Exterminator, a chestnut gelding whose less than elegant appearance was responsible for nicknames such as Old Bones, Slim, and the Galloping Hatrack, was foaled at Almahurst Farm outside Lexington, Kentucky on May 30, 1915. That farm was later the birthplace of the great trotter Greyhound. Exterminator was officially bred by W.D. "Dixie" Knight, who operated Nicholasville Farm, but Mrs. M.J. Mizner, Knight's mother, was said to be the actual breeder. Regardless, he didn't stay in the family. The gawky yearling was consigned to the Saratoga paddock sale in 1916.
Much has been made of Exterminator's 'rags to riches' background, and while it is true that his grandsire, White Knight, was gelded after producing but one foal, and that his dam Fair Empress failed to place in either of her two starts, Exterminator wasn't from completely obscure bloodlines.
McGee, his sire, may not have been the leading sire in North America, but he had enjoyed a fair amount of success. His son Donerail won the Kentucky Derby in 1913. That he paid $184.90 to win was hardly a ringing endorsement for his previous career, but he did go on to win a few more stakes events. In Memoriam, another son of McGee, later became the chief rival of 1923 Horse of the Year Zev.
In 1916, the year Exterminator stepped into the auction ring at Saratoga, McGee was sixth on the sire's list, actually ahead of the likes of Hastings, Broomstick, and Fair Play, all of whom led the list in other years. McGee had first appeared on the list in 1913, when his runners earned $58,379 and a fifth place ranking for their sire. McGee consistently appeared among the top twenty, finally topping the list in 1922, the year of Exterminator's greatest success.
As for Fair Empress, she may not have burned up the racetrack, but she was a granddaughter of Hindoo, her second dam was sired by St. Leger winner Rayon d'Or, and her third dam was the full sister to Modesty, first winner of the American Derby.
J. Cal Milam of Lexington purchased the yearling for fifteen hundred dollars. At the same sale, a French bred colt called Sunday sold for five thousand. Willis Sharpe Kilmer, the buyer, changed his name to Sun Briar, and while Exterminator carried the Milam silks in only four starts at two, Sun Briar topped the juvenile division with five wins in nine starts.
As a two-year-old, Exterminator towered over his rivals, standing 16.3 hands, but his course appearance prompted Milam to have him gelded. The big chestnut made his first start on June 30, 1917, easily breaking his maiden at first asking with a wire to wire score at Latonia. He next ran at Windsor, in Canada, meeting a high class field of juveniles in an allowance race. Bumped in the early going, Exterminator ended up fourth. The winner, Jack Hare, Jr., later won the Preakness, and third place finisher Viva America later won the Kentucky Oaks.
Three days later, Exterminator went to the post at Windsor again, this time winning by a length. At Kenilworth, the big gelding finished strongly but ran out of ground in another allowance event. He was a nose out of third place, and only a half length behind the winner.
Although a muscle sprain ended the season prematurely, Exterminator had earned $1,350 and a Kentucky Derby nomination.
The gelding had not yet raced in his three-year-old season when Henry McDaniel, the trainer for Willis Sharp Kilmer's racing stable, noticed Exterminator at Churchill Downs and approached Cal Milam with an offer. Although Kilmer had only agreed to the purchase of a seven hundred dollar work horse, McDaniel obtained the big chestnut gelding for nine thousand dollars and a pair of fillies. He then put him to work as a galloping companion for Sun Briar, the 1917 Two Year Old Champion and early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Although Kilmer was less than pleased to own what he referred to as a goat, Exterminator proved to be an excellent work horse. To Henry McDaniel's amazement, the intelligent gelding seemed to understand the purpose of his gallops with Sun Briar, and he even supposedly knew how to deal with the colt's mood swings, pushing the pace when necessary, and letting Sun Briar lead at other times. Yet despite Exterminator's efforts, Sun Briar did not go to post in the Kentucky Derby.
When their star was scratched after developing a ringbone, the Kilmers were terribly disappointed. Henry McDaniel quickly suggested that they run Exterminator in his place, but Kilmer flatly refused to watch the "billy goat" carry his silks. It took the persuasive skills of Churchill Downs president Colonel Matt Winn to change the owner's mind. The Kilmer's had Derby guests, and the race's social aspect was still salvageable, even if the entire Blue Grass State agreed that the chestnut gelding didn't have a chance at the roses. Only his trainer showed any optimism at all, pointing out that the gelding had shown enough talent to be nominated by his former owner, had trained well in his works with Sun Briar, and was the most intelligent thoroughbred he had ever known.
