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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Willie Molter:
An Eye for Horses

Michael Barr
What are the chances that two of the best thoroughbred trainers of the twentieth century came from the same small town in the Texas Hill Country?

Max Hirsch and Willie Molter were born in Fredericksburg. Hirsch, the subject of an earlier column, trained and raced horses on the East Coast while Willie Molter went west to California.

Willie Molter was born on June 2, 1910. His love for fast horses grew from stories he heard about Morris Ranch and the great Max Hirsch.

In the 1920s Molter traveled to Southern California with his older brother Herman. One day they crossed the border to watch the horse races in Tijuana. Willie Molter was hooked.

Back in Texas, Molter became a jockey and rode the bush tracks all over the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. In 1935 he switched to training horses.
Willie Molte
Willie Molte
Wikipedia photo
Molter had an uncanny eye for ugly horses that could run. "Determine" was a Molter-trained horse so small his owner "must have been standing in a hole" when he bought him.

But Determine had the heart of a giant. He won the 1954 Kentucky Derby by a length and a half and took home $100,000.

That same day Imbros, another Molter-trained horse, won the William P. Kyne Handicap in Bay Meadows, California. The prize money was $100,000. It was the only time in history two horses with the same trainer won $100,000 purses on the same day.

In 1957 Travis Kerr of Oklahoma City sent Molter to a sale in Hialeah, Florida to buy a graceful, talented race horse named Federal Hill, but Molter instead bought a three year old with stubby legs named Round Table. Kerr thought Molter had lost his touch.
Round Table, American Thoroughbred Racehorse
Round Table
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard
Most of the time a trainer deals with mediocre horses, but once in a while a special horse, like Round Table, comes along. Over the next four years Round Table, trained by Willie Molter and ridden most of the time by Willie Shoemaker, won 43 races, finished second 8 times, and finished third 5 times. He broke or equaled 16 American and world records.

By the time he retired, Round Table won $1,749,869; more money than any horse in history. At the time only two other horses, Nashua and Citation, had won over $1 million.

And Round Table sired champions. He was the great-grandfather of Seattle Slew.

With horses like Determine and Round Table, Willie Molter had a string of successful years that made him a legend. He led all trainers in wins in 1946, 1947, 1948, and 1949. In 1948 Molter's horses won 178 races, a new American record.

Among trainers Molter was the leading money winner in 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1959. Three times his horses won a million dollars in a year.

In 25 years Molter's horses won 2,158 races and $11,983,035 in prize money. Ten per cent of that money went into Molter's bank account.

He trained horses for some of the most famous people in Hollywood including movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and actress Betty Grable. His good friend and business partner was Johnny Longden, a Hall of Fame jockey who rode Count Fleet to the Triple Crown in 1943.

"Luck is the most important element in racing," Molter once said, but he never counted on luck to pay the bills. He was the hardest working trainer in the business. He started every day at 5 in the morning and never took a vacation.

But his work schedule took a toll on his health, and on April 1, 1960, at the age of 49, Willie Molter suffered a stroke. He died the next day. His is buried in a shared crypt with his friend Johnny Longden.

Willie Molter and Max Hirsch , two guys from Fredericksburg, Texas, are both in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

What are the Odds?



Michael Barr
"Hindsights" June 15 , 2016 Column

Sources:
Fredericksburg Standard, December 9, 1946.
Fredericksburg Standard, January 9, 1948.
San Antonio Light, April 9, 1960.
New York Times, April 3, 1960, "Willie Milter, Trainer, is Dead," p86.


Related Articles:
Max Hirsch - Wizard of the Race Track by Michael Barr
The Ghosts of Morris Ranch by Michael Barr
Max Hirsch, Healer and Winner by Clay Coppedge

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