Q&A with Eliza McGraw, author of ‘Here Comes Exterminator!’

Pop Culture
Exterminator image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Eliza McGraw’s “Here Comes Exterminator!” was released on April 26, and chronicles the amazing story of a longshot Kentucky Derby winner who became one of Thoroughbred racing’s all-time great runners.

McGraw took some time to chat with Dave Hill about the new book, horse racing in the early 20th Century and this year’s Kentucky Derby.

I spent most of yesterday reading “Here Comes Exterminator!” and already I’ve had like three or four moments where I’ve just said, “this has to be BS.” This can’t be true. It is just such an amazing story, it’s like a fairytale from a storybook. How did you come across this story?

Stumbled across it when I was researching another story, which I’m sure happens to you also. I was writing an article for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred about the remount, which is when we had our own cavalry during World War I. And there’s an old remount facility in Front Royal, Va., and I’d gone down there to talk to some people that wanted to save it. While I was researching that, I just kept seeing Exterminator’s name in all the contemporary newspapers about the time. I finished the article but got so obsessed with Exterminator and actually had the sort of same reaction you did, which was how is this possible that I don’t know every single bit of this story already? And I remembered that there was a kids book that I had loved called “Old Bones the Wonder Horse,” and it turns out that it’s about Exterminator, but it’s sort of a fictionalized version. But what I was amazed about is that the general arc of his actual story is not that different from this children’s book from 1955.

It’s really an incredible story! I mean, it just sort of plays out like a Hollywood script or something. Even more so than “Seabiscuit.” You know, I think the first moment for me where I was like this can’t be real is when he buys Exterminator, you know basically as a truck horse, and I wondered when I was reading it whether or not ... I mean he pays $9,000 for the horse, right? So I wondered whether ...

Yep, $9000 and two other horses, too.

So [trainer Henry] McDaniel really must have seen something more in him. I mean it sounds a little bit like he’s doing some myth making because he really seemed to fancy the horse from the beginning, right?

Oh yeah, he liked him a lot and he knew exactly what he was looking at. And I think, you know, you touch upon something really interesting in the Exterminator story, which is that it was such a time of legend making and myth making in sports in general that you kind of do fall into that very easily. You know, I mean, “Old Bones” was not the only, you know, “wonder horse” anymore. … There are a lot of horses that were of that time period that had sort of legends around them that we’ve also forgotten. But I think what was amazing about Exterminator was that even though he’s a horseperson, and Henry McDaniel obviously knew that he had something special from the beginning, there was just such focus on Sun Briar and on the horse that was supposed to win, that was supposed to succeed, that he really came up as the sort of opposite or foil to Sun Briar. And even $15,000, I think anyone can agree that wasn’t nothing. I mean he knew he was something special, and he’d been nominated to the Kentucky Derby already.

That was something I wondered as I was reading it. I just assumed since Exterminator gets put in the Derby so last-minute that you didn’t have to get nominated - you could just jump in the day before - back then.

Well, Cal Milam had nominated him already, so he was kind of good to go. Milam said that he did that with all of his, he was a pinhooker, and he did that with as many of his young horses as he could, because he just thought that made them more attractive for buyers.

That was the second moment for me where I was like, “this is so good,” the fact that Willis Kilmer, the horse’s owner, just never accepted Exterminator even after he won the Derby. It just felt like such a Cinderella, wicked stepmother kind of thing, and it was so sad. I mean he didn’t even come to Exterminator’s next race after winning the Derby. He wasn’t even there. That any owner would treat a Kentucky Derby winner that way today is completely unthinkable. Does that say something about the Kentucky Derby at that point in time? Were the winners of the Kentucky Derby just not royalty the way they are today? Or is that just really something deep in Kilmer’s psyche?

I’m always going to go back to the psyche of Sun Briar and Kilmer, because I think he was so besotted with Sun Briar, who was an amazing horse himself, but I just think he really, that was the horse he loved. That was the horse he cherished, the horse he prized. And even in later years, yeah, Exterminator was always well cared for and well taken care of, but, you know, he became sort of obsessed with beating Man o’ War’s running record with him. You see newspaper reporters, you know, pleading to have him stop racing. And the really complicated thing, really, is how Kilmer felt. He felt like Sun Briar came first; Exterminator came second with everything.

That is made clear in his own words. You’ve got these letters and interviews with [Kilmer] where he says it pretty clearly; it isn’t really conjecture. And they did race each other quite a bit, Exterminator and Sun Briar, right?

Yes, and he would just declare Sun Briar to win.

And Sun Briar did win more often than not. But you write about this legend of a match race, a private match race between the two horses, and I wonder what your opinion is. You sort of leave it open ended in the book, but do you think that that race really happened?