Accused by the press of buying Exterminator specifically for the Kentucky Derby, a furious Kilmer expressed his feelings to a group of reporters:
"It is well understood that I do not consider Exterminator [to be] in the same class with Sun Briar."
Sun Briar's regular jockey, Willie Knapp, swallowed the disappointment of giving up a Kentucky Derby favorite and climbed instead onto the back of the 30 to 1 longshot who had never run more than six furlongs. An early morning rain had left the track deep and muddy for the Derby, but the big chestnut gelding was not bothered by the surface. To the amazement of his rider, Exterminator caught Viva America at the mile, and then outstayed Escoba in the stretch, winning the classic race by a length. No one was more shocked than Kilmer. Willie Knapp instantly overcame his earlier disappointment, and the chestnut gelding became one of his favorite mounts. Many years later he said of the champion:
"When he was at his best Exterminator could have beaten Man o' War or Citation or Kelso or any other horse that ever lived on any track doing anything."
Having more than recovered Exterminator's purchase price, the shocked Kilmer rewarded his trainer with a one thousand dollar bonus check, as well as his forgiveness. Although he was thrilled with the victory, the owner still classed his knobby gelding beneath Sun Briar, and the Kentucky Derby winner seemed to justify his owner's lack of respect with five straight losses, including a second in the Turf and Field Handicap at the United Hunts meeting, a strong second place effort behind Johren in the Latonia Derby, yet another good second place effort in the Kenner Stakes, and a fourth place finish behind his stablemate in the Travers Stakes.
Although Exterminator had been unable to score during the summer, he once more hit winning form in the fall. Clarence Kummer rode him to an easy allowance victory at Laurel, and then the gallant gelding was reunited with Knapp for the Carrollton Handicap. After holding the early lead, Exterminator was challenged by The Porter, but gamely held on for a narrow victory.
After tiring behind Midway and Cudgel to finish third in the Washington Handicap four days later, Exterminator was given a two week rest. This resulted in a two and a half length romp in the Ellicott City Handicap. Five days later Exterminator just missed in the National Handicap. Forced wide, he ended up second by a head. He then won the mile and a quarter Pimlico Autumn Handicap.
Johnny Loftus rode Exterminator for the first time in the Bowie Handicap. The field included three Kentucky Derby winners. Five year old George Smith carried 130 pounds to a three quarter length victory over the lightly weighted four year old Omar Khayyam, who carried 115, while Exterminator ran third while giving away five pounds to the runner up. Exterminator next went postward in the two and a quarter mile Latonia Cup, again with Johnny Loftus in the irons. Despite heavy going, he lead from wire to wire, gamely holding on to win by a nose at the end. He had given eleven pounds to the second place finisher. Only five days later, topped off the season with the Thanksgiving Handicap, at only a mile and a sixteenth. He gave up twenty two pounds, and according to the chart, won 'as [his] rider pleased.' Although Belmont Stakes winner Johren was acknowledged as the divisional leader, Exterminator, with seven victories and $36,147 in earnings, had proven himself to be more than just a Derby Day fluke.
Exterminator, or Old Shang, as he was known in the stable, was back in 1919, still in winning form. He cantered to victory in a pair of overnight handicaps, then won the Ben Ali Handicap at Lexington with just as little effort, despite giving twenty five pounds to second place finisher American Ace.
He met only one other starter in the Camden Handicap, and despite shouldering 132 pounds to his rival's 118, he slopped through the mud unchallenged.
In an allowance race at Churchill Downs, Exterminator was nosed out by Under Fire, who had run third in Sir Barton's Kentucky Derby five days earlier. He then romped to a five length victory under 134 pounds in an overnight handicap.
The Kentucky Handicap Exterminator again shouldered 134 pounds. He held the early lead, and fought gamely in the stretch, but couldn't hold off his lightly weighted opponents in the heavy going. Exterminator was third, beaten only a length by Midway, to whom he conceded twelve pounds, and was only a nose shy of Beaverkill, to whom he gave twenty six pounds.
Next came the Suburban Handicap. Exterminator carried 128 pounds, and for the first time in his life ran worse than fourth. The top three finishers, Corn Tassel, Sweep On, and Boniface, all carried less than 110 pounds.
Exterminator was fifth again in the Excelsior, beaten three and three quarter lengths, and was given a six week layoff.
Sun Briar and Exterminator both went to post in the Delaware Handicap at Saratoga, and the stablemates were beat to the wire by the lightly weighted Star Shoot filly Fairy Wand, who finished a head in front of Sun Briar and a length in front of Exterminator.
