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Crafty Admiral -- 1952 Champion Handicap Horse
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Crafty Admiral -- 1952 Champion Handicap Horse

by Kellie Reilly

With Gulfstream Park hosting a graded stakes extravaganza on Saturday, it's an opportune time to recall Crafty Admiral, champion handicap horse in 1952, who scored notable stakes victories in his only two starts at that track. One of those branded with the hackneyed epithet of "Cinderella horse," the Admiral is also a fine example of a near-miss in racing and breeding history, illustrating that the descent of our equine heroes depends on an alarmingly fragile, and chancy, thread.

Bred by Harry F. Guggenheim in Kentucky, Crafty Admiral was sired by Fighting Fox, a full brother to 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. Although the younger Fox could not match the elder's talent, he nevertheless won a number of valuable stakes, including the Massachusetts H., Carter H. and Wood Memorial. The Admiral's dam was, fittingly, a daughter of 1937 Triple Crown champion War Admiral named Admiral's Lady. She would later become the granddam of another handicap star, Beau Purple, who handed the mighty Kelso a few reverses in 1962-63.

A very late foal, the Admiral was born on June 6, 1948. As a yearling, he was sold at a special auction of Guggenheim horses held in the Belmont Park paddock in 1949. H.A. Grant bought him for $6,500, with one of the underbidders being the famed Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farm where the Admiral was raised.

His early career did not stamp him as championship material. Under the tutelage of B.B. Williams at two, he came to hand soon enough to win going five furlongs in July and later added two allowance scores, all three successes coming at New York's old Jamaica track. From three stakes attempts, his best finish was a second in the U.S. Hotel S. at Saratoga. All in all, it was a decent record for a June foal who was probably behind the developmental curve at that stage. The Admiral's three-year-old season, though, was an unmitigated failure. He did not race until August, when he backed up to sixth in a Saratoga allowance. Problematic ankles, said to resemble boxing gloves, sidelined him for the rest of the year.

At a crossroads in his life, negotiations were under way to sell him privately. A Colombian horseman was reportedly close to arranging a purchase. If the Admiral had been exported to South America, racing history -- and our present experience -- would be profoundly different.

Sometimes the "What ifs?" in racing can be fascinating, challenging, even more glorious than what actually happened. In this case, reminiscent of the classic film It's A Wonderful Life, the counterfactual offers a despondently chilling prospect. For without Crafty Admiral, there would have been no Affirmed to wage an historic rivalry with Alydar. No Danzig to rock the international stage through his supersire son Danehill, along with a host of other major performers, not to mention the incalculable loss of Danzig's daughters, who have produced the likes of Fusaichi Pegasus. No Afleet Alex to amaze us with his Preakness (G1) heroics and Belmont S. (G1) brilliance.

Thankfully, we were graced with these heroes because trainer Bob Odom managed to snap up Crafty Admiral for a rumored $14,000. He was acting on behalf of Charles and Frances Cohen, who raced under the name of Charfran Stable.

The Admiral blossomed in Odom's care, and experts observed that the magnificent bay with the distinctive blaze favored his sire's side of the family. Getting an early start to his championship year, the four-year-old decisively took three-of-four outings in January. He scored his first-ever stakes coup in Hialeah's Palm Beach H. in grand style, setting a new track record while wrapping up seven furlongs in 1:22, shaving two ticks off the old mark that had stood for 11 years.

In what would become a pattern for him, Crafty Admiral slid up and down the distance scale without difficulty, not requiring an orderly progression from sprints to routes but bouncing back and forth successfully like a yo-yo. After his record-setting performance, he stepped up to 1 1/8 miles for the first time and wired an allowance field. A little more than two weeks later, he dropped back to seven furlongs and won by a hard-driving neck.

In his next outing after that sprint, Odom stretched him out to 1 1/4 miles in the Gulfstream Park H. This was the unveiling of what the American Racing Manual described as his "zealous manner of going (that) made him one of the most exciting performers of the season." The Admiral was full steam ahead from the break, opening a clear lead through splits of :46 2/5, 1:10 3/5 and 1:35. He began to drift out exiting the backstretch and on the far turn, apparently fatigued, as the classy stakes veteran Alerted launched his closing bid. The Admiral straightened his course in the stretch and managed to hang on for the victory in a sharp final time of 2:01, but his margin had dwindled to a neck. The riders of Alerted and the third-place finisher claimed foul, arguing that the winner's drifting had interfered with their mounts, but the stewards decided that the result should stand.

