Hope, Desire, Thunder, and Victory: Exterminator’s Philadelphia Handicap
By Eliza McGraw
Turf writers loved to write about the great race gelding Exterminator, and after the Philadelphia Handicap on April 21, 1923, they could chronicle his winning more stakes races than any other horse: 34 in all.
The hectic style of 1920s journalism, replete with life and adjectives, perfectly suited Exterminator‘s extraordinary feats. Here is W.C. Vreeland, who covered racing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on the Philadelphia ‘cap, as he called it: “It has often been said that the only two sure things in this world are death and taxation. Exterminator‘s head should be added to the list, for, be it known, when that long, bony, bay head pokes itself out beyond his rivals it remains there, inexorable as fate, to the finish.”
Of course, Vreeland knew that the Philadelphia Handicap wasn’t just another win for the steam engine of a horse who won 50 of his 100 lifetime starts. #34 came at a strange time in Exterminator‘s career. The victory could have–and some whispered, should have–marked its his career’s end, as Exterminator‘s pushy, cantankerous owner, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, was cycling through trainers and the horse had begun to develop green osselets, arthritic deposits on the fetlock. As it turned out, the Philadelphia Handicap was Exterminator‘s last great victory before a decline that could not be reversed until he was reunited with sage, careful “Uncle Henry” McDaniel, the trainer who discovered him and won the Derby with him in 1918.
But in April of 1923, all that still was in the future.
For this shining moment of victory in the Philadelphia Handicap, writers and fans simply exulted in the horse’s glory. “The old wonder,” the New York Times reporter called Exterminator in its race coverage, “made one of those grand finishes that bring the spectators cheering to their feet–the kind of finish which has endeared the big chestnut to thousands who have seen him race.” The next day, the Times was still devoting space to his win. Exterminator was beloved “for his indomitable courage on the race track, his gameness in fighting out his races to the last ounce of his strength and his lovable disposition.”
The headline in the Daily Racing Form read: “More Glory For Exterminator: Have de Grace Stands Fairly Thunder With Applause When the Popular Racer Triumphs in Philadelphia Handicap.” “Then the hats went into the air and the stands went fairly wild in tribute to the gallant old gelding,” reported the correspondent. “There was no reason for any fear that Exterminator was about through as a champion, but this performance will make necessary some revision. He is an idol of racing and in a fair way to remain an idol for some time to come.”
An idol of racing, inexorable as fate, the old wonder, indomitable courage, lovable disposition. We don’t write about horses that way anymore. We don’t really write about anyone that way anymore.
But I don’t think these writers were exaggerating when they praised Exterminator, whether he was capturing his 34th stakes race or calming frantic horses by leaning against them, as he used to do. I have to admit I am biased; I have been researching Exterminator for two years, and I have, frankly, become obsessed. Friends suggest that I’m pouring the devotion I felt for my now-dead and much-adored gelding, Romeo, into Exterminator‘s life story, which may be true.
On the other hand, I’m not alone. Recently I spoke with Jules Levitt, who lives in a nursing home in Binghamton, New York. He’s created a YouTube channel and Facebook pages for Exterminator, and he corresponded with Mildred Mastin Pace when she wrote her children’s book “Old Bones, The Wonder Horse.” He even went to the inquest when Kilmer’s widow died, to convince heirs to leave some money to memorialize the horse. But Kilmer’s things were sold; trophies went to the National Museum of Racing. Mr. Levitt asked the New York legislature and former congressman Matt McHugh to wish Exterminator posthumous happy birthdays. They did; McHugh’s is in the congressional record. He wants Binghamton to remember Exterminator with a statue, something people can point to with pride.
So reading how people–fans and writers alike–responded to Exterminator in the April springtime of his own day makes me realize that Mr. Levitt and I are responding to something very real, even if we never saw it. “In the desire to see Exterminator run and in the hope that he would win another of his slashing victories, some twenty thousand spectators flocked to the track,” said the Times report from the Philadelphia Handicap. “They cheered him when he came out and thundered their approval when he came back to the stand after just such a victory–by only a neck–as they had wished to witness.”
Hope, desire, thunder, and victory. Exterminator gave it all.
Another gelding, Native Diver, who died in 1967, also won 34 stakes races. I asked Allan Carter, who is the historian at the National Museum of Racing, if one should be declared the record holder over the other. “I frankly think the whole thing should be abandoned,” he said, “since we only count graded stakes wins for contemporary horses.”
“Blazes Beats Exerminator.” New York Evening Telegram. April 16, 1923.
“Comment on Current Events in Sports.” New York Times, April 23, 1923.
“Exterminator Wins Maryland Feature.” New York Times, April 22, 1923.
“More Glory For Exterminator.” Daily Racing Form April 22, 1923.
Vreeland, W. C. “‘Snapper’ Garrison Says Exterminator is the Best Gelding Bred in U.S.A.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 23, 1932.
Mr. Levitt’s Facebook page for Exterminator