When being the world’s leading money-earner really meant something

Assault beating Stymie in the 1947 Butler Handicap at Old Jamaica as they both break the previously unchallenged $600,000 mark in career earnings. Yet that was barely the start of the story in a dramatic few months for the world all-time money list

In his seminal tome ‘The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America’, William H.P. Robertson began a significant post-war chapter with the following observation: “During 1947, for the only time in history, four different horses were listed as the world’s leading money-winner at one time or another.”

Today such a statement would be greeted with a yawn. Not only has the list of leading money-winners gone global, putting exchange rates in play, new names bound onto the list with alarming ease, aided and abetted by seven-figure paydays. The totals have soared to the point they are almost meaningless, at least in an historical sense, as if asking that we should be concerned about the relative wealth of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and the Sultan of Brunei. Or the Kardashian sisters.

For the record, and for those who might have missed Chris Smith’s piece in these pages on Boxing Day (shame), Winx raced long enough last year to top the nouveau riches of Arrogate and still get in foal – what a gal – while Thunder Snow, Gentildonna and Orfevre linger in the top ranks. Whether reported in marks, yen, bucks, or pounds, the numbers make the nose bleed.

That is why the hurly-burly money race of 1947 in the U.S. remains such an entertaining saga, especially because of the three stalwarts who took the race deep into the year. In the sporting media of the day, the names of Assault, Armed, and Stymie could be counted on for almost weekly headlines.

As 1946 ended, the name on top was still Calumet Farm’s Whirlaway, the Triple Crown winner of 1941, who retired in 1943 after winning 32 of 60 starts and $561,161. The amount sounds like couch change to the modern ear, but if adjusted for U.S. inflation, Whirlaway’s bankroll would be worth $7.4 million today.

Armed succeeded Whirlaway as the big horse in the Calumet empire. He began 1947 with earnings of $385,175, well back of Stymie’s $516,285 for Hirsch and Ethel Jacobs, while King Ranch’s Assault, winner of the 1946 Triple Crown, clocked in at $411,445. All three were poised to take down Whirlaway’s mark, but they would need to run hard and often. Despite the post-war boom that had begun to give stakes purses a rosier glow, the 1947 calendar advertised only four races for the older horse division worth $100,000.

On June 21, Assault was the first to pass Whirlaway with his victory over Stymie in the Brooklyn Handicap. Stymie promptly leapfrogged Assault by winning the Sussex Handicap at Delaware Park on July 5. On July 12, Assault came right back to edge Stymie in a slam-bang running of the Butler Handicap at Old Jamaica, both horses topping the $600,000 plateau in the process. But Assault’s No. 1 rank lasted only seven days. On July 19, Stymie defeated a stellar field, including Assault, in the International Gold Cup at Belmont Park to bank a giddy $73,000, after which he padded his leading total into the fall.

In the meantime, the gelding Armed was not eligible to the International Gold Cup. Those were the days. As a consolation, he busied himself by winning the Arlington Handicap the same afternoon in Chicago. At that point, talk of a match race against Assault began to bubble, pushed hard by Robert Kleberg, of King Ranch. Dates were on again, off again, until September 27 at Belmont Park, where an event to be known as The Special would offer a winner-take-all purse of $100,000.

Disappointment at Belmont

Imagine the disappointment of the New York fans showing up that Saturday afternoon. Because of reports that Assault had been intermittently lame from an irritated splint bone, The Special was rendered a non-betting contest. After Armed won by eight lengths, Kleberg conceded that allowing his horse to run was a bad idea, and racing writer Joe H. Palmer went back to the barn after the race to see for himself.

“It can thus be stated with sureness that Assault had a big splint, about an inch and a half long, some two inches under the left knee on the inside of the cannon,” Palmer reported in his review of American Race Horses of 1947. “It had been there for most of the colt’s life, but it apparently had grown back far enough to involve a tendon. The writer pressed directly on the splint and Assault paid no attention. He pressed between the cannon and the tendon, and Assault took his foot away in a hurry. There was pain.”

Even the popular Stymie failed to save the day. Shut out of any consideration as part of The Special, he ran in the Manhattan Handicap on the same program and was beaten by Rico Monte

Finding no glory in the match race victory, Warren Wright of Calumet donated Armed’s $100,000 winning purse to the Red Cross. Still, the heady sum counted as earnings, and Armed was breathing down Stymie’s neck. Assault was through for the year, but fortunately there was left one final, dramatic flurry of action.

Stymie, oddly off form, ran a miserable fourth in Belmont’s New York Handicap on October 4, after which Armed erased the sour taste of The Special by winning the Sysonby Mile at Belmont on October 9 to claim the top spot. Then Stymie roared back at Jamaica to win the Gallant Fox Handicap on October 11. 

The media’s fascination with the amount of money earned by the four-legged athletes of the era was well founded. In 1947, Jimmy Demaret led the PGA tour money list with just shy of $28,000. Pitcher Hal Newhouser of the Detroit Tigers was the highest paid major league ballplayer at $70,000. The only pro athlete making racehorse kind of money was heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

As 1947 ended, the tally was Stymie with $816,080, Armed at $761,500, and Assault, $623,370. Stymie had closed out the season for the big three on November 1 with a sixth-place finish in the Scarsdale Handicap at Jamaica, his 19th race of the year. He lost all chance when he reared at the start, which is horse for, “Enough already.” 

One week later, down Baltimore way, Calumet 2-year-old Citation wrapped up an 8-for-9 season in the Pimlico Futurity. Twenty-four victories and one Triple Crown later, Citation became the first Thoroughbred to pass the million-dollar mark in earnings. There was no going back.

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