Busher: The Little Filly Who Could
She was small, but she was oh so mighty. Her coat gleamed like a ray of chestnut sunshine, the blood of a triple crown winner coursed through her veins.
In just two years of racing and less than a decade of breeding, Busher was able to prove herself as one of racing’s great females. Hers is a story that deserves to be told.
Breeding and Early Life (1942-32)
In 1898, businessman Colonel E.R. Bradley purchased land in Lexington, Kentucky and began to build a horse racing empire. Idle Hour Stock Farm saw the rise of world-class breeding and training facilities. Bradley soon began decorating his lush fields and beautiful stables with top-notch racehorses.
With each decade, his breeding operation improved. Thirty-two after he purchased his farm, he introduced the French mare La Troienne to his broodmare band. She produced two foals for Bradley before he bred her to his 1926 Kentucky Derby winner Bubbling Over. The mating produced Baby League.
Baby League won just once before coming back to Idle Hour Stock Farm to join his dam in the broodmare band. With some guidance from bloodstock agent Olin Gentry, Bradley decided to send Baby League to 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. He had been reluctant to send any of his mares to the Fair Play/Man o’ War sire line because of their tempers, but Gentry insisted that breeding to War Admiral would be like breeding to the great Sweep.
[Video: Learn about Busher's sire War Admiral here]
Bradley had a strong liking for Sweep, so he agreed to send Baby League to War Admiral. On April 27, 1942, a chestnut filly by War Admiral was born at Idle Hour Stock Farm. A bright, shining star on the filly’s head foreshadowed the greatness that was to come.
The filly grew up on Bradley’s farm alongside her dam. Baby League took careful care of her daughter, raising her with the heart and toughness that she would need to succeed on the racetrack. When the time came, Bradley bestowed the name Busher upon the filly and sent her to training.
Two-Year Old Season (1944)
Under the care of former jockey Jimmy Smith, Busher began to blossom. She made her racing debut in May of 1944 at Belmont Park, winning by one length. Even though she had won, Smith felt that the small filly needed a few more months to mature. He took her out of the races and allowed her to grow. She returned with a fire inside her, winning again with talent and poise. Busher then made her stakes debut in the Spinaway Stakes as the betting favorite. However, her chances at victory were spoiled when she broke poorly from the gates. She was able to make a late run, but couldn’t finish better than fourth.
She made her next start in the Adirondack Handicap, this time with the legendary Eddie Arcaro in the irons. The filly again bobbled at the start, but Arcaro was able to correct her and hustle her up towards the pace. She flew down the stretch to win by two lengths.
Jimmy Smith put the filly in an allowance race for a tune up before her next stakes race, but she lost by a head to Nomadic while conceding her 11 pounds. Sick of losing, she was out to get revenge on those who had defeated her.
Busher put in a well-deserved victory in the Matron Stakes in her next out, fighting hard against Calumet Farm’s Twosy to prevail by a neck. In doing so, Busher beat Spinaway Stakes winner Price Level as well as the Nomadic who had beaten her in their previous start.
The young filly was then shipped to Maryland for the Selima Stakes at Laurel Park. She won by an easy three-lengths, defeating horses like Gallorette and Ace Card. She had made a name for herself as the best filly of the year and was named division champion.
However, the future of horse racing was uncertain in those days. Horse racing had been banned until the Allies won in Europe so that the country could concentrate on the war. With this, Bradley decided to sell some of his racing stock.
Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios took the opportunity to snatch up Busher for a cool $60,000. She had a new owner, a new trainer in George Odem, and new jockey Johnny Longden. Clearly, it was time for a new year!
Three-Year Old Season (1945)
Busher took to liking her new home of Santa Anita Park. Under the guidance of her new trainer, she grew even stronger and faster. The racing world, including Busher herself, were eager for the horses to load back into the starting gates.
Just after the celebrations of V-E Day, Santa Anita kicked off its new meet. Busher and her connections celebrated with a five length romp in an Allowance race. Just a week later, she dominated her contemporaries in the Santa Susana Stakes by seven lengths.
She had proven herself against the fillies time and time again, so the decision was made to run against the colts in the San Vicente Handicap. Busher was not intimidated -- she overcame an interference by a loose horse to win 1 ¼ lengths.
Busher ran in the Santa Anita Derby next, but finished second by a half-length after taking a wide trip around the turn. Though defeated, she was certainly not looked down upon. She was small, but she was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
The filly bounced back from the narrow loss with an easy victory over older mares in the Santa Margarita Handicap. She had defeated the horses out west time and time again, so she went back East to try to beat some fresh faces.
Busher was shipped to Chicago where she defeated Twosy, who had challenged her the previous year in the Matron Stakes, in the Cleopatra Handicap. Then she faced older males in the Arlington Handicap, posting a wire to wire 4 ½ length victory.
Her victory against older males meant that she would have to carry high weights against her rivals in the Beverly Handicap and, unfortunately, the weight was too much for Busher to handle. With 128 pounds on her back, she couldn’t finish better than third. As always, Busher would need revenge. A match race was set up between Busher and the filly who had beaten her in the Beverly Handicap, Duranza. Busher soundly defeated her foe.
It was then time for the filly to face the colts in the Washington Park Handicap. At the top of the talent list was Armed, eventual two time Horse of the Year. Even though she was giving him four pounds, Busher defeated Armed by 1 ½ lengths and set a new track record of 2:01 ⅘ for ten furlongs in the process.
It was time for the filly to return to the warmth of the West. She made her first start in the Will Rogers Handicap, finishing second by a head. She then easily dusted colts in the Hollywood Derby. She made her finally start of the year in the Vanity Handicap against older mares. Of course, Busher defeated them with ease. Busher ended 1945 with $334,035 in earnings, making her the leading money earner of all time. She was named Champion Three-Year Old Filly and Horse of the Year.
Five-Year Old Season (1947)
Busher missed her entire four-year old season due to an ankle injury. When she returned to racing as a five-year old, she failed to hit the board in her only start. It was time for the great mare to retire.
Elizabeth Arden Graham, the makeup tycoon known for her eccentric style of racehorse ownership, absolutely had to have Busher. She put up $150,000 to buy the great mare and took her home to Maine Chance Farm to join her broodmare band.
Retirement & Broodmare Career (1947-1955)
Busher was finally back where it all started: Lexington, Kentucky. She had proved herself as one of racing’s greatest fillies with her record of 21:15-3-1. She had defeated fillies her age, older mares, and colts. Her retirement was certainly well deserved.
She produced five foals for Mrs. Graham. Her only foal to race, Jet Action, followed in his mother’s hoofprints to win the Washington Park Handicap as well as five other stakes. Jet Action’s granddaughter My Charmer became the dam of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
Busher died at just thirteen years old due to complications from foaling. Though she has been gone for 64 years, Busher lives on in the pedigrees of some of racing’s great horses. Her contribution to the breeding of Seattle Slew has been carried even further through Slew’s son A.P. Indy. A.P. Indy is considered to be one of the greatest sires in modern times.
The world of horse racing will never forget Busher. Though she stood no taller than 15.2hh, she was a beast on the racetrack. She had heart, speed, and guts. She never shied from a battle and was always out for revenge. The qualities she possessed are sought after in every thoroughbred born today.
[Video: Watch Busher's descendant Seattle Slew become a Triple Crown winner]
About the Author: Through her blog Champions of the Track, Kaeli Bartholomew works to grow the popularity of horse racing through stories, photos, and videos. She aims for her content to reach new fans and kindle the love of horse racing in current fans.
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Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame