Except for the Triple Crown races, and before the inception of the Breeders’ Cup, Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup—run intermittently at Aqueduct—was the preeminent event in Thoroughbred racing and a true test of stamina and class. Contested under weight-for-age conditions, its distance has changed several times since its inaugural running in 1919, when it was originally called the Jockey Club Stakes, and run at 1 1⁄2 miles.
The first edition didn’t get off to an auspicious start when it attracted only one entrant, Purchase, who merely galloped around the oval in a walkover. The following year, just two horses showed up, but one of them was Man o’ War, who proceeded to leave Damask 15 lengths behind, and set an American record of 2:28 4⁄5. Beginning in 1921, and for the next 54 years, the Jockey Club Gold Cup was two miles. Many of the sport’s greatest champions have won it, including five-time winner Kelso. I’ll briefly mention the race again later.
One of my most precious possessions is a wallet-size photograph of my mother and me, taken in May 1951, in front of our home in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Unknown to the toddler in the photo, stabled across town was the fabled horse. Three years earlier, when Calumet Farm’s handsome bay colt Citation, by Bull Lea out of the Hyperion mare Hydroplane II, was sweeping the Triple Crown, I hadn’t been born.
Citation’s memory speaks loudly to me across decades. In 1948, his performances were probably the greatest exhibitions of dominance ever seen by a 3-year-old. The Triple Crown—with an 11-length score in the 10-furlong Jersey Stakes thrown in—was simply part of the resumé.
Citation had been an April foal, so when he began his sophomore campaign with two wins during the first 11 days of February, beating Horse of the Year Armed and other older horses, he was still biologically 2. After the spring classics, he continued mowing down all competition, beating his elders five more times in the process, at any distance, on different tracks, over all kinds of surfaces, and from coast to coast. In the autumn, he won the Sysonby Mile by three lengths, and three days later romped to a seven-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup endurance run. The age, experience, and accomplishments of his rivals didn’t matter. By the Pimlico Special, nobody wanted any part of Citation, and the 3-year-old pranced in a walkover. In that magical year, he won 19 of 20 races, 15 consecutively—the cherished 16th in 1950—and over two seasons, compiled 29 starts, 27 wins, and two seconds. Twenty-two of those races had been stakes. The two losses were explainable, with the first undoubtedly by design when Citation was a juvenile, and the other when he was carried very wide by another horse. His record could have easily been 29-29-0-0.
Owner Warren Wright wanted Citation to become the sport’s first equine millionaire. It’s my understanding that horses generally reach their racing prime as 4-year-olds, but an osselet, developed at Tanforan in December, kept the colt from running a single race in 1949. Working hard to stay sound and fit, with his sharpness dulled from the long layoff, “Big Cy” returned in 1950 and again in 1951, courageously game, with his consummate professionalism and class. No longer the invincible giant, Citation showed the enormity of his heart. He sometimes gave opponents considerable weight breaks while suffering close defeats, yet also produced some of his most inspiring efforts, from a thrilling but heartbreaking loss to persistent nemesis Noor in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, to a world record mark in the Golden Gate Mile that also pushed him past Stymie as the all-time money leader, and finally the Hollywood Gold Cup win that put his career earnings at $1,085,760.
Citation retired with 45 starts, 32 firsts, 10 seconds, and two thirds. He became a charter member of the Racing Hall of Fame in 1959, and fittingly in 2002, Noor and Cigar were inducted together. To Citation’s credit as a stallion, Fabius and Silver Spoon showed traces of their sire’s brilliance.
I could never speak too highly about Citation. I will always speak with affection. He remains for me the greatest Thoroughbred racehorse in my lifetime. Perhaps in any lifetime.
John l. Califano is a racing enthusiast and works for the Washoe County Library in Northern Nevada.