Exterminator next ran second to Sun Briar in the Champlain Stakes, and the form recorded that he was "not hard ridden" and was "probably best at the weights." That Exterminator was not hard pressed to defeat his stablemate was not surprising.
Exterminator got weight from Cudgel, who had beaten Roamer in the previous year's Brooklyn Handicap, in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, but could do no better than third. He made up for it a week later, when in winning the Saratoga Cup the chestnut gelding equaled the track record for a mile and three quarters.
Exterminator failed to give weight to The Porter in the Harford County Handicap at Havre de Grace, then beat Cudgel, who had beaten him in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, in a purse. Cudgel turned the tables on Exterminator five days later in the Havre de Grace Handicap. With Willie Knapp in the saddle for the first time in nearly a year, Exterminator overcame traffic trouble and finished gamely to beat Sir Barton, but was a half length short of Cudgel.
After an allowance win at Laurel, Exterminator ran out of ground while just a head short of passing lightly weighted Thunderclap, to whom he conceded twenty pounds, in the Annapolis Handicap. This time, Cudgel was third.
Exterminator headed for Kentucky for the Latonia Cup. Assigned 134 pounds, he fought through two and a quarter miles of mud to finish second while giving twelve pounds to the winner. After a fifth in the Bowie Handicap, he topped off the season with an impressive victory in the two and one quarter mile Pimlico Cup. He scored by four lengths, and was eased in the stretch.
For the year, Old Shang had earned $26,402, with nine wins in twenty-one starts, bringing his lifetime record to eighteen wins, ten seconds, and six thirds in forty starts.
As a five year old, Exterminator had a new trainer in J. Simon Healey, Henry McDaniel having left the Kilmer stable. The season got off to a slow start. After showing the way, he tired in the stretch and was beaten a neck in his season debut, and overnight at Belmont Park. He was giving twenty one pounds to the winner.
Old Shang was third behind Paul Jones in the Suburban Handicap while conceding seventeen pounds to the Derby winner. He won the Long Beach Handicap by a length, then ran fourth in the Brooklyn Handicap, which was won by lightweight Cirrus.
Still warming up for the season, Exterminator took an overnight handicap at Aqueduct, then got even with Cirrus and beat him by a length and a half in a muddy Brookdale Handicap. He was third in the Frontier Handicap at Windsor, then met Sir Barton in the Saratoga Handicap.
It was a game effort, but Exterminator ended up second behind the younger horse. Wildair was third. It was after the Saratoga Handicap that talk began of a meeting between Man o' War, who was in the midst of his phenomenal three-year-old campaign, and Sir Barton, who had won the previous year's yet unnamed Triple Crown.
As for Exterminator, he ran second to lightly weighted Gnome in the Champlain Handicap, and then he began his most impressive string of victories yet. It began with the Jockey Club Handicap, in which he beat the good three-year-old Wildair by more than a length while giving him fifteen pounds and equaled Windsor's track record at nine furlongs, despite slow footing.
Mr. Kilmer had spent much of the season attempting to convince Samuel Riddle, the owner of Man o' War, to let his horse meet Exterminator in a match race. Mr. Riddle refused, suggesting that the horses might cross paths without a special match. On August 28, while Exterminator was winning the George Hendrie Memorial from Wildair and the good filly My Dear, Samuel Riddle made the announcement that Man o' War would start in the Saratoga Cup, three days away. Hearing the news, Kilmer immediately sent for Exterminator, but Man o' War was scratched upon the gelding's return to Saratoga.
Although the top three-year-old colt stayed in the barn for the Saratoga Cup, Exterminator did meet W.R. Coe's Cleopatra, who was on her way to becoming the season's champion three-year-old filly, having just defeated a field of colts and broken a track record. Exterminator gave her fifteen pounds, then led from wire to wire and set a new American record of 2:56 2/5 for a mile and three quarters. He was hard held for the entire distance, but still beat the filly by six lengths.
The New York meeting returned to Belmont, and backside rumor held that Exterminator was not in top condition for the Autumn Gold Cup. Only Cleopatra and H.P. Whitney's Damask dared go postward, despite the gossip. Exterminator gave away twenty-three and thirty pounds, gamely fought Damask through the stretch, and won by a head, setting a new American record of 3:21 4/5 for two miles in the process.
Healey left Kilmer's employment shortly after the Autumn Gold Cup, and was replaced by Will McDaniel, whose brother had saddled Exterminator during his three and four year old seasons. The change in trainers did not affect Exterminator's winning form. Despite conceding an astounding forty pounds to My Dear, who earned a championship the following season, Exterminator still held her off to win by a head.
