Nashua

Bull Hancock had one of the greatest thoroughbred bloodstock minds in history. He could assess the conformation and pedigree of a potential stallion better than anyone else before or since his time. During the late 1940’s, Hancock pursued a son of Nearco named Nasrullah, convinced that the horse had all the right attributes to be a success at stud. After years of close calls in acquiring Nasrullah, Bull Hancock was finally able to secure the then ten year old stallion for Claiborne Farm in 1950.

Among the members of the Nasrullah syndicate that Hancock put together was turf icon and dear friend William Woodward sr. Woodward was one of the great gentlemen of the thoroughbred world. He had enormous success in his alliance with Claiborne and the Hancock family, and was part of the group who purchased Sir Gallahad III for a successful stud career in the U.S. Woodward’s Belair Stud dominated the 1930’s winning ten classics and countless top level stakes races, capped by the Triple Crown achievements of Gallant Fox and that one’s son Omaha.

Unfortunately the 1940’s were not as fruitful for Woodward. Belair Stud had not won an American classic since Johnstown captured the 1939 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Woodward had a small stable of high quality in England under the watch of Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, and had won the English classic St. Leger Stakes with Boswell in 1936. Black Tarquin won the 1948 St. Leger and Hycilla won the Epsom Oaks in 1942 giving Woodward classic victories in England during the decade.

The trainer for his large American racing stable was another turf legend, the one and only James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons trained every one of Woodward’s American based horses beginning in 1923 and the two became close friends and had Hall of Fame success together.

The classic win drought on home soil however was given a legitimate opportunity to come to an end when Woodward mated his broodmare Segula, a daughter of Johnstown, to Nasrullah in 1951.The following April 14, 1952, a bay colt was born. As he grew he began to give great hope as a possible ticket for Woodward and Fitzsimmons to return to a classic winner’s circle.

The two friends were looking forward to racing the Nasrullah – Segula colt together, but unfortunately on September 25, 1953 William Woodward sr. passed away at the age of seventy-seven. The great turf icon had served as the Chairman of the Jockey Club for twenty years, and was an honorary member of the British Jockey Club. The Belair stable and estate would pass on to his son William jr. “Sunny Jim” remained as the stable trainer while the impressive son of Segula would be given the name Nashua.

Nashua made his race début on May 5, 1954 at Belmont. The race was a four and one half furlongs maiden two year old event on the old Widener Chute course. Stable rider Jess Higley was given the assignment to guide Nashua in his first race. Going off at odds of 8.50/1, the big Belair colt won by a commanding three lengths, attracting the attention of one Eddie Arcaro who got to see the colt up close in the race briefly before his mount Golden Prince was passed by Nashua.

Fitzsimmons decided to enter Nashua in stakes company for his next race and chose the five furlong Juvenile on the same Widener course, putting Arcaro on the colt. Also in the race was the highly regarded Summer Tan, a son of Heliopolis, trained by Sherrill Ward for Mrs. Dorothy Firestone. Summer Tan had already won the Youthful Stakes. The favourite however was Greentree Stable’s Gold Box, another son of Heliopolis.

Arcaro sent Nashua to the lead at the off. Eric Guerin aboard Summer Tan then challenged the Belair team and took the lead after the first quarter mile. Nashua stayed with his rival and prevailed by half a length with Wheatley Stable’s Laugh eight lengths further behind in third. Nashua and Summer Tan thus began a rivalry that would become the talk of the 1954 season, onto the following year’s Kentucky Derby trail.

The two became reacquainted at Saratoga three months later in the Hopeful Stakes. In the mean time Nashua had won the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and finished second to Royal Note in the Cherry Hill Stakes. In the Cherry Hill, Nashua displayed the roguish characteristics of his sire, which compromised his chances severely. It would not be the first time Nashua behaved in such a manner. In the Hopeful, Nashua set the pace with Summer Tan in constant pursuit, winning by a scant neck.

