Asked if he considers the Saggy win over Citation one of the greatest moments in the city's history, Fair doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely."
A role reversal
In the days when even the top-flight horses ran often, Citation would go on to win the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs 10 days later, before running off victories in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. He kept right on winning, 16 races in a row in all, setting a North American record for consecutive victories that still stands, though it was later equaled in 1995-96 by Cigar, who just happened to be born at the Pons family's Country Life Farm on April 18, 1990, turning 23 next week. Other than the defeat to Saggy, Citation won 19 races as a 3-year-old. Though his later career was plagued by injuries, his victory in his last race, the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup, made him the first horse in history to win $1 million in total purses. He retired with a record of 32 wins, 10 seconds and two thirds in 45 starts, finishing out of the money only once, a fifth place in a six-furlong minor stakes race in California in 1951.
For Saggy, the win over Citation was the high point of his racing career. He never won another race, retiring later that year with a career record of eight wins, two seconds and two thirds from 14 starts and career earnings of $62,340, more than $1 million less than Citation earned in his career. There was, however, more Cinderella story to Saggy's tale to come.
"Dad [Joe Pons] loved young stallions with brilliance, and any horse to beat Citation was brilliant," Mike Pons recalls, and so Saggy ended up standing stud at Country Life Farm in the care of Joe Pons and his brother, John. When Saggy went to stud, Dad and Uncle John got to work, beating the bushes to find mares to prove their young stallion."
Theirs was not an easy task. As Josh Pons, an award winning writer, recalls in one of the many articles he has written for The Blood-Horse, " [Stanley] Sagner violates Rule One. Never give a colt an unattractive name. It'll haunt him come stallion time."
In 1957, the elder Pons brothers found an appropriately named mare Joppy, whom the Pons family lore says was part of a three-mare deal with Jack Price from Ohio, to breed to Saggy. Or, as Josh Pons has previously told it, Price was looking for a bargain service while traveling south to Florida for the winter racing season and found their father and uncle and Saggy. Out of the union at Country Life between Saggy and Joppy came a colt born the following April in Florida whom Price named Carry Back, after an IRS tax loss regulation.
"Carry Back," Mike Pons notes, "became one of racing's best rags-to-riches stories, winning the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and later becoming Florida's first million-dollar winner." As a result, he added, "during 1961, Saggy was briefly Leading Sire in America, after Carry Back's Preakness and after his daughter, Outer Space, won Belmont Park's Mother Goose Stakes." As Carry Back under Johnny Sellers came from 15 lengths back to win at Churchill Downs, one of the horses they passed was Shurluck, ridden by Arcaro, a five-time winner of the race who was riding in his final Derby. Five weeks later, Shurluck, at 65-1 odds, would deprive Carry Back of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes under another jockey, Braulio Baeza.
The Thursday after Carry Back won the 1961 Kentucky Derby, a photograph of Saggy appeared at the bottom of that week's edition of The Aegis, noting his accomplishment of fathering that year's Derby winner. The following week, the Pons family held its annual pre-Preakness party at their Bel Air farm for the country's leading racing figures and members of the sporting press, a tradition that continues to this day. It was during that first party, Josh Pons has said he believes, that one of the guests, the prominent Bel Air horse breeder and future Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry MacPhail, one-time part owner and president of the New York Yankees, was actively talking up a breeding syndication for Saggy, then still owned largely by Stanley Sagner and his wife, Helen, under whose colors the horse had raced.
One final hurrah
The deal that eventually resulted produced little but acrimony between MacPhail and Sagner – with Joe and John Pons and Saggy caught in the middle – followed by a slew of litigation over ownership rights to the horse that wasn't settled until long after MacPhail, Sagner and Saggy, were dead.
Saggy, who still far outshined his one-time brief rival Citation in the breeding shed, passed away at Country Life in the mid-1970s, but not before Joe Pons was able to show him off one more time, the two standing proudly together in a photograph The Aegis published around the 25th anniversary of Saggy's stunning upset in Havre de Grace.
"Josh and I have fond recollections of Saggy from his days here as a stallion and pensioner until his death," Mike Pons, who recalls mucking out Saggy's stall as a youngster, said. "We still have 'Saggy's Way,' which is a grass walkway to his old stallion stall, in the middle of the front fields off the farm driveways from Old Joppa Road."
In a sense, the Citation-Saggy rivalry, brief as it was, marked the final hurrah for the Havre de Grace Race Track, which had begun to struggle economically in the post-World War II era, when competing tracks opened in Delaware and New Jersey. Maryland politics and skulduggery within the state's racing establishment combined to kill off racing in Havre de Grace.
Barely two years after its most memorable race of the era, the race track that had also hosted Man o' War, War Admiral, Exterminator and Seabiscuit, was out of business. The upset, however, is not forgotten. All these years later, the state historical marker on Old Bay Lane, next to the track's former grandstand (now part of the Maryland National Guard Military Reservation), reminds us: "En route to the Triple Crown in 1948, Citation lost his only race to a local horse, Saggy."
"Citation is still my favorite horse," Joe Kelly told The Baltimore Sun in a 1998 interview that was reprised in the obituary The Sun published after he died last November. "Citation was such a versatile horse that could overcome muddy tracks or fast tracks, short races or long races. He could adapt to any and all circumstances."
Just not on the afternoon of April 12, 1948 in Havre de Grace.