September 25, 2020

Historical Cameo – Alsab

Originally appearing May 16, 2006

Alsab — 1942 Preakness winner

With the 131st running of the Preakness S. (G1) on the horizon, it is an
opportune time to remember Alsab, the 1942 Preakness hero who earned immortality
by upending Whirlaway, the previous year’s Triple Crown winner, in their
gripping match race. An inexpensive yearling purchase from uninspiring
parentage, Alsab triumphed over not only his pedigree, but also the
stresses and strains of an unrelenting 22-race juvenile campaign followed by a
merciless 23-race sophomore season, twice garnering championship honors in a
career often regarded as unprecedented in racing history. His
story was not one of smooth sailing or uninterrupted progress, as he had his
share of problems at three, but this great-hearted gladiator never quit. When finally retired to stud, Alsab made an enduring contribution to
the breed by rescuing the male line of Domino, which had been teetering
precariously on the brink, and established a line of succession that
remains viable today.

Foaled in Kentucky on April 28, 1939, Alsab was from the first crop of Good
Goods, who stood at Brookdale Farm, operated by Alsab’s breeder, Thomas Piatt.
Although Good Goods was a decent multiple stakes winner who placed in a few prestigious
events, most notably third in the 1934 Belmont S., he did not rank high among
the male line descendants of the brilliant Domino, and indeed he had little
success at stud besides Alsab. Even more problematic for his prospects as a
stallion, the Domino sire
line had fallen out of fashion, as European imports were all the rage. Alsab’s dam,
Winds Chant (Wildair), was even less appealing. Once sold for a mere $90, she
had toiled in the maiden claiming ranks and failed to win in eight tries,
hitting the board only once.

As a yearling, the bay colt with a star on his forehead was offered at
Saratoga. Trainer August Swenke, known as “Sarge” because of his
distinguished service in
World War I, picked him out for Albert Sabath, an attorney in
Chicago, Illinois, and head of Hawthorne Racecourse. The winning bid was just
$700, well below the auction’s average of $1,763, not surprising considering his
down at heel parents. Sabath named the
colt for himself, shortening his first and last name into the compound “Alsab.” Naturally, there were no grandiose plans for the modest youngster, so he was not
nominated to such valuable two-year-old prizes as the Futurity S. That omission
would have fascinating consequences.

Racing early and often in the spring of his juvenile year, Alsab ran
creditably in Florida and Kentucky, but only after setting up headquarters in
Illinois did he begin to show that he was something out of the ordinary. In his
10th outing, the May 31 Joliet S. at Lincoln Fields, Alsab was embroiled in
traffic trouble in the five-furlong sprint, but he broke free and stormed to a
five-length score. Shifting to Arlington Park, he worked five-eighths in a
bullet :57 2/5, one full second faster than the track record and just one tick off
the American record, and then proceeded to
dust the field in the Primer S. by seven lengths. Alsab continued his
sightseeing tour of the country at Suffolk Downs, landing the Mayflower S. in
fine fashion, the first in a 10-race winning streak that would round out his
hectic two-year-old season. Even in that era of iron horses, questions were
already being raised about the rigors of his schedule.

While Alsab was compiling an impressive record, he was not the only juvenile
on a tear. The New York-based Requested had racked up seven stakes himself,
including the Cowdin S. and Tremont S. Neither of these exciting juveniles
were eligible for the Futurity, so Belmont Park President Alfred G. Vanderbilt
stepped into the breach by orchestrating a match race between Alsab and
Requested at 6 1/2 furlongs, each carrying 122 pounds, with a winner-take-all
purse of $10,000.

Staged on September 23, a Tuesday, the match race drew a sizeable crowd of
22,381. Spectators traveled from all over to attend what renowned turf writer
John Hervey dubbed “the great sporting event of the turf year” (emphasis
in the original, American Race Horses of 1941).

