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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Discovery’s Race Record
In reference to Discovery, turf historian John Hervey