In reference to Discovery, turf historian John Hervey issued the following compliment:
"There is no other horse in the entire range of Turf history, American or foreign, that ever attempted to do anything so tremendous or came anywhere near Discovery in doing it so successfully."
These words of praise were well deserved by Discovery, whose feats while competing in the handicap ranks in 1935 and 1936 have become the standard by which great weight carriers are judged.
Discovery was foaled in 1931 at Mereworth Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His breeder, Walter J. Salmon Sr., had also bred his sire, Display, who had carried the Mereworth colors to victory in the 1926 Preakness Stakes. Display, also known as The Iron Horse, had gained fame in the 1920's for more than just his victories. His name alone brought a shudder of dread to every assistant starter in the East. Racing fans may argue about whether Secretariat was better than Man o' War, or if Citation could have beaten them both, but the fact that Display was the worst post horse in history is not a point that may be disputed.
The battles Display waged at the starting barrier each time he ran were remembered long after the details of the races themselves had been forgotten. The rebellious horse fought hard, kicking, bucking, and dragging assistant starters around the track for about fifteen minutes before finally lining up long enough for the field to be sent off. One of his tantrums caused the Jeffords' Man o' War colt Mars to attempt to escape him by jumping the fence.
Yet in spite of the exhausting efforts Display put forth before each race, which should have caused him to leave his race at the barrier, The Iron Horse won often enough to be one of the leading money winners of his day, with over a quarter of a million dollars in earnings. He could carry weight and stay a distance, even after his pre-race fireworks, and was successful in the handicap division for many years, going to the post an outstanding 103 times. Of Display, J.A. Estes wrote:
"The fires burnt high in him. He should have lived with the wild horses of the prairie where he could have been boss. There the issue would have been settled quickly; he would have ruled or died. But civilization got him instead. Men laid hold of his bridle. `All right,' said Display, `you asked for it,' and he gave it to them."
Discovery's dam Ariadne, unplaced in four starts, was a brown daughter of Light Brigade, who had sired numerous stakes winners including 1929 Preakness Stakes winner Dr. Freeland. He was prominently placed on the sires' list a number of times.
As a two-year-old, Discovery raced in the silks of Adolphe Pons, who campaigned several of Walter Salmon's horses after he made the decision to sell, rather than to race, the horses bred at Mereworth each year. Under the management of trainer John R. Pryce, Discovery began his career at Belmont Park, starting for the first time on June 3, 1933.
Although the son of Display closed well, he could do no better than fourth. He was a nose out of place money five days later, and out of the money entirely in a maiden special weight at Arlington.
On July 6 Discovery finally showed a glimmer of his future promise, running away from a field of maidens to win by five lengths. After a second place finish in allowance company, he tried his first stakes race, and was a well beaten seventh in the Arlington Futurity.
Discovery met High Quest and six others in an allowance race at Saratoga, and while he made a strong move in the stretch, he finished third behind the Brookmeade colt. Discovery was closer to High Quest in the Hopeful Stakes, getting within a nose of him, but the speedy filly Bazaar beat them both.
After winning an allowance race at Havre de Grace, Discovery was unplaced behind the stablemates High Quest and Cavalcade in the Eastern Shore Handicap. He then ran third in the Richard Johnson Stakes at Laurel, and third again in the Breeders' Futurity at Latonia.
Discovery did better in the one mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finishing second with a good closing drive.
While he had been only moderately successful thus far, the glimmer of promise Discovery had shown attracted the attention of Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who paid $25,000 for the colt shortly before the end of the season. As a condition of sale, Walter Salmon claimed the right to breed five mares to Discovery each of his first five seasons at stud.
In his final start that year, Discovery carried Vanderbilt's silks to post in the Walden Handicap at Pimlico and just missed, beating Cavalcade by six lengths but falling a neck short of Chicstraw.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, was given Sagamore Farm by his mother, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt, in 1933. He had dropped out of Yale as a sophomore to breed and race thoroughbreds, and in addition to his love for racehorses, Vanderbilt possessed a keen sense of humor. He once greeted jockey Ted Atkinson in the paddock with a watch, a sandwich, and flashlight, saying, "It may be dark before you get back."
After wintering in Maryland, Discovery showed enough promise in the spring of his three-year-old season to warrant his entry in the Kentucky Derby. J.H. Stotler stepped in as trainer, and Jimmy Starkey took over the reins as exercise rider. John Bejshak became his regular rider. Racing in the colors of Sagamore, he made his season debut a week before the big race, running third to in the Chesapeake Stakes to Brookmeade Stable's Cavalcade, who broke the track record in the race. Although he was still no match for Cavalcade on Derby Day, Discovery held on gamely for second money in a hard fought stretch run and beat Agrarian, who had been second in the Chesapeake, by four lengths.
