By J. Keeler Johnson “Keelerman”
Ask any racing fan to name the best horses of the early 1930s and you are likely to hear names like Equipoise, Twenty Grand, Gallant Fox, Discovery, Cavalcade, Top Flight, and Sun Beau. That is to be expected. All were considered champions in their respective divisions; all are in the Hall of Fame.
But there is one name that rarely gets mentioned, and that is terribly unfortunate, for he was without a doubt one of the toughest and most courageous horses of his generation. During a career that spanned four years, he made fifty-seven starts, won twenty-three of them and placed in eighteen others. He averaged 14.25 starts per year, and earned $89,375—a very respectable sum considering how small Depression-era purses were in the handicap division.
The horse’s name? Dark Secret.
It has often been said that a great horse can come from anywhere. Allow me to expound on that premise by stating that a great horse can come from any heritage.
In 1918—or 1919, by some accounts—a mare by the name of Silencia was born. Her sire was the 1909 champion older male King James, a useful if not stellar stallion that ranked in the top twenty leading general sires on three occasions. Her dam was Auntie Mum, a foreign-bred daughter of Melton that had previously produced the good colt Spur, winner of the Travers Stakes, Withers Stakes, and five other stakes in 1916. Spur was also a son of King James, making Silencia his full-sister.
So there was most likely a bit of excitement in the air when Silencia headed to post for the first start of her career. However, like many full siblings of talented runners, Silencia failed to live up to expectations, finishing unplaced in two starts before being retired to the broodmare ranks at Gifford Cochran's Shandon Stud.
Silencia’s first foal, born in 1928, was a colt by the name of Royal Carlaris. A son of 1926 Coffroth Handicap winner Carlaris, Royal Carlaris had a modest amount of ability—enough to break his maiden—but he never won a stakes.
For her second mating, Silencia was bred to Flying Ebony, who had carried the Cochran silks to victory in the 1925 Kentucky Derby. The resulting foal, born in 1929, was named Dark Secret.
Details regarding the early years of Dark Secret's life are difficult to come by. According to Edward Bowen's fine volume Masters of the Turf, Dark Secret was sold as a two-year-old at the Gifford Cochran dispersal, where he was purchased by Wheatley Stable for the sum of $5,700 and turned over to the legendary "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons for training. But aside from that, little is known about the colt's early life. Even his color is somewhat debatable—some sources describe him as a bay roan, others simply call him bay. Photographs of him, unfortunately, are black-and-white, making it very difficult to say with certainty what color he was.
As a juvenile, Dark Secret was a capable enough performer, winning a pair of races from eight starts and placing in five others, including the Hartsdale Stakes. However, he was in nowhere near the same class as Top Flight, the magnificent filly that swept undefeated through seven starts to gain recognition as the best two-year-old of the year, regardless of gender. Nor was Dark Secret in the same class as Burning Blaze, winner of the Post and Paddock Stakes, Richard Johnson Stakes, and Eastern Shore Handicap; or even Tick On, who won the Hopeful and was second to Top Flight in the Pimlico Futurity.
No, as a juvenile, Dark Secret was fairly unremarkable. But as a three-year-old in 1932, he began to come around. By the end of the year, he had won the Bowie and Potomac Handicaps, the Kenner Stakes, and the Speculation Claiming Handicap, in addition to placing in the Bay Shore, Jerome, Knickerbocker, and Southhampton Handicaps; the Saratoga Cup, and the Empire City Derby. In the Potomac, probably the best race of his career to that point, he beat Belmont Stakes runner-up Osculator by a length, with Maryland Handicap winner Gallant Sir a nose further back in third and Top Flight still another length back in fourth.
All told, Dark Secret compiled a record of eight wins and six placings from nineteen starts in 1932, with earnings of $37,480. It was successful season.
But the best was yet to come.
Also competing as a three-year-old in 1932 was a horse whose name will forever be associated with Dark Secret, in the same way that Alydar will forever be associated with Affirmed.
This horse’s name was Faireno. Owned and bred by Belair Stud of Gallant Fox and Omaha fame, Faireno had the makings of a great horse. His sire was Chatteron, a son of Fair Play that would become the leading general sire of 1932. His dam was Minerva, who would eventually produce four stakes winners from twelve foals, including Louisiana Derby winner Wise Fox and Delaware Oaks winner Wise Lady. She herself was a daughter of the foreign-bred Ambassador IV, a son of the great German stallion Dark Ronald. If a there was ever a horse that could be described as a personification of the iron stayer, it was Faireno. For him, it seemed, the longer the race, the better he ran.
Like Dark Secret, Faireno was trained by Fitzsimmons, but unlike Dark Secret, Faireno showed considerable class as a two-year-old. From sixteen starts, he won six, including the Junior Champion Stakes, Nursery Handicap, Victoria Stakes, and Consolation Claiming Stakes. He also placed in a trio of other minor stakes, stamping himself as a colt of respectable quality.
But as a three-year-old, Faireno metamorphosed into something entirely different. Instead of being a colt of merely respectable quality, he became one of the best of his generation.
