Darby Dan Days

If it were not for Graustark I would not be writing this blog. That’s because I would not be writing for the Blood-Horse. The reason I would not be writing for the Blood-Horse is because I would not have worked for the Daily Racing Form for 29 years or written for the Thoroughbred Times for five years or the Thoroughbred Record on and off for many years.

The truth is, having abandoned a career on Wall Street because I detested it, and not having the experience or the skills to do anything else, I likely would have wound up living in a cardboard box somewhere under the Belt Parkway. I wouldn’t be married to the greatest wife anyone could ask for (she’s put up with me for 28 years) and I wouldn’t have fathered the greatest daughter anyone could ask for.

So, I ask you, how important has Graustark been in my life? Now, before you start envisioning some warped version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’ll briefly fill you in. This is actually a two-part story. If you can somehow make it through the first story, it might be worth the trouble in order to get to the second, more compelling story.

It had been nine months since I departed the scream-and-curse-all-day world of Wall Street, where your status was based on the price of your wing-tip shoes. During those nine months I was, well, unemployed, and living in the fantasy world of my newly discovered obsession, horse racing. But fantasies don’t come with pay checks, so on the advice of my father I applied for jobs in the racing industry, despite having no experience in any aspect of it. The only response I received was from Charlotte Berko, secretary for Saul Rosen, editor of the Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form, informing me that Mr. Rosen wished to speak to me.

Like an idiot, all I could think of was to memorize the winners of all the Kentucky Derbys, as if I was going to be quizzed. I had no selling points other than my passion and an insatiable appetite to learn everything imaginable about Thoroughbred racing.

With my entire life hinging on this interview, I skulked into Saul Rosen’s office. Outside, the copy editors were gathered around a TV set watching the New York Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in game three of the 1969 World Series.

I sat down, not having a clue what to expect. Then came Saul’s first and only question to me: “Do you know how to type?”

“Uh, oh,” I thought. “I’m a dead man.” It was as if the door to my future, my entire life, had been slammed shut in my face. Hell, no, I couldn’t type. My answer wasn’t quite so abrupt, but the ‘no’ part came across loud and clear, as did any chance I had of working for “The Telly,” and in fact, working, period. Skid Row awaited.

“Sorry,” Saul said. “Why don’t you learn how to type and come back?”

“Sure,” I replied, knowing that wasn’t going to happen, not with my tiny, spastic fingers.

Then, from out of nowhere, the words blurted out of my mouth -- simple, trite, innocuous words, but ones that would alter the course of my life.

“Well, while I’m here, is it possible to get the lifetime past performances of Graustark?” I asked. The person who had introduced me to horse racing was a fanatic Graustark fan, and I became one as well by association. Saul called up Sol Seiden the head librarian and asked him if he could help me out. Sol came in and brought me back into the library – the library! Horse photos, clippings, bound Telegraphs. I was in heaven. While he was having someone Xerox the past performances from one of the bound volumes, Sol said to me: “I have an idea. I’m going to need an assistant. Maybe you can work here as a copy boy to get your foot in the door and learn how to type in your spare time.”

To make a long story somewhat short, I was ecstatic, and Saul Rosen agreed to it. I started work the next day as a copy boy for around $90 a week, down quite a bit from my $250 a week salary on Wall Street. I was a lousy copy boy, spending most of my time talking horses with the copy editors and handicappers. I never learned, or even attempted to learn, how to type after seeing what little typing was required (the name of a horse or trainer on an envelope). I managed to fake it and convince Sol I was an expert typist by learning how to type one phrase: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their parties.”

I was promptly promoted to assistant librarian. Sol then left the library to work in the advertising department, and I was named head librarian. When the Telly closed down in 1972 I was one of the fortunate few who were asked to go to the new Daily Racing Form plant in Hightstown, N.J. Several years of freelance writing for other publications followed until the new Racing Times came along, after which I finally was released from the library and became a feature and news writer for the DRF. I then became national correspondent, replacing the legendary Joe Hirsch as the author of “Derby Doings.,” and the rest, as they say, is history.”