The talented Cavalcade was described by exercise rider Buddy Raines as "very kind and quiet." The colt was a light eater, and had to be fed five times a day, in small portions, or he would not eat enough to stay fit. A champion at two and Horse of the Year at three, Cavalcade was the only horse that was racing in 1934 that Discovery could not beat.
A week after the Derby came the Preakness Stakes. Discovery suffered traffic problems, running a very game third while Cavalcade was dethroned by his own stablemate, High Quest, in one of the toughest duels in Preakness history. Looking back at the 1934 Preakness Stakes, Humphrey Finney wrote inThe Blood-Horse:
"Discovery, a truly great horse, was in serious trouble for a good part of the trip, but he surely fought it out when clear. Although he finished third, I would think Discovery among the best of the Preakness runners I have seen."
After cantering away from a the field to win an allowance race by ten lengths, Discovery headed west for still another meeting with Cavalcade. Not surprisingly, the golden coated son of Display was beaten, finishing in a strong second in the American Derby, two lengths behind the Brookmeade runner. Again sent against Cavalcade, this time with a substitute rider, Discovery fell apart and finished eleventh in the Detroit Derby.
After five losses to Cavalcade, Discovery stepped out of the division he had been sharing with the Brookmeade colt and tried his luck against older horses. After scoring victory in a prep race, he was assigned 113 pounds for the Brooklyn Handicap. The field included Dark Secret, winner of the previous year's Brooklyn Handicap as well as two runnings of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the talented Acorn Stakes winner Fleam. Yet the older horse proved less of a threat than Cavalcade, and Discovery was successful in earning a trip to the winner's circle, scoring by an impressive six lengths.
The victory was only the first of three Brooklyn Handicap triumphs for Discovery, although the light weight assignment was a luxury he would not enjoy again.
A final meeting with Cavalcade had the same results as past encounters, and Discovery finished second in the Arlington Classic. When his adversary retired for the year, however, Discovery went on to glory.
Vanderbilt's colt beat older horses several more times that year, going wire to wire in Saratoga's Kenner Stakes, beating Fleam by ten lengths in the Whitney Stakes, and setting a new world record in the first running of the Rhode Island Handicap.
Discovery next won the Potomac Handicap by four lengths under 128 pounds, giving runner up Chicstraw twelve pounds.
Caught in traffic, Discovery couldn't get clear in time to catch Faireno and Azucar in the Havre de Grace Handicap, but closed the gap to only a length before running out of ground, finishing third.
In his final start at three, Discovery shouldered 130 pounds in the Maryland Handicap. The lightly weighted Good Goods put on the pressure in the homestretch, but Discovery fought him off to win by a half length.
Discovery ended the season with eight wins in sixteen starts. Of his eight losses, six had been to the Derby winner.
In 1935 Discovery had finally gained the maturity he lacked at two and three. Although he was unable to avenge his losses to Cavalcade, who lost his rider in their only meeting, Discovery stamped his name in racing history with a brilliant season. Racing nineteen times under an average of 130 pounds, Discovery successfully met the challenges of high weight assignments. His stamina and ability to carry weight, together with the railroad industry that had both supplied the Vanderbilt fortune and provided transportation as the champion traveled between tracks, suggested a nickname. Discovery became known as The Big Train.
Discovery didn't get to the winner's circle right away at four. First, he ran fifth in the six furlong Toboggan Handicap in his season opener. Then he swerved and finished fourth in the Metropolitan Handicap three days later. In the Suburban Handicap he started to get his act together, closing strongly, but ran out of ground before catching 1933 Preakness and Belmont winner Head Play, to whom he conceded nine pounds.
Out of the money in the Queens County Handicap, Discovery next ran third in the Rock Park Handicap.
After the spring losing streak, Discovery began an impressive string of victories. In winning the Brooklyn Handicap, he set a new world record of 1:48 1/5 for a mile and an eighth and beat Metropolitan winner King Saxon by eight lengths. Triple Crown winner Omaha was third.
Discovery then met Azucar, who had beaten him the previous year, and beat him by a staggering thirty lengths in the Detroit Challenge Cup. He galloped off with the Stars and Stripes Handicap, beating Chief Cherokee by six lengths while giving him twenty pounds.
At Empire City he won the Butler Handicap by a length and a half while carrying 132 pounds. He won the Bunker Hill Handicap by fifteen lengths despite shouldering 131 pounds while the good filly Advising Anna carried only 103 pounds.
Discovery was saddled with 135 pounds in the Arlington Handicap and still came home five lengths in front. As a result, he was assigned a backbreaking 139 pounds for the Merchants' and Citizens' Handicap. Even that impost proved fair. Discovery won by two lengths.
