“The harrowing uncertainty of the turf”

“ ‘I guess he just put his foot down wrong,’ and in those nine words there was more heartburn than some men suffer in a lifetime.”

These words were spoken about a horse, an accomplished three-year-old who ran six times and who crossed the wire first in all six races, reportedly “without ever being extended, and not even the trainer knew how great the horse might be. Now nobody will ever know.”

Nobody will ever know because in his three-year-old spring, this horse suffered catastrophic injuries to his cannon and pastern bones. All involved thought he would be euthanized, until two surgeons stepped in to try to save the horse’s life.

The year was 1971, and the colt was Hoist the Flag.

In “Hoist the Flag,” a chapter in The Red Smith Reader, Smith writes about the colt who was injured in a morning workout while prepping for the Kentucky Derby; in this terrific June 7, 2002 article in the Washington Post, Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, writes about the colt’s nearly-miraculous recovery and the efforts of his vets to save his life.

Hoist the Flag’s story is from another racing era: He didn’t race until September of his two-year-old year, when he won a maiden race at Belmont, and twelve days later he raced, and won, again. A week later, he won a two-year-old stakes race. Nine days after that, he crossed the wire first in the Champagne, but was disqualified and placed last. In less than a month, he raced four times, and beat the field all four times.

As a three-year-old, he won two races within eight days; the second race was the Bay Shore Handicap at Aqueduct, which he won by seven lengths. According to Smith, Hoist the Flag would have been the even-money Derby favorite, but, injured on March 31st, he never got there. His cannon bone was destroyed, his pastern “pulverized.” Two vets stepped in, knowing that an attempt to save the colt’s life was risky. “ ‘Everything had to fall into place,’” said vet William Reed (Hillenbrand).

This story had a happy ending; the treatment that Reed and fellow vet Jacques Jenny tried worked, and Hoist the Flag became a successful sire, with Grecian Banner among his offspring. Grecian Banner is the sire of the perfect Personal Ensign, and as Hillenbrand notes, she too fractured a pastern, and this time Dr. Reed stepped in to save the filly’s life, with the help of Dr. Larry Bramlage. Personal Ensign recovered, and went on to continue her undefeated racing career.

Hoist the Flag never made it to the Hall of Fame, but his story is worth remembering, for the talent and courage of the horse, and for the sagacity, experience, and tenacity of his vets.

Red Smith wrote,

With all his future ahead of him, there was no telling how many millions he might have accumulated on the track and as a syndicated stallion. That’s only money. More important to some, everything about him spelled class. Now it’s all gone. The harrowing uncertainty of the turf.

Sound familiar?

Anderson, Dave, ed. The Red Smith Reader. 1982: Random House, New York.

Hillenbrand, Laura. “The Dream Lives On.” The Washington Post. 7 June 2002. 30 Jan 2007.

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3 thoughts on ““The harrowing uncertainty of the turf”

  1. Great blog topic – it was linked off Racingdispatch.com. Feel free to post future blogs there and it will link back to your site.

  2. Thanks for highlighting an undersung hero from the past. (And, as a librarian, I simply love it when folks use citations, even if I myself never do.)

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