The Long, Strange Post-Racing “Career”
of the Racehorse Sysonby

Jan 29th 2014 12:17 am |

mighty_sysonby_deadFew horses in the history of thoroughbred racing can boast a career like Sysonby. Even fewer can boast a post-racing career like the Hall of Fame runner owned by the legendary James R. Keene. Sysonby won fourteen races from fifteen starts in 1904 and 1905 but his untimely death in June 1906 understandably brought great grief to his owner and trainer as reported by the New York Tribune under the headline “Mighty Sysonby Dead”:

The death of the horse was such a blow to Mr. Keene that he shut himself up last night in his apartments at the Waldorf-Astoria and refused to see visitors…

…Mr Keene gave out the following statement last night in regard to Sysonby’s death: ‘After an illness of three months, during which time Sysonby must have suffered untold tortures, the great bay champion succumbed today at 1 p.m. to septic poisoning.’

Poignant as the grief of Mr Keene was over the loss of his highly prized horse, it was not so intense as that of Jimmy Rowe, the veteran Keene trainer, who was present when Sysonby died…Heroic measures were taken to save the horse, but all to no avail..So great was the grief of Rowe, the trainer, that he would not even discuss the subject.1

As it was then, as it is today, when a well-known horse dies, they live on in memories and images but Sysonby’s “life” after death was different. Just a few weeks after the report of his sad end, the Evening Star of Washington D.C. reported that racing fans might get to Sysonby again. Not just in pictures but in a tangible form:

James R. Keene has not yet decided what disposition shall be made of the body of Sysonby, which is buried near the stable at Sheepshead Bay which for two years sheltered the race horse. Friends of Mr Keene said yesterday, however, that he probably would have the skeleton of the horse mounted and present it to the American Museum of Natural History.

Mr Keene would thus emulate the example of W.O.B. McDonough who, when his great horse Ormonde died, sent his mounted skeleton to the British Museum in London. Other noted horses have been similarly treated, and one stands in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.2

According to the Pensacola Journal, the Governors of the Coney Island Jockey Club offered to “set aside a plot of ground on the property at Sheepshead Bay race course as a permanent grave for the famous race horse Sysonby, and to erect a memorial stone if Sysonby’s owner, James Keene wished it.” The Journal further reported that Keene replied and thanked the club for the courtesy but had “not decided definitely what disposition shall be made of Sysonby’s body.”3

About two weeks after these reports, and less than a month after Sysonby’s death, the Los Angeles Herald reported Keene’s final decision about the horse’s remains:

James R. Keene gift of the skeleton of the champion race horse Sysonby, which died on Sunday June 17, to the American Museum of Natural History was yesterday transferred to the officials of the museum, who during the day exhumed the body from the temporary grave at the Sheepshead Bay course and turned the skeleton over to the experts of the institution, who will mount it for exhibition.4

Keene also provided a significant donation along with the bones of Sysonby. That money went towards the work required to prepare the great runner for display — a cost later reported at $2000.5

The job of mounting Sysonby went to S. Harmstead Chubb, a former machinist who turned his hobby of mounting skeletons, or more eloquently “breathing life into bags of bones,” into a 40-year career at the Museum of Natural History.

Chubb’s techniques in using photography and motion studies for the sole purpose of authentically mounting the bones of animals both large and small made him among the best candidates in the world at the time to mount the great Sysonby. Chubb’s skill and reputation must have played a part in Keene’s decision to give the mortal remains of his great thoroughbred to the museum.6

The New York papers reported the museum’s plans for the bones about a half year after the donation. The director of the museum, Professor Herman C. Bumpus, told the New York Tribune, in an article published in January 1907:

We have decided to have the greatest racehorse of his day appear as if he was racing and striving his hardest to win. For that reason, Sysonby will be mounted in his full stride.

The article included details on Dr. Chubb’s process. He would take on the “long, tedious undertaking” of mounting Sysonby authentically in stride by making repeated visits “to the race tracks and take instantaneous photographs of thoroughbreds galloping.” It was later reported that a private racetrack was built behind the museum for Chubb to observe and take photographs of race horses in motion.7

Front page of the New York Tribune, 8 November 1908

Front page of the New York Tribune
November 8th 1908

Nearly two years later, Sysonby’s skeleton appeared on the front page of the November 8th 1908 New York Tribune. He appeared in conjunction with an article announcing the opening of an exhibit on the history of the horse — an exhibit that would mark the first public showing of Sysonby since his death.8 An article in the Florida Star about the exhibit called Sysonby the “Horse Show Star” and claimed that “no skeleton was ever mounted with greater care than that of the king of the turf.”9

The preservation and display of Sysonby’s bones, in one of the most esteemed museum’s in America, quickly became part of the great horse’s lore. An article in the San Francisco Call about James Keene titled “The Napoleon of the Race Track” had this:

Sysonby left no progeny, but his skeleton will be set up in the [Museum of Natural History] as a perfect type of thoroughbred…Sysonby was great, wonderfully great in the turf world. Mr. Keene said of him that he considers him to be the greatest horse that had ever lived, and Sysonby is immortalized in the museum of natural history for that reason. His skeleton is the framework of an animal that stood above all his kind in the estimation of competent judges.10

After a racing career reported widely in papers across the country, Sysonby’s post-racing career can best be traced through annual reports and other literature from the Museum of Natural History.

