Greetings from Aqueduct! It’s early – 8 am – and I don’t have a lot of company here. The horses have returned to the backstretch after their winter sojourn at Belmont, having given way to the construction crews for a while, but there are few horses on the track, and upstairs, one clocker and I look out at what feels like the only sunny Saturday here all winter.
The construction continues as the meet winds down – just two more weekends here before Belmont opens – and while I suspect that the space in which I sit will look exactly the same when I get back here in November, it’s hard to ward off the wistfulness as the transformation from racetrack to racino heads towards reality.
Today is Wood day #92, #54 at this track, which, when it opened in 1959, was called “the new dream race track” in the New York Times. The first Wood Memorial, named for Eugene D. Wood, was won by Backbone, by Whisk Broom out of Stamina. His sire won the Handicap Triple Crown (Brooklyn, Suburban, Metropolitan) and was named champion older male and Horse of the Year in 1913, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979. His dam won the Matron, the Ladies, and the Gazell and was second in the Champagne. Backbone’s owner and breeder, Harry Payne Whitney, must have had high hopes for him.
Backbone is something of an elusive animal: Pedigree Query tells us that he raced 55 times with a record of 15-13-5, but few of his races are captured in my racing bible, the archives of the New York Times.
The Times does record that first running of the Wood; Backbone won by two lengths at odds of 18-3. He is mentioned regularly if briefly in the paper’s coverage of that year’s Triple Crown (though the three races were not called that then). In 1925 The Preakness was run on May 8, before the Derby, and Backbone paid $3.60 to place, beaten by Coventry, who paid $45.60.
Backbone went on to Louisville for the Derby; Daily Racing Form denigrated the 1925 renewal of the classic by saying that “there have been few runnings of the famous old classic in which there was a like lack of quality in the field.” That paucity of good horses did no good for Backbone, who finished 14th in a field of 20.
Undeterred, Backbone’s connections forged on: on May 31, the Times reported that the son of Whisk Broom was one of several “smart three-year-olds” possible for both the Suburban and the Belmont; Backbone didn’t go in the Suburban (side note: on the day of the Suburban at Belmont – June 7, 1925 – a race named for Backbone’s sire, Whisk Broom, was run for 2-year-olds), but when the field broke in the Belmont on June 13, Backbone was among the starters. He finished last.
In the fall, he won an allowance at Havre de Grace in September and was scratched from a race at Laurel in October. Incomplete information indicates that the high point, then, of Backbone’s sophomore campaign was his win in the Wood Memorial. That might well put him in good company.
Backbone raced until he was 8, and that year he was third in the International Handicap. He was also well-traveled, having won the Tijuana Cup at age 5 in 1927. Apparently he had a little left in the tank then, or maybe the Mexican air did him good. He set a new track record in the Tijuana Cup, 3:23 1/5 for two miles. Perhaps those races as a 3-year-old were just too short for him.
Backbone has slipped into the mists of racing time, unknown and unremembered; his name lives on only in seldom-consulted records, and he made no lasting impression on the sport, despite his win in that first Wood. Those who will throng to Aqueduct today, to see the winner of the last Wood Memorial at this version of this track, first opened in 1895, will come expecting better.
Sources cited and consulted
“15,000 See Canter win $15,000 Stakes.” New York Times, 24 Sept 1925.
“Backbone is First in the Tijuana Cup.” New York Times, 21 March 1927.
“Classics Listed for Belmont Week.” New York Times, 31 May 1925.
“Flying Ebony and Earl Sande.” Daily Racing Form, 18 May 1925.
Ilsley, Henry R. “American Flag Wins the Belmont Stakes.” New York Times, 14 June 1925.
Ilsley, Henry R. “Backbone Captures the Wood Stakes.” New York Times. 3 May 1925.
Ilsley, Henry R. “Coventry Captures Preakness Easily.” New York Times. 9 May 1925.
“Singlefoot Takes the Laurel Stakes.” New York Times, 18 Oct 1925.