Stromboli: Samuel Hildreth’s Favorite Horse

Oct 14th 2013 10:44 pm |

An often repeated debate arises when a former horse of high quality works their way down the class ladder into the claiming ranks. We had a worst case scenario happen with the tragic end to former Grade 1 winner Monzante who died in a $4000 claiming race at Evangeline Downs back in July.1

Stromboli and Samuel Hildreth.

Stromboli and Samuel Hildreth

The debate over continuing to run former stakes winners after they have lost a step or two (or more) is one where the extremes get the majority of the attention. However, the debate does contain a fair share of gray area. Some cases simply are irresponsible owners and trainers looking to squeeze every buck out of a horse but that is not always the case.

If we go back to the early part of last century, when the treatment of race horses was by no means as cautious or humane as it is today, we find the interesting case of Stromboli.  A winner of prestigious stakes races as a 4-year-old, he was dropped into the claiming ranks, nearly died at the age of seven, and made his last start at the age of ten.

You might assume the game gelding was the victim of unscrupulous owners and trainers but that assumption would be wrong. Stromboli was owned and bred by August Belmont and later purchased by Hall of Fame trainer Samuel Hildreth. In his 1926 autobiography, The Spell of the Turf, Hildreth called Stromboli his “favorite thoroughbred” and “my pet, the most likable fellow I have ever known.”2

Stromboli ran under the Belmont colors for the first part of his career. A son of Fair Play, who also sired Man o’ War, Stromboli showed promise as a juvenile setting the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs at Laurel Park in 1913. In 1914, he set another track record at Laurel in the Baltimore Handicap where he beat the Travers winners and future Hall of Famer Roamer. He won the Manhattan and Jerome Stakes in New York during his 3-year-old season. At 4, in 1915, he had his greatest year, scoring a prestigious New York double in winning the Met Mile and Suburban Handicap.3

Jockey Turner aboard Stromboli after winning the 1915 Suburban Handicap

Jockey Clarence Turner aboard Stromboli in 1915

The Suburban win would be the peak of his racing career. In 1917, he came back from injuries as a “real race horse” according to a headline in the New York Tribune, but injuries kept him from returning to his previous form.4

In 1918, Stromboli was one of many horses put up for sale when August Belmont made the historic decision to sell much of his famous stable. By then, Stromboli was an old broken down gelding with little hope of returning to the track, but he had an ally in his trainer who knew him better than any other.

Samuel Hildreth purchased Stromboli from August Belmont in 1918. Hildreth paid $1000 for the “likable old fellow” and would later write about the acquisition in his autobiography:

Poor old Stromey had given his best for the Belmont colors and it had cost him dearly. He had broken down under the rigors of a career spent in fighting it out with the best horses of his day…But it wasn’t for racing him that I wanted Stromey; it was because he had a big place in my heart and I couldn’t think of anything finer than to have this honest son of a great sire as a saddle-horse.

This would have been a happy ending for Stromboli but Hildreth’s plan changed. He wrote, “Of all the things a fellow training horses is called upon to do there is none that has ever interested me more than to take a cripple and make a new race-horse out of him.”

And that is exactly what he did but not without controversy and nearly fatal results. On November 5th 1918, the New York Evening World wrote this on the front page of its sports section:

How the mighty has fallen! Stromboli, the winner of the Metropolitan and Suburban Handicaps, a few years back, and many other big turf events, was entered to be sold in the last race at the Pimlico track for $2500.

Despite the fact that Stromboli had won many rich events. Sam C. Hildreth, his trainer and his present owner, failed to show the gallant old gelding the slightest reverence for his many sterling battles, but cast him among the lower strata of thoroughbreds, the selling platers [claimers].”5

The criticism didn’t stop Hildreth from returning Stromboli to the track less then a week later for the Bowie Handicap in a race that featured three former Kentucky Derby winners.6 Stromboli finished tenth in a field of fifteen but his disappointing finish became the least of his owner’s worries as reported in the New York Tribune two days after the race:

Stromboli, one of the best horses that August Belmont ever bred and a winner of many notable handicaps, nearly died after he had finished in the race for the Bowie Handicap yesterday. An operation was performed and silver tube was inserted in his throat. This enabled him to breathe. The veterinarian said he was a victim of strangulation of the glands of the throat. His condition was much improved today”7

Hildreth wrote about the incident in The Spell of the Turf. He gave the veterinarian who saved Stromboli’s life “an extra $500 for good luck.” According to Hildreth, many of his friends joked that he was “squandering his money on a horse that had no more a chance of coming back to the races than Hindoo had.”8 Hildreth’s ego, however, would not let the notion go that his “favorite thoroughbred” would run again:

“…we never let them know that the day was coming when we’d both make them eat their words. When I’d go out to Stromey’s stall I’d rub his nose and say, ‘Old-timer, just one more good race out of you, just one more, and then we can tell the whole bunch of ‘em to go to plumb hell.'”