So, where am I going with all this? Because of the debt of gratitude I owed Graustark, I continued to be a fan of his as a stallion and also of Darby Dan, which was owned by John Galbreath, who bred, raced, and stood Graustark.

In the winter of 1969, shortly after I was hired at the Telegraph, I had visited Darby Dan, in good part to see Graustark and his newly turned yearling full brother, later to be named His Majesty.

This is where part two of the story begins. First, as a footnote, I would visit Darby Dan every year on my vacation for the next six or seven years. I became close to everyone at the farm, including farm manager Olin Gentry and most of all stud groom Floyd Williams, who took care of Graustark, Ribot, and later His Majesty and Roberto. Also standing there in the early years were Sea-Bird, Swaps, Sword Dancer, Chateaugay, Sailor, Summer Tan, and Helioscope. I would actually lead visitors down the shedrow and brief them on the stallions, putting on the best southern drawl I could muster. If you haven’t heard a Brooklyn—Kentucky accent, you’re missing something. One year I stayed on the farm during my vacation, witnessing my one and only Thoroughbred birth. In 1972, I photographed two yearlings on the same day. One was a Sea-Bird colt, later to be named Little Current. The other was a Graustark filly, to be named Cherished Moment. Years later, Little Current, who would romp in the Preakness and Belmont, was bred to Cherished Moment and produced Belle of Killarney, who would become the maternal granddam of Funny Cide.

Basically, this has been a rather involved, long-winded introduction to the intended story of His Majesty and his boyhood pal Good Counsel.

The winter and spring of 1969 was an exciting time at Darby Dan, with most of the excitement being generated by Graustark’s yearling full brother, a magnificent-looking son of Ribot out of Flower Bowl. The night the colt was born, everyone on the farm was beaming over the birth of the full brother to their pride and joy. But the following morning, Flower Bowl began to hemorrhage, and all efforts to save her failed. The foal was raised by a nurse mare and placed under close scrutiny by Gentry.

When it came time to wean all the youngsters and place them in a paddock together, Gentry realized he couldn’t risk injury to Graustark’s brother. He was too valuable a prospect, so Gentry put him in his own small paddock right next to the yearling barn. But horses are social animals, and Gentry knew he had to find a yearling with an easy-going temperament to serve, not only as paddock mate, but a calming influence on the feisty Ribot colt.

He chose a son of Hail to Reason, out of Polylady, and the two of them hit it off immediately. I had the good fortune of visiting them in the winter and again in the spring. And with my trusty Kodak Instamatic camera, I took numerous photos of them, one of which actually appeared in the Morning Telegraph and another in the Daily Racing Form years later. One showed the two colts standing nose to nose, nuzzling each other, and the other was of them both up on their hind legs wrestling, with the Ribot colt’s front legs up on the Hail to Reason colt’s shoulders. It was apparent the two of them had become the best of friends.

But as anyone who works on a farm knows, friendships are fleeting. By mid-summer, the carefree life was over, as the yearlings were sent to the Columbus, Ohio farm to be broken. The two colts now had other things on their mind and both learned their lessons quickly.

The following year, the Ribot colt, now named His Majesty, was sent to trainer Dave Erb at Belmont Park, while the Hail to Reason colt, now named Good Counsel, was shipped to Darby Dan’s European trainer Vincent O’Brien in Ireland. Soon after, longtime assistant Lou Rondinello replaced Erb as trainer, and could tell right away that His Majesty was something special.

The colt had grown into a magnificent athlete, who showed great promise in the mornings. After breaking his maiden by five lengths in his second start at 2, he was shipped to Hialeah where he scored an impressive victory in an allowance race. Then came an incredible performance in the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes, in which he finished third, beaten a half-length by Graustark’s son Jim French, after being forced into the rail and stumbling badly. Following a gutsy head victory over Jim French in the 1 1/8-mile Everglades Stakes, in which he barely snuck through a tiny opening along the rail, His Majesty became one of the early favorites for the 1971 Kentucky Derby, along with Hoist the Flag.

