Horse for the Course: An Amazing Discovery

The year was 1933, and Discovery—a golden chestnut bred by Walter Salmon, Sr. of Mereworth Farm near Lexington, KY—wasn’t necessarily a horse to write home about. A son of Display out of the Light Brigade mare Ariadne, Discovery was described as a graceless juvenile, winning only twice in 14 starts as a 2-year-old. But near the end of his first campaign, Discovery began to show promise, finishing second in the Breeders’ Futurity. That performance prompted Alfred Vanderbilt to purchase him for $25,000 (more than $500,000 in today’s dollars) upon the advice of his trainer, J. H. “Bud” Stotler. Discovery, fortuitously, turned out to be quite the discovery for Vanderbilt.

During his 3-year-old season, Discovery was pointed toward the handicap ranks, a division in which he thrived. His ability to carry weight was his calling card: Throughout his career, Discovery was burdened with 135 pounds or more 11 times, including in his victory in the 1935 Merchants’ and Citizens’ Handicap at Saratoga, in which he carried 139 pounds. The weight assignments began to take a toll on Discovery during his 5-year-old season in 1936, but not before he won both the Brooklyn and Whitney handicaps for a third time, the Wilson (another Saratoga fixture) for the second time, and the Saratoga Handicap. 

“The good Lord makes one like him every 50 years or so,” Stotler said after sending Discovery out for his final race, “and sometimes not even then.” Discovery was retired with a career record of 27-10-10 from 63 starts and earnings of $195,287. He set world records in both the Brooklyn and Rhode Island handicaps and a track record in the Arlington Handicap. Twelve of his starts took place at Saratoga, of which he won eight.

It’s been more than 85 years since his last jaunt around the Spa oval, but Discovery still holds the unique distinction of being the only horse to win the prestigious Whitney Handicap in three consecutive years (1934–1936). Named Horse of the Year in 1935 and the champion handicapper in both 1935 and 1936, he went on to sire 26 stakes winners, including champion Conniver, while his daughters produced Hall of Famers Native Dancer, Bold Ruler and Bed o’ Roses. His incredible durability and success carrying significant weight earned him a spot among the game’s immortals in the Hall of Fame in 1969. A discovery indeed.

A handicap is a contest in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the track handicapper. A more accomplished horse will carry a heavier weight to give it a disadvantage when racing against slower horses in an attempt to level the playing field. 

Some top American handicaps:

  Santa Anita Handicap

  Apple Blossom Handicap

  Metropolitan Handicap

  Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap

  Cigar Mile Handicap

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