Fifty years ago, a sleek bay colt won the first two legs of racing's Triple Crown — the only Maryland-bred horse ever to do so. He led the Kentucky Derby from wire to wire and captured the Preakness in near-record time. Born at historic Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, he stood at stud there in retirement alongside his sire, Native Dancer, the most popular thoroughbred of all time.
The horse's name? Kauai King. Don't remember him? Few do. Half a century later, he's a footnote in Maryland racing lore, forgotten even at Sagamore Farm where visitors still go to lay flowers on the grave of his famous father. But no one brings up Native Dancer's most successful son.
"We've never had anybody ask about Kauai King," said Sue Kenney, farm historian. And if they did?
"We have virtually no information about him," she said.
Though foaled in Maryland, Kauai King spent only a month at Sagamore before going to his owner's farm in Virginia. Retired at 3, he was purchased by a syndicate led by Sagamore's owner, Alfred Vanderbilt, to crank out winners like his daddy. Despite his bloodlines, Kauai King proved a bust in the breeding shed and, after six years, was shipped to England in 1971 and then to Japan, where he died in obscurity in 1989 at age 26.
It was a somber end for a horse whose tongue-twister of a name was the talk of racing for three months in 1966. People called him "The King," in part because of his victories at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, but also because they struggled with the word Kauai (pronounced cow-WAH-ee).
"I just called him 'the greatest,' " said jockey Don Brumfield, 77, whose success aboard Kauai King put him into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. "He was the best horse I ever rode. If I hadn't ridden him, people wouldn't have known who I was."
Named for Kauai, the only Hawaiian Island not conquered by King Kamehameha I in 1810, Kauai King was a fair-to-middling 2-year-old who blossomed at 3. He won three rich stakes races, including two at Bowie, then took the Kentucky Derby — the first horse in 19 years to lead all the way.
Baltimore welcomed The King home for the Preakness, treating him like a prodigal son. Never mind that his owner was now a Nebraska businessman; no Maryland horse had ever won the Derby, including Kauai King's celebrated sire. True, he'd won the race with two two top rivals, Buckpasser and Graustark, nursing injuries that would keep them out of all three classics. But Kauai King put all doubt to rest with a stellar run at Old Hilltop before a jubilant crowd of 36,114.
Just off the lead after a mile, he barreled down the stretch, head tilted toward the outside rail, and won by nearly two lengths in 1 minute, 55 2/5 seconds, then the second fastest Preakness in history. Moreover, he'd run it way faster than Native Dancer (1:57 4/5) in 1953 and less than a second slower than Nashua's record time in 1955 (1:54 3/5). It was Kauai King's seventh victory in his last 10 starts. Railbirds called it destiny. In the printed Preakness program, the first letter of the names of entries three through seven (Kauai King, Advocator, Understanding, Amberoid and Indulto) spelled K-A-U-A-I.
"He ran better at Pimlico than in the Derby, because he was drawing away from the field in the Preakness," Brumfield said. "I had to hit him a few times, but not a lot. He was easy to get along with, no temperament problems whatsoever."
One month later, the 96-year-old clubhouse at Pimlico burned to the ground. All that remained was the brick chimney and blue-and-white weather vane that had been painted in Kauai King's colors after the Preakness. That same day, the colt was syndicated for a then-record $2,520,000. Vanderbilt brokered the deal to keep the champion's gene pool close by. Another owner was Jerry Hoffberger, the Orioles' owner.
With four straight victories, Kauai King would not win again. Favored in in the grueling Belmont Stakes, which was run at Aqueduct that year, he fizzled near the end and finished a disappointing fourth. Three weeks later, against his trainer's wishes, Kauai King ran in the Arlington (Ill.) Classic in a ballyhooed showdown with Buckpasser, now recovered from an infected quarter crack (hoof). Buckpasser won easily, setting a world record for the mile (1:32 3/5). Kauai King stumbled at the gate, pulled a suspensory ligament, finished fifth and was retired.
His record: nine wins in 16 starts and $381,397 in earnings.
He fell off the grid real quick. Despite two major wins, Kauai King lost out to Buckpasser for American Horse of the Year. For several years, both Pimlico and Churchill Downs staged an annual "Kauai King Purse" to honor him. But in 1999, when The Blood-Horse Magazine named the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century, Kauai King was not among them – a rarity for one who'd won two of the three classics. Native Dancer checked in at No. 7.
"He's just one of those horses that people don't think about," Evan Hammonds, the magazine's managing editor, said of Kauai King. "He was the best three-year-old for awhile in 1966, but not for the year. Buckpasser (No. 14 on the list) overshadowed his five weeks of glory."
Last month, on his fourth try, Kauai King was enshrined in the Maryland Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, the 17th horse so honored.
His failure as a sire hasn't helped his legacy.
"That's how history smiles on certain horses," Hammonds said. "If they are good sires, people remember them for being better runners than they were.
"In a way, the greatest thing that happened to Kauai King is this (50th) anniversary."