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Holiday Valley Ski Resort


By: Ron Hale

The date was June 30, 1917. The place was Old Latonia Race Course in Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati.

A thin, bony, gangly two-year-old gelding named Exterminator made his debut in a six-furlong maiden race. Sent off at a little more than 5-to-1, the son of McGee out of the mare Fair Empress carried 109 pounds to a three-length victory. The time was 1:14 4/5.

It was a beginning of one of the most storied careers in Thoroughbred racing history. Exterminator would race for eight seasons and compete in 100 races. He would win 50 of them -- 34 of which were stakes races. Twenty of his victories would come at 1 1/4 miles or longer. He would be assigned 130 pounds or more on 35 occassions -- 20 of which he would return from victorious. He would win with as much as 138 pounds. He would have nine different trainers and would win for every one of them. He would travel extensively, racing in Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States.

The story of Exterminator begins on May 30, 1915, when the son of McGee was foaled on a farm near Nicholasville, KY, owned by the mother of F. D. (Dixie) Knight. Although the horses were registered in his mother's name, Dixie managed the farm and was, for some reason, listed in the Stud Book as the breeder.

Lexington turfman J. Cal Milam bought the horse as a yearling in 1916 for a reported $1,500. He gelded the horse as a two-year-old. Milam would later say that he bought most of his yearlings with the intent of selling them for a profit when they got older.

As to how the horse was named, the late turf historian Jim Bolus reports in "What's in a Name?" (South Central Printing, Inc., 1986) that in a conversation between Cal Milam and his wife, Cal said this horse would "kill off all his competition." Mrs. Milam then reportedly said, "Why don't you name him Exterminator?"

After his winning debut, Exterminator, who was trained by his owner, shipped by railroad box car to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where he raced three more times as a juvenile at two tracks -- Windsor and Kenilworth Park -- winning one more time.

While the folklore around Exterminator suggests that he was a true rags-to-riches horse, this might not be entirely true. Milam thought enough of him to nominate the horse to many of the important sophomore events of 1918, including the Kentucky and Latonia derbies.

Following his fourth start as a two-year-old on July 26, 1917, Exterminator came up sore and was turned out for the year. To that point, his career had attracted little attention.

Attracting the most attention among the juveniles was an imported horse named Sun Briar. Owned by the wealthy Willis Sharpe Kilmer, Sun Briar won five of nine starts, including the Great American, Albany, Saratoga Special, Grand Union and Hopeful Stakes. He was acclaimed champion two-year-old of 1917 and was made the future book favorite for the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

But the following spring, as the May 11 Derby approached, Sun Briar was not training strongly. His trainer Henry McDaniel was instructed to find a work horse who could help get the Derby favorite in shape. McDaniel purchased Exterminator for Kilmer for a reported $9,000, plus two other horses -- the deal being worth a total of $10,000 to $15,000, depending upon which historical account one uses.

The rest is Derby history. Sun Briar never did find his best form prior to the Kentucky Derby and was not entered in the Run for the Roses. It was left to Exterminator to carry the colors of Willis Sharpe Kilmer. At odds of 29.60-to-1, Exterminator showed his love for heavy tracks on Derby Day by taking over the lead in the stretch and winning the 45th running of the classic by one length under jockey Willie Knapp (who would later train the great gelding for a short period).

The Kentucky Derby was Exterminator's first race as a sophomore and only the fifth of his career. He won what was rapidly becoming the country's biggest and most famous race off a 10-month absence from the track.

Exterminator would make 14 more starts his sophomore year, winning a total of seven, with four seconds and three thirds. At the end of his sophomore season, however, he had not gained the ultimate respect from his owner. Kilmer still contended that "Sun Briar could beat Exterminator doing anything." (Sun Briar did regain some of his old form later in the season, breaking the world record for one mile in an unofficial exhibition.)

Walter Vosburgh once penned the following in describing Exterminator (from "Racing in America, 1922-1936" by John Hervey, The Jockey Club, 1937):

"Exterminator is another of the angular, long-muscled type, and, like most of that type, a slow beginner--long striding horses usually are. Not attractive to the eye, in fact an unttractive gelding. After he has had a hard period of racing, he is as lean and hungry looking as Casear described Cassius. High in bone and low in flesh, his long muscles then show to his advantage..."
During the next four years, Exterminator was the dominant handicap horse in the nation. Throughout much of his career, however, he would live in the shadow of Man o' War, who gobbled up the headlines in 1919 and 1920. Many horsemen and fans wanted a meeting between Exterminator and Big Red in 1920, but it never came about. There were some who felt that Samuel D. Riddle, owner of Man o' War, did not want to test his sophomore against the seasoned veteran.

One of the keys to Exterminator's great success season after season was the ease with which he traveled. Simon Healy, who trained the great horse for awhile, once described it this way to John Hervey (op cit):

"Traveling by rail many thousands of miles, he (Exterminator) would walk calmly into an express car when shipped, turn around in the straw a few times like a dog, lie down as if perfectly at home, and emerge at the journey's end fresh and fit." "A great magnet to visitors wherever he went, such was his docility that when the door of the boxcar was opened and he was summoned forth, he would step out and stand quietly, without even a halter being necessary."
At five, Exterminator set two world records. He won the 1 3/4 mile Saratoga Cup (2:56 2/5) and the two-mile Autumn Gold Cup (3:21 4/5). He won eight more races that year.

By the time he was six, Exterminator had acquired the nickname, "Old Bones." Because of his bony appearance the first time he appeared on the track, he was often called "Bones" by those closest to him in his early years. The public and press added the "old" part. The gelding won 8 of 16 starts that year.

