In a sport known as “The Sport of Kings”, a horse’s pedigree prepares us for the possibility that a future champion may emerge. Horse racing history is replete with rags to riches stories that tug at the heart strings. Several beloved champions of the past have come from humble beginnings to rise to the top of the racing world and in the process gathered a large following. One of the more compelling and subsequently popular such individuals was a grey colt born May 1, 1978 named Frost King.
Ted Smith of Toronto bred the son of Ruritania – Native Flower by Restless Native. He placed a ten thousand dollar minimum price on him and tried unsuccessfully in selling the colt as a weanling at Keeneland. Smith tried the following year at the CTHS yearling sale with the same reserve. No sale. He talked trainer Bill Marko into buying a half interest in the colt at the ten thousand dollar value. Marko and Smith had him gelded after the deal was agreed upon.
As Marko was driving home along the country roads from the farm, he began to think of a name for his new acquisition. Marko spotted an abandoned refrigerator along the side of the road and noticed the brand name on the broken door, “Frost King”. Marko thought that would be a good name for the grey son of Ruritania. Smith agreed to the moniker and soon that name would be on everybody’s lips once they saw him run.
Frost King would grow to be a good sized, robust animal. His grey coat, he was officially registered as a roan, had lovely dapples and was of a steel grey hue.There was white in his black tail and a very pronounced white blaze on his face. As with all greys, not roans, his coat became lighter as he aged. Frost King had well muscled shoulders, sturdy strong legs and looked very powerful as he filled his 16.1 hand frame. He possessed a lively but easy going temperament, which allowed him to be a model student as he learned his early lessons. “He is such a lovable character” Marko said of Frost King.
Right from the beginning Frost King showed Marko that he could be something special. During his two year old season the big grey gelding broke his maiden at first asking and then finished second to Moteral in the six and a half furlong Vandal Stakes. Stutz Finwhale was third.
Frost King then began to show racing fans what he was all about. He won the prestigious Cup and Saucer Stakes on the grass and the Winnipeg Futurity on dirt. He won those races at tracks separated by over one thousand miles. Frost King showed early that he could travel well and could run on a variety of racing surfaces. He finished his juvenile year with a good second place in the Coronation Futurity to eventual divisional champion Bayford.
The big gelding furnished out during the winter. Marko and Smith had a legitimate Queen’s Plate hopeful in the barn and thus set out a plan to get him to the Canadian classic. Frost King won the Queenston Stakes, Achievement Handicap and Plate Trial Stakes leading up to the big event. Frosty was made the betting choice by Woodbine punters to take victory, but Fiddle Dancer Boy had other ideas. In a blanket three horse finish Fiddle Dancer Boy, running the race of his life, edged out Frost King and Wayover for the upset. Fiddle Dancer Boy had never beaten Frost King before the Queen’s Plate.
Despite the setback, Frost King was still becoming the new star on the Canadian racing scene. He switched to the grass and won the eight and a half furlong Toronto Cup Handicap and then boarded a plane and was Alberta bound. The Canadian Derby, an eleven furlong dirt race at Northlands Park in Edmonton, was the target. Frosty dominated the race. He then shipped down to Calgary for the Alberta Derby but another Ontario invader Regimen pulled an upset. Frost King, having finished second, went back home to Woodbine.
One of the endearing facets of Frost King to his growing army of fans was that he was not infallible. He had his share of losses to go with his stirring victories. In the grassy twelve furlong Breeder’s Stakes he was beaten by Social Wizard. Frosty bounced back with a victory in the Bunty Lawless Stakes on the Woodbine turf course and then again defeated older horses in the Colonel R.S. McLaughlin Handicap on nine and a half furlongs of dirt. His consistent performances led to Frost King being invited for the inaugural Japan Cup in November of 1981.
Marko and Smith decided to take the JRA up on the offer and brought Frost King half way around the world to run in this new lucrative event. The race attracted a fine field from around the globe and would be contested on the Tokyo Race Course grass at twelve furlongs. Frost King ran his eye balls out but could not catch the great American mare Mairzy Doates. He finished second by a length in the twelve horse field. Third place another length behind was grade one turf winner The Very One.
Frost King was voted the Sovereign Award Champion Three Year Old but the Horse of the Year trophy went to his former stable mate Deputy Minister, who had put together a fantastic year in the juvenile colt division. Deputy Minister had started out in Marko’s barn but after three dominating performances owners Mort and Marjoh Levy sold a half interest in the colt to Kinghaven Farm. A stipulation of the deal was that Deputy Minister would be trained by Kinghaven’s private trainer John Tammaro.
Bill Marko still had Frost King though, and he would go from success to success with the big grey gelding. 1982 was a year to remember for Bill Marko, Ted Smith and the legion of Frost King fans (I was one of them) he had developed. Frost King was durable and raced often. He won eight stakes races as a four year old on both grass and dirt tracks. He competed at five different venues and earned his nick name ‘Travellin Man”.
His stakes wins were the Canadian Maturity, Bunty Lawless Stakes (his second win in this event), and Connaught Cup on the grass. On dirt tracks he took the Eclipse Handicap, Jockey Club Cup, National Jockey Club Handicap, Jacques Cartier Stakes and Bold Venture Handicap. Frost King was beaten by a nose in the Massachusetts Handicap to Silver Supreme and by the same margin to Bejilla in the Dominion Day Handicap. He was giving weight, five pounds, to each of those winners.
Frost King won at distances from six and a half furlongs to ten furlongs. He won with 130 lbs on his back twice, and never mailed in a race. He beat the likes of champion Rainbow Connection, Nijinsky’s Secret, Great Gladiator and Play The Hornpipe on their terms, carrying more weight. He lost a few races, but all told Frost King’s four year old season was one for the ages.
The Sovereign Horse of the Year Award came his way at season’s end. Frost King would be returning for another year. Ports of call for the Travellin Man in 1983 included another trip to Alberta, as well as Michigan, Kentucky, New York, Maryland and his home at Woodbine. If there were frequent flyer awards points back then, Frost King would have been a leader in that category.
Frost King won the Dominion Day Handicap and his second Eclipse Handicap at Woodbine, Speed To Spare Championship Stakes at Northlands and the Fayette Stakes in a dead heat with Cad at Keeneland. He finished second in the Michigan Mile And One-Eighth as well as the Jacques Cartier Stakes and third in the Bunty Lawless Stakes. In the latter race Frosty fractured a sesamoid and would be retired from racing. He set two track records during the year.
Bill Marko stated “Frost King was a gift from God. We have purchased a farm in King Township and that is where he will spend his retirement. I could never sell him. He has given all of us so many thrills”. He also praised veterinarian Dr. Robert McMartin for his “Wonderful work in getting Frosty back to health after his injury”.
If Frost King had theme song it would probably be John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Frost King was born without any expectations of stardom, just another foal among thousands born every year. (I am sure that there are no regally bred horses named after an old refrigerator) He captured the hearts of many racing fans with his never say die attitude and versatility. Grass, dirt, new surroundings or different distances didn’t faze him. He could take everything in stride and give his 110% best.
Frosty wasn’t a dominating champion, nor was he the fleetest of steeds. What Frost King was for all who watched was an honest competitor. Twenty-one stakes wins, no matter what racing era we are talking about, is an exceptional achievement.
Frost King is rightfully in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame. The Travellin Man was one of the most loved horses to ever grace a race track.
(Photo courtesy of Keeneland Association/Bill Straus)