Pulitzer winner Walt Bogdanich and co-authors were the most recent to write dramatically about “mangled horses,” drugs, breakdowns, and injured jockeys in America (New York Times), but before them Nobel winner Ernest Hemingway, a one-time journalist, did so as well, in France in 1922. Yes, apparently in France these things happen as well!
As an American living in Europe at the time with a passionate interest in sports, Hemingway used the 1922 Prix du Président de la République at Saint-Cloud (now known as the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud) as a backdrop for his short story “My Old Man,” about a fictitious aging and out-of-shape American jock named Joe Butler in Europe. The story is told by a narrator who is Butler’s teenage son, and the portrayal of the race and horses is quite factual. It pitted the top-class French colt Ksar (or Kzar as Hemingway writes), the French Derby and Arc winner from the year before, versus Kircubbin, the Irish St Leger winner of 1921 who was on a win streak at the time.
Here’s Hemingway’s narrator on Kzar, with a reference to drugs, highlighted by me: This Kzar is a great big yellow horse that looks like just nothing but run. I never saw such a horse. He was being led around the paddocks with his head down and when he went by me I felt all hollow inside he was so beautiful. There never was such a wonderful, lean, running built horse. And he went around the paddock putting his feet just so and quiet and careful and moving easy like he knew just what he had to do and not jerking and standing up on his legs and getting wild eyed like you see these selling platers with a shot of dope in them.
Joe Butler and his son are at the Prix du Président to wager on Kircubbin because Joe got a tip from Kzar’s jock (fictionalized here as “George Gardner”; the real jock in the race was Joe Childs ) that Kircubbin, at long odds, would win. Kzar’s fictionalized jock was obviously going to give Kzar too much to do to fix the race.
Here’s our narrator again on the fix:
The old man went over and sat down beside George Gardner that was getting into his pants and said, “What’s the dope, George?” just in an ordinary tone of voice ’cause there ain’t any use him feeling around because George either can tell him or he can’t tell him.
“He won’t win,” George says very low, leaning over and buttoning the bottoms of his pants.
“Who will?” my old man says, leaning over close so nobody can hear.
“Kircubbin,” George says, “and if he does, save me a couple of tickets.”
Again, Hemingway gave a factual account of the finish:
Finally they made the last turn and came into the straightaway with this Kircubbin horse way out in front. Everybody was looking funny and saying “Kzar” in sort of a sick way and them pounding nearer down the stretch, and then something came out of the pack right into my glasses like a horse-headed yellow streak and everybody began to yell “Kzar” as though they were crazy. Kzar came on faster than I’d ever seen anything in my life and pulled up on Kircubbin that was going fast as any black horse could go with the jock flogging hell out of him with the gad and they were right dead neck and neck for a second but Kzar seemed going about twice as fast with those great jumps and that head out–but it was while they were neck and neck that they passed the winning post and when the numbers went up in the slots the first one was 2 and that meant Kircubbin had won.
I felt all trembly and funny inside, and then we were all jammed in with the people going downstairs to stand in front of the board where they’d post what Kircubbin paid. Honest, watching the race I’d forgot how much my old man had bet on Kircubbin. I’d wanted Kzar to win so damned bad. But now it was all over it was swell to know we had the winner.
“Wasn’t it a swell race, Dad?” I said to him. He looked at me sort of funny with his derby on the back of his head. “George Gardner’s a swell jockey, all right,” he said. “It sure took a great jock to keep that Kzar horse from winning.”
