True Knight: Racing's Little Giant

There are times when a horse deserves to have his accomplishments recognized even if no one has heard of him or even cares to read about him. So, although most people will pass right over this, I still feel compelled to write about True Knight and at least have his name in the archives.

True Knight was far from the swiftest horse, coming from the clouds in every race, and most definitely far from the most physically imposing. At a mere 950 pounds, he was always dwarfed by his opponents.

Yet in his career, racing for Darby Dan Farm, he competed against top-class opponents such as Forego, Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Key to the Mint, Tentam, Prove Out, Halo, and King's Bishop. And he either defeated or finished second to all of them, with the exception of Secretariat, who he finished 2 1/2 lengths behind in the Whitney (G2) (Secretariat was second, True Knight fourth). And True Knight accomplished this despite coming from 15 to 25 lengths off the pace every race, looking more like a yearling, with his diminutive frame and little strides, chasing a pack of older horses.

He won the Suburban Handicap (G1) carrying 127 pounds defeating Forego, coming from 23 lengths back. He won the Amory Haskell Handicap (G1) coming from 22 lengths back. He came from dead last to defeat Prove Out in the Trenton Handicap (G3) carrying top weight of 125 pounds. He won the Seminole Handicap (G2) coming from 23 lengths back, the John B. Campbell (G2) coming from 17 lengths back, the Chesapeake Stakes coming from 15 lengths back (defeating Prove Out again), the Jerome Handicap coming from 18 lengths back defeating Tentam, the Queens County Handicap (G3) giving 16 pounds to the Allen Jerkens-trained Triangular, and the Roamer Handicap coming from 10th while carrying top weight of 123 pounds.

Everyone remembers Riva Ridge setting a world record in the Brooklyn Handicap (G1), but no one remembers that he just barely held off the fast-closing True Knight, who was 11 lengths back at the quarter pole and just missed by a head, despite Angel Cordero losing his whip at the head of the stretch when he raised his arm and the whip slipped right out of his hand.

When Forego stormed on the scene in Florida in 1974, winning the Widener Handicap (G1), Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2), and Donn Handicap (G3), it was little True Knight, a full two hands shorter and close to 400 pounds lighter than the towering and massive Forego, who finished second in all three races, coming from 27 lengths back to be beaten one length, 20 lengths back to be beaten a half-length, and 18 lengths back to be beaten a nose, respectively. As mentioned earlier, True Knight finally got his revenge on Forego in the Suburban Handicap when he came home his final quarter in :23 flat to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths.

Joe Hirsch wrote in the Daily Racing Form, "They say that the good big horse will usually beat the good little horse, but True Knight didn't become the most successful Thoroughbred John Galbreath ever bred by being an easy victim."

To demonstrate the size difference between True Knight and Forego, just look at the photos below from the Gulfstream Park Handicap, and the difference between True Knight and the average-sized Prove Out in the Trenton Handicap. Hirsch wrote in the Daily Racing Form, "Forego gives the appearance of being twice the size of the hard-hitting little True Knight."

You don't need an ID to know who is on the inside and who is on the outside (photos by Jim Raftery Turfotos)

All you have to do is look at Angel Cordero's cap in relation to Heliodoro Gustines' butt.

Prove Out was an average sized horse, but looked like a giant next to True Knight

True Knight also rallied from 17 lengths back to finish second in the Suburban Handicap to Key to the Mint, who opened a six-length lead at the eighth pole and won by 1 3/4 lengths. In his other runner-up performances he rallied from 14 lengths back in the Wood Memorial, 14 lengths back in the Jim Dandy, and 16 lengths back in the Ohio Derby.

He came from 21 lengths back to finish third to Key to the Mint in the Travers Stakes, beaten 1 1/2 lengths. He came from 20 lengths back to finish third to Tentam in the Governor Stakes, and also finished fourth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, and Massachusetts Handicap.

What makes True Knight's story so remarkable is that after finishing 10th in his second, third, and fourth career starts, beaten a total of 39 lengths, all at six furlongs, a frustrated trainer Lou Rondinello did the unthinkable for a Darby Dan horse; he dropped him in a $20,000 maiden claiming race, again at six furlongs, in which he went off at odds of 35-1. The handicapper's comments in the Morning Telegraph read simply, "Does not figure."

Before the race, Rondinello overheard two men talking, saying what a bum this horse must be to be running for a claiming tag after four horrendous performances. After all, he was a Darby Dan homebred by their Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay. An irate Rondinello snapped back, "Wait until you see what kind of bum he is."

True Knight rallied from eighth in the 13-horse field, was still three lengths back at the eighth pole, and blew by the leader to win by three lengths. "Yeah, that was some bum," Rondinello said before heading to the winner's circle.

