In the year that the Breeders' Cup came to the Lone Star State for the first time, sixth-generation Texan Eva Jolene Boyd set out to write a fitting tribute to Assault. Bred in south Texas at Robert Kleberg's King Ranch, the undersized horse dubbed the "Clubfooted Comet" swept the Triple Crown in 1946 for trainer Max Hirsch, who also hailed from Texas.
As well as discussing how Assault made it to the track, Boyd also explains how his connections got into racing. Max Hirsch loved horses as a boy in Texas and ran away from home to get into the sport of Thoroughbred racing, arriving in Baltimore as a railcar stowaway and inappropriately dressed for the late winter weather. Kleberg was born into a ranching family and studied genetics at the University of Wisconsin to learn how to improve the quality of cattle on the ranch. This skill allowed him to first develop a new breed of cattle, then after a stint with Quarter Horse breeding, he went on to Thoroughbreds.
Assault was a product of Kleberg's breeding program, by Bold Venture out of the unraced Equipoise mare Igual. As a foal, he stepped on a surveyor's spike that was lost in the tall grass. Thankfully, the vet who saved his dam's life when she was found with an abscess as a yearling took the same time with him and decided that not only could he be saved, but that his foot could heal enough for him to make it to the track. Despite stumbling when he walked, once he got into a full gallop all signs of the injury went away and he was all business.
However, the eastern racing establishment was not convinced. Dismissed at 8-1 in the Kentucky Derby despite winning both the Experimental Free Handicap and the Wood Memorial by open lengths, he proved the naysayers wrong, drawing away to an impressive eight length win through the rain. It wasn't until his Preakness Stakes just a week later when, for the first time in his career, he was sent off as the post time favorite. After the Triple Crown sweep, the seventh horse to accomplish the feat, he went on to win the Pimlico Special against arch-rival and fellow Texan Stymie to clinch the Horse of the Year title.
When Kleberg decided to retire him to stud after a fifth place finish in the 1948 Widener Handicap, it was found that Assault was sterile, so he was put back into training for the 1949 season. Although he won the Brooklyn Handicap that year, he never did regain his 3-year-old form, even after being laid up from October to the following November. His last race was a disappointing seventh place finish to Noor in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He enjoyed his retirement where it all began, at the King Ranch in Texas, until he was put down in 1971 after a paddock accident, at the age of 28.
This is a gripping story about a little horse that could, an undersized colt who could have easily been put down and never heard of because of the injury he suffered as a yearling. Instead, he captured the hearts and minds of a state and a country during the post-war era when prohibitions on racing had just been lifted and people filled the grandstands to cheer on their hero. Racing fans of all stripes and especially those who want to study racing history will enjoy this compact yet thorough work.
Assault has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $17.46.
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