Tom Fool, 1953

I resume with Charles Hatton’s description of Tom Fool in 1953 from the 1954 American Racing Manual. Take it away, Mr. Hatton.

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What is “a great horse”? There are many definitions. The criteria which qualify a thoroughbred for this ultimate accolade are varied. It is a matter of critical taste, and we notice that seasoned, discriminating turfmen rarely employ the term. Experience tends to make them conservative.

In the fall of 1953, there was a symposium in turf circles evolving on a question if Tom Fool is not entitled to be called “a great horse.” Beggaring the question is the circumstance nobody can be sure what history will make of him. We recall a little tableau at Pimlico’s traditional “alibi table” on the morning of the Special. A veteran official was discussing Tom Fool with his developer, John M. Gaver, and allowed himself to say “He is a great horse.” Reflecting on this a moment, Gaver firmly replied “He certainly is a good one.”

Perhaps we should let it go at that. The lexicon of the turf is very strange. It is quite careless in many respects, both as to grammar and the nicer subtleties of meaning. But horsemen are meticulous about bestowing high praise on a horse. Such stalwarts as Blue Larkspur, Equipoise, Alsab and Whirlaway are categorized as “good horses.” “Great” is usually reserved for Man o’ War, Sysonby and Colin.

However future generations of turf devotees regard Tom Fool, he was a Triton among minnows as a four-year-old. This is not an age when it is easy. Weight concessions are imposed which a horse may avoid, at two and three. And it is to Tom Fool’s credit that he was better at four than he had been at two, though he was the champion at that age, or at three, though he defeated older rivals at that age. A rare few thoroughbreds improve in this way. As all turfmen are only too poignantly aware, they tend rather toward deterioration. Tom Fool’s tabular racing record speaks eloquently for his toughness of fiber, his generosity of spirit, and his high class. Were he prone to unsoundness, or given to sulking, or lacking in quality, he could never have achieved such high marks.

Looking back on it now, we suspect that a measure of Tom Fool’s tremendous popularity was owing his competitive instinct. He was intuitively a racehorse. He went to the post eagerly, often preceding the others of his field, wanted to move into the gate immediately, and would await his rivals as if eager to be off and running. On the rare occasions he was brought to a drive, Tom Fool displayed inflexible courage. “One could almost hear him growl,” jockey Ted Atkinson has remarked.

In short, he was a brilliant performer. His 1953 campaign was confined exclusively to New York, except for the shambles he made of the Pimlico Special field in what was his final appearance under Greentree’s time honored pink and black. And yet his fame spread to every nook and cranny of the American turf, and beyond to Europe, where the visitor from the States was plied with questions concerning his feats and individuality.

This is Tom Fool’s second inclusion in these “profiles” of the American champions. In describing him, his origins and his career as a two-year-old, it was observed that “Tom Fool’s story is that of a colt who was highly regarded from the time he was foaled, and remarkably enough turned out to be fully as capable as he looked.” It still goes, to borrow an expression from handicapper Campbell. Tom Fool improved notably, almost recognizably, physically, as he matured and he continued to prove capable as he looked. Many commented upon this improvement of physique during his four-year-old season, including the English turfman Capt. Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who had seen him in a more youthful phase of development and frankly was not notably impressed. Throughout his 1953 campaign, he maintained his flesh, his coat glistened, and as one turfman put it, “he looked like a big red apple.”

It seems supererogation to devote any great deal of space to a close analysis of his 10 starts at 4. He won them all, beginning in a five and half furlongs overnight handicap April 25 at Jamaica, and concluding, as we have mentioned, with the Pimlico Special, which was decided October 24 at a mile and three sixteenths. He carried weights ranging from 128 to 136 pounds, and he won the Brooklyn, at a mile and a quarter, the greatest distance he was raced, under the latter burden. He became the only horse to duplicate Whisk Broom II.’s achievement, in 1913, of bringing off the “Handicappers Triple Crown,” in the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn. His last four appearances were in the Whitney, Wilson, Sysonby and Special, all weight-for-age events, and he had come so near literally running out of rivals that they were presented at betless races. The New York turf authority ruled the Whitney and Wilson were “exhibitions,” and only one presumptuous eligible opposed him in each.

