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A Harford horse racing upset that stands for the ages

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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.

While European runners like Saggy and Citation's material grand sire are known for covering a distance of ground, as they say in racing talk, Saggy was a sprinter, usually running at distances of less than a mile, with the most common American sprint being three-quarters of a mile or six furlongs, a furlong being one-eighth of a mile. Some handicappers would say he was a "speed freak," and indeed there was truth to that. As a 2-year-old, he set a world record for 4 and a half furlongs, a mark that would stand for a decade. And, there was no question Saggy liked the track at Havre de Grace, according to many who had seen his earlier races.

Both the late Richard "Dacey" Lilley and the late Joseph Hendricks, of Havre de Grace, were working at the track that day and, more than 30 years later, both remembered well the day the record was set. In interviews in the early 1990s, Hendricks said it was matter of pride that a local horse had proven he was among the fastest of all time, while Lilley, who had dropped the starter's flag to start the timing of the record setting race, recalled that Saggy hadn't just broken the record, he had wiped it off the books. In the spring of 1948, Saggy had won seven of his nine lifetime starts and had been on the board, either second or third, in the other two.

Though the mile and sixteenth Chesapeake Stakes, with its $29,000 purse and longer distance, were the focus of the Joneses when they brought Citation to Havre de Grace, a decision was made to enter the prep race, the $12,000 Chesapeake Trial on the track's opening day card, mainly to give Arcaro a tuneup race on the colt. Their plan was fateful in a sense, because not only was the distance just six furlongs, but also it was raining and cold the day of the race and the track quickly turned to mud, another factor in Saggy's favor. While both horses had previously won on off-tracks (and Citation would win the Kentucky Derby on a muddy track), the conditions appeared to give some edge, however slight, to the sprinter, if he could get away from the gate quickly and grab the lead.

'It was exciting'

"I remember it, I mean as much as you can remember something when you were 14; it was exciting," says Allen Fair, 78, a lifelong Havre de Grace resident and successful businessman in his hometown. "It was a short race on a Monday, then they were going to have a longer race, maybe a mile five days later on Saturday. Citation was a famous horse."

What actually happened on the track that day has been the subject of debate and conjecture, even to this day. In the Associated Press' account of the running:

"Citation broke first out of the starting gate, but soon relinquished the lead to Saggy and High Ground Stable's Hefty. Saggy wore down Hefty before they came around the only turn, and as the pack entered the pay-off alley, it was Citation who moved up to challenge.

"Saggy was two lengths to the good as they came down to the finish. Jockey Arcaro shook up Citation at the furlong pole and continued to ride him hard, but the Calumet star had come up on the outside and couldn't make it."

Later in the story, the unnamed reporter wrote that Saggy had "covered the gooey six furlongs in a credible 1:12 2/5" and paid $10 to win, while the 1 to 4 Citation returned $2.20 for both place and show. "The heavy show betting, more than three times as much as gambled to win, cost the track $15,242 for a minus pool," the article also noted. The win price means that Saggy was bet down to 4 to 1, not a terribly long price against a so-called super horse, which tends to support the notion, alluded to earlier by David Craig, that the wiseguy gamblers and insiders at the track smelled an upset. (Three decades later when he "upset" Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont Stakes, Coastal was also bet down to 4 to 1 against the 1 to 5 favorite.)

According to the AP account, "Arcaro claimed he got bumped by another horse. Said if 'Citation had a recent race under his belt, I would have driven him harder, but I didn't want to [sic] know the horse out and I don't think trainer Jimmy Jones wanted me to.' He said he would know better about Citation's derby prospects after Saturday and couldn't compare him now with My Request, which he rode to victory in the Experimental No. 2 at Jamaica last Saturday."

Other accounts from the post-race have said Arcaro bounded out of the saddle and immediately predicted he would win the Triple Crown aboard Citation, noting to anyone who would listen that the horse who had carried him and Citation wide in the turn, identified as Hefty in other stories, had committed a bumping foul. Because they had finished ahead of Hefty, however, and because Saggy was well in front of both when the alleged bumping occurred, Arcaro didn't have a foul claim. Nevertheless, the comment line in the past performance chart for Citation reads: "carried wide."

The account of the race in The Aegis mentions that Jimmy Jones kept complaining afterward about Hefty, who legend has it never bore out again in another race. Meanwhile, nothing was said in any of the press accounts, before or since, about the masterful job done by his trainer, L.E. Ogle, to get Saggy ready for the race.

"An old family friend, Joe Kelly, longtime turf writer and Maryland racing historian, who witnessed the race, claimed that everyone ganged-up on Citation, creating the big upset," Mike Pons said. "No matter what was said, Saggy beat Citation that day."

Ancient history

In the early 1980s, when he was working as a TV analyst on the Triple Crown series, Arcaro told this writer that he never had any doubt Citation was the better horse, nor was he willing to talk about the Saggy defeat in detail, other than to say in effect it was horse racing – and ancient horse racing at that – not putting any blame on his own ride, except to shake his head from side to side. Then again, Arcaro, who died in 1997 at age 81, is still the only jockey to win two Triple Crowns and continues to have more combined wins in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont that any other rider in history, so there was no need to retell the story of a relatively insignificant race, albeit one that remains a footnote to his brilliant career in the irons.

On that rainy day in Havre de Grace, there may have been 100,000 believers – or so we may believe years later from the many stories told by those who say they were there or knew someone in their family who were there – but the AP writer on the scene wasn't quite willing to join them, opining: "A truer comparison of the two derby hopes will come Saturday when they go in the mile and a sixteenth Chesapeake stakes. Saggy has always been noted for his sprinting ability, but if he should repeat over Citation in the longer distance there will have to be a radical revision in the derby book."

Well, there wasn't. Contested over a good track, Citation, sent off at 1-5 odds, won the race "easily," over three other horses who dared to challenge him. Bovard, who had been off the board in the Trial, was second and Dr. Almac was third, as he had been in the trial. Fourth, and last, was Saggy, more than 15 lengths behind the leader – essentially the equivalent of about three seconds. The winning time was a slow 1:45:4; Citation had run 1:48:4 in the Flamingo, a race that was a furlong longer.

Fair remembers also being at the track for the Chesapeake Stakes. Actually, he says, he was usually at the track every day when it was open in the spring and fall. "In the morning, before school, I would climb over the fence between the project and the backstretch and go over and walk horses," he said. "In the afternoons after school I would sell ice cream or soda pop, anything to earn a nickel or a dime."

Over the years, Fair has built up a large collection of memorabilia from the old track. He owns the track programs from both May 12 and May 17, 1948, and has a clubhouse menu from the latter date for the Chesapeake Stakes that features a photo of Citation on the front. "You wouldn't believe the prices," he said of the food.

"Because I saw those two races, I probably have more things about Citation, including photographs, than any of the other horses from those days," Fair said. He's also collected quite a bit from the career of 2011 North American Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, who was named for the old racetrack, including photographs from all nine of her career victories and a set of her silks obtained from her former owner Rick Porter.

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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