Darby Dan's Battling Buddies

With the current crisis shaking up the entire world, and with a handful of racetracks still conducting live racing, what better time to focus our writing on nostalgia. In the upcoming weeks I am planning on reprinting and re-working my old Kentucky Derby (G1) recaps, and a few Preakness Stakes (G1) recaps just to keep in the spirit of the times. It’s just not spring without Derby and Triple Crown thoughts.

But before we get to that, I want to focus on my own nostalgia; some of my fondest memories that struck a deep personal chord with me. This is the story of His Majesty and his buddy Good Counsel. In all my 53 years involved with racing, no horse ever caused me more anxiety and butterflies in the stomach than His Majesty. You will find out why shortly. Racing was all I knew and all I cared about back then, and when His Majesty made his first three stakes starts as a 3-year-old in the Bahamas, Everglades, and Flamingo Stakes I was so nervous I had to make the day go by faster by going to the movies, the first of which was the extremely long Tora Tora Tora, which helped pass the time. I even started a scrapbook, which included every word written about His Majesty and even his workout tabs from the Telegraph. Yes, I was young, foolish, and immature back then. Now at least I am old, foolish, and immature.

To start the story we have to go back to early 1969 and my first trip to Darby Dan Farm to see Graustark’s yearling full brother. You see, if it wasn’t for Graustark, who was the favorite horse of the person who introduced me to Thoroughbred racing and who I also latched on to even though his career had ended three years earlier, I shudder to think where life would have taken me. After being rejected for a job at the old Morning Telegraph in the fall of 1969 because I couldn’t type, I decided to ask the editor if I could get a printout of Graustark’s lifetime past performances, as brief as they were. While they were being copied, the librarian mentioned to me he was going to need an assistant; the job that unbeknownst to me I was being interviewed for.

He suggested I start working there as a copy boy while taking typing lessons, after which I would transfer into the library as his assistant. That started my career in racing; something that never would have happened had I not innocently asked for Graustark’s past performances.

Earlier that year I had visited Darby Dan, taking a bus from New York City, to see Graustark’s little brother, whose birth was a major event at the farm. That is where the story begins; a story that was more conducive to one of the many old hackneyed racing movies of the ’30s and ’40s than actual reality.

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, whose first crop were just babies. 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 farm manager Olin 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. In another small paddock was a strapping chestnut yearling by Graustark, out of Darby Dan’s prized mare, champion Primonetta.

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 not only visiting them that winter, but 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 area 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 Park 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. Even Joe Hirsch raved about his performance in the Racing From.

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, who would suffer a near-fatal, career-ending injury while training for the Gotham Stakes.

But in the Flamingo, His Majesty 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. Of course, I visited him several times during his road to recovery.

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, eyeballing each other 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. It was not the result all those at Darby Dan had hoped for, as His Majesty was their big stallion prospect, and everyone, including Rondinello, knew he was far more talented than the hard-knocking, blue-collar Good Counsel

The newspaper headlines the next day referred to His Majesty and Good Counsel as “Darby Dan’s Dynamic Duo.” They had come a long way since their boyhood days playing in the paddock.

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, and then was retired sound to Darby Dan. His Majesty returned again the following year, but his hard luck continued. After setting a track record of 1:46 1/5 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, just like the old days, until it reached a point where Gentry had to separate them. As their groom 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, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner 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 (all G1).

His Majesty also sired the Darby Dan-bred filly Andover Way, who produced Dynaformer, sire of 25 grade 1 winners, including Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. His Majesty's daughter Ribbon produced Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star, and his son Cormorant sired Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin. And he is the maternal great-grandsire of Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense. So you can see how strong his influence has been, especially on the classics.

In Europe, His Majesty's daughter Razyana produced Danehill, who sired a record 349 stakes winners, 89 of which were group or grade 1.Danehill was the leading sire in Australia nine times, as well as leading sire in Great Britain, Ireland, and France, and leading broodmare sire in North America.

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 euthanize him.

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 more than a half-century ago.

Buddies His Majesty and Good Counsel as yearlings - Photo by Steve Haskin

His Majesty had a regal look even as a yearling - Photo by Steve Haskin

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