April 10, 2021

Historical Cameo – Equipoise

Originally appearing Sept. 8, 2008

Equipoise — 1932-33 Horse of the Year

From time to time over the course of this season, as the status of Big
Brown’s (Boundary) quarter-crack-susceptible feet dominated the headlines, it
has led me to think of the extraordinary career of Equipoise, an idol of the 1930s
who achieved true greatness in between bouts of debilitating quarter-cracks. How much more might
Equipoise have been able to accomplish, had he been fortunate enough to live in
our therapeutic age of acrylic, fiberglass patches and glue-on shoes?

A dark chestnut whose shimmering coat seemed to change colors depending upon
the ambient light, Equipoise was endowed with more than just raw physical
talent. The Whitney standard-bearer also had an indomitable spirit, an
unwavering heart, that carried him through his many trials, and earned him the
fitting nickname of the “Chocolate Soldier.” While he generated waves of
enthusiasm among the crowds, and was dispatched as the favorite in the
overwhelming majority of his 51
starts, Equipoise was not universally acclaimed by the experts. Only by standing
the test of time, by shouldering the massive burdens assigned him by the
handicapper, and by displaying record speed, did he at last manage to prove his
mettle to his critics.

As The Thoroughbred Record observed, Equipoise “never dodged an issue,
he asked no quarter, and though handicapped throughout most of his racing career
with a foot that would have forced most horses to seek sanctuary long before, he
bravely met all comers, carried welter weights, and was never beaten until the
wire was reached.”

Equipoise inherited his tender hooves — “the badge of all his tribe,” as
contemporary turf writer Neil Newman put it — from his sire, Pennant. From the
star-crossed sire line of Domino, Pennant was an
undefeated juvenile who captured the prestigious Futurity S. in 1913.
Unfortunately, the speedy colt was later sidelined by foot problems for two
years. He successfully returned to action at the ages of five and six, but he
eventually retired with only 12 career starts to his name. Never unplaced,
Pennant boasted nine wins, one runner-up effort and a pair of thirds.

In contrast, Equipoise’s dam, Swinging, raced 18 times during her
two-year-old campaign alone and captured 10 of them. Moreover, the daughter of
Broomstick placed in such notable contests as the Demoiselle S., Matron S. and
Astoria S. in 1924. Swinging did not enjoy as profitable a season at three, and
she was retired to begin her new career as a broodmare.

Equipoise, her first foal, arrived on May 1, 1928. According to legendary
turf writer John Hervey, the perfectly proportioned colt with the idiosyncratic blaze soon became a
favorite of breeder H.P. Whitney and his stud manager, Major Louie Beard.

“From the time he was first able to stand up, he was quick as a cat on his
feet and all energy and life, while his disposition was singularly sweet and
lovable,” Hervey wrote in Racing in America, 1922-1936.

That view of early favoritism is at odds with Abram Hewitt, who was of the
opinion that the small youngster was not particularly well regarded, and was
therefore dispatched to the stable’s second string in Maryland. In Sire Lines,
Hewitt dubbed these Whitney minor-leaguers the “chain gang,” under the direction
of trainer Freddy Hopkins, who had conditioned Swinging. Although the matter is
too far hidden in the mists of time for us to resolve, it’s significant that
Hervey was at pains to dismiss this persistent whisper after Equipoise became a star, and his
very defensiveness may smack of protesting too much.

Whatever his connections initially thought of him, Equipoise showed plenty of
dash in his early works as a juvenile, and the clockers were quick to take
notice. He proceeded to capture his first two
outings in front-running fashion at Bowie and Havre de Grace, respectively, and
finished a rallying third in the Aberdeen S. at the latter venue, all three
starts coming within a 16-day span in April 1930. His May campaign was just as
busy. After stumbling at the break of the Pimlico Nursery and losing his rider,
he shifted his tack to New York and reappeared eight days later in the Youthful
S. at Jamaica. Equipoise proceeded to romp by four lengths, only to be
disqualified for causing interference, a tendency that he would never completely
outgrow. The Hopkins pupil wasted no time in making amends, compiling a
four-race winning streak culminating in a front-running score under 130 pounds
in the Great American S. at Aqueduct.

