The Warhorse “Armed”

January 18, 2022

Armed, a horse who went from stable pony to Horse of the Year

By Andrew Hanna

“Let us not claim that Armed is a perfect race horse,” a turf scribe once declared, “… though if a more perfect one ever appeared in public, who can name him? Instead, concede that the front he presents is so nearly flawless that the picking of flaws, either real or imaginary, in either the animal himself or his record as a performer, is not an exercise in criticism, but a parade of censorship.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Over a grueling seven-year career, Armed made eighty-one starts– eighteen more than the four most recent Triple Crown winners combined– and won a staggering forty-one races. His record was made even more impressive by the excessive weights he carried; remarkably, he captured thirteen stakes races under the back-breaking impost of 130 pounds. Between 1944 and 1950, Armed established eight track records and racked up $817,475– making him the richest gelding in history at the time of his retirement. Despite the success he achieved, however, Armed’s saga was almost as improbable as it was incredible.

If you had asked “Plain” Ben Jones– the trainer responsible for conditioning Citation and Whirlaway– about Armed towards the end of 1943, he probably would have grimaced, grunted, or shaken his head with frustration. Born in 1941 at Warren Wright’s storied Calumet Farm, Armed was an extremely late foal whose prospects were further dampened by his diminutive size and irascible temperament. As a yearling, he became notorious for biting his handlers, kicking the hay out of his groom’s pitchfork, and generally being impossible to control. He was also headstrong and singularly tenacious. When Armed was first introduced to Ben Jones, the esteemed trainer was unimpressed. At two, the colt was still undersized and factitious. “What with the beef shortage and the high price of horse meat [during World War II],” one journalist later mused, “it’s a wonder Jones didn’t sell Armed for ersatz porterhouse.”

Ironically, Jones had been a staunch advocate for the colt’s father: Bull Lea. After being purchased for $14,000 as a yearling, Bull Lea proceeded to place in a number of prominent juvenile events, including the Hopeful Stakes and the Champagne Stakes. The following year, he captured the Blue Grass Stakes in track- record time– prompting Warren Wright to enter him into the 1938 Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, Bull Lea’s run for the roses ended in failure. After contesting the lead during the early stages of the race, the colt suddenly, “surrendered without firing a gun,” and slipped to the back of the pack. He ultimately finished eighth; more than seventeen lengths behind longshot winner Lawrin. On a more positive note, the race’s outcome convinced Warren Wright to hire Jones– who had conditioned Lawrin for Herbert M. Woolf’s Woolford Farm– to train Calumet’s horses. For his part, Bull Lea continued to race for another year before retiring with $94,825 in career winnings.

Before the stallion’s first crop even reached the racetrack, however, Calumet Farm’s Whirlaway– the 1941 Triple Crown winner and the first horse in history to surpass $500,000 in earnings– was retired to the breeding shed. The development almost derailed Bull Lea’s fledgling stud career. Given Whirlaway’s superior race record, Warren Wright made the reasonable assumption that the star would excel at stud and consequently assigned Calumet’s best mares to him. Ben Jones, however, firmly believed that Bull Lea had the makings of a champion sire– leading him to advise Wright to support the stallion with higher-quality mares. The owner agreed. His risky decision quickly paid off; as soon as Bull Lea’s runners were old enough to race, they proved their sire’s worth by capturing a host of prestigious events.

While Armed’s mother– Armful– wasn’t a particularly successful racehorse, she was notable for her durability. During her career, Armful started thirty-seven times, won twice, and finished in the money on sixteen other occasions. Moreover, she possessed outstanding bloodlines. Her father– Chance Shot– captured both the Belmont Stakes and Withers Stakes and racked up an impressive $142,277 in

earnings. On the other side of her pedigree, Armful’s mother, Negrina (which translates to “bold” in Spanish), was a stakes-placed racehorse who had also been sired by a Belmont Stakes winner.

As a two-year-old, Armed certainly didn’t live up to his pedigree. At a time when Calumet Farm’s stables were overflowing with top juvenile prospects like Twilight Tear and Pensive, Ben Jones couldn’t afford to take the time to reform the obstreperous little colt. Instead, he had Armed gelded to reduce his rebelliousness. Still underwhelmed by the gelding’s size, Jones sent him back to Calumet in the hopes that a few months’ rest would help him to grow.

