Exterminator: The Greatest Ever?

Oct 26th 2010 07:24 pm |

Exterminator, probably taken sometime in 1920 (Keeneland-Cooke)

In my post last week, I mentioned that I thought Kelso should be at the top of the list of all-time greats. This inspired a few commenters who made valid points disagreeing with that assessment. I am easily swayed so I didn’t put up much of a fight. Of course, these arguments can never be solved but it’s always fun to debate.

Something that always interests me is where prominent thoroughbred people stand regarding the “greatest ever.” One commenter mentioned that Hall of Fame trainer and breeder Preston Burch said, in 1973, that Man o’ War was the greatest he had ever seen. I’m sure this came up in the context of Secretariat during his Triple Crown season. [see comments] Back in 1973, there were people alive, like Preston Burch, who had seen Man o’ War race in the flesh — it’s hard to argue with those who had that kind of perspective.

However, there were also those who witnessed the career of Man o’ War, who didn’t put him at the top of their “all-time” list.  Grantland Rice, the legendary sports writer, had his start in the news business clocking horses for a Nashville newspaper in 1901. He wrote this over fifty-years later:

“[When] Tennessee abandoned racing…I took little interest in the track until Man o’ War arrived. Man o’ War was something different — something extra — as great a competitor as Ty Cobb, Jack Dempsey, Tommy Hitchcock, Ben Hogan, or anyone else. He struck me always as one who had a furious desire to win. He started running from the post and he was still giving it all at the wire — all the way with all he had.”

Grantland Rice saw all of the greats from Man o’ War to Native Dancer. On the question of the best he ever saw, looking back from 1954, he wrote:

“If you stop all careers at three years, I’d put Man o’ War first — Citation a very close second, maybe even a dead heat. But if there was an edge, it would go to Man o’ War…”

“…A race horse must be judged in three directions — speed, stamina, and time — the time he lasts. So while you might rate Man o’ War or Citation as the greatest three-year-olds, neither should be classed as the greatest race horse. I think that distinction belongs to Exterminator, sometimes known as ‘Old Bones.’ Exterminator raced his first race at Latonia, June 30, 1917. He ran his last race at Dorval Park, June 21, 1924. That makes a total of seven racing years, or more than twice what Man o’ War faced. And in those seven years he was carrying high weight, from 135 to 140 pounds. Yet under this heavy burden he won 50 out of 100 races before he retired….”

“…There was only one Exterminator. Talk with John Partridge, the veteran trainer, one of the best judges of horse flesh I ever saw. John has been looking at them run for over 60 years: ‘I’d like to think what Extermninator would do with this modern bunch,’ he told me. ‘Six furlongs one day – three days later a mile and a quarter – then two miles, then six furlongs again. He didn’t care.’”

In the Bloodhorse’s ranking of the top one-hundred horses of the twentieth century, voters put Exterminator at number twenty-nine. Grantland Rice, and many of his colleagues, would have surely scoffed at that result but history is the domain of the living and living memory plays a huge part in how people (especially when it comes to sports) view the past. It’s hard to imagine a horse winning his three-year-old debut and his fifth career start in the Kentucky Derby — then go on to race ninety-four more times and win half his starts while racing against the best of his generation — that was Exterminator.

Here is a gallery of programs from the great career of Exterminator, courtesy of Ron Micetic:

Program from Exterminator’s maiden win on June 17, 1917 at Latonia Race Track

Program for the Saratoga Handicap, August 2, 1920. Exterminator finished second to Sir Barton.

Program from Hawthorne, September 22, 1922. Exterminator ran uncontested in an exhibition dubbed a “race against time.” He finished the 1 1/4 miles in 2:10.


Many thanks to Ron Micetic who supplied me with scans of the programs and the image of Exterminator from his collection. He told me he has a huge collection of Exterminator programs and likely has the only existing copy of his maiden program (see above). If you have old programs looking for a home, Ron is your guy, you can email him at: rmicetic [AT] hotmail.com

The quote from Grantland Rice is from his now out-of-print memoir The Tumult and the Shouting published in 1954. It is an outstanding read about the sports scene during the first half of the twentieth century. I bought my copy at a used book sale, it can be purchased online at Amazon for seven bucks — well worth it!