Four weeks later they renewed hostilities in the Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct. Arcaro had Nashua back in fourth until he unleashed the colt in the stretch. Summer Tan took early charge and never relinquished his advantage, beating Nashua by one and a half lengths. Following a tune up allowance race win for each colt in separate races, the championship for two year old colts was to be decided by them in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont.

Nashua was made the slight favourite at 3/5, while Summer Tan was even money in the seven horse field. From the off Nashua and Summer Tan went at each other on the lead, as if the race was their own personal match race. Summer Tan had as much as a length on Nashua at one point at the top of the far turn, while Nashua had as much as a half length in front of Summer Tan in mid-stretch coming home. Neither colt would give in, which was a good thing because the all out nature of the two was taking its toll and the rest of the field were gaining on them. Nashua prevailed by a neck over Summer Tan with Royal Coinage only a half length back in third. Nashua needed every ounce of courage and toughness to win.

Named as the champion two year old in every poll, Nashua was put away by Fitzsimmons and wintered in Florida. Nashua had filled out further during his transition from juvenile to three year old. His already muscular build gained additional weight and substance, making him even more impressive to look at. He had the physique of an Equine Adonis.

Sunny Jim unleashed the champion in a four horse non wagering allowance race at Hialeah. Going eight and a half furlongs and carrying one hundred and twenty-six pounds, Nashua stalked the early pace and then glided by down the home stretch for a workmanlike victory. It was the first time he had gone that far and carried that much weight while racing.

Nashua then rattled off wins in the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby with commanding ease, giving his Florida stay a perfect three for three. It was back to New York for the Wood Memorial, and a renewal of his rivalry with Summer Tan. This race would be the final tune up for both colts before the Kentucky Derby. The Belair runner beat the Firestone colt by a neck. Nashua was now a perfect four for four as a three year old leading into the first Saturday of May.

The 1955 Kentucky Derby has in hindsight become a watershed moment in American turf folklore, with Nashua at the centre of the story. In the race he would again face Summer Tan, but this would be the last time they raced against each other. A new chestnut colt, this time from California, would assume the mantle of chief adversary to the big eastern based champion Nashua. Affectionately known as “The California Comet”, the registered named to Nashua’s new rival was Swaps.

Swaps came into the race on a good roll of his own, with a win in the Santa Anita Derby in his trophy case as a good point of reference. Nashua was still made the favourite and the eastern press were convinced that Nashua was unstoppable. The press on both coasts of the country dubbed the race as east vs west and the public went along. Local Kentuckians were very impressed with Swaps after he won an allowance race a week before the Derby over the Churchill Downs course. The heightened intrigue adding to the flavour of the race.

When the gates opened Swaps under Willie Shoemaker took the lead. Arcaro had Nashua settled early in third position. Swaps relaxed well on the lead and the crafty Shoemaker judged the pace to perfection. Arcaro was aware of what was going on in front and eased Nashua closer along the back stretch into the turn for home. Shoemaker gave a shake of his reigns and Swaps switched to another gear and began to pull away from Nashua. Arcaro asked his colt for everything he had and Nashua responded, gaining on the leader. But Swaps had plenty more left and not only withstood the challenge from Nashua, he actually increased his lead to one and a half lengths at the finish line. Summer Tan finished third six and a half lengths back of Nashua.

The western press sang the praises of their champion while the eastern press were aghast at the result. The post mortems, a usual occurrence in the papers when a champion is beaten, came pouring in. Some blamed Arcaro for misjudging Swaps’ talent. Some blamed the racing surface and the fact that Nashua had never raced over the track while Swaps had. There were some who even blamed the differing training methods of the two colts. The fact was Swaps beat Nashua fair and square, and a new rivalry was born.