At first, it appeared that Jones’s work had been in vain. Although he was larger than he had been at two, Armed demonstrated no obvious talent at the start of his three-year-old season. In fact, the only other apparent improvement that Jones’s efforts had wrought was a dramatic shift in the gelding’s behavior. While he would still greet any visitors with “pinned ears and teeth,” Armed would consistently, “yield to handling if his bluff was called.” It didn’t do much for his reputation. Initially, Jones was so doubtful about Armed’s ability to succeed as a racehorse that he attempted to repurpose him as a stable pony. For several weeks, the gelding accompanied his more accomplished stablemates to the starting gate– a task rarely assigned to thoroughbreds of racing age.

After nearly two months, Jones decided that Armed deserved one more chance to prove his worth. On February 28th, 1944, the gelding finally strode to the post as a racehorse. He didn’t waste the opportunity. Piloted by the indomitable Eddie Arcaro, Armed stunned his handlers by soaring to an eight-length win at Hialeah Park. Seven days later– with rising star Conn McCreary in the irons– Armed won a seven-furlong sprint by three lengths. After just two races, the gelding had already earned nearly $2,500. More significantly, McCreary– who was then Calumet Farm’s favored jockey– was so impressed by Armed’s last performance that he attempted to persuade Jones to send him to the Kentucky Derby. The rugged

trainer refused; ultimately, McCreary would instead ride Calumet’s Pensive to win the 1944 Kentucky Derby.

Nevertheless, the gelding’s consecutive wins convinced Jones that he had the makings of a formidable racehorse. Once the Hialeah season concluded, the trainer brought Armed to Pimlico Racetrack. After he finished second to a Kentucky Derby prospect in the Finite Purse, the gelding was deemed ready for the lucrative Rennert Handicap. Unfortunately, his first foray into the stakes level was a disaster. In the Rennert, Armed was joined by his stablemate Twilight Tear– who would became the first female in history to be named Horse of the Year at the end of 1944. As Twilight Tear sped to an easy victory, Armed lagged far behind the pace and finished a discouraging eighth.

His loss didn’t prevent turf scribes from noticing his potential. In May 1944, a journalist acknowledged the gelding’s talent by declaring, “horses like… Armed are handy sorts to have available.” One month later, the gelding proved he was worthy of acclaim by annexing the Plucky Play Purse at Arlington Park. The following week, he placed fourth in the Lawrin Purse before being sidelined by an ankle injury.

As a result of the ailment, Armed wasn’t able to return to the racetrack until early November– when he started in Pimlico’s Janney Handicap. Due in part to his prolonged absence, the gelding was installed as the second-longest shot in the seven-horse field. His performance was commensurate with his odds. Carrying 110 pounds, Armed started poorly and fell into last before accelerating dully to finish sixth.

Before Armed had the chance to redeem himself, the horse racing world was rocked by a devastating announcement: James Byrnes– the director of the War Mobilization Office– indefinitely banned all tracks from operating. As startling as his edict was, it was justified by a series of catastrophic events on the European front. Two weeks before racing was put on hold, the German Army launched a

major Blitzkrieg attack in a last-ditch effort to encircle the Allies. The advance was completely unexpected. Up to that point, the Allied forces had steadily crushed any resistance they met during their push towards Germany. Unfortunately, unfavorable weather conditions– combined with the Allies’ overconfidence– made them susceptible to a surprise attack. The Axis forces ruthlessly exploited these vulnerabilities. On December 16th, 1944, a force of 410,000 German soldiers– along with about 1,400 tanks and 1,000 aircraft– swept into the heavily forested Ardennes region (between Belgium and Luxembourg) and collided with the Allies. For nearly two weeks, the German troops forged into their enemies’ territory– creating a dent in Allied lines that led the conflict to be remembered as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Finally– on December 27th– the Allies managed to surround the crucial 2nd Panzer Division. While the Battle of the Bulge continued until late January, the Germans’ offensive was a failure that ultimately accelerated their defeat. On May 7th, 1945, the German forces surrendered unconditionally– although the war in the Pacific dragged on until September 2nd. In spite of the ongoing conflict with Japan, however, the United States lifted the ban on horse racing just two days after achieving victory in Europe.

Once the tracks reopened, Ben Jones didn’t wait long before sending Armed back into action. That year, he also decided to transfer the gelding to the care of his son, Jimmy– who had taken a brief break from training to serve as an officer in the Coast Guard. After the conclusion of World War II, he immediately resumed his role as his father’s assistant trainer.

Armed made his first start of the year in Jamaica Racetrack’s Eleventh Armored Division Graded Handicap. Despite being assigned a feathery 109 pounds, he was sent to the post at odds of 32-1. Unsurprisingly, the gelding finished fifth.

