Assault: Against All Odds

Assault is led into the winner's circle after winning the 1946 Kentucky Derby.
Assault is led into the winner's circle after winning the 1946 Kentucky Derby. (Keeneland Library) (Keeneland Library)

They were known as the Los Kineños. Expert Mexican cowboys teamed up with (steamboat) Captain Richard King to tame the mustangs of the Wild Horse Desert in the 1850s. The Kineños (the King people) herded the wild horses to King’s ranch, widely regarded as the historical birthplace of the finest Quarter Horses in America.

Later, those breed improvement programs were also applied to the ranch’s Thoroughbred racing business, and it paid off handsomely. In the 1940s under its iconic “Running W” brand, its racing program was a lucrative endeavor — a rare phenomenon in that era of racing. In addition, the King Ranch expertise produced 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault. Today, the coveted Triple Crown trophy graces the dining room in the main house — a memento of past glories that inspires the contemporary King Ranch.


Born: March 26, 1943

Birthplace: King Ranch, Kingsville, Texas

Died: September 2, 1971

Sire: Bold Venture

Dam: Igual

Career record: 18 wins, six seconds,

seven thirds in 42 starts

Career earnings: $675,470

For 40 years Robert Kleberg, Jr., the grandson of Captain Richard King, served as president of the King Ranch whose 800,000 acres dwarfs the size of Rhode Island. Born at the ranch on March 26, 1943, Assault was described as unremarkable in looks and temperament, a dull chestnut with a body taller than long. He was barely 15.2 hands (a hand equals four inches) tall and weighed less than 1,000 pounds.

But the colt’s pedigree was dazzling. He was a son of Bold Venture, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1936. Kleberg purchased the stallion for $40,000 in 1941. Assault’s dam (mother) was Igual, an unraced daughter of Hall of Famer Equipoise. Igual's dam was out of Masda, the full-sister (same dam [mother], same sire [father]) to Man o’ War.

Early life wasn’t kind to Assault. He suffered an assortment of illness and injuries, including stepping on a surveyor's spike, leaving his hoof deformed and the horse crippled. It was an injury that could have resulted in the colt being euthanized, but with Assault’s regal breeding Kleberg and his vet insisted on giving the colt a chance. They worked on the hoof to the point where he walked with just a limp. The colt sometimes stumbled going to the racetrack, but once set to a gallop Assault was all business.

Assault’s trainer was Max Hirsch, a native of Fredericksburg, Texas, who rode Quarter Horses at Morris Ranch until stowing away in a shipment of racehorses bound for Baltimore at age 12. Hirsch became a jockey at age 14 and won 123 races before weight gain forced him into training horses instead.

When Hirsch first saw the oddly gaited horse walk and trot, the trainer doubted that he would ever make it to the post, let alone the winner's circle. The limp earned the colt the nickname “the club-footed comet.”

It took Assault four tries to earn his first victory. When he went to post in the Flash Stakes at Belmont Park on Aug. 5, 1945, Assault started at odds of 70-1 and rewarded his supporters handsomely when he crossed the finish line first. After just two wins in nine tries as a 2-year-old, Assault was sent to winter in South Carolina.

“I think that when the foot still hurt him, he got in the habit of protecting it with an awkward gait, and then he kept it up,” Hirsch noted. “But he galloped true. There wasn’t a thing wrong with his action when he went fast.”

Assault launched his 3-year-old campaign winning the six-furlong Experimental Handicap at Jamaica racetrack in April 1946 and then he won the Wood Memorial Stakes. Shipped to Kentucky, he finished fourth in the Derby Trial Stakes, casting doubt upon his chances of running in the Kentucky Derby.

Hirsch decided to take a shot at the Derby and on May 4, the colt was listed as the fourth choice among bettors. Spy Song was the early leader as Assault raced in midpack. Heading into the top of the stretch with 25-year-old Warren Mehrtens aboard, Assault burst through on the rail and rolled home to a stunning eight-length victory. It equaled the largest winning margin in Derby history. His time of 2:06 3/5 was comparatively slow, five seconds off the great Whirlaway’s then-track record.

A week later Assault took on Lord Boswell and eight others in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Early traffic problems forced Mehrtens to use his mount early in the race. Turning for home in command, Assault was cruising four lengths in front of Lord Boswell in the stretch, but his rival closed strongly. Assault hung on gamely to win by a neck.

He tackled Lord Boswell once more at the final stage of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes on June 1. 

Bettors tabbed Lord Boswell the horse to beat, with many wondering if Assault had the stamina to get the extra five-sixteenths of a mile. Assault stumbled at the start as Hampden claimed the early lead. Eight lengths behind the pacesetter, Mehrtens waited until the head of the stretch to ask Assault to make his move. Assault responded with a powerful stretch drive, catching Natchez to win by three lengths. Celebrated as the “Texas Flier,” Assault scored six wins in nine weeks and became just the seventh horse to claim the coveted Triple Crown.

Two weeks later Assault won the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park. The winning streak came to an end when he finished last in the Arlington Classic. His poor performance was attributed to a kidney infection diagnosed a few days later. He was taken off the track for six weeks of rest, but failed to secure a win in his next five races. Hirsch put the great Eddie Arcaro on the colt in the Pimlico Special and Assault responded by whipping Stymie with a sensational stretch run. He closed out the season by winning the Westchester Handicap by two lengths.

Assault was named both 1946 Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male. He was also the leading money winner of the year, earning $424,195 with eight wins from 15 starts.

Over the winter, Assault matured, gaining the charisma and good looks that he had lacked as a 3-year-old. Assault began the 1947 season with a win in the Grey Lag Handicap, as well as victories in the Dixie, Suburban, Brooklyn, and Butler Handicaps. But injuries took a toll. In the International Gold Cup, Assault came running late but could only finish third.

A charity match race for $100,000 was arranged between Assault and the 6-year-old Armed, who would later be named the 1947 Horse of the Year. Because Assault was injured by a nail in his shoe, the race was postponed four weeks until Sept. 27. Less than a week before the race, Assault returned lame from a workout. Hirsch decided to keep the commitment and Assault lost the match race by eight lengths. He was never the same.

“He should have never run in that match race, he wasn’t ready,” Arcaro maintained. “Assault was fun to ride. He moved up on you quick, and then exploded. I will say this, next to Citation he was the best horse I ever rode.”

Assault was retired to stud, but tests had revealed he was sterile. He returned to racing and was retired for good in 1950. Assault’s final record was 42 starts, 18 wins, six seconds, and seven thirds with career earnings totaling $675,400. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1964.

Assault died on Sept. 2, 1971. He was buried at the King Ranch where he had been foaled. The colt assessed as just average-looking by many in the racing establishment is still remembered for having brought honor and prestige to the Lone Star State with his courage and stamina that culminated in racing’s Holy Grail — capturing the Triple Crown.

Fun Facts

  • After sustaining a serious injury to his foot as a young colt, he wore a shoe while racing that brought him the nickname “the club-footed comet.”
  • Although Assault won the 1946 Triple Crown he did not gain great respect from racing fans due to his relatively slow times in all three races.
  • He was also the first horse bred outside of Kentucky to win the Triple Crown and, to date, the only Texas-bred to do so.
  • In retirement, Assault was unable to produce any registered Thoroughbred offspring, but several quarter horse mares he was pastured with reportedly became pregnant.
  • When asked to reflect on Assault later in his life, Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch stated simply, “I never trained a better horse.”
  • Assault was ranked #33 on the Blood-Horse magazine’s ranking of the Top 100 Thoroughbred Racehorses of the 20th century.

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