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Assault: The Underdog Triple Crown Winner

Three years before Assault became America’s 7th Triple Crown winner, he was an ugly duckling of a horse at King Ranch in Texas.

Assault with Eddie Arcaro up. Photo from the Keeneland Library - Morgan Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Although he wasn’t the best looking, Assault was bred royally by Bob Kleberg. He was sired by 1936 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Bold Venture and out of the mare Igual (whose second dam Masda was a full sister to Man o’ War). He stood at 15.1hh and had a beautiful chestnut coat. He is described as being curious, alert, and gamely.

While growing up, Assault stepped on a surveyor's stake, leaving him with a bad injury. It was unclear if he would ever recover and he was nearly euthanized. However, with the help of the kineños at King Ranch and a special horseshoe made by blacksmith Juan Silvia that helped to hold his hoof together, the colt survived. Although left with a deformed hoof and an awkward limp when he walked, Assault seemed to be a normal horse when he was galloping. So, he was kept on the path to becoming a racehorse.

Assault was trained by Max Hirsch who at first doubted that the horse would be successful. Assault made his two-year old debut in 1945, finishing twelfth. He started three more times before he broke his maiden. When he entered starting gate of the Flash Stakes, he was at odds of 70-1. Shocking the spectators, a four way photo finish showed Assault’s nose had crossed the wire first. He also managed to finish third in the Babylon Handicap that year.

Assault finished his two-year old season with just two wins in nine starts. Not much was expected of the “clubfooted” Texas-bred the following year.

To start off his three-year old season, Assault won the Experimental Handicap. Not long after, he managed to win the Wood Memorial, putting himself in contingency for the 1946 Kentucky Derby. However, a disappointing fourth place finish in the Derby Trial casted doubts on his chances at winning the Kentucky Derby.

Going off at the fourth-betting choice in the Kentucky Derby was a feat in itself. A horse who at one point was facing euthanization was now in the starting gates of one of the most prestigious races in the world. Out of the gates, Spy Song led the pack while Assault sat nearby in fifth. Around the far turn, Assault flew past his competitors and never looked back. He put the others eight lengths behind before he crossed the wire. Although the time was relatively slow, Assault had won the Kentucky Derby by the largest margin at that time.

Assault was the favorite in the Preakness Stakes which was run just a week after the Kentucky Derby. In the early stages of the race, Assault was bothered by traffic. In order to get him away from something that could potentially cause him to lose, jockey Warren Mehrtens aimed Assault to the outside and pressed him until he overtook the leader. He opened up a four length lead and began cruising towards the wire. Lord Boswell began to eat up Assault’s lead in the stretch, but Assault was able to hold on to win by a neck.

With two of the three Triple Crown races under his belt, Assault was on his way to becoming a Triple Crown winner. Lord Boswell was favored as he was believed to be able to handle the distance of the Belmont Stakes better than Assault.

At the start of the Belmont Stakes, Assault stumbled. The stumble caused him to sit eight lengths off of the leaders in fourth. In the stretch, Assault glided past the others on the outside to win by three lengths. By winning the Belmont Stakes, Assault became America’s seventh Triple Crown winner.

Two weeks after accomplishing one of the most celebrated feats in horse racing, Assault won the Dwyer Stakes. However, a last place finish in the Arlington Classic due to a kidney infection caused the doubters to return. He failed to win in his next five starts.  

Assault was entered in the Pimlico Special. This time, Eddie Arcaro would be in the irons. With a new pilot, Assault won over the coveted Stymie. He then won the Westchester Handicap.

Assault ended his three-year old career a Triple Crown winner, 1946 Horse of the Year, Champion Three-Year Old, leading money earner, and a winner of eight of fifteen starts.

Over the winter, Assault grew into a much better looking racehorse and was eager to run. He started his 1947 campaign with a win in the Grey Lag Handicap. He was also able to win the Brooklyn Handicap, Butler Handicap, Suburban Handicap, and the Dixie Handicap, beating Stymie in two of them.

Later that year, a charity match race that was planned between Armed and Assault stirred excitement in racing fans throughout the country. Unfortunately, Assault stepped on a nail and the race was postponed for four weeks. Just a week before the newly scheduled date, Assault returned from a workout lame. To keep their word, Assault’s connections still ran him in the match race. Assault lost by eight lengths.

The injuries took a great toll of Assault and so he was retired to stud. He was considered to be"sterile" because he failed to successfully breed any Thoroughbred mares, so he was returned to racing. He failed to perform like he did before the match race. In 1949 he won the Brooklyn Handicap for the second time. It would be his last big victory.

He was retired for the second and final time in 1950 with a record of 42:18-6-7. He had earned over $675,000.

Assault spent his retirement at King Ranch where he was a popular tourist attraction and often had letters addressed to him. Although he failed to produce any Thoroughbreds, he managed to breed a few of the Quarter Horse mares that he had been pastured with at King Ranch.

On September 1, 1971, Assault broke a foreleg bone near his left shoulder. It was the final injury Assault would suffer; he was humanely euthanized and buried at his home of King Ranch.

Although there are no Thoroughbreds on the racetrack with Assault in their bloodlines, it is important to remember his accomplishments. Assault was a true underdog of horse racing. His career with plagued with injury and illness, but he overcame all adversity to become one the greatest racehorses of the 20th century. For that, Assault should be honored.


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