Equipoise then headed to the Spa and a mouthwatering clash with the highly
regarded Jamestown in the Saratoga Special S. Tracking in second throughout, the
Whitney colt was never able to catch the fire-breathing speedster Jamestown. To
Newman, Jamestown merely “toyed” with Equipoise, and in his mind, the Saratoga
Special verdict was conclusive. Equipoise’s defenders argued that he was
compromised by a blind splint that had to be fired, ruling him out of action for
the rest of the Saratoga meet, but Newman cast doubts upon that excuse, and he
clung to the idea that Equipoise was simply inferior.

His next two outings at Belmont Park did not alter Newman’s calculations. In
the Champagne S., Equipoise shouldered 132 pounds, spotting 13 to the future
Preakness winner Mate, and just failed by a neck after a gallant effort. One
week later in the Futurity, he was a troubled second, beaten a mere head by Jamestown, while turning
the tables on Mate by a convincing three lengths. As if the trio of Jamestown,
Equipoise and Mate were not captivating enough for racing fans to follow, yet
another star rose in the shape of Twenty Grand. Equipoise met Twenty Grand, the
future Kentucky Derby winner, for the first time in the Junior Champion S. at
Aqueduct and tried to give him 11 pounds, but Twenty Grand was too strong by a
length.

Equipoise and Twenty Grand brought their rivalry to Churchill Downs a mere 12
days later and waged an epic battle in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. According to
Hervey, this contest was “still quoted as the greatest race that two-year-olds
have ever run in this country.” Not only was it decided by a sliver after a
protracted stretch duel, but the final time of 1:36 ranked as the fastest mile
ever run by a juvenile. It was also a record time for a mile in Kentucky, by any horse of any age.

“Through its entire length,” Hervey described, “they battled with a grim
determination, a speed and a strength so closely matched that when they passed
the post only the tip of Twenty Grand’s nostril showed in front of that of
Equipoise, according to the official verdict; a majority of the spectators were
wholly unable to decide the winner.”

The pair could hardly have been expected to follow that act with another
memorable performance. In fact, they did, underscoring one of the reasons why
the two-year-old crop of 1930 rates among the very best of all time. Their next
showdown was to take place in the 1 1/16-mile Pimlico Futurity, but the
participation of Equipoise hung in the balance. H.P. Whitney was deathly ill
with pneumonia, and when he went to his eternal reward, Equipoise was bound to
be scratched in keeping with the mourning etiquette of the time. But H.P.,
sensing that he would not live to see race day, was determined that his colt
should run. He beseeched his son, C.V. Whitney, to dispense with custom and
let Equipoise line up at Pimlico. Because of H.P.’s sportsmanlike insistence,
and C.V.’s dutiful response, the annals of racing history were enriched.

Just days after his father’s death, C.V. went to Pimlico, where he was warmly
greeted by the crowd, to watch Equipoise. At first, he may have wished that he’d
stayed home. Equipoise broke sideways, and for all intents and purposes, was
stranded as the rest of the field splashed forward in the deep mud. In an
attempt at a hasty recovery, he grabbed a quarter, and somewhere along the line,
threw both front shoes. Regular rider Sonny Workman, who had been unshipped by
Equipoise in his only prior appearance at Pimlico, just might have had
flashbacks of that earlier debacle.

In the circumstances, few could have held it against Equipoise if he’d
decided to call it a day. But this was no cosseted prima donna who had to have
everything his own way — this was the Chocolate Soldier, who knew only how to
fight. In a wildly improbable rally, the mud-spattered colt began to rush past
rivals on the far turn, and in the stretch, mowed down Twenty Grand by a
half-length, with Mate another neck back in third. Understandably, the Whitney colt’s victory “provoked an
extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm,” as observed by the Bloodstock
Breeders’ Review
.

“Hell, it may have been the greatest race anybody ever saw,” Workman
exclaimed.

