The 1917 Brooklyn: A Race for the Ages

Regret | Horsephotos


Nearly 100 years ago, something astounding happened in horse racing. It was Monday, June 25, 1917 at the Old Aqueduct Racetrack and the race was the Brooklyn H. While the Brooklyn is a prestigious race today (Grade II, a $400,000 purse, now known as the “Brooklyn Invitational”, to be contested Saturday), it was once one of the biggest races of the year. And 1917 was going to be a magical rendition for the nine-furlong race, consisting arguably of one the greatest fields ever put together.

The field contained no less than three Kentucky Derby winners. There was the 1914 Kentucky Derby winner Old Rosebud running at age six–when he won the Derby he did in track record time. There was that year's 1917 Kentucky Derby winner Omar Khayyam (and the first foreign-bred to do so), who was named after a Persian Mathematician running at age three. And then there was the 1915 Kentucky Derby winner and retrospective Horse of the Year, the filly Regret, running at age five. 1914 retrospective Horse of the Year Roamer was also entered and was racing at age six.

According to the New York Sun, Boots went off as the 3-1 favorite, running at age six. The giant gelding Stromboli (by Fair Play), winner of such races as the Manhattan, the Suburban, the Jerome, the Saratoga Handicap, and the Metropolitan, was also in the race. Ormesdale, the winner of the 1917 Manhattan, and the stakes-winning filly Chicklet also met the starter.

Then there was one other entrant, who was quite the old geezer. From a flat horse racing perspective, we are talking about the positively geriatric age of nine. The gelding Borrow, born in 1908, was matched against this magnificent field. A son of the great sire Hamburg (who was also the dam's sire of Regret), Borrow was truly at the end of the line in more ways than one, perhaps one of the last great Byerley-Turks from the American lines of Glencoe and Lexington. He was owned by Harry Payne Whitney, who also owned Regret. Borrow was so old, he had won stakes seven years earlier as a 2-year-old in England, winning such races as the 1910 Middle Park Stakes (today a Group 1).

As for the race itself, the New York Sun noted that crowd-favorite Regret was roaring down the track. Roamer and Chicklet were in hot pursuit. But Regret was able to shake them off, only to have Old Rosebud and the nine year-old in chase down the stretch. Borrow barely won, but win he did. As described by the Sun, “only his long powerful neck was in front of his famous stable mate Regret.” Whether Regret's extra five pounds made the difference is anybody's guess. Old Rosebud came in third. Borrow's jockey (Hall of Famer Willie Knapp) actually wanted Regret to win and might have let her, but was fearful of Old Rosebud.

Knapp said, “I wouldn't have beaten her if I had been sure she would win. Old Rosebud was coming fast at the end and gaining rapidly, and rather than take any chances of defeat, I moved up and went past the mare.” Regret was an immensely popular horse, and many credit her of catapulting the Kentucky Derby into the famous race that it is today.

Borrow's win in the 1917 Brooklyn would not be Knapp's only upset as a jockey. He literally rode Upset in the 1918 Sanford at Saratoga, handing Man O'War his only defeat. He also piloted the then unestablished Exterminator in a 30-1 victory in the Kentucky Derby. Knapp was to be Exterminator's life-long jockey.

It would be an amazing story if a 9 year-old horse won a major flat race in what would be today's Grade I or Group 1 competition in a particularly weak rendition of the race. It would still be positively historic. But this was a miracle, not just historic.

Read the New York Sun in its first paragraph: “[Borrow] defeated ten of the best Thoroughbreds that ever looked through a bridle and established a new world's record.”

The time was 1:49 2/5 for nine furlongs. The first sentence of the Sun called it “one of the greatest races yet seen on the American turf.”

Omar Khayyam, who “finished far in the ruck” after he went off to a bad start was to go on and win that year's Travers and be named retrospective co-champion 3 Year-Old. Old Rosebud, who came in third, was to be named that year's retrospective Horse of the Year and would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Regret and Roamer were also inducted into the Hall of Fame. Roamer was to be named the retrospective 3-Year-Old champion for 1914, and Champion Older Male for 1915 and 1916.

Regret was not to lose another race in 1917: she was only off the board once in her entire career, in the previous year's Saratoga H. at age four. Regret ran 11 times, won nine races, and apart from the Saratoga H., that 1917 Brooklyn H. was the only other race she did not win. Regret's performance in the Brooklyn Handicap was so stellar, the Sun said “the old mare ran the greatest race of her famous career.”

In fact, when she hit the mile mark in 1:36 2/5, she had equaled the world record for one mile. Two world records were literally made during that 1917 Brooklyn H., not just one: the eight-furlong record of Regret (equaling the old one) and the nine-furlong record of Borrow (setting a new one). And how often do horses set world records at a given distance when the given distance is shorter than the race in which the record was set?

Up until that race (according to the Sun), Roamer had the world record for nine furlongs, which was set in 1915 at Laurel–Borrow knocked 2/5 of a second off that world record. The favorite, the black gelding Boots won five races in a row in 1917, and later that year he was to match the 1:49 2/5 time for nine furlongs set by Borrow in the Brooklyn.

Borrow was no slouch of a horse prior to the 1917 Brooklyn, and he was the leading money earner in 1915. When he won the 1914 Yonkers H. for a new track record in the 8 1/2-furlong race, the 1911 Kentucky Derby winner Meridian came in third. Does the reader know of any horse that has defeated four Kentucky Derby winners? Borrow would win another stakes race at the age of 10, winning the Arvene Stakes at Aqueduct, as well as posting a second in the Brookdale H.

Borrow's astonishing victory in one of America's premier races at the incredibly old age of nine, setting a world record for nine furlongs against such a stellar field of horses consisting of three Hall of Famers, three Kentucky Derby winners and a horse that himself was to set the nine-furlong record later that year, while Regret set the record for a mile when she crossed the one-mile mark. As such, the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap may well be one of the most remarkable horse races ever.

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