Back in racing's glory days, as now, geldings suffered from a lack of respect. The lack of a fashionable pedigree and the difficulty of controlling a young colt contribute to the decision to geld him, which quickly leaves the horse an underdog. Exterminator was one such horse who proved his detractors wrong.
Eva Jolene Boyd, in her new book, Exterminator, researched this old campaigner who raced from 1917 to 1924. Following the pattern of the other books in the Thoroughbred Legends series, she starts off by outlining the subject horse's background, first his pedigree, then how his owner Willis Kilmer found his wealth and got into the business of racing.
Before making his first start for his original owner/trainer J. Calvin Milam, he was gelded because of "a wild disposition", and won 2 of 4 starts at two. Unfortunately, due to a muscle strain he suffered on June 26 he was shelved for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, Kilmer was busy with his yearling purchase and juvenile champion Sun Briar, pointing him to the 1918 Kentucky Derby and making it no secret he was his favorite horse. But when that one lost his Derby prep race, a deal was made for Kilmer to purchase Exterminator from Milam. Amazingly, despite Exterminator improving with every workout Kilmer continued to show favoritism towards Sun Briar, as if he bought Exterminator as a rabbit only. Over the next few days it became clear that Sun Briar was not fit for the Derby, and so Exterminator's name was entered instead by his disappointed owner, under some urging by Colonel Matt Winn. Exterminator went on to win the classic as the longest shot on the board.
Over the rest of his career, Exterminator proved himself to be one of the great "iron horses" of all time. He carried weights as high as 140 pounds, over distances of up to 2 1/4 miles, race conditions unheard of today except in the world of steeplechasing. His career brought him to tracks across the northeast, with ventures to both Canada and Mexico as well. Boyd wrote the book because she has "a particular fondness for the old campaigners, especially weight carriers and horses that could go a distance. Exterminator was as good and as tough as they came. The idea of Exterminator lugging 134 pounds over 2 1/4 miles (in the 1920 Ontario Jockey Club Cup at Woodbine) and winning is mind-boggling," in an age where "modern trainers complain when their top 4-year-olds have to carry 124 pounds and concede 5 pounds" to the opposition. The one disappointment for many is that Exterminator never got to race against the other great horse of his era, Man O'War.
When he retired, his popularity did not wane. Some 38,000 fans cheered him when he came to Pimlico to commemorate the Exterminator Handicap in 1941. Children visited him every day after school, and on the Sunday nearest his May 30 birthday, Mrs. Kilmer would hold a birthday party where the children and adults would enjoy punch and cake while Exterminator and Peanuts, his companion Shetland pony, would eat a mash of oats and greens with carrots for candles. In contrast, Man O'War's 21st birthday was broadcast on national radio while dignitaries sipped champagne.
Exterminator passed away on September 26, 1945, and he was buried at a pet cemetery in Binghamton, New York, sharing the granite monument with his stablemate, Sun Briar. In 1957, he was inducted into Racing's Hall of Fame.
An interesting debate rekindled and ultimately corrected, in the book, is that of Exterminator's legendary 50 wins in 100 starts. Sometime since his retirement, when articles did give his record as 50 for 99, somebody had decided to count the "race against time" (essentially a public workout) at Hawthorne on September 30, 1922 not only as an official start, which it wasn't since it was an exhibition, but also as an unplaced finish. Boyd spoke with several sources including a former writer with the Daily Racing Form, and it was agreed that he should not be charged with that "race" nor should it have been considered "unplaced" since he was the only horse on the track. Boyd said, "Perhaps it may look strange to see 99 starts and 50 wins, when we have been conditioned all these years to see 100 starts, but fair is fair." This book is recommended for racing fans who need a refreshing look back at the past, at a time when weight-carrying stayers were able to shine, in comparison to today's angle towards lighter weights and speed, speed, speed. When asked what she hopes readers take away from her book, Boyd said she hopes readers "come away with not only a love for this grand old horse, but especially for an appreciation of horse racing during the first two to three decades of the 20th century." This reader agrees. All fans of racing would do well to learn about the "iron horses" of the past. A horse like Exterminator would never have been able to show his true talent in today's racing environment.
Exterminator has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $17.47. If you enjoyed Exterminator's story and would like to introduce your children to racing, there is a child's version of this tale called Kentucky Derby Champion by Mildred Maston Pace. This book was first published in the 1960's as Old Bones the Wonder Horse and was one of the first horse books I read as a child.
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