Exterminator next carried 134 pounds to victory in the one and three quarter mile Ontario Jockey Club Cup at Woodbine. The winning streak was interrupted in the Bowie Handicap. For the second year in a row, Exterminator ran fifth. Trapped in a pocket, he never got the chance to challenge Mad Hatter.
Redemption came quickly when Old Shang met J.K.L. Ross' Boniface, who had been second in the Bowie Handicap, in the Pimlico Cup. Not only did Exterminator win, but he took twenty seconds off the track record, running two and a quarter miles in the excellent time of 3:53. Exterminator beat Boniface again in the Pimlico Cup Handicap, with Kentucky Derby and Suburban Handicap winner Paul Jones third. Man o' War, in the meantime, destroyed Sir Barton in their match race at Kenilworth, then retired, declining a proposed $50,000 match with Exterminator. Despite the losses to Sir Barton earlier in the year, Exterminator, with ten victories in seventeen starts, had earned the Handicap Division Championship.
Returning once again to the races at age six, Exterminator was described by handicapper Walter S. Vosburgh as being "lean and hungry as Caesar described Cassius." After running a fast closing second to Mad Hatter in the Kings County Handicap and finishing second to while conceding eleven pounds to Blazes in the Excelsior Handicap, Exterminator scored his first win at age six in the Long Beach Handicap, beating Mad Hatter by three quarters of a length.
Next came the Suburban Handicap. It was not Exterminator's first attempt at the historic race, and giving weight to Mad Hatter and Audacious did not produce victory. Two weeks later, he was again defeated when Grey Lag and John P. Grier beat him to the wire in the Brooklyn Handicap. Following the two loses, Kilmer fired Will McDaniel and it was F. Curtis who prepared Old Shang for his next race.
Exterminator carried 130 pounds into the winner's circle at Latonia after the Independence Handicap. At a mile and a half, the race was much more to Exterminator's liking.
Racing luck beat the gallant gelding in the Daniel Boone Handicap. Exterminator, saddled with 135 pounds, finished third. The chart states that he was "cut off by winner [in the] final eighth." The same horse, Best Pal, beat him again three days later, when Exterminator ran out of ground during his closing drive in the Frontier Handicap. F. Curtis was through as Exterminator's trainer, and former jockey Willie Knapp took over the job.
The Merchants and Citizens Handicaps was one of Exterminator's finest efforts in 1921. With impressive courage, he fought Mad Hatter down the stretch and won by a length. Four days later he won the Saratoga Cup in a walkover, and then beat Bellsolar by six lengths in the two mile long Autumn Gold Cup a Belmont, despite carrying 130 pounds and giving his rival twenty six pounds.
Less than two weeks later, Exterminator carried 137 pounds in the mile and a quarter Toronto Autumn Gold Cup and bravely fought off the late charge of My Dear to win by a neck.
Under a 135 pound impost, Exterminator finished third behind The Porter and My Dear in a sloppy Annapolis Handicap at Laurel, then rebounded to beat My Dear in an overnight handicap. After another third place effort, Old Shang finished out the season with a wire to wire romp in his third Pimlico Cup. The year's record stood at eight victories in sixteen starts, with earnings of $56,827.
When the mighty Exterminator returned at seven, it was to meet his seventh trainer, Eugene Wayland. He made his season debut at Havre de Grace.
Exterminator was sent to post in the six furlong Harford Handicap against the great sprinter Billy Kelly, the champion two-year-old colt of 1918 and the nation's leading sprinter following his stablemate's sweep of the 1919 classics. Billy Kelly had dominated his division for so long that the fans sent him off as the favorite against Exterminator. Both, however, carried 132 pounds. Apparently outrun at the half, Old Bones was sixth, and had only picked up two horses by the top of the stretch. Then he made his move, blazing past the leaders to win going away.
After getting nosed out by Boniface in the Philadelphia Handicap, the mighty Exterminator began a stunning series of victories. First he beat Boniface in the Pimlico Spring Handicap. Then he scored an easy length and a half victory in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. In the 1922 Kentucky Handicap, Exterminator was assigned 138 pounds, yet still managed to win over younger horses.
Albert Johnson became the gelding's new regular rider, and Exterminator romped home over his only challenger in an overnight handicap at Belmont Park, despite giving up twenty six pounds. He beat Mad Hatter at a mile and a sixteenth, and three days later went to post for the Brooklyn Handicap.
Assigned 135 pounds, Old Bones was asked to give nine pounds to the four year old Grey Lag. Horse of the Year in 1921, Grey Lag's wins included the previous year's Brooklyn Handicap, as well as the Belmont Stakes. The pair of champions battled down the stretch, and with a final courageous leap, Exterminator was the victor by a head.
