Weight. The great equalizer in Thoroughbred horse racing. Throughout the history of our beloved sport, the impost of weight a Thoroughbred carries in a race could make or break the horse’s chances for victory. The more successful the horse, the more weight would be assigned in future races. Weight can stop a train, sink a ship and equal the field of big money handicap races. Some horses could overcome the extra weight, some could not. It takes a special horse to do so. Of all the great weight carriers in history, Discovery might have been the best.
Discovery was a golden-red chestnut foal of 1931 by Display – Ariadne by Light Brigade. His breeder was Walter Salmon, owner of the successful Mereworth Farm in Lexington. The sire of Discovery was the very good stayer Display. Display won the Preakness Stakes for Walter Salmon and was a durable, but extremely volatile horse. Display raced predominately in north eastern US and Canada, winning many lucrative races such as the Toronto Cup Handicap, Hawthorne Gold Cup, Washington Handicap and the Autumn Stakes. He made one hundred and three starts. He is honoured in Canada with the running of the Display Stakes every year at Woodbine.
Display had his stud career at Salmon’s Mereworth Farm until his passing in 1944. Display would “display” his legendary temper at the start of many of his races. His era was before the advent of starting stalls. On many occasions he refused to line up calmly, preferring to antagonize and bully fellow entrants, thus holding up race proceedings. He came by his volatility honestly however as his sire Fair Play, the sire of legendary Man ‘O War, was a noted hot head, and in turn Fair Play’s sire Hastings is still considered as one of the most volatile Thoroughbreds in history.
Discovery had none of these traits. He was by all accounts a perfect gentleman. He did however contain the internal fire to compete, and this along with his considerable strength and running ability would make him a champion race horse.
Marylander Adolphe Pons purchased Discovery and raced him with limited success as a two year old. Discovery could only manage to win two of thirteen races for Pons, with many of the defeats handed to him by future Hall of Fame horse and constant rival Cavalcade. Alfred G. Vanderbilt of Sagamore Farm fame purchased the bright red son of Display from Pons toward the end of the colt’s two year old season for a reported $25,000.
Vanderbilt sent the horse to his trainer Bud Stotler to prepare the colt for his three year old season. Discovery would come up against Cavalcade numerous times. Discovery won six stakes races during this season including the then prestigious Brooklyn Handicap, Whitney Handicap and Potomac Handicap. Cavalcade beat him in the Kentucky Derby, Arlington Classic and American Derby. Discovery won eight of his sixteen races in total during 1934. Six of his defeats were to Cavalcade. However Discovery gave the racing world a glimpse into the future when he won the ten furlong Maryland Handicap carrying 130 lbs.
The racing year of 1935 belonged to Discovery. However, his four year old season did not get off to a rousing start. He was win less in his first five races, with his best showing coming in the ten furlong Suburban Handicap. Discovery finished second to the previous year’s Preakness winner Head Play while conceding nine pounds to the winner. The Brooklyn Handicap would be the start of an impressive winning streak authored by Discovery. He defended his title in this race with a record breaking run in 1:48 1/5, and in the process defeated that year’s Triple Crown champion Omaha.
In the Detroit Challenge Cup, Discovery won by a phenomenal thirty lengths over the good horse Azucar, setting him up nicely for the Stars And Stripes Handicap. He took first place money in this race with a resounding six length defeat of Chief Cherokee, giving that one twenty pounds. Discovery then won the Butler Handicap at old Empire Downs carrying 132 lbs, followed by the Bunker Hill Handicap by fifteen lengths while toting 131 lbs.
Assigned 135 lbs for the Arlington Handicap, Discovery won the event by a comfortable five lengths. Next up was the Merchant’s And Citizen’s Handicap. The track handicapper assigned a seemingly impossible 139 lbs to Discovery. No worries here though, as the “The Big Train” would carry the impost to a two length victory. This victory extended his winning streak to eighth straight, which included an allowance race win, for the star runner in the Vanderbilt stable. He acquired the nickname of “The Big Train” due to his burgeoning reputation to carry big weight and the connection to his owner who had made a fortune in the railroad business.
The Narragansett Special would see Discovery taste defeat to Tom Row, who was running with twenty-nine pounds less on his back than Discovery. However, three days later Discovery returned to the winner’s circle when he won his second successive Whitney Handicap by a six length margin. An eight length win in the Hawthorne Gold Cup would inspire the handicapper for the Massachusetts Handicap to assign him 138 lbs. Discovery finished third to Tom Row, beaten a head and a nose for it all.
The final two races for Discovery in 1935 were a victory in the Cincinnati Handicap by twelve lengths carrying twenty-eight pounds more than the second place finisher and then he finished second under 138 lbs to Firethorn in the Washington Handicap. Discovery won eleven of nineteen races to capture not only the top Handicap Horse award but also the Horse of the Year honours. That he won the latter honour during the same year as Omaha won the Triple Crown is testament to the high regard and impressive season Discovery had.
Discovery returned to the races in 1936 as a five year old. Whereas Discovery raced predominantly in the east during his horse of the year campaign, for this season he would travel around the US to major tracks on both sides of the country. He made three starts at Santa Anita winning the San Carlos Handicap carrying 130 lbs, but could not get the deed done carrying 138 lbs in the San Antonio Handicap. His start in the “Big Cap”, the Santa Anita Handicap was not successful either. He had his second consecutive off the board finish, again as the high weighted entrant.