Equipoise’s incredible victory inspired a theological thought from one
spectator, as recounted in David Alexander’s A Sound of Horses. The amazed
man blurted out that it was just about enough to make you believe in God.

Rated as the co-champion juvenile along with Jamestown, Equipoise earned a
winter vacation, and early favoritism for the 1931 Kentucky Derby. While Hewitt
believed that he would develop into an outstanding three-year-old, Newman
thought that his best days were behind him. Could Newman have been influenced by
the memories of Equipoise’s parents, Pennant and Swinging, who both enjoyed
their greatest success at two?

“He is a horse who matured early,” Newman wrote at the time, “and one leaves him with the
thought that there is scant likelihood of much improvement from two to three.”

The naysayers seemed to be right on the mark when Equipoise’s sophomore
campaign was over almost as soon as it began. He crossed the wire a shocking
last of six in the Chesapeake S., where he showed signs of distress and was
diagnosed with the muscle ailment azoturia. Equipoise nevertheless took his
chance two weeks later in the Preakness, then contested before the Derby, but he
encountered trouble and wound up fourth to Mate and Twenty Grand.

When Equipoise
hoped to rebound in the Kentucky Derby, he was afflicted with a severe
quarter-crack. This nemesis, which would later become the bane of his existence,
ruled him out of the Run for the Roses. Without our ultra-modern treatment
techniques, or alternative surfaces to train on, his remaining hopes of classic
glory were dashed. He encountered a further setback in a
coffin joint, and was put away for the season.

“There was a refrain of what-did-we-tell-you from the censors,” Hervey
recalled, “while the loyalists were in mourning but refused to recant their
convictions.”

If the convalescing Equipoise were aware of the dent to his reputation, the
Chocolate Soldier would no doubt have viewed the matter strategically. He needed
this time on the defensive, so to speak, to muster his forces in strength,
before taking the field and resuming the offensive.

Restored to soundness at the age of four, Equipoise would completely
vindicate his loyalists during his 1932 Horse of the Year campaign. He commenced
his “career of conquest,” as Hervey put it, with a seven-race winning
streak. After setting a five-furlong track record in :59 2/5 at Bowie in his
return, he coasted home under 128 pounds in the Harford H. at Havre de Grace,
and when strolling beneath his 129-pound impost in the Toboggan H., he
established a new stakes record on Belmont’s Widener Course. Still, the son of
Pennant had not quite convinced the esteemed handicapper John B. Campbell, who
assigned him 127 pounds for the Metropolitan H., one less than the 128 he
imposed upon Mate. Equipoise soon proved that he should have been required to
concede weight to his old rival Mate, as the Whitney colt rolled to victory,
while Mate struggled home four lengths adrift in third.

As sharp as his Metropolitan performance was, it did not have the lasting
impact of his next mile tour-de-force at Arlington Park. Jamestown, his
conqueror in their juvenile days, was also on the grounds, and a race was
specially crafted to bring the one-time archrivals together. Equipoise got the
chance to wreak revenge, and he made the most of it. Jamestown, who was making
his belated seasonal debut, went straight to the front, “bounding along like an
antelope with his handsome head held high,” in Hervey’s unforgettable phrase.
Equipoise cruised up to Jamestown, and despite giving the early leader 10
pounds, brushed him aside by three lengths. As the chart noted, Equipoise “went
to the front easily and had something to spare.”

Hervey agreed that the Whitney colt won handily “without having been asked
for his best,” which made his final time, a world-record 1:34 2/5, all the more
astounding. Indeed, he had accomplished the feat “with such ease that, had not
non-official watches shown even faster time than that announced, the natural
impulse would have been to doubt the testimony of one’s eyesight.”

Equipoise had smashed the previous marks of 1:35, set by Jack High in 1930,
and 1:34 4/5, established by Roamer in a trial against the clock in 1918. There must have been bitter irony in this for Equipoise
skeptic Newman, who wrote under the pen name of “Roamer.” While both
Jack High and Roamer established their mile records under a feathery 110 pounds,
Equipoise lugged 128 at Arlington.

