A Day in the Life of Colin, 1908

Jun 1st 2011 10:00 pm |

There is nothing like coming across a single historical source filled with previously unknown details about a subject you are deeply interested in. So I was thrilled when I came across an article from the Evening World in the Library of Congress’s outstanding collection of digital newspapers titled “One Day in the Life of Colin and Celt, the Great Half-brother Kings of the American Turf Today.”

The article documents details about the daily life of Colin. Many of the details found in the article are likely undocumented anywhere else. It is especially valuable for information about the forgotten characters in the life of Colin including his groom, stable pony, and his primary exercise rider, Marshall Lilly, who I have mentioned in the past and is featured in one of my all-time favorite racing images:

Colin and Marshall Lilly

Colin was the first racing superstar of the 20th century. In the June 10, 1908 article from the Evening World, the unnamed writer described the scene at Sheepshead Bay in New York at the barn of trainer James Rowe with the two stars of owner James Keene’s stable: Colin and Celt. The article was published about ten days after Colin had captured the Belmont Stakes in one of the most dramatic editions of that race. It was Colin’s fourteenth win from fourteen starts, an unmatched feat by a Thoroughbred horse running during and before his era.  He would win one more to complete a perfect career.

Here are excerpts from the article (read it in full here):

Colin and Celt, the crown jewels of the thirty-six horses in training in the [James R.] Keene Stable, had just come in together from their morning exercise, and were ready for their rub down and breakfast. Colin, the winner of the Belmont and nearly $200,000, seemed more eager, more spirited than his half brother, and he raised his head, pricked his ears, lifted first one, then the other of his slender, bandaged legs, all the while sniffing with his delicate nostrils the oats and clover of his breakfast, there was not a line, not a detail of his splendid body that did not suggest the type ideal of the thoroughbred horse…

…”They breezed that mile in forty-nine easy,” said Jimmy Rowe when he had turned the roan pony over to a stable boy. That roan, by the way, has a sort of platonic affinity for both Colin and Celt. He is many years older than either, but he always trots along side by side when either goes to race, and his presence like that of an old friend, seems to have a soothing effect. He is known on all Eastern race tracks, but has no name, and is just “the roan pony” — a chubby, dignified, self-contained beast, with a peculiar mission in life; for he has known the companionship of the great Sysonby, now that of the two sovereign three-year-olds, and is liable to play guide, philosopher and friend to many other turf notables yet unborn…

…Finch is as black as an Egyptian night, and so is Baldorf, who attends exclusively to Colin, and as they sponge and scrape away at their charges, using a flat, slab-like utensil like a paper-setter for scraping, they glance at each other jealously, and then at Rowe and [Rowe’s superintendent Tom] Green as if for approval.

“They get away with about eleven quarts of oats, ground corn and fresh clover a day,” said Mr. Rowe. “Colin is the heartier eater of the two, although he is the smallest horse, and he’s not as fat as he was. Celt is sixteen hands three and a half inches. No, sir, they never give me any trouble any time in the stall or out of it or on the track or somewhere. They are all good race horses in this respect. Colin especially is sweet dis-positioned.”

…There is nothing elaborate about the routine of a day in Colin’s or Celt’s life, nor in the life of any thoroughbred. The treatment is simple, and Jimmy Rowe always laughs at the idea that these two are treated more luxuriously than other horses in his care.

“The selling platers [claiming horse] get the same kind of stalls, the same food, the same exercise and the same attention,” he says, “If a horse isn’t worth the same treatment we get rid of him…”

….The stalls are plainly wooden, with no linings or upholsterings, and with a dirt floor covered with straw. After breakfast and bath, Colin and Celt were covered with a light blanket and remained in their stalls. The noon meal is somewhat heavier than the breakfast and consists of about four quarts.

They remain quiet after it until about 4 o’clock, when they are taken out by Finch and Baldorf and walked around for light exercise. During this time stable boys make up their beds, shaking up or putting in fresh straw. Their supper is at about 6 o’clock and then it’s off to sleep until 5 o’clock the next morning.

Rowe always arrives at the stable promptly at that time.

