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Horse Racing's Unsightly Successes

Thoroughbred racehorse Exterminator, nicknamed "Old Bones"
Exterminator was considered gangly and boney, hence the nickname "Old Bones". 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.

This September, droves of horse racing industry folk will venture to Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. They will carefully look through their catalogs, marking horses with great pedigrees and hoping that they have a good conformation to match. If everything is to their liking, they will bid thousands of dollars on unproven yearlings, trusting that the young horse will live up to their looks and bloodlines.

However, everyone who knows animals knows that good conformation and a royal pedigree doesn’t mean that the animal will live up to expectations. This year, good looking yearlings will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and their buyers may not even make a return on their investment.

This is for a very simple reason - what makes a racehorse great is what lies deeper than conformation and pedigree. It is their mind, their heart, and their love for what they were bred to do. With these three things in tact, an unsightly racehorse can become a huge successes.

Here are the stories of some “unsightly” successes.


Those who love the tale of the underdog will surely love the story of Seabiscuit. He was small and over at the knee. His legs were too short, his neck was too thick, and his appetite was too big. Claiborne Farm didn’t want him and neither did the first three trainers whose barns he inhabited. However, Seabiscuit defied all of those who looked down upon him for his less than perfect conformation by becoming one of the greatest handicap horses of the time period. He even defeated Triple Crown champion War Admiral in a match race.

Count Fleet:

Not every Triple Crown winner was a perfectly built chestnut with a heart two-times the size of the average horse's. 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet was no eye-catcher. He was described as being “narrow, light-waisted, and flat-muscled with less than ideal action”. He was also extremely rambunctious. His owners tried to sell him multiple times, deciding to keep him only after being urged to do so by jockey Johnny Longden.

Phar Lap:

Phar Lap matured into a beautiful horse, but he was not so good looking when he stepped off the ship that took him from New Zealand to Australia. Trainer Harry Telford had persuaded a wealthy businessman by the name of David J. Davis to purchase the colt as a yearling based off of his pedigree. Davis agreed and Harry’s brother Hugh (who was at the auction at the time) purchased the horse for the two men. He then sent the horse to Harry and David.

When Harry and Davis laid eyes on the colt for the first time, they were livid. The colt was gangly, underweight, and had warts all over his face. He also had an awkward gait. Davis refused to pay Harry to train the horse, so Harry agreed to train him for free so long as he could have two-thirds of the horses earnings. The rest was history. Phar Lap became one of the greatest horses of all time.


Exterminator was nicknamed “Old Bones” for a very good reason. He was gawky, skinny, and angular. His large size made him look even more awkward. In 1918, owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer was looking for a horse to workout with his Champion colt Sun Briar in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. He authorized trainer Henry McDaniel to purchase a horse for $700; McDaniel bought Exterminator for $9,000 and two fillies. Kilmer called the horse “a goat” and refused to enter him in the Kentucky Derby when Sun Briar scratched. However, after some urging from Churchill Downs President Colonel Matt Winn, Kilmer entered Exterminator into the Kentucky Derby. Exterminator won at odds of 30-1 and went on to be named Champion Older Male three times and Horse of the Year once.


Author - Kaeli Bartholomew: I run Champions of the Track as a way to spread the love of horse racing through writing, photography, and videography. The best way to increase the popularity and respect for this sport is by sharing stories and memories! Thank you for joining me on my mission to improve and grow the sport of horse racing.

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1 Comment

I think the name of the article should be "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

It's amazing what some people can see in a horse.

As a New Yorker, I can tell you Funny Cide fits the bill. Terrible conformation, but if not for a sloppy track, this very "unsound" looking horse would have won the TC. Thanks for another great trip down memory lane, with some of the "worst" horses ever.

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