Reinforcing the idea that Equipoise was not exactly wrung out by his
record-setting effort, he reappeared just four days later in the Stars and
Stripes H. and helped his 30,000 roaring fans celebrate July 4. The Chocolate
Soldier’s victory was so effortless that, as Hervey wrote, Workman was “turning
in his saddle at the finish to watch the unavailing struggles of the field
strung out behind.”

After a four-length romp in the Arlington Gold Cup, his skein was snapped
next time out in the Arlington H. Slowly away from the gate, Equipoise rallied
beneath his 134-pound burden, only to come up a neck shy of Plucky Play, who
toted 111. He then shipped to Saratoga and promptly captured the Wilson S. and,
appropriately, the Whitney S., and later that fall accounted for the Havre de
Grace Cup H.

In 1933, the five-year-old Equipoise once again reigned supreme as Horse of
the Year and champion handicap horse. In Hervey’s view, “it might almost be said
that the entire body of the season’s racehorses, compared with him, occupied the
position of the chorus in a stage spectacle.” Moreover, “by now the mere
announcement that he was down to appear was sufficient to draw a capacity crowd
to any course in the country at a time when on ordinary days the Great
Depression had reduced the attendance to a corporal’s guard.”

Now trained by Tom Healey, Equipoise opened the year with seven straight
victories. He set a new stakes record in the Philadelphia H. at Havre de Grace
and defended his Met Mile crown by a geared-down four lengths, both while
carrying 128 pounds. The legendary handicapper Walter Vosburgh, who at one time
had felt that Equipoise was overrated, assigned him 132 pounds for the Suburban
H. The Chocolate Soldier was unimpressed by the impost. Hervey called it
“perhaps the most superb of all his efforts,” as he raced in hand, and “all the
way home Workman was just letting him gallop.” His time of 2:02 was the fastest
in the 1 1/4-mile Suburban since Whisk Broom II’s controversial 2:00 clocking in
1913, and even Newman lauded his effort.

Equipoise traveled back to Chicago for a repeat bid in the Stars and Stripes,
but he met with the season’s first bout of misfortune. He lost his footing
briefly when working on an off track, cut himself and was forced to withdraw.
Although his legion of expectant fans was crestfallen by the news, they got to
see their hero a couple of weeks later in the Arlington H., where he toted the massive
weight of 135 pounds and still drove to a 1 1/2-length score to avenge his previous year’s loss.

Returned to Saratoga, he landed the Wilson for the second straight year, only
to have his quarter-crack erupt again. It was patched up, but as Hervey noted,
Equipoise “was never again the same horse as before.” He was sound enough to win
the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Saratoga Cup, the latter at 1 3/4 miles, proving
that even a marathon distance was well within his compass. His foot continued to
plague him, however, as evidenced by his fading third in the Jockey Club Gold
Cup.

At the age of six in 1934, Equipoise managed to earn his third consecutive
title as champion handicap horse, but Horse of the Year honors slipped away to
the star three-year-old, Cavalcade. Although the Chocolate Soldier won three
stakes, his campaign was tinged with frustration. He crossed the wire first in
the Metropolitan, only to be disqualified in a questionable call for impeding a
rival. Had the result stood, Equipoise would have been the first
three-time victor of the Met Mile, and only Devil Diver (1943-45) has done it
since. When trying to defend his Suburban crown beneath 134 pounds, he missed by
a nose, and his quarter-crack flared up yet again.

Whitney wanted to retire Equipoise at this point. Unfortunately, as a marquee
attraction, he was viewed as indispensable to the success of the brand new Santa
Anita H., and he was also closing in on Sun Beau’s all-time earnings mark of
$376,744. The
public clamor prevailed, and the Chocolate Soldier put on his armor for one
last, abbreviated campaign in early 1935.

In an ironic twist, Equipoise came full circle and found himself lining up
against his old foe Twenty Grand, who was back in training after proving sterile
at stud. Five years had gone by since their juvenile duels had enthralled the
nation, though, and they were both shells of their former selves. In a prep
race, Equipoise finished first, but was judged guilty of interference and
disqualified in favor of Twenty Grand. In the Big ‘Cap itself, neither was
physically up to the task. Equipoise bowed a tendon and checked in seventh, a
sad and anticlimactic end to his brilliant career.