Starter George Cassidy, famous for presiding over the break in the Seabiscuit-War
Admiral match, did the honors for this duel as well. Requested blazed to the early lead. With Bobby Vedder aboard,
his regular rider at that time, Alsab was traveling well just a length behind.
When Vedder asked his mount the question, Alsab ranged up to his rival and after
hesitating momentarily, seized the lead while getting six furlongs in a
withering 1:09 4/5. According to Hervey, that was the fastest six furlongs ever
dashed around Belmont’s oval (as opposed to the straight course) up to that time. Alsab kept rolling to a 3 1/2-length score in a final time of 1:16,
smashing the track record, set
in 1920 by a four-year-old shouldering less weight, by more than a full second
and just one tick off the world mark. The crowd was boisterous in its
admiration, with many bursting out of the infield onto the track to come nearer
to their conquering hero.

Perhaps the best critique of this performance came from rival horsemen. Of
the top four finishers in the Futurity, not a single one dared to oppose Alsab
in the Champagne S. Despite a zigzag trip, navigating back and forth between the
outside and the rail because of a traffic jam, Alsab exploded to a seven-length
success, in Hervey’s view displaying a “power and speed that appeared
unlimited.” What was even more eye-popping was the bay colt’s time — 1:35 2/5, a
new world record for a juvenile, as well as the swiftest mile posted during the
entire 1941 season by any Thoroughbred.

Apparently Sabath didn’t consider the Champagne enough of a high note to end
the year on, so his dutiful colorbearer was sent into battle twice more in
Maryland stakes, capturing both. Alsab was crowned champion two-year-old and
assigned 130 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap, four above the usual 126
for the top of the class.

So completely had Alsab captured the imagination that he was actually invited
to the Pimlico Special, where he would have met top older horses. That offer was
wisely rejected, but Sabath made a grand show of nominating his alter ego for
the Kentucky Derby at the ridiculously early date of October 14, earlier than
anyone had ever nominated a classic hopeful.

Sabath was bursting with pride at his star’s unusual intelligence. In a
letter reprinted in part by Hervey, Sabath described how Alsab was an active
participant in his morning ritual. Before going to the track, he would pick up
each of his four feet in succession so that they could be cleaned, then bow his
head so that his customary blinkers could be applied. After his exercise, he
himself decided how many times he needed to circle the shedrow before he was
completely cooled out and when it was appropriate to re-enter his stall.

Hervey raved about the juvenile’s physical qualities, finding his body type
reminiscent of a greyhound and his legs “deer-like.” He marveled at Alsab’s
“controllability as a racing tool,” his ability to be positioned anywhere in a
race. Hervey also captured Alsab’s way of going, succinctly translating kinetics
into words.

“In action, Alsab is not of the drum-roll stroke so common among precocious
juveniles,” he observed, explaining that the colt took time to gather himself.
“Then,” Hervey continued, “as he gradually increases his speed until
it becomes prodigious, there is no apparent quickening of his stride. When at
the very top of his flight, he never struggles or gives an effect of extreme
exertion, rather everything he does appears easy and within his powers.

“The future of this colt will be more eagerly looked forward to than that of almost any
other since Man o’ War,” Hervey summed up, invoking the ultimate comparison.

With fate thus tempted, the wheels promptly came off. Shipped to Kentucky in mid-November for a well
deserved break, Alsab looked exhausted. Instead of spending his vacation in the
peaceful and quiet surroundings of a farm, he took up residence at Keeneland,
where he was besieged by visitors. His breeder, Piatt, was worried about his
condition, describing him as “dead on his feet.” Even worse, Alsab enjoyed
precious little time to unwind because the game plan was suddenly changed. He
was now to cut short his holiday and resume training in Florida, with the
Widener H. against older horses his first major objective. Alsab had his nose pushed back to the
grindstone.

Back in action in early February, the bay colt turned in three straight subpar
efforts within three weeks at Hialeah, but an undeterred Sabath threw him into the
1 1/4-mile Widener on March 7. A press release from the Alsab camp implausibly
claimed that Sabath would not run his star if it were solely up to him, but that
he now belonged to the people, and the people expected to watch their hero. It was an impossible
task in the circumstances, yet Alsab soldiered on for fifth, beaten a total of 1
1/2 lengths. 

