The Kentucky Derby of 1918 was one of those races that quickly became part of racing lore. It’s a classic tale of the underdog, a hardworking horse overlooked by the public, who comes from behind to triumph despite long odds. It’s also the story of a trainer, Henry McDaniel, who saw potential in the gangly gelding and helped him succeed despite the relative indifference of the horse’s owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer.
Exterminator, who went off at odds of 30-1 in the Derby, had originally been purchased to serve as an exercise partner for his owner’s more celebrated colt Sun Briar. But after a ringbone flare-up kept Sun Briar out of the “run for the roses,” McDaniel persuaded Kilmer to enter Exterminator.
The gelding’s driving victory over a muddy track at Louisville’s Churchill Downs marked the start of his fame. But the tenacity and resilience he exhibited throughout the rest of his racing career is what endeared him to the public and established him as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. And his final accomplishment, achieved when age and hard knocks were starting to take their toll, burnished his image even more.
Exterminator was given several nicknames in the newspapers: “Old Bones,” “Old Slim,” “The Galloping Hatrack.” But perhaps none was more fitting than “Iron Horse.” In a career spanning seven years (1917 to 1924), he compiled a record few matched, before or since. According to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, he started 100 races, with 50 wins, 17 second-place finishes and 17 thirds. A record 33 of those victories came in stakes races, the most competitive events in racing.
Of course, the statistics tell only part of the story. Like “iron horses” found in virtually every other sport, Exterminator offered fans the best of both worlds: the exhilaration of seeing an athlete perform at the highest level and the satisfaction of cheering on an old friend, one you could depend on to give his best year after year.
An honest horse
Even in temperament, Exterminator was different from other racehorses—not at all “hot” or excitable. One writer of his time described him as having “the amiable affectionate disposition of a family buggy horse.”
By all accounts he was fond of his trainer. “At a word or a sign that [McDaniel] wants Exterminator to come to him the horse is there, rubbing his nose on the trainer’s shoulder or showing in some other way how well he likes him,” went an account in the New York Herald. “And the attachment is mutual. When you talk with McDaniel … the conversation soon drifts to the chestnut gelding, and then there is enthusiasm in his speech as he tells you Exterminator is the most honest, generous, admirable horse he ever trained.”But Willis Sharpe Kilmer had a legendary temper, and he was not an easy man to work for. McDaniel left Kilmer’s employment in 1920. “I never had a horse in my charge that I was as fond of as Exterminator, and I hate to give him up,” McDaniel said at the time.
Over the next four years, Exterminator raced under six different trainers. Still, he compiled an impressive series of wins, including the Saratoga Cup four years in a row (1919 to 1922), the Pimlico Cup three years in a row (1919 to 1921), and the Toronto Autumn Cup three years in a row (1920 to 1922). He won his share of sprints but was probably best known for coming from behind in longer races. In those cases where he placed second or third, he was often still gaining, and it was often said that, if the race were longer, Exterminator would have won.
That was the case in the 1921 Brooklyn Handicap, run in June at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. Exterminator ran third carrying 129 pounds, behind that year’s Belmont Stakes winner Grey Lag, carrying 110 pounds, and John P. Grier with 124. The next year’s Brooklyn Handicap offered a rematch. This time, Old Bones —carrying 135 pounds—-managed to prevail in the stretch.
A final goal
For all of his success, Exterminator raced in the shadow of another big chestnut born in the first decades of the 20th century. Man o’ War, foaled in 1917, had a relatively brief but spectacular career that made him a legend even then. In winning 20 of his 21 starts, “Big Red” set three world records, two American records and two track records. By the time he was retired from racing, Man o’ War had amassed record earnings of $249,465 (roughly the equivalent of $3.1 million in today’s dollars).
The two horses never met at the track, but by the time Exterminator was 7, in 1922, he was beginning to close on Man o’ War’s career earnings record.
Kilmer wanted Exterminator to become the leading money winner. He just had to keep his aging champion going long enough against growing odds. Handicappers were assigning him high weights: He carried 130 pounds or more in 35 of his races, even as much younger competitors, including future Hall of Famers such as Grey Lag and Sir Barton, carried less.
Old Bones’ victory in the $7,600 purse from the 1922 Brooklyn Handicap had helped, bringing the gelding’s career total up to $213,029, within $36,436 of Man o’ War’s record. Kilmer was determined to beat that record, and racing fans hung on news of every dollar Exterminator earned as the gap narrowed. Their admiration for the aging gelding’s durability only grew as he toiled on. “Man o’ War ran only as a two and three-year-old, while Exterminator has raced for seven years with little rest, his winnings including nearly all of the American classics and the Saratoga Cup no fewer than four times,” wrote a New York Herald reporter. “Nothing short of an iron horse could stand this sort of campaigning.
