Before Secretariat – before Seabiscuit, even – fans of American horse racing were enthralled with a 12-year-old gelding from southern California named Malicious.
Malicious never won an important race. He never set a track record or even a stakes record. For most of his career, he ran in races of two miles or more and was usually more than 20 lengths off the lead for the first one and a half miles.
But then he’d pick up the pace, pick off his opponents one by one, and make a mad dash to the finish. And sometimes he’d win.
“Here comes Malicious!” the fans would exclaim as the horse made his move. And by the time he retired at the ripe old age of 13, he had all of southern California in his grip.
Claimed and claimed again
Not much is known of the colt’s early days. He was born in 1927 at Le Mar Farms, the son of Kentucky Derby winner Omar Khayyam out of Ridicule II. He was shipped west at age 2 and didn’t win a single race at 2 and 3. He won only three times at age 4, and then started to go periodically lame for some mysterious reason. He turned rank at the starting barrier, and veterinarians eventually diagnosed him with rheumatism.
His owner, George Mayberry, was so exasperated with him he sold him for $400 to Lonnie Copenhaver, a cowboy trainer from Missouri.
Copenhaver took Malicious to northern California and let him roam pastures for a few months, and then entered him in his first 2-mile race. He won, and then won again a few weeks later before being claimed by another owner in a claiming race.
Once he was away from Copenhaver, he started acting up again and was claimed several times in succession by different owners—a plumber, restaurant owner, wheat farmer and box manufacturer. He ended up in Copenhaver’s hands again—this time for only $200. The same pattern emerged: he won a few races, only to be claimed again, where he’d start living up to his name. He went east. He went to Canada. He couldn’t win.
Malicious Finds a Home
Malicious was finally claimed for good by Silvio Urban of Urban Stables, and Urban tried three different trainers before handing him back over to the only person who knew how to handle him—Lonnie Copenhaver.
Copenhaver understood the horse and gave him what he wanted: no workouts before noon, and his workouts consisted of jogging in wide circles, led by a long rope. He would never let a jockey rate him, opting instead to decide for himself when to make his move.
Copenhaver put him back at his favorite distance—2 miles—and the horse, with free rein, loped along 40 lengths behind the leader. His jockey could not persuade him to go. Suddenly Malicious decided it was time, lowered his head and flattened his ears, and streaked by the pack with a long stride en route to a comfortable win.
He was not impressive to look at. Adjectives used to describe him were “small,” “mule-eared,” “droopy,” “homely,” “rheumatic,” “string-tailed” and “sway-backed.” He was so innocuous that handicappers usually tried to put him at long odds, but the people soon found out his tactics, and he was often the betting favorite.
Fame Finds Malicious
Over the next few years the horse won 14 of 24 races, most at the two-mile distance, all from way off the pace. He retired at age 11 in 1938, but his popularity was larger than ever. People sent him sugar cubes and apples in the mail, while others just sent money asking the Urbans to buy apples for him.
At one point Urban’s wife, Sylvia, estimated that she had some 100,000 letters addressed to Malicious. He was used to sell cars at a Los Angeles auto dealership, and so many people showed up at the dealership that Malicious had to be escorted off the premises. He even made an appearance at the 1939 World’s Fair.
People were so enamored with Malicious that his owners decided to bring him out of retirement for a few more races in late 1939. A few days before one of his last races, the four-mile Thornton Stakes, he breezed a mile and a half in 2:45 and was winded. Backstretchers thought there was no way he could last four miles and predicted he would finish out of the money.
He began the race far from the pack as usual, but with a half-mile to go in the race, the crowd yelled their trademark “Here comes Malicious!” He rebounded and closed quickly, only to lose by a nose. He finished second in his last race, another two-miler at Agua Caliente, on January 28, 1940—at the ripe old age of 13.
Malicious was named “king of distance runners” by actress Nan Grey at Agua Caliente one day in November 1940. A UPI writer put his popularity in southern California above Equipoise, Discovery and even Seabiscuit. He was retired to Green Pastures Stables, where he died at age 17 from blood poisoning after scratching himself on a nail.
His final record wasn’t impressive—38 wins out of 170 races—but most of those wins came after his ninth birthday. He was the first truly popular off-the-pace racehorse, to be followed by the likes of Silky Sullivan, Zenyatta and Winx. “He had a heart of iron,” his obituary read.