During World War I, much of Europe’s bloodstock was being exported to the United States. It was an era that shaped not only our breeding world here in the U.S., but our racing world too. European horses were finding a lot of success during this era, one of them being Omar Khayyam.
Omar Khayyam was bred by Sir John Robinson and born in Britain. The colt was out of a mare named Lisma, a chestnut daughter of the highly successful racehorse and stallion Persimmon. Persimmon had won races like the Epsom Derby in 1896 as well as the St. Leger, Ascot Gold Cup, and Eclipse Stakes. Omar Khayyam was sired by Marco, who won a handful of stakes races and was a leading three year old in 1895.
With a pedigree that traced back to the first English Triple Crown winner West Australian and successful racers and sires like Hermit, St. Simon, and countless others, it was easy to see that Omar Khayyam was going to possess at least some level of talent.
While the “great war” raged on, many European breeders were looking to take their fine horses elsewhere. Omar Khayyam was entered into the 1915 Newmarket December Sale and was purchased by American trainer Charles T. Patterson for owners C.K.G Billings and Frederick Johnson for about $1,500. The colt was then imported to the United States.
“When I tried him, he frightened me — he was so fast,” Patterson said (Courier-Journal.com, Jennie Rees). “I tried him a second time to see if it was right. It was.”
The colt was indeed fast. Though Omar Khayyam wasn’t exceptionally successful during his two-year old season in 1916, he had still been able to obtain second place finishes in the Piping Rock Invitational Handicap and the prestigious Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
1917 was the year that Omar Khayyam was finally able to prove that he had talent to spare. After some slow and patient preparation by trainer Charles Patterson, it was decided that the three-year old colt would be entered into the Kentucky Derby. Omar Khayyam had finished fourth in the Derby Trial at Lexington the Tuesday before the Derby, having been beaten by a colt named Ticket, who would also be running in the Kentucky Derby. Ticket was made the betting favorite by the public -- Omar Khayyam’s fourth place finish in the Derby trial sent him off at odds of 13-1.
A record crowd packed into Churchill Downs on May 12th to watch this fine event, even with the war heavy on everyone’s minds; President Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany just one month before the running of the Kentucky Derby and by the following summer the U.S. would be sending 10,000 soldiers to France every day. Nevertheless, horse racing is one of those sports that just seems to keep continuing on, regardless of what is going on in the nation and in the world.
There is something about horse racing that can stir up this feeling of patriotism, especially when a big race like the Kentucky Derby brings people of all backgrounds together for the common cause of watching these powerful Thoroughbreds compete. Patriotism and pageantry was definitely alive and well during this glorious May day in 1917.
“‘Old Glory’ rippled and fluttered and the notes of the bugle stirred the immense throng to one single impulse of patriotism. The feeling that if fate should decree that on the next Derby days some of ‘ooir boys’ should be in France, nearer Longchamps than Churchill Downs, that Kentucky will be sure to ‘place a wager for them’ instead of ‘turning down an empty glass’, was everywhere expressed.” (Archive.org)
By 5 p.m. the bugle called the fifteen horses onto the track and they began their parade before the crowded clubhouse. Ticket, the favorite, was feeling antsy while the rest of the field walked along with a calm focus. Omar Khayyam had been outfitted with a pair of blinkers, a piece of equipment he didn’t sport during his loss in the Derby Trail. The hope was that these blinkers would help the overlooked longshot focus and succeed.
It took just four minutes for the horses to line up before the familiar call of “They’re Off!” caused cheers to erupt throughout Churchill Downs. The horses all got away well and began their trek around the iconic racetrack. It became immediately clear that Ticket was going to be the horse to beat as he had earned himself a good position. Omar Khayyam was running well too, but soon he was pushed up against the rail and thrown off stride. It seemed like all of his chances at winning may have been lost in that very moment.
But Omar’s jockey Charles Borel remained patient and calm. When the field straightened away for the stretch run, a hole opened up on the rail and Borel hustled his mount through it. Omar Khayyam put his heart into the stretch run, eating up the ground with every stride. Soon he was breathing down Ticket’s back and then his neck. With a few final, strong strides Omar Khayyam and Charles Borel blew past Ticket and opened up their advantage on the field. By the time they had crossed the wire, Omar Khayyam was two lengths in front of all the other horses. He had won and done so with ease.