Contemporary observers rightly decried this mismanagement. Less understandable
were those who lashed out at the horse himself, rejecting Alsab as washed up, an
overrated has-been, a flash-in-the-pan juvenile. Some fickle racegoers booed the
worn-out colt, who had nothing else to give but his all.

That hasty, not to say cruel, verdict sold Alsab short, as he would soon
prove. Somehow, he gradually came back to himself in the course of the spring,
placing in his three starts prior to the Kentucky Derby and showing flashes of
his former brilliance in the Run for the Roses itself. Uncorking a furious rally
to advance from 10th to fourth at roughly the halfway stage, he got up for
second on the wire, but he could not get close enough to threaten Shut Out, a clear
winner by 2 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs.

“He had actually raced himself into condition after a regimen that should
have hung his hide on the fence,” Hervey wrote, “instead of which he was looking
better than at any time since the season opened.”

Coming right back one week later in the Preakness, Alsab put on a dazzling
display to turn the tables on Shut Out. Settled near the rear of the 10-horse
field through the first six furlongs, the Swenke charge kicked into overdrive
and motored around the field, blowing past his old foe Requested while Shut Out labored home in fifth. His time of 1:57 shattered the existing stakes record
and was just two-fifths off the Pimlico mark established by Seabiscuit. After outclassing the field in the Withers S., Alsab
lined up against Shut Out in the rubber-match Belmont S. He had dead aim on the
Derby winner, but could not overhaul Shut Out in the stretch, settling for runner-up while two
lengths adrift. Alsab exited the race with a splint injury that necessitated
firing. That treatment should have resulted in an extended vacation. Not so for
the Sabath colorbearer, who returned to the wars only two months later in Chicago.

Alsab’s schedule was every bit as heavy as it was before the splint problem,
yet he quickly recovered his form and stood up to his punishing workload, most
notably capturing the American Derby. Again, observers feared that he was being overraced. Just five days after his taxing effort in the Washington Park
H., in which he finished a close second while giving weight to older horses, he was to take
on the
four-year-old star Whirlaway, hero of the 1941 Triple Crown, in the Narragansett
Special H. in Rhode Island. Those few days in between hardly counted as rest,
considering the stress of shipping from Illinois. Sabath likely realized, or was made to
realize, that he had overreached. On the morning of the eagerly anticipated
race, as 30,000 people poured into the track, Sabath abruptly scratched his
horse, and Whirlaway won the anticlimactic affair by two lengths.

The showdown between Alsab and Whirlaway instead took place exactly one week
later. After back and forth negotiations, Sabath agreed to a match race at
Narragansett on September 19, at the Special’s distance
of 1 3/16 miles, for a purse of $25,000, winner take all. The track’s proceeds
for the occasion were dedicated to war relief. Comparative
measurements were published, resembling those for a bout in boxing, as E.L.
Cushing described it in the Thoroughbred Record. These two
fighters both stood 15.3 hands and weighed 1,000 pounds, although Alsab was one
inch longer and Whirlaway’s girth was two inches larger. Because he was a year
older, the Triple Crown winner carried 126 pounds to Alsab’s 119. Acclaimed
jockey George “The Iceman” Woolf, who had partnered Alsab twice at Washington
Park that summer, opted to ride Whirlaway, believing that the sophomore could
not beat the Calumet Farm champion. Carroll Bierman picked up the
mount on Alsab, whom he had ridden once before, in that glorious Champagne.