Read more about ‘Old Bones’:
“Exterminator” by Ron Hale
Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame
Pedigree Query
Image of his final resting place via Flickr
Racing Hall of Fame page


Filed in Exterminator,Rice, Grantland,thoroughbred racing history

14 Responses to “Exterminator: The Greatest Ever?”

  1. ZATT says:

    Fascinating Kevin. All the programs, especially of his first race at Latonia, were treats!

  2. Valerie says:

    Exterminator is one of my personal all-time favorites. Maybe it has to do with reading the classic Mildred Mastin Pace book “Old Bones the Wonder Horse” as a kid: http://www.amazon.com/Bones-Wonder-Horse-Mildred-Mastin/dp/0590426427

  3. Glimmerglass says:

    I’ve always thought he was the greatest horse and even dragged a good friend of mine to his grave in Vestal, NY.

    There simply aren’t enough superlatives out there for him. Distance? Not an issue. Weight? Not an issue. Shipping? He went everywhere from Canada to Mexico. Off tracks, fast tracks, challenged by younger Champion runners, old campaigners, etc – take whatever you want to toss at him and he excelled. Even the racing Hall of Fame notes that he still holds the record for the most career stakes victories accomplished by any horse.

    What was grossly unfair in my view was that the much acclaimed Seabiscuit book never cited him once. Contrary to revisionist history Exterminator was very, very, very popular not only while he ran but after retirement. Excerpt upon his death in the Thoroughbred Record (Sep 29, 1945):

    “A heart attack suffered by Exterminator, faithful ‘Old Bones’ to the fans of a quarter- century ago, put the final footnote to the career of a horse that stirred more genuine affection in the hearts of man than any other thoroughbred the American turf has ever known.”


    His birthday parties made the New York Times (as did the notice of his death), years after retirement he was the centerpiece (a parade lap with peanuts) for a Belmont war bonds day and the track raised the most ever on that day. He had by all accounts a warm disposition, was devoted to his pony pals, and “not a bad actor” going to post.

    For such a mild mannered horse who took all that weight, danced every dance, set distance/time records, and just rolling like a freight train its hard not to say he’s worthy of such lavish praise as being ‘the greatest.

  4. Jim T. says:

    Regarding Kelso, I certainly think he belongs in the Top Five Ever. He did it all from six furlongs to two miles and did it for so many years, winning Horse of the Year five consecutive times, and did iot carrying ridiculous weight that no horse would ever come close to carrying once in his/her career nowadays.

    Also, Eddie Arcaro — who rode both Citation and Kelso — says Kelso would’ve destroyed Citation.

  5. Eliza says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Great post. I am working on a book about Exterminator right now, and love seeing these programs, especially the one from the Chicago exhibition, which was the cause of the great controversy about whether he ran 99 or 100 races during his career.

    From Matt Winn’s autobiography: “Exterminator was the greatest all-round American thoroughbred I ever saw. I choose Exterminator, because when greatness is reckoned, the factors entering into it are speed, courage, stamina, intelligence, and perhaps, more important, durability.”

    From a poem written by Edward Everett Bell after the 1922 Brooklyn:

    “So we’d “sick” Exterminator on the bolshevist and bigot,
    Who are seeking to destroy our splendid Land;
    One would burn our constitution–while the other clogs the spigot,
    With the backing of the ‘System”–cash in hand
    But this horse’s splendid courage–and his lion-hearted zeal
    Would checkmate their false endeavors. . .”

    No question: he was the greatest ever. I could go on. .

  6. Brian Russell says:

    Exterminator was bred at what was a Standardbred farm for decades after and, for the past 15 years or so, has been Ramsey Farm in Nicholasville, KY where ’04 Champion Turf Horse Kitten’s Joy was bred. Not that KJ was as good as E but it’s funny how things somehow go full circle.

  7. Sue McPeek says:

    When I was 8 years old I visited my grandmother in Binghamton, New York. She knew I loved horses, so she arranged for my older sister and I to visit with her friend who lived down the street so we could see her “trophy room”. Her name was Jane Ellison. I remember I stood in awe of the ceiling to floor silver trophies that filled the cases in the room. Mrs. Ellison’s first husband had been Willis Sharp Kilmer, and she told us of the stories of Sun Beau, Sun Briar, and Exterminator, among others. We were enchanted, and we left her house with arms filled with glass horse statues, books, including “Old Bones, the Wonder Horse”, horse charms for our charm bracelets and photos of Exterminator and his pal, Peanuts. Little did I know at the how I would end up spending my adult life working in many aspects of the racing industry. This memory has always been one I’ve cherished through the years, and my favorite racehorse has always been the great Exterminator.

