Each November, the Discovery Handicap is run at Aqueduct in New York in honor of one of the greatest handicap horses in the history of horse racing. It took Discovery until he was four to truly come into his own, but once he did, it was lights out for any other horse on the track.
Discovery was foaled in 1931 Walter J. Salmon’s Mereworth Farm in Lexington, KY. The colt was handsome, boasting a chestnut coat decorated with a blaze and two white hind feet. His sire, Display, was a Mereworth homebred that won the 1926 Preakness Stakes. Display was also known for the extreme temper tantrums he would throw at the start of a race - bucking, kicking, and scaring the other horses lined up at the start. The colt’s dam, Ariadne, was unplaced in four starts but carried the same bloodlines that later produced horses like Affirmed and Winning Colors.
Thankfully for his connections, Display x Ariadne colt did not inherit his sire’s temperament. He was actually known as a "gentleman” on the track.
When the colt was old enough, he was sold to Adolphe Pons for $25,000 and sent to trainer John R. Pryce. He made his debut for his new connections at Belmont Park on June 3rd, 1933, finishing fourth. He lost his next two races before breaking his maiden by five lengths on July 6th. Winning proved tough for Discovery during his two-year old season. He won only two of his fourteen starts, but showed some promise by finishing 2nd in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and finished third in the Hopeful Stakes, Breeders’ Futurity, and Richard Johnson Stakes.
The promise being shown by Discovery attracted the attention of Alfred G. Vanderbilt II. Alfred Vanderbilt dropped out of Yale as a sophomore to pursue Thoroughbred horse racing. His mother, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt, had given him Sagamore Farm in 1933 and Alfred was keen on building an empire. In his final start of his two-year old season and first start for Mr. Vanderbilt, Discovery finished second in the Walden Handicap by a neck (and sixth lengths ahead of his rival Cavalcade who had beaten him several times earlier in the season).
Discovery spent the winter in Maryland. His new owner sent him to trainer Joseph H. Stotler. His connections entered their horse into the 1934 Kentucky Derby and put him into the Chesapeake Stakes just one week before the Derby. He finished third in the stakes race, beaten by rival Cavalcade.
Cavalcade proved himself victorious again in the Kentucky Derby; Discovery finished a game second. One week later, Discovery faced a lot of traffic problems in the Preakness Stakes. He finished third while Cavalcade finished second to his stablemate High Quest.
Following his Preakness Stakes loss, Discovery smashed an allowance field by ten lengths. Afterwards he met with Cavalcade in the American Derby, unsurprisingly finishing second. Cavalcade was the one horse Discovery just could not beat. After losing to Cavalcade a few more times, Discovery’s connections decided to put him against older horses.
The change in foes proved itself successful. The three-year old Discovery smashed older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, Kenner Stakes, Whitney Stakes, Rhode Island Handicap, Potomac Handicap, and the Maryland Handicap. Discovery was shaping up to be a top-notch handicap horse who could win under increasingly heavy weights. He ended his three-year old season with a record of 16:8-3-3-. Six of his eight losses were to Cavalcade.
Discovery entered 1935 as a fully matured, 16.1hh horse. His conformation was nearly perfect and the chrome on his gleaming chestnut coat helped him stand out in a crowd. Due to his size and his owner’s involvement in railroads, Discovery was nicknamed “The Big Train”.
Although 1935 started with a fifth place finish in the Toboggan Handicap, a fourth in the Met Handicap, second in the Suburban Handicap, and an off the board finish in the Queens County Handicap. He followed those losses with a third in the Rock Hard Handicap.
Something must have clicked in Discovery after the Rock Hard Handicap. He started a winning streak that set multiple records, typically carrying over 130 pounds. He set the world record of 1:48 ⅕ for 9 furlongs in the Brooklyn Handicap, set a track record of 2:01 ⅕ for 10f at Arlington Park in the Arlington Handicap, and equaled Detroit’s track record for 9.5f in the Detroit Handicap. He also won the Hawthorne Handicap, Bunker Hill Handicap, Butler Handicap, Cincinnati Handicap, Stars and Stripes Handicap, Merchants and Citizens Handicap, Whitney Stakes, and Wilson Stakes.
Clearly, Discovery was one of the top horses of 1935. Even Omaha’s Triple Crown sweep could not earn him the Horse of the Year title over Discovery. It was for a good reason - Discovery was almost always carrying an absurd amount of weight compared to his competitors. In the Cincinnati Handicap, for example, Discovery carried 28 more pounds than the runner-up (who he was twelve lengths clear of). Discovery ended his four-year old season with a smashing record of 19:11-2-2 and over $100,000 in earnings.
Discovery’s five-year old season started with a victory in the San Carlos Handicap followed by two losses. He was given four months of rest before returning to the races, winning an overnight handicap and the Brooklyn Handicap. He was made to carry 143 pounds in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, finishing behind a filly named Esposa. She was only carrying 100 pounds. He got his revenge against her in the Whitney Stakes. He also won the Saratoga Handicap and Wilson Stakes.
The extreme weight Discovery was made to carry began to take a toll on him. He failed to defeat Rosemont in the Narragansett Special and narrowly lost to the three-year old Granville in the Saratoga Cup. The season still earned him the honors of Champion Handicap Horse and he was retired to Mr. Vanderbilt’s Maryland Farm. He had a career record of 63:27-10-10 and had earned almost $200,000.
At stud, Discovery excelled as a broodmare sire. His daughter Geisha produced Native Dancer. He also sired the dam of Bold Ruler, Miss Disco as well as the dam of Bed o’ Roses, Good Thing. His contribution to the breed can certainly be felt through his grandsons.
Discovery passed away in 1958 and was buried at Sagamore Farm. He will forever be remembered for his ability to win while carrying high weights, for his connection to horses such as Northern Dancer and Secretariat, and for his kind and charismatic personality. It is impossible to talk about the greats of handicap racing without mentioning the name “Discovery”.
Discovery, #7, finishes second in the Kentucky Derby.
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