What’s in a (Race) Name? Tom Fool and the Handicap Triple Crown

Racing
Tom Fool after winning the Jerome Handicap. (Keeneland-Morgan photo)

Picture a horse so dominant that racetracks can hardly find any challengers to face him in their biggest races. Picture a horse so talented that victory in these races is considered a mere formality, so much so that racetracks won’t even offer wagering when he steps on to the track, preferring to let him run in non-betting exhibitions.

These mental images paint a picture of Tom Fool, the champion 2-year-old male of 1951 who rose to heights rarely achieved as a 4-year-old in 1953, going 10-for-10 during an unbeaten season to be named Horse of the Year.

1953 Brooklyn victory (Keeneland-Morgan photo)

Tom Fool had shown significant talent from the start. As a juvenile, he won the prestigious Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park as well as the Sanford and Grand Union Hotel Stakes at Saratoga. He was an accomplished 3-year-old as well; although an illness kept him from competing in the Triple Crown, later in the year he beat older horses in the Sysonby Handicap and Grey Lag Handicap.

But it was as a 4-year-old that Tom Fool transformed into one of the sport’s all-time great runners. After a couple of easy wins to start the season, Tom Fool swept through New York’s major handicap races, showing incredible versatility and weight-carrying ability to win the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap under 130 pounds, the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Handicap under 128 pounds, the Carter Handicap going seven-eighths of a mile under 135 pounds, and the 1 ¼-mile Brooklyn Handicap under 136 pounds. His wins in the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn made him just the second of four horses in history to win those three races in the same year, a feat once known as the “Handicap Triple Crown.”

Once late summer arrived and the major races switched from handicap events to “weight-for-age” races — where Tom Fool wouldn’t have to carry extra weight to even the playing field — it became difficult to find any horses to run against him. Thus began a series of four non-wagering exhibitions where Tom Fool beat one opponent in the Wilson Stakes, one challenger in the Whitney Stakes, two opponents in the Sysonby Stakes, and two opponents in the Pimlico Special. None of these races was even remotely challenging for Tom Fool, who won each by a minimum of three lengths while earning Daily Racing Form performance comments such as “No competition here,” “Very much the best,” “Under restraint,” and “Much the best.”

Needless to say, Tom Fool was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1960. As a stallion, he achieved lasting fame as the sire of fellow Hall of Fame inductees Buckpasser and Tim Tam.

Given his success at Aqueduct, where he won the Carter and Brooklyn, it’s not surprising that the racetrack honors his memory with the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap (naturally a handicap race!), which will be run on March 11. Let’s look at some other upcoming races that are named for iconic stars from racing’s past …

Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita Park

Frank E. “Jimmy” Kilroe served as the director of racing at Santa Anita for 28 years, choosing weight assignments for major handicap races and encouraging the growth of California’s impressive schedule of turf stakes races, including the Oak Tree Invitational (now the John Henry Turf Championship Stakes), which has been won by such memorable horses as Cougar II, Exceller, Estrapade, Kotashaan, Northern Spur, The Tin Man, and—of course—John Henry, who won it three times.

From 1954 through 1960, Kilroe also assigned the weights for The Jockey Club’s annual “Experimental Free Handicap,” which ranks the potential of the year’s best 2-year-old colts and fillies. He was also an original member of the American Graded Stakes Committee, which assigns grades of quality to important races in the United States and won the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1979.

Grade 1 Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita Park

It’s only fitting that the Triple Bend Stakes is a prestigious sprint race, for Triple Bend himself was a highly accomplished sprinter who won major races from coast to coast, including the Vosburgh Handicap at Aqueduct and the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park. In fact, in the Los Angeles he set a world record of 1:19 4/5 seconds for seven-eighths of a mile.

But to define Triple Bend exclusively as a sprinter is unfair, for he could also carry his speed for a full 1 ¼ miles, which he did when defeating future champion and Hall of Famer Cougar II in the 1972 Santa Anita Handicap. After battling for the lead with the talented Unconscious, Triple Bend seized a narrow advantage in the homestretch and gamely held off a late run from Cougar II to win by a head in the fast time of 2:00 flat. Talk about versatility!

Stymie Stakes at Aqueduct

The story of Stymie is not dissimilar to a fairy tale, except that if you tried to pitch it as a made-up fable, it might be dismissed as too far-fetched! Starting off as a low-level claimer in 1943 (he was claimed for just $1,500 in his third race), Stymie ran 28 times from May 7 through Nov. 10, gradually improving as the year went on until he had placed in a couple of stakes races. His rise through the ranks was slow but steady until he reached his glorious peak from 1945 through 1948. During those four seasons, Stymie won almost every major handicap race on the East Coast, including the Metropolitan Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, and Manhattan Handicap, all while competing against Triple Crown winner Assault and the great mare Gallorette!

Stymie eventually retired as the richest Thoroughbred to that point in time, with earnings of $918,485 and a record of 35 wins, 33 seconds, and 28 thirds from 131 starts.

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