Omar Khayyam paid his supporters $27.60 to win and provided his owners with a hefty $16,000 in purse money - not a bad deal for the $1,500 they had originally spent on him. The victory marked the first time that a foreign horse had won the Kentucky Derby.
“I never trained a horse in which I had more confidence in than Omar Khayyam,” Charles Patterson said. “And I handled Hamburg and Ornament.”
After the Kentucky Derby, Omar Khayyam was entered into a paddock sale at Belmont Park in order to dissolve the partnership between owners C.K.G Billings and Frederick Johnson. The talented colt commanded a sum of $26,000; Billings and Johnson definitely received a return on their investment. He had been purchased by Wilfred Viau and would be trained by Richard Carman.
Being that the Triple Crown was not recognized at this point in history, the Preakness Stakes was run on the same day as the Kentucky Derby. Omar Khayyam had not been nominated for the Belmont Stakes so he did not run there either and the race was instead won by another foreign colt named Hourless - soon a rivalry between the two colts would begin.
Omar Khayyam continued to do well in 1917. He won the Brooklyn Derby, Kenner Stakes, Saratoga Cup, Lawrence Realization, Havre de Grace Handicap, and the Travers Stakes. He even set a track record for a distance of ten furlongs in winning the Pimlico Autumn Handicap. In addition to his victories, Omar Khayyam finished second in the Bowie Handicap and second to his rival Hourless in the American Champion Stakes.
There was a very tough decision on who should be 1917’s Champion Three-Year Old. Many felt that Omar Khayyam deserved the honors as he had won the most races and had defeated Hourless in the two of their three meetings (Brooklyn Derby and Lawrence Realization), however Hourless had beaten Omar in the American Champion Stakes, which was called “the best race of the year”. Though Omar had lost the American Champion Stakes, it was only by a “scant length” and they had run the race in a blistering time.
“Omar Khayyam is probably the best horse over a distance of ground that we have seen in this country in my time,” the colt’s former trainer Patterson said. “After he had gone a mile he could travel faster than any horse I ever saw.”
Still the competition was stiff. It was said that Omar Khayyam and Hourless were better in the fall than the great Domino and Henry of Navarre ever were. Hourless’ trainer Sam Hildreth believed that Hourless would’ve beaten Omar Khayyam in the Brooklyn Derby had he been in his top form. Hourless’ owner August Belmont Jr. believed that Hourless was the best horse he had ever owned (Man o’ War hadn’t even been born at this point).
At the end of it all, it was decided that Omar Khayyam and Hourless would jointly receive Champion Three-Year Old Colt honors.
Omar Khayyam continued to race at ages 4 and 5, but heavy weight assignments got the best of him; he won just three races in a combined 14 starts throughout those two years. By November 1918 newspapers were putting out headlines like “Omar Khayyam A Big Turf Mystery”.
“What promises to go down in turf history as one of the greatest mysteries in racing is the metamorphosis in a year of Omar Khayyam from what was believed to be the greatest horse in the world to a plater,” the Collyer’s Eye published.
It was decided that Omar Khayyam had lost his touch and the correct thing to do would be to retire him. His great achievements as a three-year old had not been lost in the fog of his following seasons and he was still highly respected. The British horse entered stud at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky in 1920.
Omar Khayyam was successful at stud for Claiborne, but only spent nine years there before transferring to J.P. Jones’ stud near Charlottesville, Virginia. He remained there until passing away in 1938 at the age of 24 years old. During his stud career, Omar Khayyam had produced 133 winners and 21 stakes winners from 222 named foals and ranked 6th on the general sire list in 1926 and 7th in 1929.
Omar Khayyam will not only be remembered as being the first foreign bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, but also as one of the best three-year olds during that era. This colt who had been purchased for a mere $1,500 had won many of the biggest races in the country - his story may be more than a century old, but it is still one of those stories that provide hope and inspiration to all who dream of owning their very own racehorse.
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