Originally available Jan. 27, 2006
Black Gold — 1924 Kentucky Derby winner
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
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,
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
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
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
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.