Discovery

Saturday at Aqueduct brings the running of the Grade III Discovery Handicap, named for the horse whom author John Eisenberg calls “the most important equine purchase” of owner Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s life.

Apparently unable to resist the obvious wordplay, Edward Hotaling, in They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, wrote that at age three “Discovery discovered himself at Saratoga.” Earlier that year, he’d finished second to his nemesis Cavalcade in the Kentucky Derby, creating in his owner a burning desire to win the Derby with a horse that he bred himself.

As a three-year-old, Discovery began formidable winning streaks in two major New York races, winning both the Whitney and Brooklyn Handicaps in 1934, 1935, and 1936. Earlier this year, I wrote about Discovery’s third win in the Whitney; in the New York Times, Bryan Field observed that Discovery’s streak in the Brooklyn was a record that would “doubtless stand for years,” and indeed he was right: it lasted for forty years, until Forego in 1974 won the first of his three Brooklyns.

Field, another writer who couldn’t resist the multitude of pun opportunities offered by the horse’s name, covered that third Brooklyn win:

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s Discovery needs new worlds to conquer, for he easily flipped aside the most formidable challenger for his crown of handicap champion when he won the Brooklyn Handicap for the third time yesterday at Aqueduct. (New York Times)

In doing so, Discovery carried more weight—136 pounds—than had any entrant in 47 runnings of the Brooklyn. His filly stablemate, Good Gamble, finished second in the race, which Discovery seems to have won without breaking a sweat:

Leo Fallon was in the saddle and had an easy time, going along pretty much like the engineer of an express train. With his hand on the throttle, he never had to turn on speed, for Discovery won under wraps.

Eisenberg notes that Discovery was known as the Big Train—maybe Field’s simile stuck?

At age four, Discovery won eight straight stakes races, and eleven altogether; that year, he carried as much as 139 pounds, and he won Horse of the Year honors for the first time, defeating Triple Crown winner Omaha, the only time that the Triple Crown winner was not the Horse of the Year. At age five, he carried 143 pounds; though he didn’t manage to win with that much on his back, he did repeat his Whitney, Brooklyn, and Horse of the Year victories.

As accomplished a race horse as Discovery was, his importance to Vanderbilt lay less in his victories than in what he sired. Known as a leading broodmare sire, his daughter, the Sagamore mare Geisha, was bred to Polynesian, a stallion at a nearby farm; the result of that coupling gave Vanderbilt his horse of a lifetime, Native Dancer. Despite all of Native Dancer’s accomplishments, like his grandsire Discovery, the Grey Ghost could only finish second in the Derby for his only loss, and Vanderbilt never did get the Derby win he so desperately craved.

Eisenberg, John. Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost: Hero of a Golden Age. New York: Warner Books, 2003.

Field, Bryan. “Discovery Takes $14,075 Brooklyn Third Time in Row.” New York Times 28 June 1936. 20 Nov. 2008.

Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

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