As it transpired, the beginning of Armed’s four-year-old campaign didn’t set the tone for the rest of his season. After being shipped to Arlington Park, the gelding reeled off four easy wins in the space of a month. Thoroughly impressed by his horse’s performance, Jimmy Jones brought Armed to Washington Park and

promptly entered him into the rich Sheridan Handicap. Armed didn’t disappoint. In a “sensational” performance, the gelding “ran away from a field of sprinters,” and won by eight lengths. Following his sixth straight triumph, Armed placed second in four prestigious handicaps– including one in which he was forced to shoulder 135 pounds. On October 20th, the gelding rebounded to capture the Washington Handicap. After another two wins, Armed made his last appearance of the year in the historic Pimlico Special. Facing a field that included stars such as Pot o’ Luck and Gallorette, he routed his adversaries to win by four lengths. Armed, one writer quipped, “climaxed his four-year-old season… by turning back a field of six other highly-rated gallopers, among them the year’s top handicap campaigners and a pair of the three-year-old glamour [sic] boys. He did it with astonishing ease as he displayed the form which Plain Ben’s training produces.” The gelding’s victory marked the third time in the event’s nine-year history that a Calumet runner had annexed the Pimlico Special. As if that weren’t enough, the race’s $25,000 winner- take-all purse boosted Armed’s career earnings to $96,450– a staggering total for a horse who had been demoted to a stable pony less than two years ago.

After a two-month break, the gelding returned to action in a minor race at Hialeah. Toting 126 pounds, Armed pulled into the lead and held off a late closer to win by a neck. Following another narrow win in a sprint race, the gelding finished second in the McLennan Handicap– establishing himself as a top contender for the upcoming $50,000 Widener Handicap. As a consequence of his previous successes, however, Armed was assigned a leaden 128 pounds– nineteen more than the horse (Concordian) who had defeated him in the McLennan. Ben and Jimmy Jones attempted to compensate by devising the best race strategy possible. Moments before the Widener, Ben sidled up to Armed’s jockey– Douglas Dodson– and whispered, “Don’t let Concordian get more than three lengths in front at any time during the journey.” His instructions made all the difference. “Concordian was fast out of the gate,” a witness declared, “but Armed was faster.” Throughout the early stages of the race, the tenacious gelding refused to allow his rival to pass him. With

half a mile to go, Dodson struck Armed with the whip– prompting an explosive response. The gelding pulled into the lead and quickly opened daylight on his adversaries. Despite easing up at the wire, he beat his nearest opponent by almost five lengths. In a tribute to the gelding’s spectacular triumph, one journalist proclaimed, “Weight, which stops them all, couldn’t stop Calumet Farm’s solid, hard-hitting Armed.”

The gelding had no intention of easing up. On March 23rd, he soared to a 1- 1/2-length victory in the first leg of Tropical Park’s Double Event Stakes– shattering the track record. Incredibly, he notched up the same time a week later to capture the second leg of the event.

After moving to Havre de Grace Racetrack, Armed placed second in a tune-up event before returning to win the Philadelphia Handicap in track-record time. His string of victories also made him eligible for increasing weight penalties; after the Philadelphia, the gelding wouldn’t be assigned less than 130 pounds for the rest of his 1946 campaign. The handicaps took a toll on his performances. In his next outing, Armed floundered under a 132-pound impost and finished fourth– the first time that he’d finished outside the money in almost a year. Just seven days later, he was assigned 130 pounds for Pimlico’s Dixie Handicap, where he would face the great Stymie. The gelding’s task was made even more daunting by the fact that Stymie– the previous year’s Champion Handicap Horse– was set to carry just 124 pounds. Armed’s six-pound disadvantage couldn’t stop him. After being bumped by an “overambitious speed horse,” in the first turn, the gelding recovered to win by 3- 1/2 lengths.

Armed’s latest triumph convinced Jimmy that the gelding was ready to compete in the Suburban Handicap; one of the nation’s premiere events. Days before the race, however, a New York van drivers’ strike caused operations at Belmont Park to grind to halt. Worse still, the dissatisfied workers decided to form a picket line outside of the racetrack, which prevented any horses from getting in. To deliver the gelding to the track, Jimmy– along with Armed and a groom– slunk into the back of a van and tried to sneak through a back gate at three in the

morning. The plan almost failed disastrously. As soon as they were awakened by the noise of the vehicle, the incensed picketers grabbed baseball bats, tire irons, and any other auxiliary weapons they could get their hands on before rushing at the van. Fortunately, the driver managed to speed through the gate before security personnel closed it behind them. Soon afterwards, Armed rewarded Jimmy’s hard work by easily annexing the Suburban.