The Chocolate Soldier raced 51 times, with 29 wins, 10 seconds and four
thirds. He amassed $338,610 in earnings, $38,134 shy of the elusive Sun Beau.
Equipoise’s bankroll suffered not only because of his several disqualifications,
but also because purse levels were lower during the depths of the Great
Depression. Also, had he been sound throughout his career, and not robbed of
virtually his entire three-year-old season, Equipoise would have taken home
considerably more prize money.

Of course, Equipoise’s greatness cannot be measured by something as malleable
as money. Rather, it lies in his steely character, and that may well account for his
extraordinary popularity. As the great Charles Hatton summed him up, “Equipoise
is a horse that can be counted upon to do the unusual….More than once he has
overcome what looked like insurmountable odds cast against him, converting them
into victory.”

Hewitt remarked that Equipoise had a “magnetic field of courage emanating
from him that was very moving,” and that “it was his unfailing courage even more
than his high physical abilities that stamped him as a great — and greatly
loved — racehorse.”

The Thoroughbred Record likewise sounded the theme of character upon
his retirement: “The ‘Noblest Roman of Them All’ will never again sport the
famous Eton blue, brown cap, in actual contest….Equipoise never lost the will
to win. He gave of his best always. He was superb in victory and glorious in
defeat, and in our opinion will go down in turf history as one of the truly
great horses of all times.”

Equipoise entered stud at the Whitney establishment, but he enjoyed only
three years of peaceful retirement before he was struck down by enteritis. He
died on August 4, 1938, at the age of 10, and was enshrined in the National
Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1957.

Although Equipoise sired only 74 foals, he has left an enduring legacy. His
direct male line may have sunk into oblivion, but several of his sons have
carved out a permanent foothold deep within the recesses of modern pedigrees. He
is responsible for Shut Out, the winner of the 1942 Kentucky Derby, Belmont and
Travers, who went on to become the broodmare sire of such notables as Exclusive
Native and The Axe II. Equipoise’s son Equestrian earned fame by siring the
great handicapper Stymie, who in turn factors in the pedigrees of super-sire
Sunday Silence and the influential Be My Guest. The Equipoise stallion Carrier
Pigeon appears as a third-generation factor in the ancestry of Cox’s Ridge.
Another son of Equipoise, Swing and Sway, is the paternal grandsire of the
popular Carry Back, the champion three-year-old of 1961 who captured the
Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Among Equipoise’s daughters is Level Best, the champion two-year-old filly of
1940, whose female-line descendants include multiple Grade 1 heroine and $2.7
million earner Honey Ryder. Equipoise’s unraced daughter Igual produced 1946 Triple
Crown hero Assault, and she is also the second dam of Prove Out, the broodmare
sire of the great Miesque. The Equipoise mare Alpoise is the granddam of the
colossal influence Tom Fool. Equilette’s
(Equipoise) female line has produced Silver Spoon (Citation), the co-champion
three-year-old filly of 1959; Silver Buck, who is inbred 5 x 4 to Equipoise; Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol; and multiple Grade 1-winning
millionaire Rock Hard Ten. European great Dancing Brave traces to Otra
(Equipoise), while 1977 Triple Crown star and mega-sire Seattle Slew counts
Crepe Myrtle (Equipoise) as his fourth dam.

The red-hot sire Tiznow affords a glimpse of Equipoise as a quiet,
unassuming, but significant building block. He inherits distant doses of
Equipoise from his grandsires Relaunch and Seattle Song, and Tiznow’s third dam,
Sleep Lonely, carries a duplication of Equipoise and his full sister Schwester.

In the hoofbeats of these far-flung descendants, the Chocolate Soldier
marches on. Although he was “never the favorite of fortune,” in Hervey’s words,
Equipoise ultimately triumphed — not just for a short time, with all the aid
and comfort of modern veterinary advances, but over the long haul, with his own
unconquerable attitude to support him. There can be no finer epitaph.