This rivalry however did not reap many races where the two would be pitted against each other. No this rivalry would be played out in the press more than on the track. Rex Ellsworth, the breeder/owner of Swaps, decided that the next two Triple Crown races were not for his colt and promptly brought Swaps back to California. William Woodward Jr. kept Nashua in the Triple Crown and convincingly won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to annex the remaining two thirds of the series. Belair Stud was back in the winner’s circle in Triple Crown races. Summer Tan had gone by the wayside for the year after the Derby and there was no legitimate threat to Nashua in either race.

Nashua continued his ever improving form with convincing wins in the Dwyer and Arlington Classic in July. Swaps meanwhile dominated three important stakes races at Hollywood Park and then came to Chicago to win the American Derby at Washington Park. While all this was happening, the east and west press were continually debating as to which was the better colt. They demanded a match race to settle the issue, since neither of the connections seemed to be interested in entering the same race as the other. Finally after much debate and speculation, both parties caved in to the pressure.

The genesis of the acquiescence came from an opportunistic dinner between Arcaro, Woodward and actor Dom Ameche. Ameche was a great supporter of racing, and happened to be dinning with Arcaro when he asked the jockey about his feelings on the subject. Woodward just happened to enter the same restaurant and the two approached him with the idea. Woodward had recently received a call from Ben Lindheimer, the owner of Washington Park race track, with a match race proposal. Upon hearing that Arcaro was convinced that Nashua would win over Swaps, Woodward proceeded to take up Lindheimer’s offer to stage the race.

Lindheimer was also in good stead with Rex Ellsworth and Swaps’ trainer Mesh Tenney. Once the proposal was put forward, the Swaps team signed on. The race was to be a winner takes all $100,000 ten furlong race at scale weight of 126 lbs on August 31, 1955. The press and their readers had what they wanted. However the cost to the Nashua followers was that the colt would have to skip the prestigious Travers Stakes in order to prepare for the showdown. The crafty Sunny Jim then began to prepare Nashua by teaching him to go for the lead early and make his opponent chase him.

Rain the previous two days before the race created a deep track that was listed as good by the time the two combatants entered the Washington Park starting gate. Swaps was made the 3-10 favourite by the thirty-two thousand plus in attendance that day, Nashua was listed at 6-5. When the gates flew open, Arcaro urged Nashua to the lead just as Fitzsimmons had wanted. Nashua continued his relentless pace, gaining further on his lead. Swaps could not answer the Belair colt on the day. Nashua crossed the finish line six and one half lengths in front of Swaps to win the match race.

The Nashua supporters felt a sense of redemption with the victory. The Swaps supporters blamed the track condition. And so it goes on. Unfortunately for the racing world, these two would not face each other again. The debate would continue, with no definitive resolution.

Nashua faced a new challenge in his next race three weeks later at Belmont. For the first time the Belair colt faced older horses. The Sysonby Stakes was lengthened to nine furlongs and the purse rose to $100,000 added. This attracted a stellar field that included High Gun, Helioscope, and Jet Action. Each of these older horses had won some significant handicaps carrying more than the scale weight 126 lbs the older horses were committed to carry in the Sysonby. Nashua carried 121 lbs.

The assignment became very tough when Helioscope, Jet Action, Nashua and long shot Mr. Turf set off in blazing fashion. The first quarter went in :45 1/5, six furlongs in 1:10 1/5 and the mile in 1:36 flat. High Gun sat behind the duelling speed and made his move through the home turn. Jet Action and Nashua dug in for the stretch run but the younger colt could not keep up. High Gun completed his stretch drive successfully a head in front of Jet Action with Nashua finishing third two lengths back.

Although he lost the race, Nashua was far from disgraced. He came back to contest the two miles long Jockey Club Gold Cup. Nashua dictated the pace and cruised to a five length victory. The Daily Racing Form chart said his win was “an easy score”. Nashua won ten of twelve races, with one second and one third place finish during his three year old campaign. He set a new season record for earnings with $752,550 going into the Belair Stud coffers. Nashua was named as the champion three year old and as the Horse of the Year.

