Colin: One of ‘The Great Ones’

Jun 4th 2010 08:00 am |

Colin with assistant trainer Marshall Lilly

In the short history of this site, I have established a few ‘traditions’. One of them is a post about the namesake of this site during Belmont week.

The inspiration for the name “Colin’s Ghost” came while reading newspaper stories of the 1908 Belmont Stakes.  On the Thursday before the running of that year’s Belmont, Colin, the unbeaten three-year-old owned by James Keene, was reported to have “broken down” — some reported his great career over. However, his career was not over, in fact, he would race again just a few days later.

The early arrivals to the track on Belmont Stakes day in 1908 must have been shocked to see Colin’s name in their program. Keene and trainer James Rowe had declared the colt fit to run — he had somehow recovered from the injury suffered less then 48 hours before.

Adding to the drama was the rain and fog that hung over Belmont Park as Colin lined up against three rivals. A news report of the race described Colin as a ‘wraith in the mist’ as he emerged from the fog at the quarter pole, five-lengths ahead. Colin seemingly came back from the dead to win the 1908 Belmont Stakes — his ghostly appearance as he turned into the stretch was a fitting conclusion to the most miraculous resurrection in thoroughbred racing history.

With the passage of time, Colin has moved down the list of all-time greats (he was ranked #15 in the Bloodhorse’s top one-hundred racehorses of the twentieth century).  Back in the days when those with a living memory of the colt were still around, he was consistently mentioned in the same breath as Man o’ War. The most often told and telling tale about the greatness of Colin, comes from his legendary trainer James Rowe – it is claimed that he had this request for his epitaph: “He trained Colin.”

What follows is a selection from Kent Hollingsworth’s essay on Colin from The Great Ones:

…In recent years we have asked such racing men as Col. Phil T. Chinn, Jim Fitzsimmons, Tom Piatt, Max Hirsch, and Bill Finnegan to name America’s five greatest race horses. The first four always came quickly — Sysonby, Colin, Man o’ War, and Citation — and then there was hesitation and diversity as to the fifth.

“As to the better of the two Keene racers [Colin or Sysonby], Maj. Foxhall Dangerfield [manager of Keene’s breeding operation] said: ‘Colin must be conceded the greatest horse and the best ever bred in America and probably in the world. It is certain that Sysonby never saw a day when he was equal to Colin — until the unfortunate mishap to Colin.’ He did not specify which mishap, but it may be presumed reference was being made to Colin’s bowed tendons at three…

…at two Colin had started a dozen times, won as many, and had earned $127,546, according to Goodwin’s Guide…Apart from the money, he had shown record speed at five and seven furlongs, [and] had carried 127 pounds twice and 129 pounds twice…

“Joe Notter was up when Colin came out for the first time at three on May 23, 1908, for the $10,000 added Withers Stakes at a mile. Belmont’s Fair Play and John Madden’s King James top horses in any year, were the most formidable of five rivals; none of them proved to be a factor as Colin ‘won easily’ by two lengths. He came out of the race lame, however, and by newspaper accounts was declared out of the Belmont Stakes to be a run a week later.  [This is incorrect, according to newspaper accounts I have read, Colin was declared out of the Belmont after injuring himself in a workout two days prior to the race]

“Stories of Colin’s conditions vary in detail, from his being absolutely bowed in both forelimbs, to one slight bow, to just sore, but there is general agreement that he was not sound. A deluge hit the track immediately before the Belmont. Fog settled in. Hall of Fame trainer James G. Rowe Sr. conferred with Keene and it was decided to make Colin an added starter against Fair Play, King James, and Robert Cooper…

“…The rain and fog were so dense that the start could not be viewed from the stands. No time for the race was taken. No chart was written for the first part of the race, for the horses did not come into view until the last quarter-mile, at which point Colin had a five length lead on King James (which Notter recalls setting the early pace).

‘At the furlong post, Notter shook his whip at Colin and the colt came away quickly, but near the end he was eased up at the usual finishing post, Notter thinking the race was over, and this mistake almost cost him the race,’ the chartman noted…’

“For more than 60 years now, people have accepted these chart notes as fact, that Notter went to sleep, misjudged the finish pole, and came within a short head of getting Colin beaten. For the same period of time, Notter had been willing to tell anyone who would listen that he did not misjudge the finish line, that he relaxed on Colin with a sixth-length lead, saw Fair Play coming and got into Colin, but it had been a long trip in the mud, and Colin did not respond to new urging as readily as desired. He just did make it, by a head, Fair Play racing on past him shortly after the finish.

The Belmont probably would have been Colin’s last race at three, but the Percy Grey law was repealed and made betting on races a crime. Keene boasted that Colin could fill a park even if no betting were allowed. As a consequence, Colin was sent out once more, on June 20, 1908, at Sheepshead Bay for the 1 1/4 mile Tidal Stakes. The greatest horse of his day, in a betless exhibition, only half filled the park. He won easily by two lengths for his 15th victory in as many starts…

“…With little prospect of decent racing left in New York, Keene shipped Colin to England to race in 1909. Sam Darling trained Colin there with the understanding that he was not to race if Darling did not think he could win. Darling tried Colin one morning with Jack Snipe, reputedly one of the fastest sprinters in England, and Colin won easily, but went wrong again shortly after the trial and was retired…

“…Colin lived through the age of 27, siring three foals at that age, and died in 1932 at Capt. Raymond Belmont’s Belray Farm near Middleburg, Va.

“Great horses have been defeated by mischance, racing luck, injury, and lesser horses running the race of their lives. None of these, however, took Colin. He was unbeatable.”

Kent Hollingsworth, The Great Ones (Bloodhorse, 1970) — I have said this before but, i’ll say it again, the Bloodhorse needs to publish a new edition of this book.

Read a detailed account of Colin’s Belmont Stakes published on this site in 2008

I am pleased to announce a new advertising partnership with the New York Racing Association (you might have noticed their banner at the top of the page). I am an unabashed fan of New York racing and am thrilled to have NYRA as a partner.

Check out my Top Ten Things you Should Know about the Belmont Stakes over at Hello Race Fans

Read about Sysonby – another one of James Keene’s Great Ones – at Zipse at the Track


Filed in Belmont Park,Belmont Stakes,Colin,thoroughbred racing history

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