The 1922 Brooklyn Handicap took more out of Exterminator then had any previous race. Retirement might have been the best option, with a lifetime record of 43 wins in 81 starts and victories over champions such as Grey Lag and Billy Kelly. Yet the gelding raced on.
He was pulled up in distress in the Independence Handicap, and was then soundly beaten by Grey Lag in the Saratoga Handicap. By the end of August Exterminator had recovered his form, and he won the Saratoga Cup from Mad Hatter as well as the Toronto Autumn Cup Handicap.
Next he raced the clock at Hawthorne, and covered a mile and a quarter in 2:10. The time was significantly slower than many of his victories at that distance. After a fourth place effort, Old Bones won the one mile Laurel Handicap by two and a half lengths.
A week later, Exterminator ran out of ground and finished fourth in the Washington Handicap. He carried 132 pounds to the winner's 104. He forced the pace in the Pimlico Cup Handicap, but ended up third behind Suburban Handicap winner Captain Alcock and his old rival Paul Jones. It was his final race that year.
At seven, he had carried an average of 133 pounds to victory in 10 of his 17 starts, earning $71,075 and Horse of the Year honors.
Exterminator's new trainer for 1923 was W. Shields, and Earl Sande was in the irons for Exterminator's debut at age eight. He had beaten the mighty Billy Kelly in the Harford Handicap the previous year, but this time he just couldn't outsprint the brilliant Blazes, especially while giving him twenty six pounds, and finished third.
He beat Paul Jones by a neck in the Philadelphia Handicap, was nosed out in an overnight handicap when he ran out of ground at a mile and seventy yards, and was put away for the season.
The nine year old Exterminator was reunited with trainer Henry McDaniel, and the old gelding began the season early, racing in Tijuana in February and winning an allowance race. He tired in the Coffroth Handicap and finished fourth, then went north to Havre de Grace and won an allowance event there.
Exterminator was out of the money in the Philadelphia Handicap, then third in an overnight event at Pimlico, but won again in an allowance race at Blue Bonnets. His final start came at Dorval Park in June, where he ran third in the Queen's Hotel Handicap, but pulled up lame.
Having raced until the age of nine, with a seemingly endless stream of victories, three Handicap Championships, and Horse of the Year honors in 1922, Exterminator had secured his place in history. He had won the Philadelphia Handicap at the age of eight, and scored three victories at the age of nine. No other champion's winning form boasted such longevity.
Exterminator raced under the management of nine different trainers. Henry McDaniel, perhaps the most famous man to condition Exterminator, due to the Kentucky Derby victory, was the second. As a two-year-old, the chestnut gelding had been trained by J. Cal Milam, and the other trainers included J. Simon Healy, Will McDaniel, F. Curtis, William Knapp, Eugene Wayland, Will Shields, and John I. Smith. One explanation given for the parade of trainers was Mr. Kilmer's fiery temper.
Years after Exterminator's retirement, the star of Kilmer's stable was Sun Beau, who held the position as the world's leading money winner for many years. Versatility was not among the traits that had contributed to Sun Beau's success, and the horse only ran well from off the lead. Willis Kilmer was unable to be in Mexico to watch his horse run in the Caliente Handicap, worth $100,000, and was therefore listening by radio from a hotel room in Chicago. When the announcer stated that Sun Beau had gone to the lead at the break, Kilmer swiftly brought about the radio's destruction.
Throughout his long career, Exterminator's fans often worried about the great amount of weight the champion was assigned to carry. On thirty five occasions he was asked to carry 130 pounds or more. A popular rhyme among race goers was:
"Too much weight and the camel's back broke. One last straw made the poor beast croak. It's a good thing Exterminator's a thoroughbred, 'cause if he was a camel he'd be dead."
Exterminator's fan club also included the starters and their assistants at every track in North America. He not only stood quietly behind the barrier, waiting patiently for the race to start, but on more than one occasion he leaned over and pinned a bad actor up against the rail until the unruly horse was willing to stand still.
The great champion finally retired to his owner's Binghamton, New York farm, known as Sun Briar Manor, in 1924, having won fifty times, following the injury suffered in his hundredth race. The horse lived to the old age of thirty, celebrating the passing of each year with a visit from the neighborhood children for carrot cake and ice cream.
Exterminator passed away in his stall on September 26, 1945, and is buried in Binghamton, New York, beside his stablemate Sun Briar, and his companions in retirement, a procession of shetland ponies, all bearing the name Peanuts.
Elected into the Hall of Fame in 1957, Exterminator will always be remembered fondly for his class, courage, and consistency.
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