  8. Randy Scarbrough says:

    Peston Buch book that came out in 1973 was dated in January 1973. Guess Burch did not see Secretariat run his 3 yr. old season when he made that comment. Might have to do some more homework here my good man.

  9. Kevin says:

    Hey Randy: Thanks for the correction. Should have followed up on the comment and verified. I’ve crossed it from the post and will see if I can track down the quote. Always homework to do in my world…haha! Thanks again, Kevin

  10. Jordan Nichols says:

    Preston Burch also called Man o’ War the best he had ever seen after Secretariat’s three year old season. He said if the two were to race, Man o’ War would get off to an early lead, and “only on Secretariat’s best day would he have much of a chance of catching him.” He also stated, “Secretariat was the more beautiful, Man o’ War, the more powerful.” Source: Dorothy Ours.

  11. Teddy Lopez says:

    Are you sure exterminator was greater than the great kelso? As far as all I have read and, talked with experts all over this country, exterminator was a great horse and, he did carry alot of weight and, after the great kelso won more horse of the year awards than any other horse but, let’s look at the weight kelso was carrying for his weight, kelso carried 12pct of his body weight, and, had a 25ft stride, which some people say might have been 24ft stride! It’s really hard to really place any horse ahead of the great kelso. You better go look up some of the incredible crazy things kelso did and, make sure you’re sitting down and, have a seatbelt on, and, taken a valium! This was a horse that could spin on a dime and, had what they call great tactical speed. Eddie Arcaro said kelso could run inside, outside and, you could take him back. He won stake races on 11 different tracks! Are you sure exterminator was greater than the great kelso? Oh and, I doubt man of war ducked exterminator. Secretariat did duck prove out at the jockey gold cup after prove out whupped his butt giving 7 pounds away to him. Oh and, they were whipping the hell out of both of them, I’ve seen the woodward race! Kelso didn’t duck any horse, horses might have ducked the great kelso. Kelsos’ biggest fan, Teddy.

  12. Anna Haney says:

    Cannot believe I am reading this! People think I have lost my mind and have no clue about this horse. 🙂

  13. Teddy Lopez says:

    You know, it really goes to show you how cheap opinions are and, how opinions are like asses and, everybody has one, when you look at how blood horse and, I know some of the people over there and, most are very nice people, have citation 3rd and, the great kelso 4th in the top 100 horses of all-times. I’ve told them that they better change that, cause Eddie Arcaro who rode both citation and kelso and, he rode citation before citation got hurt, said kelso would have beaten the crap out of citation. This is a jockey who rode them both and, who would know better? It’s sickening really. Goes to show you about how petty some opinions are. Kelso was the greatest racehorse ever and, if you don’t know much about KING KELLY, make sure you’re sitting down when you read all the scary things he did. Especially for a horse that was giving away all that weight, that looked like a deer. The most awesome thing. Citation had problems carrying weight. He never won carrying more than 129 pounds. Trust me the great kelsos’ record would have looked even better had he not had to give away all that weight to other great and, good horses. Other than the rare ability to carry alot of weight for a horse that looked like a deer he had great tactical speed, so evident when he won the dc in 64′ on 3 tight turns and, for a mile and, a half, doing the last quater faster than the first quater! He did 2:23 4/5 topping the records by 4 secounds on either dirt or grass or any other surface for that distance for that time! Those tight turns are no doubt harder than huge sweeping turns and, I’ve even talked to jockeys all over the country. Kelso is in a class by himself all things considered. KELSOS’ BIGGEST FAN, TEDDY.

  14. Dale says:

    When AG Vanderbilt owned Pimlico, he was a fan of stamina racing and inaugurated the Exterminator Handicap at 2 1/4 miles and had Old Bones lead the post parade with his companion pony, Peanuts. One reporter wrote that there wasn’t a horse in the field that was fit to carry Old Bones’ blanket. This was in October 1941 just a few short months before Pearl Harbor