Morvich and the Pimlico Futurity, 1921

Dec 4th 2008 10:00 am |

Updated: December 4, 2008

A version of this article appeared on the feed for the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance at the Bloodhorse.

Fall racing for 2008 was missing what historically had been one of the marquee races for 2-year-olds. For only the fourth time since 1921, Maryland went without the Laurel Futurity. The list of past winners includes a collection of great champions: Equipoise, Bimelech, Top Flight, Count Fleet, Citation, Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid (just to name a few).

Run for the first time in 1921 at Pimlico, it was originally known as the Pimlico Futurity. Traditionally part of Maryland fall racing, it had served as one of the final 2-year-old races of the season and played a role in crowning many juvenile champions. In 1969 the race was moved to Laurel and briefly became known as the Laurel-Pimlico Futurity. The race became simply the Laurel Futurity in 1972, the year Secretariat won by eight lengths to join stablemate Riva Ridge who had won it in 1971. Affirmed and Alydar faced each other for the sixth time in the 1977 running.

Its significance took a hit with the introduction of the Breeders Cup Juvenile. The race shifted to the turf in 1987 as part of a new Laurel Park fall turf festival (a move that Andy Beyer called a “lousy idea”). It returned to the dirt in 1994 but was back on the turf for 2005 when Barbaro won his second and final race as a 2-year-old. Let’s hope that Barbaro will not be the last noteworthy horse to win the Futurity and it returns to its rightful place on the Maryland fall calendar next year.

The first running of the Pimlico (Laurel) Futurity brought with it the “greatest purse” for juveniles in 1921 and attracted, according to the Washington Post, the “winners of all, or nearly all, of the important 2-year-old specials decided through the summer and early autumn.” The entrant drawing the most attention was the California-bred son of Runnymede who made his first two starts in selling (claiming) races. Coming into the Pimlico Futurity, Morvich had won all 10 of his starts. A race preview published at the end of October declared: “It is not necessary to go into Morvich’s record. Many columns have been written about this fleet brown colt, which one or two discriminating students of juvenile form have declared to be as good a 2-year-old as Man o’ War was in 1919.”

Image (above): Morvich with rider Al Johnson (from H.P. Robertson’s History of Thoroughbred Racing in America)

Morvich did not disappoint the crowd that packed into Pimlico on November 5, 1921. The Washington Post saw it this way:

“Out of a swirl of horses at the head of the Pimlico stretch today there came another Man o’ War, another thoroughbred champion deserving to be placed in the same class as the retired equine king. Morvich was his name and he won the $50,000 Pimlico Futurity as only a great horse and a real champion could do. The victory put him in a class by himself in the 2-year-old division. But over and above that it indicated that he will go on to still greater triumphs. In other races he has shown speed. Today he proved to the satisfaction of the most exacting of critics that he possesses stamina and courage as well. Such a combination bespeaks the truly great thoroughbred.

“The Futurity was Morvich’s eleventh race of the season. Also it was his eleventh victory. He has had few hard races in a career that apparently is destined to be on of the most brilliant in the history of the turf. But today he was really passed for a time. He had to be a great horse when the demand was made on his courage to keep unbroken his string of victories.

“Outfooted in the early stages of the race he was apparently a beaten horse at the head of the stretch. There he was running third two and a half lengths away from the leader after having loafed off the early pace. Practically everyone in the biggest crowd that jammed the Pimlico track thought he was hopelessly beaten. And the cry went up, ‘Morvich is beaten’.

“But the brown son of Runnymede and Hymir, the odds-on favorite, fooled them all. He was far from a beaten horse. Alfred Johnson, his rider, shook him up as the turn was reached in an effort to drive him to the flying leaders. There was no response from the big, brown colt. Then Johnson, thinking himself his was beaten, drew his whip. Viciously he cut at the flank of the brown horse in an attempt to drive him out of the jam and after the leaders.

“Again there was no response. Perhaps it was because it was the first time the great 2-year-old had felt the sting of a whip. Apparently he didn’t know what was expected of him. This time under the sting of the second lash Morvich went forward with a mighty bound…”

“…Morvich didn’t need an eighth of a mile to go into the lead. That second biting lash on his flank took him out of his loafing state and brought out his greatness, courage and gameness for all to see. In a few strides he was at Runantell’s saddle girth. Then he was past him and pressing Lucky Hour hard.”

“The latter could no more withstand that drive of the 2-year-old champion than could little Carpentier stand off the slashing attack of Jack Dempsey. In a few more strides Morvich’s head was nodding in unison that of Lucky Hour. Then he was in front and going away.