Stotler would give his champion a four month lay-off before bringing him back to the races. Discovery won an overnight allowance race setting him up for a third successful attempt to win the Brooklyn Handicap. In this historic victory, “The Big Train” carried 136 lbs to defeat Good Gamble and Roman Soldier.
Two more off the board finishes followed his Brooklyn victory, again as the high weight, before he would rebound impressively carrying 132 lbs for a six length score in the Saratoga Handicap. Discovery followed up with an eight length romp in the Wilson Stakes a mere four days later. It seemed as if the champion was back to his dominating ways.
The Merchant’s and Citizen’s Handicap was next on Discovery’s agenda. Assigned a back breaking 143 lbs for this race, Discovery could not with stand the late closing kick of Esposa, who ran with forty-three pounds less on her assignment. However, Discovery avenged the defeat in their next meeting in capturing his third successive Whitney Handicap by a dominating ten lengths.
The Saratoga Cup was next. The track came up sloppy this day. Granville, who was in receipt of a ten pound weight advantage, just nailed Discovery in the final yards to take the win. The same result was also in store for Discovery in the Narragansett Special, although this time it would be the very good and consistent Rosemont who beat him on a fast track. This would be the last time Discovery was seen on a race track.
Discovery was retired to stud duty, which he would take up at Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland. Discovery earned his second consecutive Handicap Horse of the Year honour, but was beaten by the crack three year old Granville for Horse of the Year. Discovery was now set to make his mark in the breeding shed and would have a pronounced influence in the shaping of the breed.
In the role of a stallion, Discovery sired twenty-six stakes winners. While this not a number that would jump out to the average racing and breeding fan, the number in itself does not reflect the quality of his get. Among the twenty-six were such good ones as champion handicap mare Conniver, multi handicap winner Find, Loser Weeper who won the Suburban and the Metropolitan Handicaps, Dark Discovery who won the Gallant Fox Handicap over Alsab, and two Excelsior Handicap winners in First Glance and Knockdown.
Where Discovery is best known, and in some breeding circles revered, is as a sire of broodmares. Bold Ruler, Native Dancer, Intentionally, Hasty Road and the latter’s half brother Traffic Judge, as well as two time champion Hall of Fame filly Bed ‘O Roses, are all produced from Discovery broodmares. The fact that each of the aforementioned horses were sired by a widely diverse group of stallions and not from a patterned “nick”, is the most intriguing factor in the assessment of Discovery as a broodmare sire. Vanderbilt would later say that his formula for breeding was “just breed any sire to a Discovery mare”. He was not far from being absolutely correct in his statement.
Geisha, a grey filly by Discovery – Miyako by John P Grier would produce the immortal Native Dancer for Vanderbilt. Winner of twenty-one of twenty-two races, his only loss coming in a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby. Native Dancer has had a profound effect on the Thoroughbred breed. He is the grand sire of the two most important sires in the second half of the twentieth century. Native Dancer’s daughter Natalma is the dam of Northern Dancer, and his son Raise A Native is the sire of Mr. Prospector. These two grandsons of Native Dancer are the founding sires of the most successful sire lines currently in fashion around the world.
Miss Disco by Discovery – Outdone by Pompey, became the dam of champion race horse and sire Bold Ruler. A son of the great stallion Nasrullah, Bold Ruler would carry the mantle of his famous sire line to eight North American sire championships. Bold Ruler is the sire of the legendary Secretariat as well as eighty-one other stakes winners, with many of which becoming champions of their generation. Bold Ruler’s male line is still going strong through his descendant A.P. Indy, and onto the incredible Tapit.
Traffic Court by Discovery – Traffic by Broomstick became the dam of Hasty Road by Roman and of Traffic Judge by Alibhai. The two sires of Traffic Court’s multi stakes winning sons were from completely different breeding back grounds. Hasty Road was a champion at two and would be a very good sire of stakes producing broodmares, in the tradition of Discovery. Traffic Judge, while not a champion on the track like his half brother, did win some big races such as the Travers Stakes and the Metropolitan Handicap. He too had success as a broodmare sire of stakes winners.
My Recipe by Discovery –Perlette by Percentage became the dam of major stakes winner Intentionally. Intentionally was sired by Intent and has been a key stallion to keep the Man ‘O War male line at the forefront of breeding. His son In Reality became a sire of great use and viability. Tiznow is a direct descendant and is keeping the line moving in current breeding.
Good Thing by Discovery – Little Sleeper by Challenger II is the dam of Bed ‘O Roses. One wonders how this great racing granddaughter of Discovery would have done as a broodmare had she not died two months after retiring from the track. She was a great loss to be sure.
Discovery was elected the National Museum Racing Hall of Fame in 1969. His excellent racing record, which saw him carry and win with huge weight on his back, as well as his profound influence on breeding are his lasting legacy. The Blood-Horse magazine proclaimed him as the thirty-seventh best horse of the twentieth century in North America.
August 28, 1958 was one of the saddest days Sagamore farm has had to endure. Discovery died that day of natural causes. He was buried on the farm. The big charismatic golden-red chestnut with a perfect disposition and radiant coat was sorely missed. Esteemed turf writer and historian John Hervey summed up Discovery the best.
“Discovery’s gleaming golden coat which, when the sun strikes it, gives a glow of molten iridescence. Its rich undertones are full of warmth and splendour, making for a feast for the eye.”
Heart, intelligence, beauty, strength and prepotency. Discovery had it all.
(Photo courtesy of Sagamore Farm Archives)