In the Metropolitan Mile, Tom Fool carried 130 over the distance in the sparkling time of 1:35 4/5 on a “good” track, finishing a half-length before Royal Vale, with Intent, Cold Command and others thoroughly beaten despite weight concessions from the winner.

Tom Fool now came to the highest light of his career, with the decision of the mile and a quarter Suburban on Memorial Day. He was assigned 128 pounds. This was two less pounds than he carried in the “Met,” but he was essaying a longer distance, and the weight differential carried by his rivals was greater. There was some vestigial question he could stay the route. But when the dust had settled, he had conceded Royal Vale four pounds and had beaten him a memorable nose in the spectacular time of 2:00 3/5. Inside the furlong pole, it appeared Royal Vale had won, but Tom Fool fought back so gallantly he turned imminent defeat into a victory in an unforgettable finish. His time was, surely, as remarkable a mile and a quarter as anybody has seen, though there are swifter marks in the records. In general, they were over sensationally speed conducive courses, and established by horses carrying less weight, in less demanding company.

Following the Suburban, it was clear none of the handicap division could cope with Tom Fool, so handicapper Campbell perforce required him to carry heavier weights still, And in the seven furlongs of Aqueduct’s Carter Tom Fool carried 135 pounds and equalled the track record of 1:22 “in a high gallop.” It was incidentally a connotation of his versatility that he could sandwich such a race between two of 10 furlongs, such as the Suburban and the Brooklyn. In the Brooklyn, also at Aqueduct, he carried 136 pounds and won as Atkinson pleased in a casual 2:04 2/5. The runner-up, Golden Gloves, was in receipt of 26 pounds. High Scud, who was third, 27 pounds.

For the remainder of the season, Tom Fool’s racing was in “wfa” events, and his successes quite bloodless. In the Pimlico Special, he had Navy Page and Alerted thoroughly beaten on the backstretch, then beat the track record, winning be eight lengths in 1:55 4/5. Atkinson did not urge him at any stage, on the contrary he was racing under wraps. This was, in owner J. H. “Jock” Whitney’s opinion, quite the showiest performance of his entire career.

It had been intended to start Tom Fool in the Empire City Gold Cup of a mile and five furlongs, but several days after the Special, Whitney announced that it was decided to retire the son of Menow. It was felt he had accomplished more than enough. The decision was bitterly disappointing in some quarters, and critics found time to question if he would stay Cup distances. Actually his superior class seemed to assure his success at any route.

Thus ended a turf career of such brilliance that any recitation of the particulars, even in the most austere form, is bound to sound a bit prodigal.

We are more concerned here, however, with Tom Fool the horse than Tom Fool the “turf and TV star.” As a two-year-old, he had appeared rather huskier than handsome. As a four-year-old, he was repeatedly referred to as the “handsomest horse in training.” He had grown from 15.3 to 16 hands and 1-2 inch at the wither, and as his muscular equipment was developed, he became smoother, more curvaceous and imparted and impression of quality.

Tom Fool is a mahogany bay with some white about his hind pasterns, toed out in front as he stood, or walked, though he tracks perfectly straight in racing action. And he had a left knee at which horsemen sometimes looked askance. Trainer John Gaver declared, however, that Tom Fool retired perfectly sound. Indeed he always had the soundest of hooves and limbs except for a minute splint, which was treated and dispensed with at once. His ears are carried rather loosely, but his jowls are unusually deep, he is wide between his eyes, which are large and luminous, and his forehead is prominent. Jockey Atkinson has observed, “he even has muscles in his eyebrows.”

The Greentree horse has moderate rein length, a neck arched but not overly crested, and a delightful angulation of shoulder and withers. His back is short, and he appears slightly taller than long. His loin is strong and slightly arched. The quarters are broad and round, the tails set on high.

