It’s time once again for what they call the most exciting two minutes in sports. The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will happen this Saturday.
It’s the first step in the Triple Crown – a set of three races that guarantee immortality and a hefty cash prize for a horse that can sweep them. Only twelve horses have ever done it. And as you might expect, most of them have come from Kentucky – the Bluegrass State being the epicenter of the equine world. But this is a story about one of the exceptions: a horse called Assault, that came from the King Ranch.
“Assault was never meant to be a race horse, you know he was more of an ugly duckling kind of horse than a real grand-looking horse,” says Bill Hirsch, whose grandfather, Max Hirsch, was Assault’s trainer.
Max was hired to train race horses for the King Ranch by its owner at the time, Bob Kleberg. In the early 1930s, Kleberg went to Kentucky looking for horses to work on his famous, million-acre ranch. He returned home with the racing bug.
Now back then, just like today, if you wanted to breed race horses, you went to Kentucky. But Kleberg didn’t want to do that.
“See he thought that breeding them in Texas would produce a tougher, rugged horse because of the conditions. And maybe he was true in that respect,” Bill Hirsch says.
These would-be Texas horses were raised in the heat and scrub by kineños, the expert Mexican cowboys who worked the King Ranch. And on a ranch called King, you couldn’t just breed any old horse that came along.
“He acquired the Kentucky Derby winner Bold Venture, and he bought him for $40,000. And people thought he was absolutely out of his mind to spend that amount of money for a horse,” says Jane Monday, the author of two books on the King Ranch.
Bold Venture won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1936, and became the cornerstone of Kleberg’s breeding operation. One of his offspring was a short, skinny chestnut-colored colt called Assault. He had the bloodlines of a champion, but his racing career was almost cut short before he ever touched a track.
“He stepped on a surveyor’s stake which split one of his hoofs,” Monday says.
Kleberg didn’t know if Assault would ever heal, and he considered euthanizing him. But the kineños took care of him. A blacksmith named Juan Silva made a special horseshoe to bind the hoof together.
“And his trainer, Max Hirsch, always said he walked with a funny gait but he ran like hell,” Monday says.
His whole life, Assault limped when he walked. But his stride was sound in a sprint. Racing writers of the day called him ‘the club-footed comet.’ And on a damp day in 1946, he found himself with a chance to streak to victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Assault was by no means the favorite, but after spending most of the race in the middle of the pack he sped to the lead after the final turn, and won by eight lengths.
It was an unlikely set of victories, but one that ultimately vindicated Kleberg.
“He wanted to prove to the racing world that he could breed a horse in Texas and win the Triple Crown. Damn if he didn’t do it,” says Hirsch.
Assault was the first horse from Texas to win the Triple Crown. And to this day, he’s the only one to have ever done it. Not bad for a little brown colt who almost never ran a race.