More than 70 years ago, Citation unleashed the greatest 3-year-old season in Thoroughbred racing. Blessed with genuine speed, staying power, and a seemingly endless desire to win, Citation inspired his handler Jimmy Jones to boldly say: "My horse could beat anything with hair on it."
Citation won 19 of 20 races in 1948. He won at every distance, won at 10 different tracks, and won in seven different states travelling the countryside in dusty trucks and sweltering rail cars. He won his races by a total of 66 lengths, and swept the Triple Crown races by a total of 17 lengths. The victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes were all part of his 16-race win streak.
Citation represented the vaunted Calumet Farm and the Jones boys, its private trainers. Natives of Purnell, Mo., they captured eight Kentucky Derbys, creating a dynasty that has never been matched. Famed trainer Ben Jones, big, beefy and a feared brawler, told his son the evening before the 1948 Kentucky Derby: "Jimmy, you can sleep well tonight, and you can take this as gospel: any horse Citation can see, he can catch. And he's got perfect eyesight."
Citation was the product of a splendid bloodlines pairing by Warren Wright's Calumet Farm in the rolling green hills of Fayette County, Ky. Wright matched two relatively undistinguished racehorses. The sire was Bull Lea, who finished a disappointing eighth as a 3-1 second choice in the 1938 Kentucky Derby. Deciding to try a little foreign blood, he purchased Citation's dam, Hydroplane II, from Lord Derby in the spring of 1941.
That was the easy part. But getting her to the United States at the onset of World War II was a dilemma. To avoid wartime torpedoes from a U-boat in the Atlantic, Wright had Hydroplane II shipped via a time-consuming Pacific route. Eventually, Bull Lea and Hydroplane II got together, and on April 11, 1945, they produced a bay colt. Wright sent him as a yearling to the Jones' stable in Florida to learn his racing lessons. Then it was off to Maryland to start racing in 1947.
Proving to be classic material from the start, Citation ran nine times as a 2-year-old, scoring eight victories and a runner-up finish to be named champion 2-year-old. The colt wintered at Hialeah Park where he rattled off four victories in a row. After winning the Flamingo Stakes, Citation's regular jockey, Al Snider, tragically drowned off the Florida coast in a fishing accident. Trainer Jones replaced Snider with Eddie Arcaro, one of Snider's best friends.
In Arcaro's first ride, Citation finished second to Saggy in the Chesapeake Trail Stakes on a muddy track.
"I could have caught him," Arcaro declared after the race, "but I wasn't about to burn up that horse for a $8,300 pot with all those $100,000 races laying ahead of us."
Five days later the loss was avenged as Citation won the Chesapeake Stakes whipping Saggy by 11 lengths. He won the Derby Trial a week before the Kentucky Derby, but the buzz at Churchill Downs centered on another Calumet contender, Coaltown, who had smashed the track record in the Blue Grass Stakes the previous week. He was trained by Ben Jones.
On Derby day an inch of rain fell. It was going to be a sloppy 1 1/4 miles. When the gates sprung open Coaltown rocketed to the lead and at the half-mile mark the colt was cruising by six lengths. Then Arcaro signaled Citation, who rolled past his stablemate with ease for a 3 1/2-length victory. Even though the good-natured Jimmy Jones was Citation's trainer, the colt ran in the Derby under Ben Jones' name, allowing him to tie trainer H. J. "Derby Dick" Thompson's record of four Kentucky Derby winners. Arcaro gave the widow of his friend Snider a share of the purse.
When the Preakness rolled around, Coaltown took a pass. The Big Cy had the race all to himself, sprinting to the front and cantering to a 5 1/2-length score over Vulcan's Forge. After an 11-length romp in the Jersey Stakes, Citation headed to the Belmont Stakes, his sights set on the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
On June 12 on a fast track at Belmont Park as Citation rounded the far turn, Arcaro clung to the colt's flying mane while they accelerated down the stretch to post an eight-length victory over Better Self. Citation tied Count Fleet's stakes record of 2:28 1/5 and became racing's eighth (and Calumet's second) Triple Crown winner.
"Citation was the best ever. He was so fast he scared me," said Arcaro.
Wrote legendary turf writer Joe Palmer in BloodHorse: “I could not see Arcaro move. But with some slight dropping of the hands, he released the swelling energy of the great racer beneath him. Citation opened away. He was three-sixteenths away but he was home. The Belmont crowd began to roar, before he hit the furlong pole. This observer dropped his glasses, climbed over assorted cameramen, and went downstairs to get into the champagne.”
Citation would win nine more starts in 1948. He won 19 of 20 starts, from six-furlong sprints to 16-furlong marathons. After two years of racing Citation's résumé was stunning: 29 starts, 27 victories, two runner-ups and world record earnings of $865,150.
He won 1948 Horse of the Year. But an osselet on his left front ankle and tendon injuries kept him out of racing in 1949. On January 11, 1950, Citation won in his first race in exactly 13 months, taking an allowance race by 1 1/2 lengths to extend his winning streak to a record 16 races.
The 5-year-old made eight more starts in 1950, winning once and finishing second the other seven times. The losses included four to the talented Noor, several of them heartbreaking. In the Santa Anita Handicap, Citation lost to Noor by 1 1/4 lengths while carrying 132 pounds, 22 more than his vanquisher.
When Warren Wright died in 1950 his will stipulated that the Jones boys keep Citation in training long enough to break the $1 million mark. At the start of the year, Citation had $938,630 in earnings, but his first three starts netted the aging legend just $830.
He ran third twice, then in the Hollywood Premiere Handicap Citation finished out of the money for the first time in his career. On July 14, 1951, Citation went out a winner with a victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup in Inglewood taking him to $1,085,760 and it signaled the end of his racing career.
The losses Citation suffered at the end of his career tarnished his stellar reputation. Still, Citation's 2- and 3-year-old accomplishments, arguably the mightiest American racing has ever produced, will probably never be matched.
In 1951, Citation was sent home to his birthplace of Calumet Farm. His stud career never came close to rivaling his racing prowess, though he sired a champion filly in Silver Spoon and 1956 Preakness winner and Derby runner-up Fabius.
Citation died on Aug. 8, 1970 at age 25 and was buried near his sire and dam in Calumet's famous horse cemetery. Jimmy Jones' Hall of Fame contemporaries, James Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch, regarded Citation as the best they had ever seen, and in their early days they had seen Man o' War.
Citation was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1959 and was voted #3 in BloodHorse's Top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.