The story of thoroughbred Exterminator takes a little longer than usual. The rangy chestnut actually raced for eight years and was retired only because he came back lame after finishing third in his 99th race.
Ninety-Nine races! Over an eight-year career that lasted from 1917 to 1924.
Eight years on the tracks of North America (America, Canada, and Mexico) for temperamental owner Kilmer.
Eight years and he had nine trainers. At the beginning of each new racing season, Kilmer seemed to always have a new face to train Exterminator. And the gentle and well-mannered gelding was able to adjust to the likes and dislikes of them all . . . because he was able to win 50 times.
Exterminator’s long story had its beginnings at a yearling sale in 1916 when he was bought for $1,500 by J. Cal Milam, a man who also trained the thoroughbreds he owned.
As a youngster, the lanky colt was described as gangly and a bit awkward. His appearance was even said to be “coarse”. So Milam gelded him.
Under the guidance of Milam, Exterminator won his first race. Soon after that, however, he incurred a sprained muscle . . . and Milam gave him some rest because he was still growing and had reached 17 hands.
Before he could begin his three-year-old season, he was sold for $9,000 and two fillies to Willis Sharpe Kilmer, a no-nonsense martinet whose only reason for the purchase was to use Exterminator as a “workhorse” to train alongside his real pride and joy, a colt named Sun Briar.
Kilmer was dismissive of Exterminator, often calling him “that truck horse” or “that goat”. Exterminator was to extend Sun Briar in the favored colt’s workouts. But it was Sun Briar that had problems keeping up with “the goat”.
Kilmer was employing future Hall of Fame trainer Henry McDaniel at the time. McDaniel quickly became a fan of Exterminator, calling him the most intelligent thoroughbred he’d ever known.
Kilmer was eager to get Sun Briar to the 1918 Kentucky Derby. But the thoroughbred was found to have an injury that would not allow him to run.
Owner Kilmer fumed.
Trainer McDaniel urged the tempestuous owner to enter Exterminator instead. Kilmer balked, saying he didn’t want to see that awkward cuss wearing his green, brown, and orange silks in such a prestigious race.
But Kilmer was to entertain out-of-town guests in his box at Churchill Downs. When Colonel Matt Winn, president of Churchill Downs, convinced him of the value of having an entry in the race to show his guests, Kilmer relented and gave his consent for Exterminator to run in The Derby.
Rain poured down in Louisville on the morning of the race. In his only two races, Exterminator had never been tried in the mud. He had no preparation for the race, not having run at all in 1918. And he had never been more than six furlongs. His odds of 30-1 seemingly could (or should) have been closer to 100-1.
In the race, Exterminator was back off the pace and in midpack when the leaders turned for home. With jockey Willie Knapp, still in a snit because Sun Briar didn’t race, calling on him for some kind of run, Exterminator began to pass many of those in front of him. Finally, it was just him and Escoba. When Escoba was passed, “the truck horse” had won the Kentucky Derby by a length in only his third career race.
He hadn’t embarrassed the colors of Willis Sharpe Kilmer.
Once he had the notch of a Kentucky Derby victory on his belt, Exterminator was regularly asked to carry 130 pounds or more. And it was no aberration to see him race with just three or four days in between events.
Following The Derby, he lost five straight times. Knapp was replaced as the jockey by Clarence Kummer. Knapp later returned in 1918. And then Johnny Loftus rode him in the Bowie Handicap.
Even at age three, he was regularly giving away as many as 15 pounds to same-age thoroughbreds.
By the close of the fall, he had seven wins.
Exterminator had become such a favorite of those who fed him, cleaned his stall, and washed him down after workouts that they affectionately layered him with nicknames like “Old Shang”, “Old Bones”, “Slim”, and “The Galloping Hatrack”.
After completing his three-year-old campaign, he just went on and on. Never an injury kept him away. He once had 22 races in one year.
Owner Kilmer literally changed trainers like he changed his socks. In Exterminator’s eight years of racing, he had nine different trainers — some of them even came around twice.
As an older competitor, he regularly spotted rivals 20 pounds, once winning when the runner-up toted 40 fewer pounds.
He could win in the deep mud. He even won going 2 1/4-miles and breaking the track record by 20 seconds.
At age six, he defeated a thoroughbred named Mad Hatter. He was racing nonstop. And Kilmer was changing trainers and jockeys just as fast.
Carrying 138 pounds, he won the Kentucky Handicap. Given the assignment of 135 pounds, he prevailed over four-year-old Grey Lag, the 1921 Horse of the Year, in the Brooklyn Handicap. Exterminator and Grey Lag were only inches apart as they dueled the length of the stretch in that race. Exterminator prevailed by a head. That race was only three days after the Kentucky Handicap.
At age seven, he carried an average of 133 pounds in his 17 races. He won 10 times. Kilmer gladly accepted the Horse of the Year award Exterminator was given.
When he was eight, he greeted another twosome of newcomers in trainer W. Shields and heralded jockey Earl Sande.
And when he was nine the latest trainer was Henry McDaniel, who had come full circle and was back in the employ of the petulant and ornery Kilmer.
After returning lame from a third-place effort in the Queen’s Hotal Handicap, he was retired just one start shy of 100 races.
No other Hall of Famer had such a long-lasting career where their winning form lasted as long as his.
Certainly, no other Hall of Famer saw so many faces showing him their training regimens . . . or had so many different jockeys aboard for his 50 wins.
In 35 races, he was asked to lug at least 130 pounds.
Across the country, he was a favorite of those men were responsible for maneuvering the horses into position behind the elastic bands that served as the race’s starting devices. He was always calm and cooperative with them in pre-race positionings.
When eased into retirement, he would live to be 30. His birthdays at Kilmer’s New York state farm known as Sun Briar Manor were generally celebrated with children coming by to share his ice cream and carrot cake.
He was selected to the U. S. Hall of Fame in 1957 and his plaque in the building in Saratoga informed visitors that his 33 stakes victories is a record that has never been passed by any horse that ever raced in North America.
Author Mildred Mastin wrote a children’s book entitled “Old Bones, the Wonder Horse” in 1955 and was reissued as a paperback in 1983.
The Galloping Hatrack had accomplished enough to overcome the obvious prejudices of Willis Sharpe Kilmer, an owner whose ego wanted so badly to entertain (and impress) his out of town cronies at the 1918 Kentucky Derby that he was “forced” to win the race by the arm twistings of others.