In the past, the mark of a great older horse was how much weight it could withstand and still win. Weight was the great equalizer, a way to bring down champion horses and make them competitive with slower horses.
“Hell, weight stops freight trains,” said Grover G. “Bud” Delp, trainer of Spectacular Bid. Bid was given as much as 132 pounds for a race, and so did Affirmed. Forego, who raced until he was 8, won a race with 137 pounds on his back.
But the greatest weight carrier of all time was Discovery, an iron horse who once won carrying 139 pounds. Born in 1931, he raced for the Adolphe Pons Stable and was trained by John R. Pryce but won only 2 of his 14 starts at age 2. He was sold to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt late in his 2-year-old season, and he handed the reins over to Joseph H. “Bud” Stotler.
Ridden by jockey John Bejshak, he entered the 1934 Kentucky Derby despite no prep wins but was actually leading heading for home before he was overtaken in the stretch by Cavalcade. In fact, Cavalcade finished ahead of Discovery in all six of their races against each other that year, including the Preakness Stakes, and was named Horse of the Year.
But Discovery finished the 1934 season strong, with victories in the Kenner Stakes, Brooklyn Handicap, Rhode Island Handicap, Maryland Handicap and the Whitney Stakes, where he won by 10 lengths.
In 1935, Discovery hit his peak. After five straight losses to begin the season, he won his second straight Brooklyn Handicap by six lengths, defeating Triple Crown winner Omaha. The beat went on. He won the Detroit Challenge Cup by an astounding 30 lengths, setting a track record, and then won the Stars and Stripes Handicap.
Handicappers started to take notice. He was saddled with 132 pounds for the Butler Handicap but still won by two lengths. In the Bunker Hill Handicap, he was given 131 pounds and won by 12 lengths, lowering the track record by more than two seconds.
The weight continued to increase. He carried 135 pounds in the Arlington Handicap and smashed another track record, winning this time by five lengths. “They haven’t found an anchor heavy enough yet to sink the old globe trotter, Discovery,” said Charles Dunkley of the Associated Press. The handicappers crippled him with 139 pounds for the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, but he responded by winning his eighth straight race by two lengths, despite spotting 22 pounds to his nearest rival.
They finally got to him in the Narragansett Special, giving him 139 pounds again. He lost to Top Row, who carried only 110 pounds – a 29-pound advantage. Discovery bounced back only three days later, though, taking his second Whitney Stakes under only 126 pounds, “a feather in comparison with the weight he had been carrying,” the Associated Press reported.
For the year, Discovery won 11 of 19 races carrying an average of 130 pounds. It was enough to take Horse of the Year honors away from Omaha, who is the only Triple Crown winner never to win Horse of the Year.
In 1936, Discovery won only six of 14 races but was able to win the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes for the third consecutive year. He carried 136 pounds in his Brooklyn Handicap triumph. It was enough for him to become the first U.S. Champion Handicap horse.
For his career, Discovery won 27 of 63 starts but will always be remembered for his stellar 1935 season. He was inducted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame in 1969 and was named the 37th greatest Thoroughbred of the 20th century by The Blood-Horse magazine.
Photo Credit: Keeneland Library Morgan Collection