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Exterminator: The Goat

In 2019, calling something “the goat” means to call it “the greatest of all time”. But when Willis Sharpe Kilmer called Exterminator “the goat” after purchasing him in 1918, it wasn’t a compliment at all.

Exterminator was born on May 30th, 1915 at Almahurst Farm near Lexington, Kentucky. He had a impressive pedigree, having been sired by McGee who produced the 1913 Kentucky Derby winner Donerail and being out of Fair Empress (by Jim Gore). When the colt was a yearling, he sold at the 1916 Saratoga Paddock Sale for $1,500 to J. Cal Milam.

Milam trained his own horses, so it was into Milam’s barn that Exterminator went. The colt grew to a huge size, towering at 16.3hh at just two-years old. He was, however, awkward looking with bony knees and mule-ears. So awkward was his appearance that it earned him nicknames like “Old Bones” and “Slim”. In addition to his odd looks, he also had a bad temperament. Despite all of this, Milam believed that his horse could kill off his competition, hence the name Exterminator.

Exterminator's headshot. Photo from the Keeneland Library - Cook Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Milam had Exterminator gelded before sending him to his two-year old debut at Latonia Race Track on June 30th, 1917. He won the six furlong maiden by three lengths and was sent to Ontario, Canada afterwards. He won once more in Canada before suffering a muscle sprain. Milam gave Exterminator the rest of the season off to recover and grow into his large size, which was now a reported 17hh.

Willis Sharpe Kilmer, owner of 1917’s Champion Two Year Old Sun Briar, was looking for a horse that could keep up with Sun Briar during his workouts. Sun Briar had been training poorly and that needed to be fixed before the 1918 Kentucky Derby rolled around. So, Kilmer told his trainer Henry McDaniel to find a horse to help his prized Sun Briar.

McDaniel purchased Exterminator from Milam for $9,000 and two fillies just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Exterminator worked with Sun Briar the next morning and it did indeed cause Sun Briar to run faster. Just two days before the derby, Sun Briar developed ringbone and had to be withdrawn. Kilmer was devastated and was against the suggestions to swap Sun Briar’s spot for Exterminator. However, urging from Churchill Downs president Colonel Matt Winn put Exterminator in the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

It poured and poured that day at Churchill Downs, leaving the track sloppy. Exterminator hadn’t raced since he was two-years old and never against competition as tough as he would be facing in a race as prestigious as the Kentucky Derby. He went off at odds of 30-1 with Willie Knapp in the irons. At the back of the pack sat Exterminator until they rounded the final turn. Shocking everyone in the grandstands, Exterminator charged down the track to win the Kentucky Derby by one length.

Exterminator raced 14 more times that year. He won seven of those starts including the Carrollton Handicap, Ellicott City Handicap, Pimlico Autumn Handicap, Latonia Cup, and the Thanksgiving Handicap. He also placed second in the Latonia Derby, Keener Stakes, and National Handicap and finished third in the Washington Handicap and Bowie Handicap.

Photo from the Keeneland Library Cook Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Despite his successful three-year old season, many people (including Kilmer himself) still didn’t think much of the work-horse turned Kentucky Derby winner. Exterminator continued to work hard to prove them wrong, equaling the track record in the 1 ¾ mile Saratoga Cup, setting a track record in the 2 ¼ mile Pimlico Cup Handicap, and equaling another track record at Havre De Grace in an allowance race. He also won the Ben Ali Handicap, Camden Handicap, and Galt House Handicap. He placed second in six handicap races and third in two.

At four in 1920, Exterminator was proving himself as a great long distance horse. He won the Long Beach Handicap, Brookdale Handicap, Windsor Jockey Club Handicap (equaling the track record for nine furlongs), Georgie Hendrie Memorial Handicap, Saratoga Cup, Autumn Gold Cup, Toronto Autumn Cup, Ontario Jockey Club, and Pimlico Cup. He also racked up some second and third place finishes. Not only was he running often, but he was running well. So well was he running that Samuel Riddle and Kilmer wanted a match race between Man o’ War and Exterminator, though the race never came to be.

At age five, Exterminator set two world records. He won the 1920 1 ¾ mile Saratoga Cup in 2:56 ⅘ and the two mile Autumn Gold Cup in 3:21 ⅘. He also won the Long Beach Handicap, Brookdale Handicap, Windsor Jockey Club Handicap, Georgie Hendrie Memorial Handicap, and the Toronto Autumn Cup. Like always, he was also racking up second and third place finishes in various handicap races in both America and Canada.

At six years old in 1921, he was already past the age of retirement for most horses today. He won eight of his sixteen races that year, setting a track record for nine furlongs at Jamaica in the Long Beach Handicap. The following year, he won ten of seventeen starts while carrying an average weight of 133 pounds. Exterminator was truly a wonder horse, keeping his fans screaming “here comes Exterminator!” as he charged down the stretch for years and years.

At eight and nine, Exterminator struggled to perform as well. He was still winning or placing from time to time, but nowhere near as often. So, he was retired in 1924. He had earned himself a record of 99: 50- 17-17 and had compiled earnings of $252,996. In retirement, he had a private barn at Kilmer’s Court Manor. Here he lived a relaxing life with a string of companion ponies named “Peanuts”. Each time one Peanuts would die, Exterminator would go into a deep state of grief until he was presented with another companion. In 1940, Kilmer passed away and Exterminator was moved to Binghamton, New York.

Exterminator became a favorite with the local school children who visited him often. He made his last public appearance in 1943 when he helped raised $10 million in war bonds at Belmont Park.

On September 26th, 1945, a heart-attack took the life of a thirty year old Exterminator. He was buried at Whispering Pines Pet Cemetery, reportedly next to many of his companion ponies. Sun Briar is buried there as well.

Over his long career, Exterminator proved himself as more than just “the goat”. He was a wildly successful handicap horse, winning at all distances and setting many track and world records. When one thinks of Exterminator, they must think of what it must have been like to be one of the greatest of all time.


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