After eight straight triumphs, Discovery gave 29 pounds to Tom Row and finished second to him in the Narragansett Special. Three days later, he returned to the winner's circle, taking Saratoga's Whitney Stakes by six lengths, beating Identify and Psychic Bid.
Even eased up he was eight lengths the better of Top Dog in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. The handicapper finally got him in the Massachusetts Handicap. Assigned 138 pounds, Discovery just missed, finishing a neck behind the winner and just a nose out of second money.
The Cincinatti Handicap proved no contest. Discovery won by twelve lengths while giving the runner up twenty eight pounds. Once again assigned 138 pounds, Discovery couldn't close fast enough to catch Firethorn in the Washington Handicap. Still, he had earned $102,545 that season, winning eleven of nineteen starts.
Even Omaha's Triple Crown could not challenge the superiority of the older champion, and Discovery was named Horse of the Year.
The five-year-old Discovery crossed the continent to campaign at the still-new Santa Anita. Successful under 130 pounds in the San Carlos Handicap, Discovery faltered under 138 pounds in the San Antonio Handicap. He then couldn't overcome a rough trip in the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, which was won by Top Row. After four months of rest, Discovery returned to the races with a score in an overnight handicap. He next won his third Brooklyn Handicap, despite the impost of 136 pounds.
After finishing off the board twice under top weights, Discovery carried 132 pounds to a six length win in the Saratoga Handicap. He won the Wilson Stakes by eight lengths only four days later.
Asked to carry an impossible 143 pounds in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, Discovery tired and was beaten by Esposa, who carried an even hundred pounds. Discovery quickly got even, beating her by ten lengths in the Whitney Stakes.
He failed to give Granville ten pounds in a sloppy Saratoga Cup, then just missed in the Narragansett Special, running second by a head to Rosemont.
Having won six of his fourteen starts at the age of five, Discovery was once again named Champion Handicap Horse, although three-year-old Granville was Horse of the Year, then retired to Vanderbilt's farm in Maryland.
The Big Train successfully hauled as much as 139 pounds to victory during his career. Even Exterminator hadn't won under more than 137 pounds. It took the backbreaking weight assignment of 143 pounds to stop Discovery in the 1936 Merchants and Citizens Handicap, which Esposa, later the conqueror of Seabiscuit, won under an even hundred pounds. Discovery raced a total of sixty three times in his four year career, with rider John Bejshak in the irons a majority of the time. His career earnings reached $195,287, and his name became legendary.
The champion shared little of his sire's hot temper, and was instead known for having good manners. Among Discovery's attributes were his charisma and radiance. In describing the handsome horse, the famous historian John Hervey wrote that Discovery possessed:
"a gleaming golden coat which, when the sun strikes it, gives back a glow of molten iridescence ...Its rich undertones are full of warmth and splendor, making it a feast for the eye as a matter of color alone."
Discovery was a successful stallion, standing stud at Sagamore Farm in Maryland and siring 26 stakes winners, including Harry LaMontagne's Conniver, the 1948 Brooklyn Handicap winner and Champion Handicap Mare; the durable Find, whose wins included the 1953 Grey Lag and Empire City Handicaps, as well as the 1954 Excelsior Handicap, with earnings totaling $ 803,615.00; Loser Weeper, winner of the 1949 Metropolitan Handicap and the 1950 Suburban Handicap; Dark Discovery, who defeated Alsab in the Gallant Fox Handicap; Knockdown, winner of the Excelsior Handicap and Cowdin Stakes, and Excelsior Stakes winner First Glance.
Yet it was as a broodmare sire that Discovery really excelled. His daughters included Geisha, the dam of two time Horse of the Year Native Dancer; Miss Disco, the dam of 1957 Horse of the Year Bold Ruler; Good Thing, dam of the great mare Bed o' Roses; Traffic Court, the dam of Hasty Road, the co-Champion Two Year Old Colt of 1953, as well as Traffic Judge, whose victories included the 1955 Jerome Handicap, Withers Stakes, and Woodward Stakes; and My Recipe, the dam of the champion sprinter Intentionally, the sire of In Reality.
Vanderbilt's formula for breeding a champion racehorse was "just breed any sire to a Discovery mare," and the oft repeated phrase certainly proved true enough.
On August 28, 1958, Discovery passed away and was buried at Sagamore Farm. Through his grandsons, Bold Ruler and Native Dancer, Discovery's impact on the racing world can still be strongly felt. For those who enjoy obscure statistics, of the one hundred and thirty horses that won either a grade I race in North America or a group I race in Europe in 1991, one hundred and five of them carried the blood of Discovery.
Discovery entered the Hall of Fame in 1969, an honor which was not awarded to his nemesis Cavalcade until 1993. When Blood-Horse published a list of the centuries greatest racehorses, Discovery was thirty-seventh.
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