“I’d rather have colored help around my stable,” says Mr. Rowe. “I tried white men once and they won’t do. They want to be always betting or at the races. A negro really loves a horse. That Baldorf has attended only to Colin this year, but wouldn’t swap jobs with the King of England. I had to fire the boy who tended him last year, and it nearly broke the fellow’s heart but he got too shiftless. The Lord knows where Baldorf got that name–they gave it to him around the stable. Finch has been with Celt since he was a yearling and is a good boy.

Before big races or for especial workouts Marshall Lilly, a colored boy, rides Colin and Celt. Mr. Rowe says he is the finest judge of pace he ever saw and would be a great jockey were he not too heavy. He has been with the Keene stable for years. Notter, the jockey who has ridden Colin in all his victories, often exercises him before a big race.

It is fascinating to read about the paternalistic affinity that Rowe had towards the “colored” help. While his attitude may have been progressive for his day, he did not deviate beyond the status quo if you consider the case of Marshall Lilly. Lilly was a talented horsemen who worked for Rowe for much of his life. In today’s environment, it is likely that Lilly would have been assigned the title of assistant trainer. But during the era in which he lived, he was never elevated beyond the rank of “exercise boy.” (More to come on Mr. Lilly in a future post)

The complications of race relations aside, the article provides fascinating details about the operations of a Hall of Fame trainer and one of the legendary owners of the era, James Keene. But, most importantly, it offers insight into a racing legend and one of the elite few who retired without ever being beaten.


“One Day in the Life of Colin and Celt, the Great Half-brother Kings of the American Turf Today,” Evening World, 10 June 1908

Image from H.P. Robertson’s The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. It does not have information about the location of the original, but I would guess it is in the Keeneland Library.

I’ll be in the house at Belmont Park for the Belmont Stakes…one of my favorite days of racing. Hope to see you there!

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in African American jockeys,Belmont Stakes, 1908,Colin,horse racing history,Keene, James,Rowe, Jimmy,thoroughbred racing history

9 Responses to “A Day in the Life of Colin, 1908”

  1. Hoffmann says:

    Great historical information.

    Best horseracing blog!

    Keep up the excellent work!

  2. John Scheinman says:

    Terrific post. Terrific image. Glad I got alerted to this. Remarkable how clean the writing is, economical and descriptive. The author deserved a byline.

  3. Dave Wilson says:

    Great story and pic. As you know I am researching Colin and James Rowe Sr. so this was a real joy to read.
    I still have not made it to the Rowe grave, but will someday.
    Thanks, Dave

    PS: Rowe was Mark Mayer’s best friend (Mayerdale.com)

  4. NinaS says:

    Fascinating! What a find. The writing is just wonderful.

  5. Ron Micetic says:

    Another great column, Kevin.

    I would have to respectively disagree with your assertion that Colin was the “first racing superstar of the 20th century.” I’d have to give that honor to the magnificent sprinter Roseben. Largely forgotten today, Roseben set world records that lasted for many decades, and drew thousands of adoring fans to the New York tracks from 1904 to his retirement in 1909.

    For your information, I have an original 8″x10″ photograph of the Colin image. It was obtained from the Keeneland Library’s collection of Cook glass negatives.

  6. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Ron: I am certainly familiar with Roseben but your comment has inspired me to do a little digging in the archives. Might be the seed for a future post. Thanks! Wow, would love to see the original negative of that image, definitely on my list of things to do the next time I am at Keeneland.


  7. White Camry says:

    The full page of the article has some interesting portraits of the times – and one shockingly sad story all too relevant to today.

  8. DebG says:

    I give you thanks for this posting. It is hardley ever that Colin is mentioned as one of the greatest of those days gone by…… He was an exceptional champion.

  9. Sprince says:

    Thank you so much for your blog. Marshall Lilly was married to my grandmother for for many years until his death in 1974 and I considered him my grandfather. I grew up hanging out with “Mr. Lilly,” and had many wonderful Sat. afternoons at Monmouth Park with him. I have so many fond memories of him and knew he was an amazing horseman, but really enjoyed reading about his early background.

    Thanks for writing about this time in American racing.