Two years after his near death, Stromboli did return. Hildreth wrote:

“…the day came for Stromboli to make his reappearance carrying racing silks. It was at the early summer meeting at Belmont Park in 1921 when I dropped him in a mile condition race among horses that hadn’t even been foaled when he was at the top of his career. The fellows down at the track who knew his history just rubbed their eyes when they saw Stromboli’s name in the list of entries…

“…Stromboli was given a great hand when he paraded the next afternoon, marching along with all the dignity that his ten years gave him. And when the barrier was released he streaked right to the front in the same old way he’d done eight years before when he was burning up the track as a two-year-old. And he stayed in front, too, until the finish, handling his 123 pounds as though it was a feather… He had done the trick for me, the thing I’d asked him to do when we’d had our little talks in the stall, and if he never did anything else on the race-track I was satisfied.”

But Hildreth wasn’t satisfied, he raced him twice more. He finished second in his next start but then finally ended his career with a win in a sprint race.

The final word on Stromboli and Sam Hildreth comes from an article that appeared in the January 1930 edition of the National Turf and Sport Digest in an article titled “Reminiscences of Hildreth and Some of the Great Horses he Trained”:

“While [Hildreth] had a strong love for all of his horses, his great affection was for Stromboli. After training this horse for August Belmont, he finally bought him and when he took a place near the Rancocas Farm in New Jersey, he named it Stromboli Farm, where the old gelding was turned out to live his last days in peace, idleness and horse luxury.”9

Sources, News, and Notes

Its been awhile since I posted here but I have an excuse! I got married in September so things were pretty hectic here at the home office. Everything went perfectly on our wedding day and we enjoyed an unbelievable trip to Amelia Island in Florida. All is back to normal and I hope to get back to some regularity with new content here for the remainder of the year.

In case you missed it, I wrote about a big score I had in the Breeders’ Cup for Hello Race Fans. Check it out here

Image of Stromboli and Samuel Hildreth from The Spell of the Turf

Image of Jockey Turner and Stromboli from the Library of Congress

Thanks for reading and good luck!

  1. Daily Racing Form, 2013 July 26 []
  2. Samuel C. Hildreth and James R. Crowell, The Spell of the Turf: The Story of American Racing, 1926 []
  3. His win in the Suburban was marred by a three horse spill. Read more about it in the New York Tribune, 15 July 1915, via the Library of Congress []
  4. New York Evening World, 21 May 1917 []
  5. The New York Evening World, 5 November 1918 []
  6. Washington Herald, 13 November 1918 []
  7. New-York Tribune, 14 November 1918 []
  8. Hindoo was a legendary horse that had been dead for nearly 20 years in 1918 []
  9. Turf and Sport Digest, January 1930 []

Filed in Belmont, August,Samuel Hildreth,Stromboli

6 Responses to “Stromboli: Samuel Hildreth’s Favorite Horse”

  1. Joseph Martin says:

    Enjoy reading about Sam Hildreth and Stomboli! The Stromboli Farm is still there; not far from Harry Sinclairs’ Rancocas Farm. It’s been awhile since I’ve been out to the Stomboli Farm but I believe they still train Standerbreds there. The Stromboli story is a great story and I can’t believe Hollywood never heard the Stromoli story or the Grey Lag story. They both make a great movie. Thanks for not forgetting Sam Hildreth and Stromboli!

  2. Kurt Jennet says:

    Actually you have a loving Spouse, she will resent be called an excuse. Congratulations.

  3. PTP says:

    Once again, a superior post on this blog.

    Excellent reading.


  4. Marlaine Meeker says:

    Dear Kevin,
    First, congratulations on your wedding and marriage. I wish you a lifetime of happiness in your new career. And once again thank you so much for these wonderful stories. I am amazed how you find these gems and so grateful you share them with us.

  5. Laura from RI says:

    Hi & Congratulations on your nuptuals : )

    I have that book ” The Spell of the Turf” if anyone is interested in purchasing please email me at

    Laura from RI