In the 1910s, Sysonby lived in the Museum’s Age of Man Hall. From 1922 to 1949, he stood in a Hall called the “Horse under Domestication” next to other noteworthy racehorses Lee Axworthy (trotter) and Nimr (an Arab stallion).


In 1921, S.H. Chubb included a detailed description of the mounted Sysonby in a publication titled The Evolution of the Horse (The above image came from that same publication).  I quote it in full here as it provides insight into Chubb and the incredible level of study that went into his work:

The skeleton has been mounted to show a phase in the stride of the running horse, and is based on studies made from direct observation and instantaneous photographs. The position is that of the moment after the right fore foot has left the ground, and the right ‘knee’ or carpus, is beginning to bend; the succeeding footfalls in order are the left hind, the right hind, the left fore and the right fore, the full length of one complete stride being about twenty-six feet.

At this instant the hindquarters are lifted perceptibly higher than the shoulders and from a rear view it will be seen that while the hind feet are thrust forward at this greater height from the ground, they are widely separated so as to avoid striking the fore legs. A moment later the shoulders will be lifted by the push of the fore feet higher than the hind quarters, then the hind feet will move toward the median line and strike the ground, and the fore feet will have moved forward out of the way of the hind.

The backbone is slightly arched to help draw together the fore and hind limbs and feet, and thus lengthen the stride and bring the back muscles into play. When viewed from above, the backbone is also observed to be curved a little to the right, owing to the forward position of the left side of the pelvis and of the left hind limb; this also lengthens and gives power to the stride as the backbone is straightened.11

Only a man who had built a method to photograph and observe horses in motion from every possible angle would have included the slight curve of the backbone of a race horse in full flight.

It’s fitting that the last time the public has seen Sysonby came in a temporary exhibit called “Captured Motion: Skeletal Studies of S. Harmstead Chubb,” an entire exhibit dedicated to the anatomical studies of the famous naturalist.12

Sysonby currently stands in storage at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.


Many thanks to the staff at the Museum of Natural History who pointed me to the sources that allowed me to partially construct the history of Sysonby at the museum.

Image of Sysonby in color from the Museum of Natural History’s collection database

This article kicks off another year here at Colin’s Ghost. It’s hard to believe that this site is going into its sixth year of existence. While I don’t have the time to write and research like I used to, I still really enjoy it and hope to keep it going for another six years.

Thanks for reading…wishing everyone the best of luck in the new year!

  1. New York Tribune, 18 June 1906 []
  2. Actually the Smithsonian owned the skeletons of two great horses: Lexington and American Eclipse. The Evening Star, 23 June 1906 []
  3. Pensacola Journal, 1 July 1906 []
  4. Los Angeles Herald, 13 July 1906 []
  5. New York Tribune, 8 November 1908 []
  6. Science News, 1984 via []
  7. The Times Dispatch, 9 January 1908 []
  8. New York Tribune, 8 November 1908 []
  9. The Florida Star, 6 November 1908 []
  10. San Francisco Call, 18 August 1907 []
  11. Evolution of the Horse, 1921, page 45. []
  12. Annual Report, Museum of Natural History, 1984, pages 50-51. []

Filed in Keene, James,Sysonby,thoroughbred racing history

7 Responses to “The Long, Strange Post-Racing “Career”
of the Racehorse Sysonby”

  1. Susan Lundquist says:

    Thanks for such interesting articles.

  2. Kathy Keating says:

    Great article. Too bad they don’t keep his skeleton on permenant display. I saw Lexington’s skeleton at the Smithsonian years ago. Glad I at least saw his!

    Kathy Keating

  3. Joseph Martin says:

    Another winner! Thank you! I always enjoy your work.
    Always looking for articles on racings’ golden years;
    When racing was front page news. Horse Racing and
    Boxing remains #1 and #2 with me. Keep up your
    Fine work!

  4. Gail Meyer says:

    Thank you! Your articles are a refreshing respite from the usual daily dump of dreadful happenings in our world today.
    Looking forward to your next!

  5. T.J. Cassidy says:

    It was just as well that Keene found another fate for Sysonby’s bones.

    New York State outlawed betting on horseracing via the Hart–Agnew Law of 1908, effectively crippling the sport in the state, and cancelling all races for 1911 and 1912. This spelled the end of horseracing in Brooklyn. Sheepshead Bay switched over to motor-racing until 1919 but real-estate market realities – what we today call “urban sprawl” – doomed the track, which was sold to developers in 1923.

    It calls to mind the fate of Omaha. A dud at stud, he spent his last years on a Nebraska farm outside his namesake city, which was his only apparent connection to it. Used to promote the track in the ’50s, he was supposedly buried there – at any rate, a monument with his name was put up on the track grounds. However, no record of any exhumation was recorded when the track was torn down in 2004, assuming Omaha was actually buried there at all.

  6. ljk says:

    Another great article.
    A very similar skeleton is on display at the National Museum or Racing and Hall of Fame. You can see it in the virtual tour on their website. I wonder if it’s a replica of the Sysonby skeleton or an actual skeleton (and whose).

  7. Dorothy Ours says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve often wondered if later generations didn’t hear how great Sysonby was, after spectacular Man o’ War came along. We still sometimes hear about unbeaten Colin — but Sysonby may well have been as good or even better.

    Re: the skeleton in the National Museum of Racing’s anatomy room — while working as a tour guide there years ago, I was told that is an English horse named Heaton Park. His presence there goes back to the 1980s, when the Hall of Fame theater and galleries surrounding a courtyard were added to the original building.