Bug Brush and the 1959 San Antonio Handicap
By Dana Byerly

When the San Antonio Handicap rolls around I think fondly of a piece I published a few years ago at my then blog, Green but Game. A reader had contacted me to ask if I had any interest in publishing a first-hand account she had written as a 15-year-old of the 1959 San Antonio Handicap, an open company race, won by the 1958 Kentucky Oaks winning filly Bug Brush. Naturally the answer was yes!

Her trainer, Robert Wheeler, has since been inducted into the Hall of Fame. While trying to find any available images in the public domain, I found this bit about Bug Brush in a Q&A with Wheeler’s son at DRF, the question was “Who were the best horses you think he had?”. After talking about a few others he says of Bug Brush:

Bug Brush – she was terrific. She was one of the best mares I’ve ever been around. She won the San Antonio and set a world record for a mile and an eighth, beating Hillsdale while giving him a pound on scale. She was an unbelievable mare − nothing to look at, but boy, could she run. She had that Nasrullah blood and was very temperamental. My dad was great with those kinds of horses. He got the best out of those kinds of mares.

Without further adieu, here’s the piece, “1959 Filly Phenom: Bug Brush” originally published on Feb 5, 2010 at Green but Game, enjoy!

After the year we had last year, with fillies and mares stepping up in open company, it’s no wonder I was contacted by a reader who wanted to share her account of a similar scenario she witnessed first-hand 51 years ago. It was the 1959 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita and the filly in question was Bug Brush.

Stablemate of the 1959 champion 3-year-old filly Silver Spoon, the only other filly besides Winning Colors (1988) and Ciencia (1939) to win the Santa Anita Derby, it seems that perhaps Bug Brush was to Silver Spoon as Life is Sweet is Zenyatta (with the exception that Bug Brush won in open company, twice!). There’s no shortage of information readily available about Hall of Famer Silver Spoon but digging up info on Bug Brush required the purchase of the 1960 American Racing Manual (not that I minded).

As a 3-year-old, Bug Brush won the 1958 Kentucky Oaks and placed in the Ashland. In addition to winning the San Antonio, the Robert L. Wheeler trainee additionally won the Inglewood Handicap (also in open company), Margarita Handicap, Las Flores Handicap, Santa Monica Handicap, Sequoia Handicap as a 4-year-old.

There’s not much mention of the San Antonio that I could track down and certainly no available replay. The authoress of the post contacted Santa Anita to see if an replay could made available but she did not hear back. Star was 15 when she wrote this account! Getting more interested in dressage as she grew up, she now only keeps tab on the Triple Crown.

There aren’t any fillies or mares entered in this year’s San Antonio this Saturday at Santa Anita (editor’s note: none entered in 2014 either), but Star’s account is likely to make you feel like you just witnessed the 1959 rendition! Many thanks to Star for sharing this excellent eye-witness account of a great piece of racing history…

Victory and Defeat
By Star White
Originally published at Green but Game on Feb 5, 2010

The following account describes the most exciting race I have ever seen, the 1959 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita. I watched it on TV when I was 15. I had to write it down that same day. I have been unable to find a film of it, so I want to publish this account of it.

The sun shone dimly on the twelve sleekly groomed Thoroughbreds standing in the paddock at Santa Anita Park. The fans were diligently studying the racing form and sizing up the various horses. Their favorite, the bay colt Hillsdale, was a long, muscular horse with an unusually calm, even disposition. The people were very fond of their local hero. He had never been defeated at Santa Anita and had won six races in succession. The San Antonio Handicap was his attempt at seven straight victories. Terrang, the classy brown stallion, was second choice. Seaneen, Bug Brush, Whodunit and Fleet Nasrullah also rated consideration. Bug Brush was the only filly in the field. She had easily won her last three starts running against fillies. She had never been up against colts before. Because of her recent victories, she was given second high weight, Hillsdale carrying two pounds more (considering the 5 lb. allowance given fillies). Few people thought she could give weight to her field and still go the distance of a mile and one-eighth. She was considered a sprinter. She attracted little notice from the crowd while she stood in her stall. In the shadows her bay coat did not shine and she appeared rather unattractive and sleepy.

The call “Riders up” sounded, and the jockeys mounted their charges. The horses were nervous, milling around and bumping into each other in their excited confusion. With all the fire locked inside of them they could not keep still. Fleet Nasrullah anxiously tossed his head and occasionally reared, nearly unseating his jockey. Hillsdale was the only one that remained calm.

