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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Kleberg, Hirsch and Assault:
Three of a Kind

by Clay Coppedge

You know how it goes. One day a Thoroughbred race horse catches your eye and the next thing you know your horses are winning the Kentucky Derby and every other horse race worth winning.

Or at least that's how it went when Robert Kleberg, Jr., a grandson of King Ranch founder Richard King, bought a Thoroughbred named Charro in 1934. After deciding that that Charro needed some company he bought a quality group of fillies and mares from a man named Morton Schwartz in Saratoga Springs, New York. The next year, in 1936, Schwartz's horse Bold Venture won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Kleberg, Jr. was so impressed he bought Bold Venture and took him back to the King Ranch to provide his female horses with what some quality companionship, which he did. Bold Venture would become the only Kentucky Derby winner to sire two more Derby winners.

As for the fillies that Kleberg, Jr. bought from Schwarz, they began showing up in the winner's circle at racetracks all across the country. One of them, Ciencia, won the Santa Anita Derby against a field of males and became the first horse born on the King Ranch to win a stakes race, one that features the best horses and the most prize money. Another one, Dawn Play, was the champion 3-year old filly in 1937.

Bold Venture sired the King Ranch's most famous horse, Assault, in 1943. Assault, with a lean and delicate look about him, looked at first like a horse that wasn't gwine to finish. Then he went and stepped on a surveyor's stake and split his hoof. "Put him down," the veterinarians told him. "He's finished."

Maybe Kleberg, Jr. was playing a horseman's hunch or maybe he had a soft spot for the fragile and crippled colt, but he decided to turn the horse over to vaquero Lolo Trevino and a veterinarian with instructions to do what they could. Legendary trainer Max Hirsch, who spent most of his career at the King Ranch, devised a steel spring for the hoof that allowed Assault to run without stumbling and they sent him off to the races with something less than high hopes.

Max Hirsch holding Assault. Eddie Arcaro aboard.
Wikipedia photo

A 12th place finish in his first race as a two-year old didn't change anybody's mind, but Assault won his first race as a three-year old and entered the Kentucky Derby as an 8-1 underdog. To everybody but Hirsch and Kleberg Jr.'s surprise - and maybe theirs too - Assault won the Derby by eight lengths, the largest margin of victory ever for that time.

Dubbed the "Club-Footed Comet" by alliteration-loving sportswriters, Assault charged from sixth place to win the Preakness, holding off a furious charge by Lord Boswell down the stretch. The thinking now was that Assault had the speed but lacked stamina. Odds makers pegged him as an underdog at Belmont, where he stumbled coming out of the gate but recovered to win by three lengths. Assault was the first (and only) Texas-bred horse to win the Triple Crown, and one of only 10 all time.

Middleground came close to joining that exclusive company. He won four of his five races as a two-year old in 1949, then developed a habit of finishing second, like maybe he wanted to see another horse cross the finish line first to make sure it was safe for him to cross a fraction of a second later. But he won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, only to fall back to his familiar second place at Belmont.

Assault's brother, Air Lift, was a promising two-year old but broke a leg in his first race, leaving Hirsch and Kleberg, Jr. no choice but to put him down. The sad and sorry episode inspired W.C. Heinz's classic piece of sportswriting "Death of a Racehorse" in 1949.

King Ranch horses won six Triple Crown races - three Kentucky Derbies, one Preakness and two Belmont Stakes, thanks largely to Kleberg's passion and money and Hirsh's genius. Hirsch-trained horses won 1,933 times and earned more than $12 million, putting him and several of the horses he trained in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Hirsch died in 1969, and Kleberg, Jr. passed in 1974. In between their deaths, Assault died in 1971 and is buried on the King Ranch. There hasn't been anything like any of them since.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" April 2, 2017 column

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