To the disappointment of his fans, however, the gelding’s fortunes plummeted after he was shipped to Chicago. Over the course of a month, Armed narrowly lost three prestigious events– the Equipoise Mile Handicap, the Arlington Handicap, and the Quick Step Stakes– under crushing imposts. Fortunately, his run of bad luck didn’t last for long. On August 3rd, he pranced to the starting gate for the mile- long Sheridan Handicap. Despite lugging 130 pounds, the gelding outclassed his opponents and scorched under the wire in 1:35– breaking Washington Park’s track record. Following a triumph in the Whirlaway Stakes, Armed closed out his summer campaign by setting another track mark in the Washington Park Handicap.

Twelve days later, the star traveled to Rhode Island to contest the Narragansett Special. Running under another 130-pound impost, he finished a painful third to Lucky Draw, who had equaled the world record. As a consolation prize, Armed earned $3,000– making him the fifth-richest racehorse of all time. His loss also showed Ben and Jimmy that he was in desperate need of a break. After eighteen months in continuous training, Armed was beginning to show signs of burnout. His trainers took note and immediately grounded him for the remainder of 1946. “He’s too valuable a horse,” Ben declared, “and I can’t take any chances with him.” Even though Armed didn’t race for the rest of the year, his tremendous accomplishments still earned him recognition as the 1946 Champion Handicap Horse.

The next year, Armed– now nicknamed “Calumet’s Golden Gelding”– returned to the racetrack in pursuit of the all-time earnings record. On February

1st, he eeked out a win in Hialeah’s Wildwood Purse before annexing the Florida Handicap the following week. On February 15th, he started in the McLennan Handicap– the same event he had narrowly missed the year before. Armed didn’t let history repeat itself. Toting 130 pounds, he thundered to a four-length win. After a seven-day respite, he was entered into the Widener Handicap– his fourth race in the space of three weeks. The gelding’s grueling campaign apparently hadn’t tired him out; Armed humiliated his opponents and easily established another track record.

By virtue of the star’s latest win, Ben Jones afforded the “Golden Gelding” a new distinction. Previously, he had emphatically denied that Armed was as good as Whirlaway. After the gelding became the first horse in history to capture two editions of the Widener, he came extremely close to changing his mind. “It looks like Armed would win any races that Whirlaway would,” the trainer conceded. “Whirlaway made some mistakes. This horse doesn’t make any.”

Armed’s handlers, however, were far from infallible. In the wake of the gelding’s Widener triumph, Calumet decided to fly him to California to compete in the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap. Their decision was fundamentally flawed. Because the event was scheduled to be run on March 1st, Armed would only have ten days to rest (and acclimate to his new environment) before racing again. Although the star rose the occasion courageously, he was unable surmount these obstacles and finished fifth. Disappointed, Jimmy carefully loaded the gelding back onto a plane bound for Florida. Three weeks later, Armed regained his prestige by winning the Gulfstream Park Handicap in record time. To prevent the champion from getting worn out, Jimmy and Ben opted to shelve him for several months.

That summer, Armed placed second in two events at Arlington Park before being entered into the Stars and Stripes Handicap. Before a crowd of 41,000, the star triumphed by two lengths and established another track mark. Furthermore, Armed’s winnings pushed his lifetime earnings to $531,375– a mere $29,786 less than Whirlaway (who had recently been supplanted by Stymie and Assault as the world’s richest racehorse). Two races later, the gelding overtook his revered

stablemate by capturing his second Sheridan Handicap. His handlers weren’t content with third place. Later that month, Armed met a strong field in the Whirlaway Stakes– where he engaged in a “terrific stretch duel” with a colt named With Pleasure. Despite being passed midway through the stretch, the gelding dug in and reclaimed the lead to win by 1-1/2 lengths. Twelve days later, he effortlessly triumphed in the Washington Park Handicap.

Armed’s rapid progress convinced racing fans across the nation that the gelding deserved a chance to dethrone Assault as history’s top money-earner. As the two horses had never faced each other, the public soon began to clamor for a match race. That September, Belmont Park offered to a host a $100,000, winner-take-all event for the two superstars. The champions’ owners accepted.