I think I can’t separate my own hope that that race really happened from whether I actually believe that it did. I just love the idea of the closed track and just the people wanting to know and just letting him go all out. And I just wish that there was some way to prove that, but it makes so much sense, I just want to believe it.

Exterminator raced for a long time. He had 99 starts. What big names did he race against?

He pretty much met all of the greats of his day: Mad Hatter, Cleopatra, Boniface. One thing was that Exterminator was a really good traveler, so he would get stuck on trains and vans. McDaniel would call him a “suitcase horse,” because he would just hop in and he’d feel fine. Part of his personality was that he was reliable, so he was relied upon to get to whatever track he needed to get to. Like when he was at Saratoga, he would go back and forth to Canada; he was travelling a lot.

Ninety-nine races feels like an outlier. I mean, I don’t really have a good sense of how many races horses back then raced. But that feels pretty high even for a gelding at that time. And it sounds like that what you’re saying is that people took note of that and were pleading with them to stop racing him.

Yeah, toward the end I think that there was a real tension between wanting him to keep going, wanting him to be the legend that he was and wanting him to stop. I think it was just difficult for people because he did come through a lot of the time. But, I don’t think he was as much of an outlier. I mean Roamer raced I think almost as many times as Exterminator. What was sort of astonishing was that Exterminator won 50 of those and came in first, second or third in 84.

Given everything Exterminator has accomplished, I think it’s really weird that popular racing history has forgotten this horse.

Well, I feel that way also. I feel that he deserves a bigger place in history than he has had. When you go to Saratoga, I feel like Saratoga remembers him the most, because he was there so much. You’ve got those four cups in the middle of the Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. So when I’m there, you know, I don’t feel like he’s been as forgotten. But in general terms he seems kind of pushed to the margins.

I think the other thing is that he was such a symbol in the 1920s of that time, but we have Man o’ War, so with our most famous horse racing at that same time, that’s just going to be something that’s going to push Exterminator aside a little bit.

The other thing in your book that really jumps out is that you write a lot about war, and you mentioned earlier that the way you discovered the story in doing some research about the remount. But in addition to this story about the remount, this idea of war and patriotism and duty are sort of the themes throughout the book. They keep coming up and are always there in the background. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

Well, because the 1918 Kentucky Derby was a wartime derby, it was a huge deal. I mean, as you said, the Kentucky Derby wasn’t as big of a race as it is now, but it was still a big race, and it was a big day and it was something that turned into a sort of patriotic pageant because of the link between the cavalry and Thoroughbred racing. And so, I think that Exterminator, because of being the winner that day and because he was an American horse, he really became this symbol of the country in a lot of ways. And, you see that really in the turf writing in the way that people talk about his courage and his strength and his being an underdog and coming from behind and all of those things that get really identified as American. I think that the legend is forged in wartime, and then the patriotism just stayed with him all the way to the end. He was world war to world war because he was being paraded to raise money for bonds during World War II, because he lived for a long time. It really stayed with him and was a part of his story.

There’s this interesting tension in the history in this book around the racing establishment and whether or not they should even be racing during the war, right? And that the remount is a way for them to kind of justify the business and make it a part of the war effort.

Yeah, it really was. There was tension in all the different sports. If you start going back through newspapers from the time, you can see how baseball was like “well how much should we be playing?” I mean it was really a huge, constant question of whether a sport was a great way to bring the country together and feel like we were going on in the face of adversity, or if it was a distraction and something that seemed frivolous and unseemly. So, I think that’s part of why, with racing in particular, they really worked hard to make sure that they were on the positive side of that.

I feel like we experienced that recently, after 9/11, where sports and entertainment kind of wrestled with that for a while … whether it was OK to go back to the ballpark or whatever. And ultimately, people decided that we have to go on with life and that’s part of our patriotism. So for a while, every big sporting event was like a spectacle about how we’re doing this because we’re patriotic and not because we don’t care about what happened. So, I feel like we lived through a little of that recently. I don’t know if it was similar, but it felt like it, especially when I read the quote in your book from the guy, one of the baseball commissioners, who was basically wagging his finger and saying, “we shouldn’t be playing baseball right now.”

I think that is the exact intention they had. One baseball commissioner says we shouldn’t be playing baseball and one racing leader says we should be racing, and the same thing with college football. That’s a really good point — it was really that same intention or disconnect that we were trying to navigate as a country and entertainment consumers — what we are allowed to do?

Can you talk to me about the process of writing this book? I know you’ve mentioned how hard it was to find some things, and the stuff you did find is really great.

I’m a PhD in English, so my other books are academic studies. I do tend to get really get into the research and I just love doing it. I was about as happy as I’ve ever been reading about Exterminator and as you know, the Daily Racing Form archives are an incredible resource, so I started there. But my process for this that was so terrific is that I was able to move not just through these incredible libraries, like the National Sporting Library and the Library of Congress. But I actually went to Binghamton, went to the historical society, visited his grave, talked to people there. There’s a man who does a one-man show as Wilis Kilmer, and I spent the afternoon with him at the library. I got to meet a woman who is Exterminator’s veterinarian’s granddaughter, who lives in Mobile and has Exterminator’s old tack trunk and a huge collection of what I can only think of as Exterminator-iana.

