Citation was the standard
By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com
For 25 years, his name was synonymous with an achievement that seemed beyond duplication: "-------- is trying to become the first horse since Citation in 1948 to win the Triple Crown."
So it went, year after year. Radio gave way to television. Five presidents would come and go. We could send a man to the moon, but we couldn't get a horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes again.
By the time Secretariat finally matched Citation's accomplishment in 1973, the quarter-century Triple Crown drought only served to underscore the brilliance of Citation's achievement.
He was racing's first millionaire horse, earning $1,085,760 in a 45-race career that ran from 1947-51. He won 32 times and was in the money in all but one. At his peak as a two- and three-year-old, Citation won 28 of his 30 races, including 16 consecutive wins between 1948 and 1950 that established a modern-day record. That mark was tied by Cigar in 1996.
Blessed with speed, endurance and a seemingly endless desire to win, "Big Cy" inspired his handlers to express profoundly bold confidence in him. "My horse could beat anything with hair on it," said Citation's trainer, Jimmy Jones.
Citation was the brainchild of Calumet Farms owner Warren Wright, who matched two relatively undistinguished racehorses to produce him. The sire was Bull Lea, who finished a disappointing eighth as a 3-1 second choice in the 1938 Kentucky Derby. Wright figured he might be able to create a decent racehorse by matching Bull Lea with an overseas mare. So he purchased Hydroplane II. That was simple enough.
But getting her to the United States at the onset of World War II was a problem. To avoid wartime torpedoes in the Atlantic, Wright had Hydroplane II shipped via a time-consuming Pacific route in 1941.
Eventually, Bull Lea and Hydroplane II got together, and on April 11, 1945, they produced a bay colt whom Wright sent to Jones' stable in Maryland to start racing two years later.
Citation ran nine times as a two-year-old, winning eight with one second. He won his first start by a half-length on April 22, 1947, in a 4 1/2-furlong race at the old Havre de Grace track. A two-length win in the Elementary Stakes at Washington Park that summer was followed by victories in the Belmont and Pimlico Futurities.
Even before the Triple Crown races, "Big Cy" turned skeptics his way early in 1948. In Florida, he was matched against older horses in two races at Hialeah. One was Armed, the 1947 Horse of the Year. Not only did Citation win both races, he also won the Everglades Handicap and Flamingo Stakes.
With seven consecutive wins, Citation was on a roll heading back home to Maryland to prepare for the Triple Crown. Unfortunately his jockey, Albert Snider, never made it with him. Snider drowned on a fishing trip in the Everglades.
Jones turned to Eddie Arcaro to replace Snider. "I'm calling you to put you on a Derby winner," he told the legendary jockey.
Their first start together was a learning experience. In the mud at Havre de Grace on April 12, 1948, Citation was unable to close on Saggy, who beat him by a length in the six-furlong Chesapeake Trial. It would be the last race Citation would lose for almost two years.
Derby Day was eerily similar to that muddy afternoon in Maryland the previous month. An inch of rain fell on Churchill Downs, and it was going to be a sloppy 1 1/4 miles.
"It was set up for Coaltown to have an easy lead," Jones said, referring to Citation's Calumet stable mate. "Citation could get him when he wanted to."
But even those who had faith in Citation had to wonder. Midway through the Derby, Citation trailed by six lengths, as Coaltown enjoyed a leisurely run on the lead.
Arcaro later recounted in his 1951 autobiography, "I Ride to Win," that he heard the voice of Ben Jones, the father and training mentor of Jimmy Jones. "I kept remembering what old B.A. had told me; that the horse that Citation could not run down had not yet been born. 'But what the hell is this now?' I said to myself. 'Suppose Citation doesn't pick Coaltown up when I call on him.' "
But Ben Jones' words were borne out in a memorable stretch run. Citation sped past Coaltown to win by 3 1/2 lengths, igniting his 16-race winning streak. Although son Jimmy did most of the day-to-day work, patriarch Ben had his name listed as Citation's trainer, allowing him to tie "Derby Dick" Thompson's training record of four Derby winners. Ben Jones would eventually get the record alone at six.
Coaltown was out of the picture when Citation won the Preakness by 5 1/2 lengths over Vulcan's Forge.
Then came the Belmont Stakes, where a fast track led Arcaro to say, "The only way I can lose this race is if I fall off my horse." That almost happened when Citation stumbled out of the gate, nearly throwing Arcaro. But they regrouped, and Citation scored a wire-to-wire, eight-length win over Better Self in 2:28 1/5, tying Count Fleet's record for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
Citation became racing's eighth Triple Crown winner and the fourth in eight years.
He won nine more races in 1948 to finish his 3-year-old season as Horse of the Year with a then-record $709,470 in earnings. His career total of $865,150 was a little more than $50,000 shy of the record held by Stymie.
But that record would have to wait. Citation developed an osselet on his left front ankle. That and tendon injuries kept him off the track in 1949. By the time he raced again, on Jan. 11, 1950, it had been 13 months between starts. His 1 1/2-length allowance win that day ran his winning streak to 16.
Though past his prime at five, Citation still proved to be a formidable opponent in handicap races. On February 25 at Santa Anita, he carried 132 pounds and lost by 1 1/4 lengths to Noor, who was carrying only 110. It was one of four times Noor would beat Citation in 1950. With injuries ending his season early, Citation wound up the year with only two wins and seven seconds in nine starts. But his career earnings had grown to a record $938,630.
Wright died on Dec. 28, 1950, but not before extracting a promise from the Joneses to keep Citation on the track until he passed the $1 million mark. Citation's first three starts of 1951 yielded only two thirds and a fifth. It looked as if his run to a million was turning into an embarrassing limp. A second-place finish in his next start -- the Argonaut Handicap -- extended his losing streak to a career-high six, but it also provided a little promise.
Wins in the Century and American Handicaps brought him within less than $15,000 of Wright's hoped-for million. On July 14, 1951, Citation went out a winner with a victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup in Inglewood. It pushed his earnings past $1 million and signaled the end of his racing career.
Although Citation would sire some respectable offspring, including 1956 Preakness winner and Derby runner-up Fabius, his stud career never came close to rivaling his racing days.
Citation died on Aug. 8, 1970, at age 25 and was buried at Calumet Farms in Lexington, Ky. It would be another three years before his distinction as the last Triple Crown winner would be erased.