Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
The history of horse racing is filled with rags-to-riches stories of horses and horsemen rising from unknown beginnings to succeed at the highest levels of the sport. But has there ever been a champion as improbable as Carry Back?
His story reads like a fairy tale, a veritable Cinderella story.
Retired businessman Jack Price, pursuing a passion for breeding and racing Thoroughbreds in Florida, purchased Carry Back’s dam – a mare named Joppy – for a price generally quoted as $150 plus the cancellation of a $150 debt. Then, Price bred Joppy to an unheralded stallion named Saggy, whose main claim to fame was upsetting the immortal Citation in the 1948 Chesapeake Trial Stakes. The stud fee was just $400.
The result of this obscure mating and $700 investment was Carry Back, a plain brown colt without any notable markings. He wasn’t a particularly large horse either, though a growth spurt later on put him on even terms with his peers. But deep inside his small stature was the heart of a racehorse. Although no one knew it at the time, the Florida-bred son of Saggy out of Joppy would eventually humble racing’s bluebloods, inspire legions of fans across the country, and earn more than a million dollars.
As a 2-year-old, Carry Back showed two primary traits – incredible durability and a clear affinity for running long distances. Trained by Price and racing under the name of Price’s wife, Katherine, the colt debuted on Jan. 29 (2 ½ months before his actual second birthday!) in a sprint going just three-eighths of a mile at Hialeah Park. He could only finish 10th that day, but prevailed in a similar race on Feb. 3 and crammed in two more starts before the end of the month.
All told, Carry Back would race a staggering 21 times as a juvenile, showing gradual improvement as he stretched out in distance. By the end of the season, he was still going strong and secured victories in the Cowdin Stakes, Garden State Stakes, and Remsen Stakes to rank among the most accomplished 2-year-olds of 1960.
Following a three-month freshening, Carry Back returned to action on Feb. 1 and continued his pattern of frequent racing by packing seven starts into the three months leading up to the 1961 Kentucky Derby.
From all appearances he thrived on this busy agenda, rattling off wins in the Everglades Stakes, Flamingo Stakes, and Florida Derby before finishing second in the Wood Memorial in his final prep race for the first Saturday in May.
At the time, Florida-breds were still an uncommon commodity in the Kentucky Derby, and only Needles in 1956 had scored a victory for the Sunshine State. Nevertheless, the Derby day crowd sent Carry Back to post as the 5-2 favorite against 14 opponents, and with regular rider Johnny Sellers in the saddle, Carry Back came roaring from off the pace in the final quarter-mile, gaining 4 ½ lengths in the final furlong to secure a cozy victory over the speedy Crozier.
“I was going to be satisfied with second money of $25,000 to make expenses. I’m no hog,” Price told writer Elmer Hall in the May 7, 1961 edition of Louisville’s Courier-Journal. “It looked like Carry Back just measured Crozier coming down to the wire then leaped ahead to take him. … I knew my horse was the best in the race. He’s a terrific competitor.”
Two weeks later at Pimlico, Carry Back unleashed another dramatic, determined stretch drive to win the Preakness Stakes in narrow fashion, setting up a run at the Triple Crown.
Although he was favored at odds-on in the Belmont Stakes, Carry Back never fired and trudged home seventh, emerging from the race lame in his left front ankle.
Perhaps Carry Back’s busy spring had caught up with him, but 2 ½ months of rest seemed to heal all that ailed him, and the colt returned none the worse for wear toward the end of summer. Before the year was out, he had resumed his trademark late-running ways to score victories in the Jerome Handicap at Belmont and the Trenton Handicap at Garden State. In the latter race, he edged out the former champion sprinter Intentionally to win by a half-length in the shadow of the wire. With this victory against older horses capping off a productive season filled with big wins, Carry Back was an easy choice as the champion 3-year-old male of 1961.
If durability was Carry Back’s hallmark as a juvenile, then versatility was his strong suit as a 4-year-old. Though he remained a deep closer, he started sticking a little closer to the early pace and unleashing his move sooner, which made him more dangerous than ever and increased his effectiveness over shorter distances. Running no less than 18 times during an action-packed season, Carry Back started the year with a string of second- and third-place finishes in major winter handicaps, but bounced back during the spring and summer to claim victories in the Metropolitan Handicap, Monmouth Handicap, and Whitney Stakes.
Arguably his best effort came in the Metropolitan, held over a flat mile at Belmont Park. Reserved in seventh place behind a blazing pace, Carry Back flew past the leaders with a tremendous turn of foot in the stretch to win by 2 ½ lengths in the blazing time of 1:33 3/5, equaling the track record and missing the American record by just two-fifths of a second. Among his beaten rivals was the immortal Kelso, the reigning two-time Horse of the Year.
Later in the season, Jack Price sportingly shipped Carry Back to France to contest the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the greatest race in Europe. At a time when international competition was still infrequent and American horses rarely traveled abroad, this was an ambitious, exciting, and bold venture that made headlines. Throughout the journey, Price penned a daily column for The Morning Telegraph outlining the experience for Carry Back’s fans back home. While the colt never threatened to win, he wasn’t disgraced while finishing 10th out of 24 horses, beaten just 5 ¾ lengths.
After three more races back home, including a narrow defeat while seeking a second straight victory in the Trenton Handicap, Carry Back temporarily called it a career and retired to stud in his home state of Florida. But after breeding 26 mares, a comeback beckoned, and Price returned his star colt to training.
For a time, the decision seemed to be a poor one. Carry Back seemed to lack his old sparkle, and sound defeats in the Woodward Stakes and Manhattan Handicap suggested he was long past his peak. But reuniting with Johnny Sellers and returning to Garden State for a third renewal of the Trenton Handicap awakened Carry Back’s fighting spirit. Romping happily on a muddy track, Carry Back took the lead much earlier than usual and cruised to a 2 ½-length victory, making his final career start a winning one.
As a stallion, Carry Back didn’t light up the racing world the same way that he did as a racehorse, but he did sire 12 stakes winners. Just like their sire, Carry Back’s foals tended to be durable, with several running in more than 100 races during their careers. A great example was Sharp Gary, a Florida-bred who counted victories in the Illinois Derby and Michigan Mile and One Eighth Handicap among his 115 starts. Another foal, Diamond in the Sky, was less accomplished from a class perspective, but competed in a staggering 203 races, winning 41 and placing in 63 others.
Carry Back lived to the age of 25, and when he passed away, Jerry Izenberg of the Newhouse News Service penned a fitting tribute published in the April 30, 1983 edition of Billings, Mont.’s Billings Gazette.
“Carry Back died of an inoperable tumor down at the University of Florida’s veterinary clinic,” Izenberg wrote. “The horse may be gone, but the story ain’t going nowhere. You can forget all those fancy Triple Crown winners. … Carry Back, of course, did not win the Triple Crown. What he did win was the hearts, souls, minds, and wallets of the proletariat.”
Indeed, nearly 50 years after he won the Kentucky Derby, Carry Back’s dramatic, heart-pounding, last-to-first rallies live on in memory and in the history books.
- Carry Back retired with a record of 21 wins, 11 seconds, and 11 thirds from 61 starts, good for earnings of $1,241,165.
- Carry Back was only the fifth horse in racing history to earn more than a million dollars.
- In 1975, Carry Back was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.