Exterminator's best season was as a seven-year-old in 1922. He won 10 of his 17 starts, carrying an average weight of 133 pounds and a high of 140. The most memorable race of that year was the Brooklyn Handicap at Aqueduct on June 16. Carrying 135 pounds, he beat another future Hall of Famer, Grey Lag, by a head. Grey Lag, suffering his only defeat of the year, carried but 126 pounds.

Exterminator returned to race at ages eight and nine, and did win one more stakes race, but he was not a shadow of his former self. He retired from racing in 1924 after seven starts that year. He was a pensioner for awhile in Virigina and finally settled, along with his favorite stable pony, Peanuts, at Kilmer's Sun Briar Court in Binghamton, NY. Exterminator died there on September 26, 1945 at the age of 30. He was buried next to his old stablemate, Sun Briar.

Upon the gelding's death, the great sports writer and historian Joe Palmer wrote in the 1945 volume of "American Race Horses," (Sagamore Press, 1946):

"He had lived a little over thirty years, a great age for a horse. Many horsemen thought him the greatest horse they had seen; many racing people who had never seen him knew of him as a sort of symbol of indestructibility, of stamina, and of Thoroughbred courage."
The Thoroughbred Record wrote in its September 29, 1945 edition:
"A heart attack suffered by Exterminator, faithful 'Old Bones' to the fans of a quarter- century ago, put the final footnote to the career of a horse that stirred more genuine affection in the hearts of man than any other thoroughbred the American turf has ever known."
Matt Winn, Mr. Kentucky Derby and a man who saw every great race horse from the 1870s until his death in 1949, wrote the following in his 1945 autobiography, as told to Frank Menke (Smith & Durrell):
"And perhaps, right about here, I should make answer to a question that has come so often from those who recall that I have seen all of the 70 Derbies, and almost all the greatest horses America has known through more than three generations: "Which was the greatest?"
After naming a number of horses, Winn continues:
"If I chose one and called him the greatest -- that would start a controversy. But what sort of Irishman would I be if I didn't start a controversy, now and then?" "I choose Exterminator, because when greatness in reckoned, the factors entering into it are speed, courage, stamina, intelligence, and perhaps, more importantly, durability."
Exterminator was elected to the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in 1957. His final record was 100 starts, 50 wins, 17 seconds and 17 thirds. Total earnings: $252,996.


Kentucky Derby (1 1/4 miles, 114 pounds)
Carrollton Handicap, Laurel (1 1/6 miles, 118 pounds)
Ellicott City Handicap, Laurel (1 1/8 miles, 113 pounds)
Pimlico Autumn Handicap (1 1/2 miles, 118 pounds)
Latonia Cup (2 1/4 miles, 121 pounds)

Ben Ali Handicap, Lexington (1 1/6 miles, 124 pounds)
Camden Handicap, Lexington (1 1/4 miles, 132 pounds)
Saratoga Cup (1 3/4 miles, 126 pounds)
Pimlico Cup (2 1/4 miles, 121 pounds)

Long Beach Handicap, Jamaica (1 1/8 miles, 119 pounds)
Brookdale Handicap, Aqueduct (1 1/8 miles, 129 pounds)
Windsor Handicap, Windsor (1 1/8 miles, 125 pounds)
Hendrie Handicap, Windsor (1 1/16 miles, 131 pounds)
Saratoga Cup (1 3/4 miles, 126 pounds)
Autumn Gold Cup, Belmont (2 miles, 128 pounds)
Toronto Autumn Cup, Woodbine (1 1/4 miles, 132 pounds)
Ontario Cup, Woodbine (2 1/4 miles, 134 pounds)
Pimlico Cup (2 1/4 miles, 126 pounds)

Long Beach Handicap, Jamaica (1 1/8 miles, 130 pounds)
Independence Handicap, Latonia (1 1/2 miles, 130 pounds)
Merchants/Citizens Handicap, Saratoga (1 3/16 miles, 130 pounds)
Saratoga Cup (1 3/4 miles, 126 pounds)
Autumn Gold Cup, Belmont (2 miles, 130 pounds)
Toronto Autumn Cup, Woodbine (1 1/4 miles, 137 pounds)
Pimlico Cup (2 1/4 miles, 126 pounds)

Harford Handicap, Havre de Grace (6 furlongs, 132 pounds)
Pimlico Handicap (1 1/16 miles, 133 pounds)
Clark Handicap, Churchill Downs (1 1/4 miles, 133 pounds)
Kentucky Handicap, Churchill Downs (1 1/4 miles, 138 pounds)
Brooklyn Handicap, Aqueduct (1 1/8 miles, 135 pounds)
Saratoga Cup (1 3/4 miles, 126 pounds)
Toronto Autumn Cup (1 1/4 miles, 132 pounds)
Laurel Stakes (1 mile, 132 pounds)

Philadelphia Handicap, Havre de Grace (1 1/6 miles, 132 pounds)

(Note: Of Exterminator's 16 "non-stakes" wins, a number of these were in handicap races with names -- such as the Hotel Como Handicap at Oaklawn Park and the Galt House Handicap at Churchill Downs. However, these were overnight stakes and handicaps, and were thus not included among the horse's stakes wins. The 34 stakes above were those events listed by each track on their stakes calendars and requiring advance nominations.)

© 1998, Ron Hale

There is a somewhat fictionalized account of Exterminator's life in the book Kentucky Derby Winner by Mildred Mastin Pace.

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