How did you find her?

I feel like she may have found me, after I wrote an article about Exterminator for Racing 360. Also, I wrote about him for the New York Times blog, “The Rail.” She reached out and we started talking. Then, there’s a man who has actually died but lived in Urbana, Va., on one of the old Kilmer Farms. He had a restaurant and the restaurant is still there, and all the tables are made out of Kilmer’s stable doors.

The research was great, because it was not only like, you know, going through all the pictures at the Cook Collection at the Keeneland Library with Cathy Schenk, which was incredible, but actually meeting these people that still are connected, you know, across the years. So, it was really a new process for me, because I’ve always done very academic research. It was really great; I loved it.

The McDaniels, who live in Pennsylvania, let me hold Henry McDaniel’s binoculars, like what he would have looked at the horses through. And, in the beginning of the book, I talked about those scrapbooks; I wouldn’t have had access to so much of the stuff of McDaniel’s early life if he hadn’t been so forthcoming and generous with their time and their archives. But seeing the actual newspapers — because I do so much research online and so much of it is sort of tedious and, you know, seeing the print but you don’t actually see it — and they’ve got these actual scrapbooks, you know, pasted in, and it really takes you back in away that you can’t get looking at it online.

I read that when Laura Hillenbrand was writing “Seabiscuit,” instead of finding the articles she wanted on microfiche or whatever, she would find on eBay the actual newspapers and magazines and order them. Then, she would read the whole paper, just so that she could get a sense of, not just that article about Seabiscuit and the race or whatever, but also everything else that was going on in the world at that time. So I started doing that, too, and I think it’s totally one of the most useful, helpful writer tips I ever came across, because it puts you in that world in a general way, to read the whole paper.

That’s exactly right, I mean, that’s where I got all that stuff about the hats. I found all this stuff about what people were wearing in 1922 from Vanity Fair, seeing the sales ads. I read the same article and I did the same thing, and I think it’s brilliant. I sometimes would have days where I’d feel pretty comfortable if I walked out of the house and it was 1919. You know, you just get in a kind of a fugue state.

This is the fourth interview I’ve done this year about a horse racing book coming out. In past years, I’ve had agents and publishers tell me that nobody wants to read a horse book. Like, “Seabiscuit” was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and that there’s not an audience for this. But it feels this year there are all these new books coming out about horse racing. And I wonder, did you experience any of that when you were trying to get somebody to publish this story? Do you feel like maybe there’s a sudden renewed interest in this sport, maybe because of American Pharaoh?

I do think that American Pharaoh has been a huge benefit to the sport. But, I mean, I was writing this before he won the Triple Crown, obviously. So, I think that there has been sort of an uptick in interest because of, I think, the sort of glamour and almost retro-appeal of the sport. And, again, I’m reacting much more emotionally to racing. I think I’m a good bellwether for the average person in that respect. I think there’s always an interest in a good story, and I think there’s always an interest in an animal connection. Susan Orlean’s book “Rin Tin Tin” was great; people love that book. I just think we really don’t get tired of reading about animals that connect with people, especially the sort of famous animals that are these figures that connect with so many people. These larger-than-life figures, like you said, these sort of mythical ones, I think have a special resonance. And I feel like Exterminator was connected to so many people at one time, I just thought he could do it again. He had certainly captured me.

Plus, I had a personal connection. A friend observed that part of my devotion to Exterminator was that I had lost my own horse in 2008. And that was really, really hard for me. He was an older gelding and there was kind of a way in which this became, without sounding too ludicrous, this became a way to kind of put that attention into a different horse.

You did a great job. It’s a real page-turner and, like I said, my eyes popped out of my head more than once while reading this thing. You’ve clearly put a lot of hard work and heart and soul into this book, and I really hope our readers will pick up a copy and read it, because it’s one heck of a story. Before I let you go, I have to ask you, is there an Exterminator in this year’s Derby?

I like Whitmore for the Exterminator connection. I think he’s a hard-working horse, he’s a closer, a chestnut gelding. I was on Steve Byk’s radio show last week and someone emailed me to say he made that connection … that he was the hard-working, good-egg of a horse. So, I started reading up on Whitmore, and I was like, “he is going to do it!” There is a connection there, especially because he’s got that late move, just like Exterminator. When you look through the pictures, it’s by a head, by a neck, by a nose, by a neck, by a head; it’s always that last second. That’s where the title of the book came from because everybody would be shouting for him to do it. They’d be in the crowd shouting, “Here comes Exterminator!”

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