After beginning the year with a trio of moderate efforts, the colt was entered in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths over Osculator. Building on that success, Faireno proceeded to rattle off victories in the Shevlin Stakes and Dwyer Stakes, beating the fine colt Gusto in the latter. A sub-par showing in the Classic Stakes was followed by convincing victories in the Saratoga and Hawthorne Handicaps. He concluded the year with a runner-up effort in the Hawthorne Gold Cup and an easy victory in the Lawrence Realization. For his efforts, he was recognized as the co-champion of the division, along with Kentucky Derby/Preakness Stakes winner Burgoo King.
All told, Faireno finished the season with a record of seven wins and two seconds from twelve starts, with earnings of $136,635. Although he was unable to compete in 1933—the reason why has eluded my research—he would be back in 1934, the year his name would become inseparably entwined with that of Dark Secret.
Just as the transition from two-year-old to three-year-old ushered in a remarkable transformation for Faireno, the transition from three-year-old to four-year-old did the same for Dark Secret.
As was becoming customary for the colt, Dark Secret began the year in slow fashion, performing below par in a number of early-season races before rounding back into form. In all actuality, however, Dark Secret didn't "round back into" his previous year's form. Instead, he sort of round right on past it, and became a terror on the racetrack.
Shipping from one track to another during a busy seventeen-race campaign, Dark Secret was nearly unstoppable. His first major score of the year came in the prestigious Brooklyn Handicap, and he followed that up with a victory in the Empire City Handicap. Sent to Saratoga for the Merchants and Citizens' Handicap—then a very prestigious fixture at the Spa—Dark Secret toted 120 pounds to a 2 1/2-length victory over Golden Way and Watch Him, whom he was spotting nine and ten pounds, respectively. This was followed by an equally impressive victory in the Manhattan Handicap, where he carried 124 pounds to victory over Gusto, who carried just 114.
His next start came in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. At two miles in distance, it seemed perfect for a colt like Dark Secret, who was rapidly establishing himself as one of the best stayers in the country. Yet despite his stellar credentials, he was not favored. That honor went to Equipoise.
Nicknamed "The Chocolate Soldier" by his adoring fans, Equipoise was a five-year-old son of Pennant and had been honored as Horse of the Year in 1932 following victories in the Hartford Handicap, Toboggan Handicap, Metropolitan Handicap, Stars and Stripes Handicap, Arlington Gold Cup, Wilson Stakes, Whitney Stakes, and Havre de Grace Cup. His defeats—which were few and far between—were typically close ones, and always came at the hands of horses carrying considerably less weight.
But as good a year as 1932 was for Equipoise, 1933 was even better. Coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Equipoise had not lost a single race all season, winning the Philadelphia, Metropolitan, Suburban, and Arlington Handicaps; the Wilson Stakes, the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Saratoga Cup in consecutive fashion. Furthermore, in both the Metropolitan and Arlington Handicaps, he had beaten Dark Secret, while giving him substantial weight to boot.
However, if there was one chink in Equipoise's armor, it was distance. True, he had won the Saratoga Cup at 1 3/4 miles, but in general, he seemed better suited to shorter distances, with eight to ten furlongs being his optimum range. Even at his best, the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup was probably a bit beyond his capabilities.
Unfortunately, Equipoise was not at his best for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Throughout his career he had dealt with numerous hoof issues, mainly quarter cracks, and it seems they were starting to bother him yet again. Thus, given the circumstances, it seemed possible that Dark Secret could make the race a close one.
It was not close at all.
Equipoise, bad feet and all, gallantly tracked the pace for over a mile and a half, but could offer nothing more in the homestretch and retreated to finish third. In the meantime, Dark Secret—clearly relishing the distance—romped to a four-length victory over Gusto, who in turn was eight clear of the Chocolate Soldier.
It could be said that Dark Secret's victory was a meaningless one. He had already proven superior to Gusto on numerous occasions in the past, and beating poor Equipoise under the circumstances was hardly a stellar achievement.
Yes, you could say Dark Secret's victory was a hollow one; perhaps even undeserved. But one year later, he would prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was worthy.
The date was September 15, 1934. The feature race at Belmont Park was the sixteenth running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The field was a small one, and Dark Secret was the heavy favorite. After winning the race in good fashion the previous year, he had wrapped up his stellar 1933 season with victories in the Laurel Stakes and the Washington Handicap. Following his usual winter break, he had started his 1934 campaign with a number of so-so efforts, including a distant second in the Brooklyn Handicap behind the up-and-coming three-year-old Discovery, who would eventually retire with a reputation as one of the greatest weight-carriers of all time.
But as was typical of Dark Secret, he got better as the year progressed. He was coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup off of strong victories in the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup—which he won by three lengths—and the Manhattan Handicap, which he dominated by four.
The post parade was surely a bittersweet occasion for his fans, as it had been announced previously that the Jockey Club Gold Cup would be Dark Secret’s final race. To go out with a win would be a fitting conclusion to his wonderful career.
But standing between Dark Secret and victory was a horse of regal background and unquestionable stamina: Faireno. After failing to make a single start during 1933, he made a comeback early in 1934 but appeared to have lost the spark that made him special—he lost his first ten starts of the year.