With public excitement at the boiling point, 35,000 assembled to witness a
race that exceeded their wildest expectations. Two deep closers were doing battle, and it was not obvious
beforehand which one would adopt front-running tactics. Bierman decided to take the
initiative, nursing Alsab through leisurely fractions of :25 2/5 and :50 2/5. Woolf kept Whirlaway
well positioned, a watchful stalker closely tracking the leader. Bierman then
stole a march on his rival and gave Alsab his cue to quicken approaching the far turn,
getting six furlongs in 1:14 1/5. Once Alsab suddenly extended his lead, Whirlaway picked up the pace
and closed the gap. In the stretch, the duelists were locked in mortal combat, neither giving an
inch. Whirlaway may have just gained a sliver of a lead on
the outside, but Alsab fought back along the rail. According to a famous
photograph taken a few jumps before the wire, Alsab held a narrow advantage, the
pair’s strides apparently synchronized. Whirlaway surged again as they charged
across the line in unison. Spectators wondered if it could have been a dead
heat. It must have seemed an eternity to develop the film. As
the official photo-finish reveals, Whirlaway’s late thrust brought him to within
a whisker, yet it was Alsab’s nostril touching the line first. They had flown
the last three-sixteenths in :17 4/5 to complete the contest in 1:56 2/5.

Alsab racked up more thrilling conquests in the fall. Only four days after
crushing that year’s champion three-year-old filly and handicap female Vagrancy
in the Lawrence Realization S., he was narrowly beaten by Whirlaway in the
Jockey Club Gold Cup. Quickly turning the tables just a week later, he defeated
Whirlaway again when capturing the 2 1/4-mile New York H., nearly equaling the
American record for the marathon distance in his third grueling race in 12 days. In his final
start of the year, the November 11 Victory H., he stumbled shortly after the
start, wrenching an ankle and nearly ejecting Woolf. Alsab was not moving well
after that, but despite the pain, and despite conceding between 12 and 24 pounds
to his older opponents, he won by a hard fought three-quarters of a length. He pulled
up lame, but he had prevailed.

Because of his heroics against older horses, Alsab was honored as champion
three-year-old, although some felt that Shut Out was more deserving, having
beaten Alsab in the Derby and the Belmont. Others argued that Alsab deserved
Horse of the Year honors, not Whirlaway, whom Alsab had defeated in two out of three
meetings.

Alsab’s injury was serious enough to keep him on the sidelines until August
of 1943. Though he ran a few times that summer and fall, and once again at five,
he was not the same horse. At his retirement, his record stood at
51-25-11-5 with earnings of $350,015.

Initially standing at stud in Kentucky, he was sold at a dispersal after
Sabath’s death and ultimately relocated to Bonnie Heath Farm near Ocala,
Florida, where he was euthanized because of declining health on March 26, 1963.
He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1976.

At stud, Alsab sired Myrtle Charm, champion two-year-old filly in 1948, whose
granddaughter My Charmer (Poker) foaled 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
His primary accomplishment as a stallion, however, was reinvigorating the
languishing sire line of Domino by getting one very good son who was capable of
preserving the flame. That son was Armageddon, winner of the 1951 Champagne
S., who in turn sired 1962 Lawrence Realization winner Battle Joined, who then
did his turn in the genetic relay by siring 1971 Horse of the Year Ack Ack, who
sired 1987 Santa Anita H. (G1) winner Broad Brush. At the present time, the
leading hope to continue the male line is Broad Brush’s son Include, winner of
the 2001 Pimlico Special H. (G1).

Flashing back to that August day at Saratoga in 1940, when a bay yearling,
the son of an unpromising first-crop sire from a winless mare, was led into the
sales ring, who could have prophesied his extraordinary career? Who could have
foretold that upon his shoulders rested the survival of the once illustrious
dynasty of Domino? Who could have divined in that unassuming frame such dazzling
speed and unending reserves of stamina harnessed to an iron constitution and an
indomitable spirit? If anyone had imagined one tenth of it, he would have been
dismissed as an idle dreamer. But in Alsab’s case, the dream was fulfilled.

As Kent
Hollingsworth wrote in The Great Ones, Alsab embodied the “reality of all
the dreams of all men who breed horses and hope, for Alsab was a real good one
and he came from — relatively speaking — nowhere.”