He was described as “the phenomenon of the century” by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. At one time, he was purchased for more money than had ever been spent on a racehorse. As a 2-year-old, he carried weight assignments that are unheard of today. He was such a legend that a historic farm was named after him.
His name was Hamburg, and when at his best, he was unstoppable.
Born in 1895, Hamburg was bred by Con Enright and had the pedigree to be something special. After all, his sire was the champion Hanover, and his dam—Lady Reel—was a half-sister to the sensationally fast Domino.
But although his lineage was impressive, Hamburg’s personality was troublesome. John E. Madden, the Hall of Fame trainer who purchased the colt as a weanling, discovered that Hamburg was a difficult horse to train. Edward Bowen, writing in his book “Masters of the Turf: Ten Trainers Who Dominated Horse Racing’s Golden Age,” described Hamburg as “unruly” and tells of how the yearling Hamburg once “breezed on six consecutive mornings, so abundant and uproarious was his energy.” The young colt’s appetite was also extraordinary: “Madden himself later recalled the colt as having the appetite of two horses.”
Troublesome or not, when Hamburg came to the races in June of his 2-year-old year, he was found to be an incredible talent. Running 16 times in the span of four months (which included six races in the first 16 days of September!), Hamburg won 12 times while dominating his opponents in a manner rarely seen. Under the rules of the day, Hamburg had to carry higher weight assignments as his reputation grew, but this seemed to make little difference in the outcome of his races. He won the Congress Hall Stakes at Saratoga while carrying 134 pounds, and the Electric Handicap at Brighton under 132 pounds. In the Great Eastern Handicap at Sheepshead Bay under the staggering assignment of 135 pounds, he won easily while conceding 24 pounds to the runner-up.
Even in defeat, Hanover managed to enhance his reputation. In the Flight Stakes at Sheepshead Bay, Hamburg was beaten by two lengths … but he was running against older horses! Furthermore, when Hamburg was beaten by a head in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes at Saratoga, while conceding twelve pounds to the victorious Archduke, it was generally accepted that Hamburg was the best colt in the race and had been beaten only because of a superior ride by the winning jockey.
Hanover would get his revenge later in the season, defeating Archduke decisively in both the Autumn Stakes and the Prospect Stakes before going into his winter break as the clear-cut champion 2-year-old of the year. His racing form was so impressive that Marcus Daly, who had made a fortune in the copper mining industry, arranged to purchase Hamburg for a record-breaking amount believed to have been $40,001, a dollar more than the previous record price for a racehorse.
Daly’s investment would prove to be money well spent. When Hamburg returned to the races as a 3-year-old, he initially disappointed when third in the Belmont Stakes, but after that he would never lose again. He won the Spring Special Stakes by eight lengths, defeating older rivals with remarkable ease. He posted an identical margin of victory in the Swift Stakes, then defeated Kentucky Derby winner Plaudit by two lengths in the Lawrence Realization Stakes.
Hamburg’s final race came in the Brighton Cup, held at 2 ¼ miles on a track labeled “heavy.” His two rivals were both older horses, including stablemate Ogden, who had been the leading 2-year-old of 1896. The race was supposed to be something of a challenge for Hamburg, or at the very least an exciting event.
Instead, Hamburg won by approximately 100 lengths.
“The Brighton Cup race, which should have been one of the greatest turf events of the year in this country, was made a farce, partially because owners would not train for it, and partially because the phenomenon of the century in Thoroughbred racing, Hamburg, was a starter,” read the July 31, 1898 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “When the horses got the flag, Hamburg went to the front, and was a sixteenth of a mile ahead before a half a mile had been covered. He kept his place under double wraps throughout, winning by about three lengths over a sixteenth of a mile in a canter, and hardly drawing a long breath.”
Needless to say, Hamburg was viewed as Horse of the Year for 1898 and retired with a reputation as one of racing’s true greats. At stud, he proved to be a successful sire, with his most notable runner being Artful, one of the leading 2-year-old fillies of 1904 and a future Hall of Fame inductee.
As for John Madden, he put the $40,001 from Hamburg’s sale to good use. He used the funds to purchase a 235-acre Kentucky Farm, where he bred such legendary horses as Triple Crown winner Sir Barton and the Kentucky Derby winners Old Rosebud, Paul Jones, Zev and Flying Ebony.
And what was the name that Madden chose for his historic farm? None other than Hamburg Place.
- Hamburg was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1986.
- Hamburg retired with a record of 16 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds from 21 starts, with earnings of $61,455. He never finished out of the top three.
- Hamburg’s average margin of victory in his 16 wins was just under nine lengths.
- In addition to Artful, Hamburg counted 1906 Belmont Stakes winner Burgomaster among his most successful foals.