The champion’s pasterns are of the desired length, the hooves well shaped and firm, the cannons short and flat, and the extraordinary development of forearm, stifle and gaskin strongly suggesting his extreme speed. The triceps muscles, just above the point of the elbow, also are pronounced and the deep pectoral muscles beneath the girth, have much evident strength. Inspecting him, his ability to carry staggering imposts is perfectly understandable. And his hind legs, straight over the hocks, and the alignment of his forelegs are those of a sound, tireless galloper. The depth of his barrel is enormous and the ribs well sprung. In fine one would be hard put to know where he might be improved upon as a physical specimen.

Tom Fool’s extended action is exceptional. It has for many decades been contended that never, in full flight, are a thoroughbred’s fore and hind legs extended in the fashion in which the artists of medieval times portrayed them. Tom Fool’s racing stride approximates this. When he is in action, he thrusts both fore legs forward and both hind legs behind him for all the world like a horse clearing a hedge. It is quite extraordinary, this manner of going. The length of his stride was never measured, to our knowledge, but it must have been prodigious. When he is brought to a drive, he gets his head on a level with his tail, and his whole attitude is one of unremitting determination.

Similarly, Tom Fool’s temperament stood him in excellent stead throughout his career. His disposition is lovely. But his familiars find him a sensitive animal, alert to all that goes on about him. Gaver’s aide de camp George Pool has observed “He is smarter than most. Sometimes one may trick him into doing something one’s own way. But if he doesn’t choose to be obliging, the same device will never work a second time.” It may not be out of context here to observe that Menow and his progeny are sober, composed, workmanlike performers. And that his dam Gaga is a perfect lamb.

As you might imagine, there were shoals of applications for Tom Fool’s stud services, long before his career ended, or his people had fixed the terms of his contract. Finally it was determined to stand him for a fee of $5,000 for a live foal. This has not been exceeded in the instance of an untried sire. Greentree is reasonable and eminently fair in the management of its stallions. The $5,000 fee may have been dictated by a desire to do justice to the horse, assuring he would have none the worst of mates.

His bloodlines are an interesting study, an amalgam of English, French and Americanized strains. In tail male he descends from the “sire of sires,” Phalaris, sultan of Lord Derby’s English stud. His sire Menow is from the family of Alcibiades, one of the most successful in our stud book, particularly desirable because of its characteristic of producing animals that improve as they mature. She introduces a strain of Roi Herode, and herself was an Oaks winner. Tom Fool’s dam Gaga is by the French importation Bull Dog, sire also of Bull Lea and own brother to Sir Gallahad III. She traces to Plucky Liege, and is the dam of the two-year-old filly champion Aunt Jinny, who was, like Tom Fool, bred by Duval Adams Headley, at Manchester in the Blue Grass.

Gaga is out of Alpoise, an Equipoise mare who produced the record-breaking gelding Algasir. The next dam, Laughing Queen, won a Selima. And the next, Cleopatra, was the only horse of her time to oppose Exterminator in the 1920 Saratoga Cup.

Seemingly one is on safe enough genealogical grounds assuming that, had it been required of him, Tom Fool would have stayed our Cup distances. Additionally there is the circumstance that he could be rated, to produce his run through the stretch, as he did in the Carter, though customarily he made his own pace. But this sounds an apologia. And among 1953 performers he would be the last to need a special pleader.

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Well, maybe the choice for 1953 Horse of the Year was not that tough after all. Hatton makes it clear that the burden of proof was on Native Dancer to defeat Tom Fool in order to claim the title. They never met. The burden of proof was not met.

Back then three different organizations voted for year-end titles: Daily Racing Form, Turf and Sport Digest, and Thoroughbred Racing Associations. All three selected Tom Fool as 1953 Horse of the Year.

And what would have happened if Tom Fool and Native Dancer had met in that Sysonby Stakes???? I posed that question to my editor (by the name of TTTC) back in the early 1980s. This editor was about ten years older than me, old enough to have seen both race, albeit as a youngster himself. His reply was:

“Over a flat mile in the Sysonby at that time (September 26, 1953), Tom Fool would have beaten Native Dancer. Over another furlong or more or at some other time in their careers, who knows?????”

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