By: Ron Hale
February 2, 1998, marked the 50th anniversary of the day that Citation made his three-year-old debut. So impressive was the performance of the two-year-old champion of 1947 in this race that many experienced horsemen came to realize that he was not just another good Calumet Farm runner -- he was destined to be a super horse.
Citation had won eight of nine starts at two, his only loss coming to his stablemate Bewitch (champion juvenile filly), when trainer Ben Jones had ordered that whoever was in front in the stretch (the Calumet entry finished 1-2-3) should be allowed to win. In his final start at two, the November 8 Pimlico Futurity, Citation cruised to victory and then took a brief two-month rest.
Back in training in January, Citation made his debut on February 2 in the $5,000 Ground Hog Purse, an overnight allowance race at Hialeah for three-year-olds and up. Citation was the only three-year-old in the field that included Horse of the Year Armed. Citation, who was still a two-year-old on the human calendar (his actual third birthday was April 15, 1948), carried 113 pounds to 130 for Armed. Big Cy, under jockey Albert Snider, galloped to victory in a sparking 1:10 2/5.
Horsemen liken a newly turned three-year-old beating older horses to a junior high school football player competing against college players.
In the Seminole Handicap nine days later, Citation again defeated a crack field of older horses that included HOTY Armed, the previous year's Preakness winner, Faultless, and four others.
Kent Hollingsworth, writing in "Kentucky Thoroughbreds," (University Press, 1976) said, "Citation's first two starts as a three-year-old . . . suggested a greatness that the Turf had not seen since Man O'War."
The great racing historian Joe Palmer, writing in the 1948 edition of "American Race Horses," (Sagamore Press, 1949), recalled an interview that he had with the legendary trainer "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons after Citation's first two races as a three-year-old. Mr. Fitz, who had seen every great horse of the century in action, including Colin and Sysonby just after the turn of the century and who had trained two Triple Crown winners, said to Palmer.
"Up to this point, Citation's done more than any horse I ever saw." He then paused and said, "And I saw Man o' War."
Palmer, himself, later describes Citation as the greatest horse of the decade and "perhaps of modern Thoroughbred racing." (op cit)
Robert F. Kelley, writing in "Racing in America, 1937-1959" (The Jockey Club, 1960), quotes Frank Hackett, stall superintendent at Belmont Park in 1948. Hackett, who had been on the scene to watch every great horse of the century in action, said he was willing to compare Citation to Man o' War.
Before 1948 was over, Citation would win 19 of 20 starts in what many believe was the greatest single season by a Thoroughbred in the 20th Century.
Man o' War, who was brilliant at three, would certainly seem in the running for that title. Others that come to mind include Gallant Fox's three-year-old year of 1930, the three-year-old filly Twilight Tear's 1944 season, Native Dancer's three-year-old season and Tom Fool's four-year old season, both in 1953, Swaps' four-year-old season of 1956, Buckpasser's sophomore season in 1966, Dr. Fager's four-year-old season of 1968 and most recently, Spectacular Bid's four-year-old season in 1980.
After his initial two starts against older horses, Citation returned to his own age group, winning the Everglades Stakes and the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, the latter by six widening lengths on the last day of February. With hardly a break between his juvenile and sophomore seasons and four races in February, Citation was given a six-week rest.
(It was during this time that Citation's rider, Al Snider, was swept out to sea while fishing off the Florida keys. His body was never recovered.)
Citation made his next start, under new pilot Eddie Arcaro, on a wet, cold and miserable April day at old Havre de Grace racetrack in rural Maryland. In the six-furlong Chesapeake Trial, he finished second to Saggy (who would later go on to sire champion Carry Back). Citation's loss was blamed on three things: Saggy's love for the mud; the fact that another horse had carried Big Cy very wide; and Arcaro -- riding the champion for the first time -- was instructed not to abuse the champ so close to the Triple Crown. Citation would never lose another race that year.
Later that same week, in the Chesapeake Stakes, Citation won easily and with Saggy nowhere at the finish.
During this time, horsemen in the county were arguing whether there was any horse who could challenge Citation. The consensus was that only Coaltown had a shot. The brilliant Calumet understudy to Citation was probably the most underrated Thoroughbred of the 20th Century. Coaltown, who would set world time records from six furlongs to one-mile and one-quarter, was named Horse of the Year in 1949 in one major year-end poll.
Coaltown easily smashed the field in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes while Citation took the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs the Tuesday before Derby Day. The stage was set for their initial meeting in the Kentucky Derby. Arcaro feared that he was on the wrong Calumet runner, but his fears proved unfounded as Citation wore down pacesetter Coaltown to score an easy victory in the 74th Kentucky Derby. The Calumet entry paid $2.80, the lowest win price in Derby history.
Citation went on to score easily in the Preakness at Pimlico at 10 cents on the dollar, the lowest price since the introduction of pari-mutuel racing in Maryland in 1911. In between the Preakness and Belmont, Citation tuned up with an 11-length victory in the Jersey Stakes at Garden State Park.
As usual, the Belmont Stakes answered the question of who could go one-mile and one-half. Eight horses showed up, indicating that some were hoping that Citation could not go that far. They were wrong. Despite stumbling badly at the start, Citation recovered to win the Belmont by eight lengths, securing the coveted Triple Crown. No horse would again wear that crown for 25 years.
Citation moved on to Chicago where he annexed the Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington Park and the Buckingham Purse and American Derby at Washington Park.
Back at Belmont Park, Citation won the Sysonby Mile, beating the crack sprinter Spy Song on that Wednesday afternoon. Amazingly, on *only three days rest,* Citation came back on Saturday to annex the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Citation finished out the season with victories in the Empire Gold Cup at Belmont, the Pimlico Special (in a rare walkover) and two races at Tanforan in northern California, including the historic Tanforan Handicap.
A RECAP OF CITATION'S 1948 SEASON
- 19 wins in 20 starts
- Earnings of $709,470 (a then-world record for a single season)
- Raced from February 2 to December 11
- Beat older horses from February to December
- Won at six furlongs in February, August and December
- Won at every distance from six furlongs to two miles
- Won at 10 different racetracks
- Won in seven different states from New York to California (traveling in un-airconditioned vans and railroad boxcars)
- Won on tracks labeled fast, sloppy, heavy, muddy and good
- Won his races by a cumulative total of 66 lengths
- Won the Triple Crown races by a total of 17 lengths
- At yearend, his lifetime record stood at 29 27-2-0
Throughout his career, Citation was often compared to Man o' War. Fifty years later, as we near the end of the century, the comparison still stands. The debate as to who was the better will likely go on into the next century. But one thing is for sure: Man o' War and Citation stand head and shoulders above the other great Thoroughbreds of the 20th Century.
© 2001, Ron Hale