Before all the awards came pouring in, William Woodward Jr. Was shot and killed by his wife in their Long Island home. The tragedy was ruled an accident in the following months of investigations that literally consumed the front pages of national newspapers. There had been a series of robberies in the area of the Woodward home and Mrs. Woodward tragically mistook her husband for a burglar.

Executors of Woodward’s estate were in a state of flux. The senior William Woodward’s estate had not been fully executed and now with this sudden tragedy, estate chaos took hold. Bull Hancock offered the executors his services to manage the Belair Stud for ten years until William III became twenty one, in the hope that the historic stable would continue with the family he was very close to. However the executors did not have any sense of sporting historical sentiment and decided to sell the entire racing stable, yearlings, weanlings and broodmare band.

The sales were not conducted at public auction but in private sealed bids. Humphrey Finney of the Fasig-Tipton sales agency recommended the sales format, but only for Nashua. The estate executors, made up by accountants and bankers, decided to have the other stock sold in groups in the same manner. Finney and Hancock appraised the lots and grouped them accordingly for optimum sale. Nashua on the other hand posed a different set of circumstances. He was to be sold separately, due to his rising fame and potential stud value.

Finney estimated that Nashua was worth $1,200,000 alone, which would make him the highest priced horse ever to be sold at the time. Eleven sealed bids came in and were opened on December 15 at eleven a.m. at the Hanover Bank in New York. Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky had put together a partnership with John Hanes and Christopher Devine to submit the winning bid of $1,251,200. Nashua was sold and would become a Spendthrift stallion following his racing career.

Combs however wanted Nashua to compete as a four year old, partly to try and recoup the substantial cost of acquiring the horse, and partly to add to his prestige for stud duty. While all of these changes were going on in Nashua’s life, the horse himself would feel as if not much had changed once he got back to training and racing. Combs retained Jim Fitzsimmons as Nashua’s trainer and Eddie Arcaro remained as his jockey. Only the colours he carried were different as far as Nashua was concerned.

The 1956 season Nashua put in was very good but his old nemesis Swaps put in a better one, thus winning the champion handicap horse and Horse of the Year title over Nashua. Nashua won six of ten races, including the Widener, Grey Lag, Camden, Suburban and Monmouth Handicaps. He defended his Jockey Club Gold Cup victory in his final start of his career.

However in the four races he did not win, Nashua finished second once and unplaced three times. These were the only races in which Nashua did not place in the money. In the races Nashua did not win his quirky, stubborn behaviour became very challenging and he just did not give his best. As he got older, this aspect of his personality became more frequently displayed.

The season while not as productive as previous seasons before, did not tarnish his reputation. Combs syndicated Nashua to stand stud the next season at Spendthrift. The popularity of the bay son of Nasrullah was as strong as ever and his book filled quickly upon retirement. In due time, Nashua would become the most visited stallion in Kentucky until the arrival of Secretariat some years later.

Nashua did very well as a sire, but did not get a major winning son or heir to the sire line. Where Nashua is fondly and rightly remembered as a sire is through his daughters. Shuvee was his most accomplished on the track. In her juvenile season Shuvee won the important Frizette and Selima Stakes. She then took the filly Triple Crown the following year in 1969. Shuvee continued to improve when she became the champion older mare two years in a row. Like her father Shuvee won the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, and added the Top Flight and Diana Handicaps twice, Beldame Stakes, CCA Oaks, Mother Goose Stakes, Alabama Stakes, Acorn Stakes and the Cotillion and Ladies Handicaps. Shuvee is a member of the Racing Hall of Fame.

Nalee was a full sister to Shuvee. Nalee won the Blue Hen Stakes at two and the Black-Eyed Susan and Sant Ynez Stakes at three. After her racing career Nalee produced classic winner Meneval by Le Fabuleux. Meneval won the 1976 St.Leger Stakes as well as the Gallinule, Hardwicke and Nijinsky Stakes. Nalee’s daughter Nalee’s Flying Flag produced champion three year old filly Sacahuista. Nalee’s Man by Gallant Man won the Atlantic City Handicap before becoming a sire of multi stakes winners Both Ends Burning and Nalee’s Rhythm, the dam of multi grade one winner Wilderness Song.