Interestingly, Assault had a great deal in common with Armed. Whereas Armed had been dismissed until he was three, Assault had almost perished as a yearling after stepping on a surveyor’s stick. Although he continued to limp whenever he wasn’t galloping, he recovered well enough to become history’s seventh Triple Crown winner. Like Armed, Assault was also small but incredibly tenacious.

Unfortunately– days before their highly-anticipated showdown– Assault developed a splint in his leg. Surprisingly, his trainer (Max Hirsch) asserted that the injury wouldn’t prevent his champion from facing Armed. In spite of Hirsch’s reassuring announcement, the Belmont officials prohibited track-sanctioned betting on the event as an additional precaution.

Less than a week before the match race, turf scribe Arthur Daley noted that Armed was in peak condition– partly because the Joneses had kept him fit by working him with a youngster named Citation. Although the future Triple Crown winner was just two years old at the time, he proved to be a surprisingly capable sparring partner.

During his visit to the Calumet barn, Daley also discovered that Armed had a penchant for carrots. After returning from a pre-race gallop, the journalist wrote, the Golden Gelding froze and eagerly stuck out his tongue as soon as he noticed

Jimmy Jones preparing his favorite treat (“It’s his way of begging,” the smiling trainer admitted). Apparently, Armed was so fond of carrots that he even judged visitors based on their willingness to feed them to him. “If you come up with the carrot right away,” Jimmy confided, “you’re his friend. If you don’t, he ignores you from then on– you don’t get another chance.”

Five days later, Armed surely received some extra treats after his match race with Assualt. Before a crowd of 51,573, the gelding drew away from his ailing opponent to win by six lengths. It was a hollow victory. While the $100,000 purse pushed Armed’s total earnings to $742,900– less than $10,000 behind Stymie, who had become the world’s richest racehorse days earlier– most people thought that Assault’s leg splint had prevented him from performing his best. Conscious of the controversy surrounding his horse’s triumph, Warren Wright decided to donate Armed’s winnings to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund and the American Red Cross.

About two weeks later, Calumet’s Golden Gelding flashed to another win in the Sysonby Mile. In addition to cementing Armed’s status as the most accomplished horse of 1947, his victory finally allowed him to surpass Stymie as history’s greatest money-earner. Although the champion closed his season with a third-place finish in the Pimlico Special– allowing his rival to recapture the top spot– his tremendous achievements easily made him the 1947 Horse of the Year. Armed’s title put an exclamation point on one of the most successful years that Calumet Farms ever enjoyed. Over the course of 1947, their runners “just about gobbled up all of [the] honors,” to amass a staggering $1,402,436. Moreover (largely thanks to Armed), Bull Lea topped the sire list with earnings of $1,259,718– twice as much as any previous leading stallion.

After dominating the turf for three seasons, Armed began to slow down. The gelding opened 1948 with a close victory before being entered into the Gulfstream Park Handicap– where he placed second. His solid efforts proved to be the climax of his season. Seventeen days later, Armed started in the Groundhog Purse alongside his stablemate (and half-brother) Citation. To the astonishment of everyone

present, Calumet’s Golden Gelding floundered and finished sixth while Citation forged to an impressive win. Following two more losses, Armed progressed to the Widener Handicap– where he had the opportunity to capture the event for the third straight time. He couldn’t repeat the feat. Under a 130-pound impost, the gelding struggled into second before fading to fourth.

After the Widener, Ben and Jimmy Jones gave Armed the rest of the year off before sending him back to the racetrack in 1949. While the gallant champion managed to place in several major events– including the Stars and Stripes Handicap and the Washington Park Handicap– he wasn’t able to regain his previous form. The gelding continued to race until 1950 before his handlers finally decided to retire him. Fittingly, Armed concluded his career with a stirring one- length victory in Gulfstream Park’s Antilles Purse.

With no stud career ahead of him, Armed triumphantly returned to Calumet Farms. The champion spent the rest of his days in the farm’s rolling pastures (doing “nothing aside from eating and sleeping)”. To ensure that the Golden Gelding didn’t get lonely, Jimmy also found a little palomino pony and housed him next to Armed. When the grand old horse passed away on May 5th, 1964– one year after being inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame– he was laid to rest in Calumet’s horse cemetery. Nearly four decades after his death, Armed received one final accolade after a group of experts polled by the Blood-Horse named him the thirty-ninth best racehorse of the twentieth century.

It was the rightful way to honor a horse who had defied all odds during his transformation from a humble stable pony to an undisputed champion.

Photo: Unknown Photographer, Armed at Gulfstream Park, via Twitter

@jonathanstettin wish i had words to express after reading this. Thank you

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