The bugle blared out “Boots and Saddles”, inviting the twelve runners onto the track. It was then that the people noticed Bug Brush. Their first impression, that she was unattractive, was dispelled at once. When she moved, her muscles rippling gracefully under the bright shiny red of her coat, she radiated grace and femininity. She pranced down the track reminding one of a doe. “Poetry in motion” could well describe her rhythmic gait. Hillsdale, in contrast to her, was the picture of strength and masculinity. His muscular shoulders and hindquarters betrayed his power.

As the twelve neared the starting gate, their tension and excitement increased. Fleet Nasrullah was giving his jockey trouble – kicking and balking when urged forward. Terrang broke out in a sweat. Seaneen, the golden chestnut, started “walking on eggs”. Eventually they were all in the gate, their nerves now strung as tightly as possible. The gate flung open and instantly the nervousness transformed into speed and power as each horse tried to beat the others out of the gate. The high-strung Fleet Nasrullah led, with Bug Brush right behind him and Jewel’s Reward and Hillsdale following her.

As the pack swung around the clubhouse turn, Fleet Nasrullah went wide, forcing Bug Brush out with him. Hillsdale was a stayer, the type that runs off the pace and then charges to a driving finish at the end. Fleet Nasrullah and Bug Brush were sprinters. Sprinters lead at the start forcing the pace, then give way to the stretch runners if the distance is much over a mile. Hillsdale was saving ground on the rail as Fleet Nasrullah and Bug Brush broke the quarter together in a sizzling :22 2/5 seconds. Going into the back stretch it was still Fleet Nasrullah, Bug Brush and Hillsdale heads apart. They ran the half mile in :45 1/5 seconds.

The crowd thought certainly the two pace-setters would break under such a strain. To their surprise, Bug Brush increased her speed going into the far turn to challenge Fleet Nasrullah. She pulled up along side him and as she began to draw ahead, Fleet Nasrullah weakened and dropped back. Terrang, the other notable stretch runner in the field, now made his move to challenge the plucky filly and the still contending Hillsdale. They finished the three-quarters in the fantastic time of 1:09 3/5 minutes. Bug Brush was leading by a head over Hillsdale when the two decided to shake the menacing Terrang by piling on still more speed. Into the stretch the two ran as though glued together. The crowd was now intensely excited. They expected the filly to tire and fall back. She could not possibly keep up such a speed for the entire distance.

Hillsdale‘s jockey was driving hard with the whip even though it was incredible to expect any more speed from him. But the game Hillsdale was not about to bow to a filly as he pushed himself to a greater speed. He gained on the filly, edging ahead of her. Now he was leading by a head, his bettors cheering him on with wild enthusiasm. But their cheers changed to a gasp as the filly, instead of folding, gathered herself up again and poured on more speed than any of the 49,000 fans had ever seen before. Again the filly took the lead. They were now half-way down the stretch, but Hillsdale would not quit. For all his power, the blistering speed was taking its toll on him. He was perspiring heavily as he forced himself to a speed he had never realized before. He inched his way up on the filly with forceful, heavy strides and heaving sides. Again he passed her by a nose. Again she responded to his challenge by lunging forward with the last burst of speed in her. She overtook him in the last sixteenth and dashed over the finish line three-quarters of a length in front of the exhausted Hillsdale. Terrang, running as fast as he could, was a good five lengths behind.

Although the crowd had lost money by the filly’s victory, they screamed their cheers with all the enthusiasm one gives a victorious general. She came to the winner’s circle hot and tired, but with her head held high, prancing in that same perky, rhythmic manner so characteristic of her. The cheering began to die down until the tote board flashed the time for the mile and an eighth: 1:46 2/5 minutes. A new world record! Again the 49,000 exploded into excited cheering and flung hats and programs into the air. The filly had not only conquered the great Hillsdale, but had outdone the immortal Swaps – former holder of the world record.

Indeed, Bug Brush was on every one’s lips that day and all eyes followed her as she was led back to the stables with the wreath of roses draped over her neck. Yet, a few did not forget the one-time people’s favorite, Hillsdale. His accomplishment was less evident. He did not have the physical ability to beat Bug Brush that day, but it took a heart like his to push the spunky filly to a world record breaking speed. He was walking back slowly, sweat stuck to his coat and froth coming from his mouth and nostrils, but he still had the proud “Look of the Eagles” in his eyes. For, “in great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

Elsewhere of Interest

5 comments

  • I have a copy of bug brush winning the San Antonio. Probably the only one in existence

  • Hi, I have the plaque with the victory plates worn by Bug Brush for winning the San Antonio Handicap February 14, 1959. It’s a very nice piece. It has the world record etched into it

  • No my dad had Bob Wheeler got them from a man who filmed them

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