”But in his next start, the Independence Handicap in Latonia, Kentucky, on July 4, Exterminator was assigned a whopping 140 pounds. He finished a lackluster sixth place, tiring noticeably at the finish. After nearly a month off, he finished fifth in the Saratoga Handicap.
Exterminator recovered his form that fall, winning a series of races, including the Saratoga Cup, the Toronto Autumn Cup and the Laurel Handicap. In total, 1922 was the best year of his career—he earned $71,075 while winning 10 of 17 starts, with one second and one third-place finish, and he was named Horse of the Year. Yet at $244,606, his career total was still a few thousand dollars short of Man o’ War’s record.
One more race?
Exterminator began his seventh racing season in good form. In April 1923, he finished third in the Hartford Handicap at Havre de Grace, then won the Philadelphia Handicap at the same track a few days later, earning $3,350. “That win brought Exterminator’s money-winning total to $248,056, just $1,409 less than Man o’ War’s record,” reported The New York Call.
The odds seemed to be in Exterminator’s favor: “Judging by the way he won the Philadelphia Handicap, Exterminator will repeat his triumphs of last year and will retire at the end of the season the greatest winning racehorse of America,” predicted Edward “Snapper” Garrison, a star jockey who had ridden Exterminator as well as other leading horses of his time, in an interview with New York’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle on April 23, 1923.
One more race would do it, and hopes were high when Exterminator went to the post for the Old Dominion Handicap at Havre de Grace on April 28, 1923: “Old Slim. The idol of the racing world is slated not only to bear colors this afternoon … but also to [break] the money record established by Man o’ War,” wrote turf columnist Bert Collyer. “The big fellow is fit as the proverbial fiddle and only needs a good ride to come home on the front end.” Track management added $500 to the purse just to make sure an Exterminator victory would push his earnings record over the top.
But it was not to be. He lost by a nose to Chickvale, a maiden 3-year-old. “To say that the defeat of Exterminator was a bitter disappointment to the crowd that cheered him in his heroic failure is stating it mildly,” observed one turf writer. “Cheer after cheer rent the air as he paraded to the post…. But he fought valiantly through the last furlong and just failed to get up. His defeat, however, is tempered by the fact that Chickvale, a Derby and Preakness candidate … shouldered but 101 pounds to his 132.
”Not long after that race Exterminator pulled up lame and was sent back to Kilmer’s farm, Sun Briar Court, near Binghamton, New York. He had begun developing osselets—bony, arthritic lumps on the fetlocks—the previous fall, and now his tendons were causing him trouble. He spent the summer resting on pasture.
Meanwhile, a brown colt named Zev was burning up the track. He’d placed in 11 out of 12 starts as a 2-year-old in 1922, then as a 3-year-old, he won a series of races, including the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, the Lawrence Realization and a celebrated $80,000 match race against English Derby winner Papyrus. With the higher purses now available in these races for 3-year-olds, in 1923 alone Zev earned $272,008—becoming the first horse to best Man o’ War’s earnings record.
Kilmer wasn’t ready to concede. The earnings record had become a personal challenge to him. Still, it seemed time was running out. Exterminator was 8 years old; few horses continued racing to that age, much less beyond—and certainly not in the bigger races with larger purses. Yet the old horse’s spirit was still strong. He famously sulked when away from the track, refusing food and trying to race yearlings in nearby pastures. He was sound again, but his aging tendons and joints could only bear so much. If he could be brought back to the track, he’d have to be trained carefully, by someone who knew him well.
Someone like his old friend Henry McDaniel. Kilmer knew he needed to get the successful and busy trainer back in his employ, and he was prepared to grovel.
But McDaniel faced a difficult choice. Bringing Exterminator back to the point where he could win against the best horses in racing would be a nearly impossible task, and if he failed, he could become the man who pushed America’s favorite racehorse too hard.
Still, Kilmer was determined, and if McDaniel turned him down, Exterminator was likely to be turned over to another trainer. If McDaniel took on the old horse and won, he could redeem himself for leaving him behind once before. He could also give Exterminator back to the fans who admired him for his grit most of all.
He told Kilmer yes.
McDaniel took Exterminator away from the harsh East Coast winters to warm, sunny Tijuana, Mexico, in November of 1923. In the 1920s, Tijuana offered an escape from Prohibition, and the fashionable people of California frequented the clubs and other sources of recreation in this border town. Race purses were high, and the crowds large and enthusiastic.
