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Horse for the Course: Exterminator

The Hall of Famer won four consecutive Saratoga cups—starting at the age of 4.

This image of Exterminator is by noted photographer C. C. Cook from the collection of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Cook was known to send Christmas cards to friends and associates of famous horses of the era. Several of his "Christmas Cookies" were on display at the National Museum of Racing throughout December.

From its inaugural running in 1865 through its final edition in 1955, the Saratoga Cup was one of the most prestigious Thoroughbred races in America. During its celebrated history, the Spa fixture was won by 16 horses who went on to be immortalized in the Hall of Fame, including Triple Crown champions Gallant Fox and War Admiral. But when it comes to standouts in the Saratoga Cup specifically, the magnificent Exterminator stands alone. 

A chestnut gelding bred in Kentucky, Exterminator was one of the most accomplished and popular racehorses of his or any era, achieving star status when he won the 1918 Kentucky Derby at odds of 30-1. He had a slow start at Saratoga—he was winless in three starts as a 3-year-old, as well as in three starts as a 4-year-old, before finally breaking through with a sensational performance in the 1919 Saratoga Cup, equaling the stakes record of 2:58 for 1¾ miles in defeating the standout Purchase, who won eight stakes races that year. And that was only the beginning.

Exterminator went on to win the Saratoga Cup in 1920, setting a course record in a 10-length romp over the filly Cleopatra, and was the lone horse entered in the 1921 Cup, making for an easy third victory in the race. His fourth and final run in the Saratoga Cup, however, was a significant challenge for the veteran campaigner. As a 7-year-old, Exterminator was second choice at odds of 7-5 in the betting for the 1922 Cup behind 3-5 favorite Mad Hatter, the champion 3-year-old of 1921. Mad Hatter gave “Old Bones” Exterminator everything he could handle in a furious stretch duel before the elder statesman dug deep and prevailed by half a length, achieving what The New York Times called “a feat unique in American turf annals”—four consecutive Saratoga Cup titles.

Exterminator retired following his 1924 season with 50 wins in 100 starts, and in 1957 was inducted into the Hall of Fame, right across the street from where he made horse racing history.

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