My Comment: I love the boxing reference here. In July of 1921, heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey knocked out Frenchman Georges Capentier in the fourth round of a their title fight in front of 90,000 fans in Jersey City. Read more about it here

“There was no more need for Johnson to bring his whip into play. Stride by stride the brown colt left the field foundering in his wake…This, then, was the horse that appeared to be beaten at the head of the stretch. He won under wraps by nearly three lengths and had his rider willed he could have had even a greater margin at the finish of one of the best 2-year-old races ever seen in Maryland. Had he been whipped or ridden out there is no telling how far the son of Runnymede would have won.

“It is of the stuff he showed when called upon for the supreme effort that champions, man or beast, are made. Whatever his future racing career has in store for the California-bred youngster, he will go down in history as one of the greatest 2-year-olds that ever looked through a bridle.

“He has done everything asked of him in thorough fashion; has yet to be defeated; won over all sorts of tracks and under varying conditions, and earned for his owner, Benjamin Block, approximately $115,000. Not since the racing days of the great Colin has a 2-year-old gained so much prize money. His victory today was worth $42,750…

“…Out of the inaugural of the Pimlico Futurity there came, indeed, another Man o’ War in the brown son of Runnymede, who started his racing career as a selling plater. Tonight he is hailed by all who saw his wonderful performance as the greatest 2-year-old of the year and one of the greatest juveniles in the history of racing…”

“….Ideal weather conditions prevailed for the running of the event and crowd, the equal of which has not been seen for years at an outdoor event in this locality, packed every available space in the stands and on the lawn. The infield, which was thrown open to the public following the running of the steeplechase, attracted the overflow, which was big proportions.”

Morvich with Al Johnson up. Owner Benjamin Block pictured (and clumsily inserted) on the left.
(from A Quarter Century of American Racing and Breeding, 1916 through 1940.
The Blood Horse Silver Edition

Morvich went into his 3-year-old season as the hype horse of 1922. In his first race of the year, he went to Kentucky and won the Derby as the 6-5 favorite becoming the first California-bred to do so. Then, to the shock of the racing world, Morvich never won again. He raced four more times but never mustered the same brilliance that had race fans ready to crown the next king. In an allowance race at Saratoga, he scared away 11 entrants who scratched but couldn’t manage beating the one horse who lined up to face him. The headline in the New York Times the next day read: “Morvich Quits.”

Morvich’s knees described as “gouty”, likely played a part in his decline. On the announcement that he would be sent to Kentucky for the winter, it was reported, in addition to his problem knees, he had developed osselets on his ankle. Morvich’s owner Benjamin Block told the Times that he would be bred to 15 mares while in Kentucky but would return to training in 1923 with the hopes of racing during the Saratoga meet. While he remained in the news, he never made it back to race and was retired with a record of 12 wins from 16 starts.

“Juvenile Stars in Maryland Futurity,” Washington Post, October 30, 1921
“Easily Wins over Brilliant Field,” Washington Post, November 6, 1921
“Morvich Roughing it at Jamaica Course,” Washington Post, December 6, 1921
“Morvich to Winter in Kentucky Stud,” New York Times, November 28, 1922
H.P. Robertson, The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America

Morvich’s Kentucky Derby page

Read a clip from Morvich’s “autobiography” at Railbird.

Image: Cover of Morvich: The Autobiography of a Horse by George Breitigam published in 1922.

The final weekend of significant east coast racing ended on a downer with the breakdown of the ever-game Wanderin’ Boy. That is one aspect of racing that I will never get used to and never fails to ruin my day. I backed Wanderin’ Boy in the Cigar so I was focused on him coming around the turn – what a sickening feeling to see him falter. Terrible to read later that night that he was put down. Valerie at Foolish Pleasure summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “Racing is a Cold-Hearted Bitch Sometimes“. Michael from Gathering the Wind wrote an outstanding piece that should be read by anyone who doubts the ability or relevance of “bloggers”. Others worth noting include posts by Brooklyn Backstretch and Green But Game. And, as always, Steve Haskin who had written about Wanderin’ Boy in October, wrote a great tribute in the Bloodhorse on Sunday.

Hope to do one more post before the end of the year. Working on some changes to the site and looking forward to lots of Derby trail related history starting in January.

Good Luck and Thanks for Reading!

Filed in Laurel Futurity,Morvich,Pimlico Futurity

3 Responses to “Morvich and the Pimlico Futurity, 1921”

  1. John says:

    Nice work Kevin

  2. Keith - Triple Dead Heat says:

    Great writing. Well researched…

    I look forward to reading more of your work as the winter has froze out racing here in Toronto!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kevin, I really enjoy your blog. I am hoping you can help me…I have been very interested in finding information about Epsom Downs in Houston TX that only was open from 1934 – 1939 (approx). Do you know where I can find info on this track? I have Googled etc, but only a small amount of info has surfaced. Thanks!! – Angela