More good stakes winning daughters of Nashua are Marshua (CCA Oaks, Selima Stakes), Gold Digger (Gallorette Stakes twice), and Bramalea (CCA Oaks). The latter two are the key links to future champions that have the name of Nashua in their pedigrees. Gold Digger, from the family of champion Myrtlewood is the dam of the sensational stallion Mr. Prospector, while Bramalea is the dam of Epsom Derby winner Roberto, a very important and influential sire in the past forty years.

Nashua’s sons were not a total bust. Beldale Ball became a famous horse in Australia when he won the Melbourne Cup in 1980. Good Manners won a few minor stakes races in the U.S. and then was exported to Argentina where he became a multi champion sire and a big influence on the breed in the southern hemisphere. Among his best are Forlitano, Drapier, My Quimera, Farnesio and Joel. Diplomat Way (Arlington-Washington Futurity, Blue Grass Stakes) became a good sire of winners and is the dam sire of Hall of Fame inductee Skip Away. Noble Nashua was a good runner and in an ironic twist won the grade one Swaps Stakes.

A consistent sire, Nashua never led the year end list but was always in the top fifty. He sired seventy-three stakes winners, which was 13% of his entire foal count. In hindsight he is viewed as a good but not great sire. Nashua’s biggest contributions to breed advancement are as the dam sire of Roberto and Mr.Prospector. From these two very influential stallions, the name of Nashua will live on.

Nashua had much of his sire’s look about him. He was a powerfully built bay and very athletic with strong hips, perfect legs, and he displayed flawless action when running. Nashua also inherited much of Nasrullah’s personality with a head strong and dominant character that challenged many experienced horsemen. His head was noted as very plain and was adorned with the trademark floppy ears of his maternal grand sire Johnstown. Abraham Hewitt said of him “Nashua may have been the strongest, most powerful three year old on American Turf seen since Man O’ War”.

The stallion was visited on a constant basis throughout his stud career by his fans. Clem Brooks was Nashua’s long time stud groom and best friend. Brooks was more than proud to show off Nashua to the stallion’s adoring public. The stud barn at Spendthrift became known as the “Nashua Motel”.  It was estimated that at least twenty thousand people a year came to see Nashua at Spendthrift.

Nashua passed away on February 3, 1982 at the age of thirty. Laminitis was the culprit. He was buried facing the stud barn and Combs commissioned a life sized statue of Nashua being led by Clem Brooks to mark the site.

Nashua was one of those rare horses that could get people out of their seat when he ran. He was exciting to watch, even for those who are not totally acquainted with horses. He had charisma and attitude. Speed and endurance. Nashua was the culminating greatness of a grand stable in racing history. He wasn’t perfect, he had his faults, but he was close.

From the first American crop of a breed defining sire, Nashua was the total package. We just don’t see his type very often.

(Photo of Nashua and Clem Brooks courtesy of Spendthrift Farm)

4 comments

  • Great story about a wonderful horse that is a big part of racing history.

  • Very interesting story, enjoyed it immensely. Thankyou for taking the time to write it. I like to have a line in each stallion I use and most of my mares have a line at least.

  • One of the greats. Thanks for writing the story about Nashua. I wish stables like belair are still around. That was when racing was at its best because those great stables bred horses for themselves to race not for sale.

  • I love the Nasrullah story as my Dad had a small part in it having worked for Mr. B.Kerr and Mr.J .McGrath. I would love to know how Nasrullah was shipped from Ireland was it by plane or by boat? The foresight of Mr.Hancock to bring new blood into American breeding has to rank as one of the most important decisions in Thoroughbred history. As a boy my Dad spoke constantly of Nearco many nights Nearco was the last word I heard before falling asleep in The Republic of Ireland.

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