-mile in :45 3/5. Busher would not allow that for long, clawing back to regain the lead and willing herself to cross the wire three-quarters of a length to the good. The little daughter of War Admiral got her revenge indeed.
Her final Chicago effort, the Washington Park H., was arguably the best of her career, ranking her among racing's pantheon. Lining up against her was Armed, regarded as perhaps the top older male in training at that time and a subsequent two-time champion and Horse of the Year. Busher tracked in third in the early going, seized command, and responded generously under pressure to hold the mighty Armed at bay by 1 1/2 lengths. Moreover, she broke the 13-year-old track record for 1 1/4 miles, stopping the clock in 2:01 4/5.
After that race, turf writer John Hervey paid her a handsome compliment. "I am no longer quoting Yo Tambien (a legendary racemare who won 44 of 73 career starts in the 1890s) as supreme among the queens of the American turf in my time," Hervey wrote (as reprinted in the Blood-Horse Golden Anniversary Edition).
Back at her Southern California headquarters, Busher lost a head decision in the Will Rogers H. when attempting to give Quick Reward 11 pounds, but she got her revenge next out in the Hollywood Derby while overcoming a bumping match in the first turn. Not only did she repay Quick Reward, but she also settled accounts with Santa Anita Derby winner Bymeabond, who was off the board. In her final start of 1945, she carried 126 pounds while racking up an easy two-length score against older females in the Vanity H.
Busher earned the laurels in 10 of 13 starts as a sophomore, placing in the other three, and her career bankroll of $334,035 was the highest of any female at that time. Accorded Horse of the Year honors as a filly, Busher was voted champion three-year-old as well as champion handicap mare (a title open to three-year-olds then).
Although plans called for her to continue racing, Busher came out of a workout with an injury that sidelined her until January 1947. Finishing fifth in her abortive comeback in a Santa Anita allowance, she was retired. Her final scorecard stands at 15 wins, three seconds and a third from 21 starts.
Offered as part of a lavish Mayer dispersal at Santa Anita in February 1947, with three radio networks broadcasting the bidding on the star attractions, Busher went through the ring for $135,000. While Neil McCarthy was listed as the buyer, he was actually an adviser to Mayer, and the champion went back to her owner. She was sold privately in 1948 to Elizabeth Graham's Maine Chance Farm for a reputed $150,000.
Busher did not enjoy a long broodmare career, as she died at the age of 13 from complications after foaling. She still made her mark, chiefly through her son Jet Action (Jet Pilot), who followed in her footsteps by capturing the 1955 Washington Park H. along with five other stakes. Jet Action went on to become the broodmare sire of 1970 champion two-year-old filly Forward Gal (Native Charger) and, most portentously, 1972 Fair Grounds Oaks queen My Charmer (Poker). My Charmer has gained immortality by producing Triple Crown hero Seattle Slew, and she achieved a transatlantic classic double by foaling 1983 Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1) winner Lomond.
Busher rates as a significant factor in Slew's pedigree because My Charmer is inbred 3x3 to Busher and her full sister, stakes winner Striking. Although not measuring up to her sister's greatness on the track, Striking has excelled herself as a broodmare, with her female descendants producing the likes of 2004 dual classic hero Smarty Jones, 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft and a host of others too numerous to mention.
If Busher were an actress, she would be acclaimed for her range. As a Broadway ingénue, she demonstrated speed and precocity. As a Hollywood star, she excelled at the classic distance to defeat older males. Fittingly, Busher has our sport's equivalent of a star on the walk of fame, having been inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1964.
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