Tomorrow at Aqueduct, the Discovery will be run for the 67th time. In multiple accounts of the career of the horse for whom the race is named, commentators are awed by two things: his ability to carry weight and his effect on racing through his progeny.
Purchased as a two-year-old by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Discovery was by Display (Fair Play) out of Ariadne; in that first year on the track, he was anything but impressive, making 14 starts with two wins. Vanderbilt purchased him late in 1933, and the colt made just one more start as a freshman, finishing second by a neck.
At three, he was on the Derby trail, racing for the first time in 1934 on April 28 and heading to the Derby for his second start; he finished second and was third in the Preakness. He got his first win that year in an allowance at Belmont May 25. Seven more wins would follow, all but one in stakes races, among them the first of his three Brooklyn Handicaps and the first of his three Whitneys. He finished the year 16-8-3-3.
In a remarkable stretch at age four, Discovery won eight in a row and 11 of 14, including a win in the Merchants and Citizens at Saratoga under 139 pounds, leading John Hervey to anoint him the greatest weight carrier ever in America, according to Edward Hotaling. Said Evan Hammonds in The Blood-Horse’s Thoroughbred Champions, “the iron horse was unstoppable.”
Discovery was even more impressive at five than he was at four, according to William H.P. Robertson:
As a five-year-old in 1936, Discovery embarked on the most remarkable weight-carrying venture of his era. In fourteen starts that year, he went to the post ten times with 130 pounds or more on his back, and his burdens for the season averaged more than 132.
Between August 1 and August 22, Discovery raced five times at Saratoga, in the Saratoga Handicap, the Wilson, the Merchants and Citizens, the Whitney, and the Saratoga Cup. He won the Saratoga Handicap by six, the Wilson by eight, and his third Whitney by ten.
Carrying 143 pounds in the Merchants and Citizens over a sloppy track, he finished fifth, inciting owners, writes Glenye Cain Oakford in Champions, “…to call for a 138-pound ceiling on handicaps, citing the weight put on Discovery as ‘bad practice.’”
Though Discovery finished last in that race, he was the lead in the New York Times recap of the race, Bryan Fields noting that the winner carried 43 pounds fewer than the favorite…43!
How much thoroughbred bone and muscle can stand was the question that came to the fore today as Discovery failed gallantly under 143 pounds in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, with the Middleburg Stable’s filly Esposa the winner under 100 pounds.
Young Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt sent out his champion son of Display as a sporting gesture even though he said in New York earlier in the season that the 144 pounds assigned in a handicap there was more than any horse should be asked to carry…
Discovery was last in a field of five, which ran over a track rough and slow. The combination of the weight and the track was too much for Discovery… (Field)
The DRF chart notes simply, “Tired.”
Discovery was retired at the end of his five-year-old season; he raced 63 times with a record of 27-10-10. He was considered the champion handicap horse of 1935 and voted that honor in 1936. The Blood-Horse ranks him at #37 on its list of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.
Robertson wrote of Discovery in retirement:
Discovery became even more powerful looking after he retired to stud; the crest most stallions develop to some extent, he developed until his neck seemed as big around as the average horse’s body. Despite his appearance of brute strength—and the rotation other members of his line had for temper—both Vanderbilt and his farm manager, former football star Ralph Kercheval, characterized Discovery as a “gentleman.” (Robertson).
(Note: With a name like Kercheval, how could he not work with horses?)
While successful as a sire, Discovery left his mark on racing as a broodmare sire. Oakford quotes his owner Vanderbilt in 1999:
In a way, the most important thing about Discovery is that for probably 20 years, give or take a little, the two major stallions in North America were Native Dancer and Bold Ruler. Both of them were out of Discovery mares.
Decades earlier, Robertson wrote,
Vanderbilt, when asked what was the secret breeding formula behind his success in racing, used to say, “Breed a mare to Discovery.” Later, when the horse was getting along in years, the formula was revised: “Breed a stallion to a daughter of Discovery.”
More on Discovery from the Brooklyn Backstretch archive.
Sources quoted and consulted
Champions, revised edition. Daily Racing Form Press, 2004.
Discovery’s page at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Field, Bryan. “18,000 see 7-1 Shot Win.” New York Times, August 9, 1936. Web.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. Lexington, Kentucky: The Blood-Horse, 2003.
Discovery at Saratoga from the National Museum of Racing, credited to NYRA.
Discovery outside his barn from Robertson, credited to Sagamore Farm.
Program images courtesy of Ron Micetic.