Within the ranks of American thoroughbred race horse trainers no man enjoys more solid respect than 74-year-old Max Hirsch, whose largest client for quite a few years has been Robert Kleberg, the owner of the great King Ranch in Texas. Around the barns they tell a story about this kindly gentleman which illustrates just what a shrewd judge of horseflesh—and what a skillful trainer—Bob Kleberg has working for him. Six months before the 1954 running of the Belmont Stakes, a period when many knowing observers were ready to concede the 3-year-old championship to Porterhouse or Turn-to, a turf-writing acquaintance dropped in on Hirsch at his winter training quarters in Columbia, S.C. During the course of the visit Max Hirsch learned that his guest expected to become a first-time father some time during the approaching summer. What, inquired Hirsch, might the baby be named?
"If it's a girl I think Margaret would be nice," replied the visitor. "If it's a boy we might name him for the Belmont winner. What do you think of the name Porterhouse?"
"No," answered Max Hirsch. "I've got a better one. The name is High Gun."
There are two sequels to the story. One is that Max Hirsch's winter caller later became the father of a daughter. The other is that High Gun (a brown colt by Heliopolis out of Rocket Gun), personally selected by Hirsch and purchased for the King Ranch from the 1952 Keeneland yearling sales for $10,200, not only won the Belmont Stakes of 1954 but also was crowned champion of the 3-year-olds. Along the way to the title High Gun passed three fall tests required of a 3-year-old aspiring to any sort of lasting prominence: he took on—and licked—older horses in the Sysonby, the Manhattan Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Last Saturday, after six starts this year (including victories in both the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Handicaps), High Gun came back to Belmont to try and become the second horse ever to win the Sysonby twice. But conditions had changed a lot in a year. The stake had been lengthened a furlong from its original distance of a mile—and enriched to the $100,000-added category as part of a smart Belmont Park lure to attract the best 3-year-olds and older horses in training. The lure worked perfectly, for when the entry box closed it contained the names of three of the top 4-year-olds to be found: High Gun, Helioscope and Jet Action. The 6-year-old Mr. Turf was there, too, although nobody seems to know quite why. And over from Aqueduct to challenge the bunch of them came the 3-year-old champion—Nashua, pride of the Belair Stud and hero of the match race victory over Swaps. Under weight-for-age conditions, Nashua was in with 121 pounds, the rest with 126.
"BROTHER, WATCH OUT!"
It was wet and humid at Belmont last Saturday. The track was officially listed as sloppy. In the paddock most of the attention was focused directly on Nashua. A wag behind the fence yelled at Arcaro, "He's a hell of a 3-year-old, Eddie, but, brother, watch out today!" A trainer watching the horses leave for the post parade looked hard at the sight before him—Arcaro on Nashua, Eric Guerin on Helioscope, Willie Boland on High Gun, Hedley Woodhouse (subbing for a grounded Willie Shoemaker) on Jet Action and Ted Atkinson on Mr. Turf—and exclaimed, "This has got to be a jock's race. How could anyone tell riders like these what to do!"
But Max Hirsch had told Willie Boland what to do: "I figure there will be plenty of early speed from the other four," said the trainer. "Don't go with them. Lay back until you have to go. Then go."
Max Hirsch had his opposition figured right. From the break all but High Gun lit off with rocket speed, and down the backstretch the quartet resembled a four-horse chariot team. There was no chariot behind them—just High Gun and Willie Boland, eight lengths away. With timing so perfect that it later drew homage from his rival jockeys, Willie, starting around the final turn, put away one leader after another and climaxed one of the year's most memorable races by nailing Jet Action, as the riders put it, "a few jumps from the money." Nashua, for the first time in 19 starts worse than second, was third.
"Harley just insists those are the stalagmites up there."