After a series of allowance races, the little colt kept improving.  Darby Dan wintered at Santa Anita and True Knight hated that hard track, losing all four of his starts. His only finish in the money was a second when heavy rains turned the track heavy. But when he returned to New York he won a seven-furlong allowance race in a sharp 1:22 before rallying from 13th, 14 lengths back at the quarter pole, to finish fourth in the Gotham Stakes, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, and then was second in the Wood Memorial. That was the beginning of the new True Knight.

The former $20,000 claimer went on to finish on the board in 26 stakes, despite always having to come from far back in every one of his starts, while competing against five champions and three future Hall of Famers.

Angel Cordero called True Knight, who competed in 23 consecutive stakes races, "The soundest horse I have ever ridden."

He never raced with blinkers or bandages. Rondinello added. "He was remarkable. "We aimed him for the toughest races in the country and he always gave a good account of himself. He never required any special handling and toted any weight assignment. No matter what the task, he could always be counted upon to do his best. He's such a game little horse. That's why I'm so fond of him."

Despite coming from so far back and thrilling fans with his powerful stretch runs, and often carrying top weights, True Knight managed to finish on the board at Belmont, Aqueduct, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Monmouth Park, Garden State Park, Hialeah, Gulfstream Park, Bowie, Thistledown, Suffolk Downs, and Liberty Bell.

Bill Nack writing for the Thoroughbred Record, described the scene at Aqueduct for the Suburban Handicap when True Knight finally defeated Forego:

"There he was again, cantering along as if hopelessly beaten. There he was moving along, with his quick short stride, his head stuck out, his forelegs chopping at the ground, his ears angled back in an attitude of concentration on the arduous business of simply keeping up. And there was jockey Angel Cordero, sitting tucked up on him, and wondering how he could make up all that ground and thinking he had no chance to pull it off.

"Across the racetrack there were the thousands in the crowd of 34,832 draped over the fences up and down the homestretch waiting for the move, the big move, that had become his emblem. And there was True Knight, the diminutive, but gritty little bay colt running perfectly to form. By now, it had all become so familiar."

As for his come from the clouds running style, Cordero said, "True Knight has a mind of his own, and the trick is to leave him alone when he falls out of it early. We just get along good. I just let him do what he thinks is best.

"In the Suburban I didn't think we had any shot at any part of the race early. He was in a slow gallop. He has the shortest stride of any horse I ever rode. But he has got a harder punch, too."

One of the reasons True Knight's feats have gone unnoticed was, in 1974 when he was winning the Suburban, Haskell, Trenton Handicap, and John B. Campbell and finishing a close second three times to Forego, he was overshadowed in his own barn by Darby Dan's runaway Preakness (G1) and Belmont (G1) stakes winner Little Current. Even Rondinello commented, "Everybody's been calling and asking about Little Current and I'm afraid True Knight has become the forgotten horse in the barn. Ever since Little Current won the Preakness and Belmont, he's been getting all the attention and everybody walks right past True Knight's stall. I'm sure he feels neglected."

In some of the descriptions of True Knight's victories, Tom Atwell wrote in the Daily Racing Form he "virtually exploded outside horses" to win the Amory Haskell; Bill Phillips wrote in DRF he "devastated his opponents" in the Chesapeake Handicap. Bill Nack wrote he, "closed furiously," to win the Suburban. After the Suburban, Heliodoro Gustines on Forego said, "The horse who won it is a hell of a horse. You can't take anything away from that little horse. He's tough."

The only things True Knight didn't like were hard tracks and hot weather, so Rondinelllo tried to avoid both, but sometimes it couldn't be avoided. When he got his track and a bit cooler weather he was something to behold, trailing his field from so far back he seemingly had no shot to even finish in the money. But when he was ready to go, he always thrilled the crowd with his spectacular stretch runs. And he did manage to break a track record at Bowie, and came within a head and a dropped whip of setting a world record.

True Knight also had the distinction of defeating four Met Mile winners, a Preakness winner, two Travers winners, three Woodward winners, two United Nations winners, two Monmouth Invitational winners, two Gulfstream Park Handicap winners, and the winners of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Flamingo, Jersey Derby. Ohio Derby, Haskell Handicap, and Charles H. Strub Stakes, as well as two horses who defeated Secretariat.

So that is the story of True Knight, a star who somehow has gotten lost in the history books, but was very much a part of racing's golden era. Sure, we remember champions like Forego, Secretariat, Riva Ridge, and Key to the Mint, but no chronicle of those memorable years of the early 1970s would be complete without recognizing the gritty little True Knight and the sight of him making those explosive moves that became his trademark. So, this column is for one of my favorite horses and all the thrills he provided race after race. Yes, he was little, but he was every inch a giant.

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