Joe Butler, the narrator’s father, claims a horse named “Gilford” from the ill-gotten gains, and he gets in shape as he trains and rides him, too. It looks as if Butler is on his way to turning his life around until this fatal accident:
They took off over the big hedge of the water-jump in a pack and then there was a crash, and two horses pulled sideways out off it, and kept on going, and three others were piled up. I couldn’t see my old man anywhere. One horse kneed himself up and the jock had hold of the bridle and mounted and went slamming on after the place money. The other horse was up and away by himself, jerking his head and galloping with the bridle rein hanging and the jock staggered over to one side of the track against the fence. Then Gilford rolled over to one side off my old man and got up and started to run on three legs with his off hoof dangling and there was my old man laying there on the grass flat out with his face up and blood all over the side of his head. I ran down the stand and bumped into a jam of people and got to the rail and a cop grabbed me and held me and two big stretcher-bearers were going out after my old man and around on the other side of the course I saw three horses, strung way out, coming out of the trees and taking the jump.
My old man was dead when they brought him in and while a doctor was listening to his heart with a thing plugged in his ears, I heard a shot up the track that meant they’d killed Gilford. I lay down beside my old man, when they carried the stretcher into the hospital room, and hung onto the stretcher and cried and cried, and he looked so white and gone and so awfully dead, and I couldn’t help feeling that if my old man was dead maybe they didn’t need to have shot Gilford. His hoof might have got well. I don’t know. I loved my old man so much.
Elizabeth Martiniak has an excellent and thorough piece on Ksar’s racing career, pedigree, and notable offspring at Thoroughbred Heritage. Click here to read it. The Haras de Saint Pair (then Saint Pair du Mont) website has an excellent history of Ksar’s breeder, Evremond de Saint Alary. Ksar was sold by de Saint Alary for a record 151,000 FF in 1919, as a yearling. Click here to read more.
Ms Martiniak’s exhaustive piece noted that Ksar, the leading sire of 1931 in France and the sire of the important Tourbillon for Marcel Boussac, was exported to the US late in life. She wrote: “In 1935, at the age of seventeen, Ksar was sold to Abram S. Hewitt, an American breeder and racing authority and exported to stand stud at Hewitt’s Montana Hall Stud near Millwood, Virginia. The old stallion had a rough ocean crossing, falling critically ill on the journey. In Virginia, he sired just two crops, but got nothing of the class he got in France. Ksar, did, though, exert an influence in jumping pedigrees, and several international show jumpers carried his blood in their veins.”
Hewitt had seen Ksar in person at Chantilly on June 12, 1921, at the French Derby as a guest of Harvard classmate Charles (Chis) Colt. The latter had been in France for school vacation visiting his father, horseman and railman James Wood Colt.
I met Charles Colt in the early ’80s at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, and he was intrigued by my interests in racing. Something close to the following conversation took place:
“So, you’re a follower of the Turf? Have you heard of Ksar?”
“The French horse? Yes. The sire of Tourbillon.”
“Exactly.” He was surprised. “Well, Sid, you do know your horses. Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Stay away from the Turf. It’s alluring and exciting, and there’s nothing like watching a horse race, but it will bankrupt you, young man. You will leave the game broke. It’s what happened to my own father, JW Colt.”
I smiled but held my ground.
“This game has seduced you, I suppose. Well then, I suppose, we have some stories to tell…”
And from there he told me of watching the French Derby with Hewitt, and how Hewitt—who would go on to become one of the greatest turf writers of this country—never forgot the impression Ksar had made on him at Chantilly and had jumped at the chance to import the aging stallion later on.
“I was at Montana Hall the day Ksar arrived,” he said. “Abe and I were having a drink on the patio, and this wagon pulls up, and out comes the most pathetic looking animal you’ve ever seen. He looked nothing like we’d remembered him. Abe’s heart sank when he saw the great Ksar. The horse had had an awful Atlantic crossing.”
Years later, I told Daily Racing Form‘s eminent bloodstock writer Leon Rasmussen, whom I’d been corresponding with since I was 16, this story. He loved it. He’d been a longtime friend and admirer of Hewitt’s work and frequently referred to Hewitt in his Form pieces as the “doyen of American turf writers.”
Later, I did some bloodstock writing at the Form, too, much to Leon’s enjoyment.
Oh, and I married Chis Colt’s granddaughter, too.