But in the Flamingo, he once again got stuck down on the inside and again hit the rail, finishing sixth behind Executioner. The following day, X-rays revealed a chip fracture in the right front pastern. Following surgery, he was sent back to Darby Dan to recuperate and did not return to the races for nine months.

Meanwhile, Good Counsel, had finished second and fourth in his two starts in Ireland. With His Majesty on the sidelines, it was decided to send good Counsel back to America, where he won three of his first four starts before finishing third in the Travers Stakes and winning the Rosemont Stakes at Delaware Park.

When His Majesty returned in December, it took him several races to get back in top form. Now reunited, His Majesty and Good Counsel were sent to Santa Anita, where they ran well, but never really took to the hard surfaces.

Then it was on to Hialeah and the 1 1/4-mile Widener Handicap, one of the most prestigious races in the country for older horses. What followed was something right out of Hollywood.

His Majesty went to the lead and set testing fractions of :22 4/5, :46 1/5, and 1:10 1/5 while under pressure throughout. He then found another gear turning for home and opened a two-length lead at the eighth pole and looked to be home free. But, seemingly out of nowhere, here came Good Counsel charging down the stretch and closing the gap with every stride.

Good Counsel pulled on even terms with His Majesty, and the pair drew off from the rest of the field. Through the final sixteenth, they were as inseparable as they had been in their paddock as yearlings. All that was missing was the wrestling. Here were two buddies who had grown up together and played together, sharing the same paddock for some seven months, in a desperate struggle to the wire. They hit the finish line as one, and it took a photo to determine that Good Counsel had just nosed out his more illustrious stablemate. The newspaper headlines the next day referred to them as Darby Dan’s Dynamic Duo.

That was the last time they would meet in competition. His Majesty injured a stifle the day of the Hawthorne Gold Cup and was sidelined for five months. During that time Good Counsel won the Longfellow Handicap at Monmouth, then was retired sound to Darby Dan. His Majesty returned again the following year, but his hard luck continued. After setting a track record for 1 1/8 miles at Hialeah, he suffered a bowed tendon in the Donn Handicap, ending an ill-fated career that had once shown so much promise.

His Majesty and Good Counsel were now back together again and placed in adjoining paddocks. All day long they would race each other back and forth in their paddocks until it reached a point where Gentry had to separate them. As Floyd Williams said, “I think His Majesty was trying to get even for the time Good Counsel beat him.”

His Majesty went on to become the leading sire in the country in 1982 and continued the Ribot line through his son Pleasant Colony, and Pleasant Colony’s sons Pleasant Tap and Pleasantly Perfect, not to mention Pleasant Tap’s sons Premium Tap and Tiago. Pleasant Colony and Pleasant Tap alone have won or sired the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Japan Cup, Irish Derby, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, Arlington Million, Woodward Stakes, Dubai Duty Free, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Good Counsel didn’t have much success as a stallion and died in 1987 of laminitis. The once grand-looking His Majesty eventually began to deteriorate physically and was barely able to control his bodily functions. In 1994, he had fallen off a mare in the breeding shed, and it was obvious the end was near. According to John Phillips of Darby Dan, he just lay on the ground for a while and looked up at him.

“He had very sad eyes,” Phillips said several years ago. “When I bent down to pet him, he just looked up at me and it was like he was letting me know his time was up.”

Shortly after, His Majesty began to lose weight and became extremely weak in his hind end. The decision finally was made to put him out of his misery.

I just happened to be in Kentucky at the time and went to pay His Majesty a visit, knowing it could be the last time I’d ever see him. What I found was an empty stall and a freshly dug grave next to the graves of Graustark and Ribot. Of course, I knew immediately that His Majesty, the horse I had followed from the day he was born and watched grow up with his buddy Good Counsel, was gone.

His Majesty lies next to his brother and sire on a grassy area next to the stallion barn with a large headstone for all to see as they drive by. Good Counsel lies in the main grave site with a smaller headstone outside the yearling barn, just a few yards from where he and His Majesty had played together 40 years ago.

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