However, a surprising victory in the Empire City Handicap seemed to revitalize the gallant stayer, and after placing in two more stakes, he claimed top prize by two lengths in the Merchants and Citizens' Handicap.
His final prep for the Jockey Club Gold Cup was one of great intrigue, for it was the Saratoga Cup, where he faced Dark Secret for the first time. Given that both colts had proven themselves to be stayers of the highest class, it was expected to be a fairly even matchup.
But in a somewhat surprising turn of events, the race was not close. Toting equal weights, Dark Secret romped away from Faireno in the stretch to win by three lengths.
In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, they would carry equal weights yet again. And with this in mind, it seemed clear that Dark Secret would not lose. For Faireno to make the race a close one would require Dark Secret to run well below par, and what were the chances of that?
One mile and fifteen-sixteenths later, Dark Secret was in full flight, charging down the homestretch for the final time. Just like in the Saratoga Cup, he had disposed of Faireno at the top of the stretch and was now drawing away to victory. The only thing standing between Dark Secret and victory was a sixteenth of a mile; a mere one hundred and ten yards.
All he had to do was finish the race.
Suddenly, a gasp arose from the crowd. Dark Secret—the iron horse; the veteran of fifty-six starts and twenty-two wins; the fourteen-time stakes winner who had traversed hundreds of furlongs at tracks across the country—had stumbled without warning.
He had fractured a leg with less than a sixteenth of a mile to go.
Miraculously, he didn’t fall. He was injured, but still running—perhaps semi-oblivious to what had happened.
Of course, the victory that had seemed so certain just moments before was evaporating like a desert mirage. Faireno, as beaten as he had been at the top of the stretch, was back in the race. With his regal pedigree and unquestionable stamina backing him up, he surged alongside Dark Secret and appeared certain to steal the race.
But Dark Secret was not done yet. Amazingly, with only three good legs beneath him, he summoned from deep within his soul the determination and fortitude to keep running. The fire that had been stoked by breeders through the centuries, in an effort to create a better racehorse, was culminating in Dark Secret. In the face of adversity, he would not give up. He would finish the race. It was in his blood to do so, and he would have it no other way.
And although this writer cannot fathom how, Dark Secret held off Faireno to win the race by a head.
Fifty-six starts, twenty-two victories, fourteen stakes victories, and literally hundreds of furlongs of racing over the course of four years had failed to earn Dark Secret the status of greatness. Perhaps, according to traditional measurements, he didn't deserve it. Perhaps he wasn't in the same class as Equipoise, Discovery, and Gallant Fox.
But in that final sixteenth of a mile, Dark Secret proved to this writer that he was the greatest of them all.
It saddens me to say it, but that is the end of Dark Secret's story as it exists today.
Nearly eighty years have elapsed since that fateful day in September 1934 when Dark Secret won the race but lost his life. During that time, memories of Dark Secret seem to have been scattered by the wind—a tidbit here, a tidbit there, but never the full story. Why has time been so unkind to Dark Secret? How can a horse so courageous; so talented; so great—fade like a sunset with the passing of the years?
Compare and contrast his record to those of other, more recent greats. In 1933 alone, Dark Secret won eight stakes races—two more than Ghostzapper won in his entire career. All told, Dark Secret won twenty-two races—Curlin won eleven; Ghostzapper, nine; Point Given, nine; and Tiznow, eight. Smarty Jones, I'll Have Another, and Big Brown? They didn't win that many races combined!
Over the course of his career, Dark Secret traversed literally hundreds of furlongs. To compile the exact number would require an exhaustive amount of research through the Keeneland Library, but it is certainly not overestimating to state that he ran at least five hundred furlongs. Ghostzapper? He ran just eighty-two in his career.
So why did a horse that tough break down? This, too, remains unknown. Some say he stepped in a hole in the track; others say he hit a hard spot. The consensus seems to be that he didn't break down from unsoundness; rather, the track was at fault.
But all that aside, the story of Dark Secret may have one final chapter remaining—an epilogue added to the tale, years after its completion.
There is a chance—albeit a small one—that Dark Secret may still find his way into the Hall of Fame, even after all these years. He will not be voted in by traditional means. However, the Hall of Fame does have what is called the Historic Review Committee, a group that examines the merit of long-ago horses, trainers, and jockeys that may have slipped through the cracks of the traditional Hall of Fame procedures.
Perhaps someday—someday—the Historic Review Committee will see fit to usher Dark Secret into their hallowed circle of great ones. It would be a fitting ending to the story of a truly great horse that deserves so much better than to be lost to the ages.
The next time anyone asks you to name the best horses of the early 1930s, be sure to mention Dark Secret. When discussing the century's greatest stayers, don't forget to nominate Dark Secret. And when conversation turns to the most courageous horses in history, by all means endorse Dark Secret.
J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") is a racing enthusiast and blogs at; www.triplecrowncountdown.blogspot.com
Caption: Photo of Dark Secret winning the Polomae Handicap.
Photo: The Blood-Horse Library - Please do not take without permission.