71 years ago, in March of 1941, old Merrick died.
Merrick was more of a symbol of Thoroughbred greatness than an actual great Thoroughbred. His accomplishments were modest but consistent, and he lived until he was 38 years old, and he is the center of one of the great stories of horse-owner devotion.
He was foaled in 1903 on a farm near Sacramento, California, and he had a few owners before Lexington pinhooker J. Cal Milam bought him in 1906. Merrick was a mudder. In 1910, Daily Racing Form wrote that weather “afforded an opportunity for the mud runners to display their ability. . . Merrick took the handicap at seven-eighths.” He was also strictly a sprinter who never ran a race longer than a mile.
Milam started the gelded Merrick 208 times in a career that spanned the years from 1905 to 1915. By 1912, Merrick was called Milam’s “old campaigner.” At one point, Milam, who was used to turning horses over to new owners, allowed Merrick to be claimed. Missing his horse, he regretted the decision immediately. He claimed him back and never entered him in another claiming race again.
Merrick won 61 races and was in the money of 157. He was unusual in that he won nothing at three, but then started winning at four and did his best at five, six, and seven. So even during his racing career, he was no stranger to being called old. But the fact that he lived until he was 38 years old landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records. (The record was bettered in 1978 by the Australian Thoroughbred Tango Duke, who died at the age of 42.)
By the time the Associated Press’ Justin Anderson visited Milam and Merrick for the horse’s birthday in 1939, Merrick was, as Anderson reported, “blind, deaf, and crippled.” But Milam told the reporter, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for Merrick.” Milam “beamed on” the old horse when Merrick he tried to hold his head straight for the photographer. Milam gave Merrick extra oats and brown sugar on his birthday, and his grooms called him “the old man.” His best friends were an equally superannuated dog and cat.
Cal Milam named his farm, Merrick Place, for his “old campaigner.” When the horse finally died in 1941, he was buried there, under a stone that bears his name and says “Noble in Character, Worthy in Deeds.” Now, there’s an inn–Merrick Inn– on the old Merrick Place land, but the grave remains.
Years ago, an old friend of mine gave me a book called Old Friends, which chronicles legendary racing photographer Barbara Livingston’s visits to retired Thoroughbreds. She photographed each one, and took pictures. It’s a beautiful book, and in her introduction, Livingston tells the story of Milam and Merrick: “In the Churchill Downs paddock before his 205th start, the eleven-year-old Merrick dipped his head gently against his devoted owner: Milam made his horse a promise: if he did not win that day, Merrick would never need wear a bridle again. Merrick lost and was retired to Milam’s Merrick Place in Lexington, Kentucky to live out his days.”
Cal Milam kept that promise. Milam himself died at 76 on February 11, 1949, and the newspapers remembered him as the one-time owner of the great Exterminator.
Maybe it was Exterminator’s 1918 Derby winthat brought Milam his greatest moment of glory. But that was short-lived. Merrick was the horse he promised would never have to race again, the horse he claimed back, the horse who was his companion for so many years of his life.
Milam may have owed Exterminator, but he always loved Merrick.