Equipoise: The Chocolate Soldier
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Looking at Equipoise was like looking at a reflection of the American people. He was small, unimpressive at first, and prone to injury. His struggling look was an image well-known to the American people, who were suffering through The Great Depression at the time that Equipoise hit the racetrack. But like those who had to struggle to survive, Equipoise had a heart larger than average. It was likely what brought him to the wire first time and time again.
Equipoise was a creation of Harry Payne Whitney. H.P. Whitney had inherited both $24 million and a Thoroughbred stable when his father, William C. Whitney, died in 1904. He established a breeding farm in 1915 and began to make waves in the horse racing industry. In 1927, he paired his mare Swinging (a daughter of his great sire Broomstick) with the speedy Pennant. Equipoise was born in May of 1928. Like his sire, Equipoise was not a particularly handsome individual. He also inherited his sire’s predisposition to injury. His feet were his weakest point, being described as “thin-soled” and “thin-walled”. H.P. Whitney was unimpressed with Equipoise when he was a yearling, and therefore the colt was sent to his second stable string with trainer Fred Hopkins. Despite all of this, Equipoise was well-balanced and had a good temperament. Under the guidance of Fred Hopkins, Equipoise raced sixteen times in 1930. He broke his maiden by four lengths in his first asking. He won again just one week later. Because of his two victories, Equipoise was stepped up into stakes company for the Aberdeen Stakes. He finished third. He was then partnered up with jockey Raymond Sonny Workman for the Pimlico Nursery. However, the team did not even get the chance to run the race - Equipoise stumbled at the start, throwing Sonny off his back.
Their next start was also an eventful one. The team of Equipoise and Sonny won the Youthful Stakes by four lengths, but were disqualified for impeding another horse. Equipoise was known to bully horses to get to the lead and Sonny had to figure out how to control his assertive mount. The work put into Equipoise finally paid off when he won the Keene Memorial on a sloppy track. By the end of the year, he had victories in the Pimlico Futurity, Eastern Shore Handicap, Great American Stakes, Juvenile Stakes, and National Stallion Stakes. He had also finished second in Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Champagne Stakes, Junior Champion Stakes, Futurity Stakes, and Saratoga Special.
The Pimlico Futurity was perhaps one of the greatest races of Equipoise’s career. He broke sideways and was hustled back, effectively leaving him and Sonny at the start. A brilliant burst of speed ran Equipoise right out of two of his shoes and left him with a quarter crack. However, he was able to catch Twenty Grand and Mate by a half-length. The race certainly had to be a sign of Equipoise’s large heart - he won the race on a muddy racetrack with a slow start and without the grip of his front shoes.
H.P. Whitney died in October of 1930 and Equipoise was inherited by his son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Though there were no formal Eclipse Awards, Equipoise was named Co-Two-Year Old Champion, granting C.V. Whitney his first Champion.
Equipoise’s soundness issues got the best of him during his three-year old season in 1931. He was able to win his seasonal debut, but pulled up lame in the Chesapeake Stakes. He then ran fourth in the Preakness Stakes, again pulling up lame. So, he was scratched from the Kentucky Derby (which was run after the Preakness) and was out for the rest of the year.
Equipoise returned the following year with a vengeance. His adoring fans called him the “Chocolate Soldier” because of his liver chestnut coat. Others simply called him “Ekky”. It was easy to fall in love with a horse as talented as he. He won an overnight handicap at Bowie, then the Harford Handicap, the Toboggan Handicap, and then the Metropolitan Handicap. The Delaval Handicap at Arlington proved to be one of Equipoise’s best victories yet. He won the race by by three-lengths, beating the highly regarded Jamestown, even while carrying 10 pounds more than him. Most importantly, he set a world record of 1:34 ⅖ for a mile.
He also won the Stars and Stripes Handicap, Arlington Gold Cup, and the Whitney Stakes. He finished second in the Arlington Handicap and Washington Handicap and placed third in Laurel Stakes. He had won 10 of his 14 starts. He was named Champion Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year. 1933 began with a new trainer for Equipoise. Now under the guidance of Thomas J. Healey, Equipoise won seven races including the Hawthorne Gold Cup, Arlington Handicap, Philadelphia Handicap, Suburban Handicap, Wilson Stakes, Saratoga Cup, and the Metropolitan Handicap. However, his chronic hoof problems got the best of him and he was eased to third in the Brooklyn Handicap. He then finished second in the Havre De Grace Handicap to end his five-year old season. He was again named Horse of the Year and Champion Handicap Horse.
Because of his hoof problems and tendon injuries, Equipoise raced just six times as a six-year old. However, he was able to win the Philadelphia Handicap, Dixie Handicap, and the Whitney Gold Trophy Handicap. He finished second in the Suburban Handicap and third in the Whitney Invitational Purse. His great year earned him the title of Champion Handicap Horse for the third time in a row. Equipoise returned to the racetrack as a seven year old. He was sent to California for the Santa Anita Handicap. He performed well in his two prep races, but finished seventh in the Santa Anita Handicap. It was later revealed that this was likely because of a recurring tendon injury. For this reason, Equipoise was retired to stud.
Equipoise was sent to Whitney’s stud farm in Kentucky. He had a record of 51:29-10-4 and had earned more than $338k. He stood just four seasons at stud, passing away in 1938. However, his short time as a stud was worthwhile. He was the sire of 1942 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Shut Out, giving Equipoise the title of American Champion Sire in 1942. He is also the broodmare sire of Triple Crown winner Assault.
Equipoise’s career reflected the life of the American people at that time. His career was plagued with hardships, but his big heart and fighting ways got him through. Similarly, the American people struggled for many years to survive The Great Depression, but eventually prevailed.
The reflection of ourselves in these horses is what makes the sport of horse racing so great.
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Sources: American Classic Pedigrees The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame The Vault Horse Racing