The world of sport is one of upsets, results that defy logic: N.C. State beating Houston for the NCAA basketball title in 1983 or Villanova over Georgetown two years later, Larry Owings over Dan Gable in college wrestling in 1970, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, Spinks over Ali in boxing, Dodgers sweep A's in the 1988 World Series, even Giants over Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
But perhaps nowhere is the upset more prevalent than in horse racing where, after all, most studies show the betting favorite in the public's eye wins about 35 percent of the time, leaving all kinds of possibilities on the other 65 percent. You might even say the sport coined the term "upset," after the horse by that name beat the immortal Man o' War in the 1920 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Most of the top performers in racing history tasted unexpected defeats: Gallant Fox to Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers, Native Dancer to Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, Secretariat to Onion in the 1973 Whitney which, like the Travers, is run at Saratoga. No wonder the upstate New York track is known as the Graveyard of Champions!
Then there is Citation, a horse many still believe is among the two or three best ever to set foot on the tack, and the subject of this story. On Monday April 12, 1948, 65 years ago today, the improbable happened in Harford County at the Havre de Grace Race Track on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Citation, supposedly unbeatable, lost a race he would normally be expected to win, a month before he was to begin an assault on the Triple Crown series.
Here's how the Associated Press reported it the following day, as culled from an online archive of the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review:
"Havre de Grace, Md., April 12 AP - A baggy-legged auction colt, Saggy, threw mud all over the glittering reputation of Citation today by soundly whipping the Calumet Farm star in the Chesapeake trial.
"Saggy, a $4,700 yearling castoff, beat Citation by one length, with four other Kentucky Derby eligibles strung out behind. Mrs. J.V. Stewart's Dr. Almac from nearby Elkton, Md., was third in the six-furlong dash.
"A 10,634 partisan crowd roared its approval as the Baltimore-owned golden chestnut returned to the winner's circle for the eighth time in 12 starts. For jockey Eddie Arcaro, who came down from New York to ride Citation at 1-4 odds, they had the usual Bronx cheers.
"Citation, held off the pace through the early running, made a courageous try to get up in the stretch. But Saggy, with jockey Don McAndrew urging him, was not to be denied."
Win still resounds
Four generations later and more than 60 years after the track ran its last race in 1950, Saggy's unlikely victory still resounds to the point where any mention of the Havre de Grace track and racing is usually followed by the names of the two horses, forever entwined. No matter that they would meet five days later with a decidedly different outcome. In the retelling of this story, David beats Goliath, the upsetter always prevails.
"There aren't too many who are still around who saw it, but plenty of people have told me about it," says Harford County Executive David Craig, a lifelong Havre de Grace resident who was born a year after the race and has chronicled the history of racing in his hometown. "There are those who said Saggy should have never won, and there are some who said they expected him to win."
"Citation lost only two races in 28 starts at 2 and 3, and, with a little better luck, could have been unbeaten and then probably he would have been considered the greatest American racehorse of all time," says Mike Pons, a thoroughbred breeder and owner, whose Country Life Farm outside Bel Air is celebrating its 80th year. Pons' grandfather, Adolphe Pons, arranged the breeding of Man o' War for his then-employer August Belmont and later, on his boss' orders, sold the future immortal as a yearling to Samuel Riddle.
Mike Pons, who runs Country Life with his brother, Josh, as well as the Merryland Farm training and breeding center in Hydes, noted that Citation was ranked third on a list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, compiled by The Blood-Horse magazine, behind only Man o' War and Secretariat. Pons says his late father, Joe Pons, had told the brothers "Citation was the greatest race horse he ever saw," but it would be Saggy with whom the elder Pons would form an unbreakable bond, but that's getting a little ahead of the story.
Citation was no stranger to running in Havre de Grace when he showed up in the spring of 1948 to tune up for the Triple Crown classics by entering the 1948 Chesapeake Stakes scheduled for Saturday, April 17. Owned by the nation's top stable, Calumet Farm, which had a Triple Crown winner in Whirlaway eight years earlier, Citation won the first race of his career at Havre de Grace on April 22, 1947, and won again at the track in a five-furlong allowance on May 21, "going away," according to the Daily Racing Form Past Performance chart. In 13 lifetime races, Citation had lost just once, by a length to Bewitch, a Calumet Farm filly that Mike Pons says was "a favorite of Mrs. [Lucille] Markey," Calumet's owner, in a stakes race in Chicago in August 1947.
Citation's arrival in Havre de Grace was captured on camera by local resident and ardent photographer Anthony Simone. In what has arguably become among the famous photographs from the race track's 38-year history, the 3-year-old chestnut colt has just been led from his Pennsylvania Railroad car, parked on one of the sidings north of the track, by a groom wearing a white coat and hat, as Calumet's father and son training team of Ben and H.A. "Jimmy" Jones stand to the horse's right, the older Jones puffing on a cigar. Three other stable workers stood nearby, because "Big Cy," as he was already known, traveled first class.
The colt had opened up his 1948 campaign with four straight victories at the Hialeah meeting in Florida, the last three of the stakes triumphs, two of those won "easily," according to the past performance comment line, with the last one coming in the Flamingo Stakes, a key Triple Crown prep race. But his first foray in the north was tempered by the loss of his regular jockey, Al Snider, who drowned on a fishing trip while he was riding in Florida. The Havre de Grace meeting would be the first pairing of Citation and Arcaro, who had ridden Whirlaway to all three of his Triple Crown wins, but had been riding another Calumet Triple Crown prospect, the speedy Coaltown.
Combatants were related
While Saggy, bred by and named for Baltimore clothing manufacturer Stanley Sagner, was far less heralded among the nation's racing establishment, he was not exactly a plugger. For one thing, he and Citation had a common forbearer: Their mothers were both sired by an English stallion, Hyperion, who had been an exceptional runner in his home country, then a sire of a number of classic race winners, including 1944 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pensive. Hyperion would go on to become an even more phenomenal success as a sire of broodmares. In addition to Citation, another Hyperion daughter would produce Nearti, whose son Northern Dancer became a classic race winner and the most influential stallion in the last quarter of the 20th century.
But where Citation's father was the foundation sire Bull Lea, whose offspring already had won many classic races, Saggy's father was a modest stallion named Swing and Sway, so the two blood cousins hailed from different sides of the tracks, so to speak.