Remarkably, he turned up next in the six-furlong Toboggan H. at Belmont Park. Furiously charging late from just off the pace, he drew to within a half-length of Dark Peter when the wire came too quickly for him. Both horses had turned in outstanding efforts in the second-fastest Toboggan ever run up to that date, completed in 1:09 1/5, but it's worth noting that the Admiral was shouldering 10 pounds more than Dark Peter.

After coming in sixth in the Metropolitan Mile, and finishing second three straight times, the Admiral got a rider switch to Hall of Famer Eric Guerin, best known for piloting the immortal Native Dancer. Whether different handling helped him, or he was simply reaching the form of his life, Crafty Admiral strung together a four-race win streak that would garner him year-end honors.

In the 1 1/4-mile Brooklyn H. at Aqueduct, he took command early, and with Guerin cleverly rationing his speed through kinder fractions of :47, 1:11 3/5 and 1:37, the Admiral cruised home by six lengths with energy in reserve, stopping the watch in 2:01 4/5. After sailing to the wire first in the Merchants and Citizens H. in much the same fashion, spotting his foes between six and 22 pounds over sloppy going, he took his show on the road to Chicago's Washington Park.

With the renowned Eddie Arcaro in the irons, the Admiral led from pillar to post in the 1 3/16-mile Whirlaway H., named for the 1941 Triple Crown hero whom Arcaro himself had ridden. So easily did he dispose of the field that Arcaro said, "This is really a running horse." Dropping back down to a mile in the Washington Park H. and reunited with Guerin, the Admiral ran the highly touted Spartan Valor into submission after five-eighths en route to a handy two-length score in the mud, toting 128 pounds. In his final outing of the season, he failed to stay the two miles of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished a distant third to Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old One Count, but that was not held against him.

The Admiral was hailed as a Cinderella horse. Emerging from obscurity, he had vaulted into the spotlight as champion of his division. By amassing $277,225 in 1952, he also ranked as the year's leading money winner.

As a five-year-old in 1953, Crafty Admiral was unable to repeat as champion handicap horse, with the honors rightly going to Tom Fool for his perfect season, but he added six more stakes to his scorecard. His two most notable successes were his second Gulfstream Park H. crown, outdueling the high-class Battlefield while carrying 128 pounds, and a 10-length romp in the Empire City Gold Cup at Jamaica. Reportedly because his earnings of $499,200 were tantalizingly close to the half-million mark, his connections ran him in the Washington D.C. International S. in hopes that he could add the extra $800 to his bankroll, but he didn't enjoy himself in his grass debut and trailed home last of 10.

With a career mark of 18 wins, six seconds and four thirds from 39 starts, the Admiral was retired to stud near Lexington, Kentucky. He became a leading sire and lived to the age of 24. Among his sons, Admiral's Voyage was a classy performer who captured such significant stakes as the Wood Memorial and Carter H. and was second in the 1962 Belmont. In his chief claim to fame, Admiral's Voyage sired the dam of Danzig, but without a series of successful sons to keep it going, the sire line of Crafty Admiral has since disappeared.

In contrast, Crafty Admiral's terrific influence through his daughters continues. Won't Tell You, the dam of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, was by Crafty Admiral. Other daughters figure in the direct maternal lines of Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winners Black Tie Affair (Ire) and Alphabet Soup, successful stallion Crafty Prospector, and recently crowned champion Afleet Alex.

Although he is not ranked among racing's all-time greats on the track, and has not been voted into the Hall of Fame, the Admiral nonetheless has carved a special niche for himself by contributing to the genetic makeup of future champions. To borrow an analogy from naval history, Crafty Admiral was no Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar and the Nile. Even so, just as Britannia did not need a Royal Navy full of Nelsons to rule the waves, the Thoroughbred is not solely shaped by superstars, as valuable as they are. Crafty Admiral certainly rates as a highly capable commander of the fleet who did his duty to chart the future course of the breed.


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