McDaniel was patient with his old friend. He conditioned him slowly, sending him on long, easy gallops with plenty of rest time in between. Reporters monitored the gelding’s condition and soon noted that he was “bucking like a colt” in his morning workouts. Exterminator’s condition “was quite an achievement and a fitting testimonial to the ability of Trainer McDaniel,” wrote The Washington Post. “He has all except youth and no skill of Henry McDaniel can bring that back. He is probably as fit as he can be made,” added the Daily Racing Form.
Exterminator would not race, however, until McDaniel was confident he would not hurt himself. In January 1924, Exterminator was running well, but still McDaniel waited, scratching him from his first scheduled race. The trainer remained tight-lipped on the question of whether his horse would run in the biggest race on the Tijuana schedule, the Coffroth Handicap, which had a purse of $40,000.
Finally, McDaniel entered Exterminator in an allowance race on February 17, 1924. Fit and ready, the 9-year-old gelding was in front from the start. His jockey tried to hold him back, but finally gave up, and Exterminator swept through the finish a length ahead of the others. The crowd was clearly behind Old Bones that day, which was, one reporter wrote, the “noisiest [race] Tia Juana had ever known.
”But the purse wasn’t quite large enough to beat the record. Nonetheless a New York Times headline proclaimed: “EXTERMINATOR WINS IN COME-BACK RACE; Triumphs by a Length at Tijuana Track in First Start in Nearly a Year. ADDS $490 TO WINNINGS Brings His Total Up to $248,946, Only $519 Behind That of Man o’ War.”
Would he race again? He was scheduled to run in a $1,000 match race against a horse called Osprey in early March, but had to be scratched when he came up sore after a gallop: “Exterminator, now 9 years old, hasn’t underpinnings at present to match his heart of steel,” noted a New York Times reporter on March 3, 1924. “Fortunately the word has come that his disability is only temporary and that the son of McGee and Fair Empress undoubtedly will be able to fill his stake engagements at the Mexican track.”
Focus shifted to the Coffroth, and finally the word came—Exterminator would go to the post. In preparation for the race, customs officers established special late hours because the highway between Los Angeles and the Mexican border was crowded with caravans of cars, and hotels were packed. Boxer Jack Dempsey brought a party of friends down to watch Exterminator run, and Hollywood “moved here almost en masse,” wrote a reporter in the Chicago Tribune. A crowd of 26,000 was expected at the track—the actual attendance topped 30,000.
Exterminator would be given the top weight, 130 pounds, against a field of 20 other horses, 16 of whom would be carrying less than 110 pounds. Still, the gelding would go to the post as the favorite, at 5 to 2.
The race started cleanly, and Exterminator’s jockey held him back to run easily in the pack while the leaders—Runstar, Sunnyland and Osprey—tired themselves out. Runstar remained in front at the top of the home stretch but was clearly beginning to tire as his jockey urged him on, challenged now by Osprey and a horse called Cherry Tree, who’d moved up from the back of the pack.
“The finish was one of the most stirring ever witnessed at the Lower California course,” wrote the Buffalo Courier. “The three horses first to cross under the wire finished noses apart”—Runstar, then Osprey, then Cherry Tree.
“Exterminator, responding gamely to [his jockey’s] call a furlong from the finish, moved up so strongly for an instant that he appeared on the point of winning in one of his famous last-minute rushes,” went an account in the Binghamton Press, a newspaper owned by Kilmer. “The old fellow’s heart was the same as ever but his old legs were weary and he could not hold on. He faltered in the last few strides and dropped back to fourth position, but he was beaten only by two noses and a length and a half for the first money.”Still, the fourth-place finish paid $1,250—enough to propel Old Bones ahead of Big Red’s earnings. The “iron horse” had prevailed.
Exterminator was sent back to the East Coast after the Coffroth and started in five more races. He won two more allowance races, then in his last start in the Queens Hotel Handicap at Dorval Park in Montreal that June, he pulled up lame after finishing third. He was at last retired, sent to a sunny pasture at Sun Briar Court. His total career earnings was $252,996.
Exterminator was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1957, and even today his name evokes respect and fascination among racing aficionados. Few modern Thoroughbreds compete for more than two or three seasons, and those who do rarely continue to run in stakes races against the best of the sport. Exterminator raced for eight years, and his record of 33 stakes victories has never been broken.
His fans were legion and continued flocking to visit him in retirement until his death in 1945.
Much has been written about Exterminator over the years, but his special mix of grit and talent has rarely been captured better than it was in a turf column published some 90 years ago, by an author whose name has been lost to time: “A great horse is as hard to define with exactness as a gentleman. But he must have speed, and he must have courage…. He must be consistent in performance. He must be willing to do his best always. He should have a good disposition, an equable temperament, a sound body and a rugged constitution. And, above all, he must have that indefinable something called class—the quality which enables the stake horse to look the plater in the eye and go on to win. Exterminator had these qualities—and every one of them.”