Tom Fool

The highlight of today’s racing at Aqueduct is the Grade 3 Gotham, appropriating the nickname of the city that hosts it. But the spirit of New York may be better embodied in the horse for whom a race earlier on the card is named: Tom Fool, who won 21 races and earned $570,165; who won 11 in a row to end his career; and who became only the second horse to win the Handicap Triple Crown. He left New York exactly twice in his 30-race career.

Tom Fool with Ted Atkinson, from Robertson

Tom Fool was champion two-year-old in 1951; in 1953, he was champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and horse of the year; Joe Hirsch called him “one of the decade’s brightest stars,” and The Blood-Horse ranked him #11 on its list of the top 100 horses in the 20th century.

His name is synonymous with foolishness and silliness, but on the racetrack, he was apparently all business. Purchased by John Hay Whitney’s Greentree Stable, Tom Fool was a serious racehorse from the beginning winning at Saratoga in his first start. James Roach of the New York Times reported:

It was supposed to be a bit of a secret that Greentree Stable’s Tom Fool is a 2-year-old colt of considerable promise. It turned out to be no secret when he started for the first time in a five-and-a-half furlong sprint at Saratoga today. He was bet into 2-to-1 favoritism. He won with four lengths to spare.

Another colt with impressive connections, Ogden Phipps’s Thymus, was expected to be the favorite…but perhaps the bettors witnessed this interaction in the paddock before the race, as reported by Roach:

John Hay Whitney, co-owner of Greentree Stable, went to the paddock to see his colt saddled. Up strolled Phipps, owner of Thymus.

“What are you doing here?” Whitney asked.

“I want to see your star,” Phipps said.

“Go away,” said Whitney, “go look at your own horse.”

Thymus finished fourth.

Tom Fool would go on to win four of six subsequent starts at two, finishing second in the other two. All of his wins were in stakes races: the Sanford, the Grand Union Hotel, the Futurity, and the East View.

Tom Fool after winning the Grand Union Hotel Stakes. Photo property of Keeneland-Morgan Collection, from Hotaling.

His record at three was no less impressive: from 13 starts, he had six wins, five seconds, and a third. Following a second place finish in the Wood Memorial, he missed the Triple Crown races with an illness, returning to the track at the end of June 1953 in the Rippey Handicap at Aqueduct.

He won his last start of the year, the Empire City Handicap, and it was the first victory in an 11-race win streak that saw Tom Fool record an undefeated season at age 4.

Among his wins that year were the Met Mile, the Suburban, and the Brooklyn Handicap – the races that comprise the handicap Triple Crown, a series that had not been won since Whisk Broom II had captured it in 1913. According to Hirsch, Tom Fool’s win in the Suburban that year “touched off one of the most sustained ovations ever heard at Belmont Park.”

Tom Fool winning the Suburban, from The New York Times; Meyer Leibowitz, photographer

Tom Fool raced and won four times after the Brooklyn, but nobody except his owners made a penny on him: each race was declared a non-betting event. The Wilson and the Whitney, both at Saratoga, attracted only one other entrant each; in the Sysonby at Belmont and the Pimlico Special, only two other horses showed up.

Racing historian William H.P. Robertson characterized Tom Fool’s running action as “perfect” and quoted Ted Atkinson, the only jockey to ever ride Tom Fool in a race, as saying that Tom Fool “even had muscles in his eyebrows.”

Tom Fool was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1960, the same year in which, according to The Blood-Horse, the National Turf Writers Association voted Tom Fool “horse of the decade.”

Tom Fool’s legacy continued into the breeding shed, where he sired Tim Tam and Buckpasser, along with 24 other stakes winners. Pensioned from stud duty in 1972, he died at Greentree Farm in 1976.

Click here to watch Tom Fool’s 1953 Whitney.

Sources cited and consulted:

“#11: Tom Fool” in Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century,” published by The Blood-Horse in 2003.

Hirsch Joe. “Ghosts and Legends: the 1950’s.” In Champions, revised edition, published in 2005.

Leibowitz, Meyer. “Favorite Capturing Stakes” (photo). New York Times, nytimes.com, 31 May 1953 (photo)

Morgan, Bert. “Tom Fool en route to the post…” (photo). In William H.P. Robertson’s The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, published by Bonanza Books in 1964.

Roach, James. “Greentree’s Colt Triumphs in Debut.” New York Times, nytimes.com, 14 Aug 1951.

Roach, James. “Royal Vale Second.” New York Times, nytimes.com, 31 May 1953.

Tom Fool’s page at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Tom Fool’s Pedigree Query page.

“Tom Fool, Ted Atkinson aboard” (photo). From Edward Hotaling’s They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, published in 1995 by Syracuse University Press. Photo property of Keeneland-Morgan Collection at the Keeneland Library.

8 thoughts on “Tom Fool

  1. thanks for bringing back some memories He deserved every award and accolode ever given and he was so blessed to have Ted Atkinson aboard

  2. An excellent, well-written and researched piece. The quotes are fantastic. My grandfather not only was a high school English teacher, but also trained Tom Fool. I feel certain he would have enjoyed this article. Keep up the good work…

  3. James Roach … Uncle Jim … my uncle. I should have listened to him when he told me to be a jockey. Oh well, love you Uncle Jim. Thanks for raising me at Belmont.

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