Once upon a time, carrying high weights to victory was the mark of a champion racehorse. Great horses won great races carrying great weights. It was the duty of track handicappers to allocate weight assignments that would produce competitive finishes, theoretically giving every horse an equal chance to win.
In the long-gone glory days of handicap racing, champions routinely toted 130 pounds or more against top-class competition. Determining how many pounds they would concede to their rivals was a tough job, part science and part art form. Few folks ever balanced the task better than Frank E. “Jimmy” Kilroe, one of the most respected racing secretaries and handicappers the sport has ever seen.
Kilroe hailed from a family of racing executives. Born in 1912, Kilroe was 12 years old when his father, Edward P. Kilroe, a doctor by trade, assumed the role of president at New York’s Jamaica racetrack. His older brother, Edward L. Kilroe, later joined the sport as general manager of Aqueduct.
Although Jimmy Kilroe was destined to follow suit with a career in racing, life initially took him in other directions. A precocious scholar, he graduated from historic Columbia University in 1930, when he was just 18 years old. American literature was the focus of his studies, and Kilroe initially aspired to be a writer, penning short magazine stories in the years following his graduation.
But Kilroe soon changed gears and followed his father into the New York racing industry, where he served as an entry clerk, placing judge, and finally an assistant to legendary racing secretary John B. Campbell. He was rising through the ranks when World War II threw a curveball at his progress. Duty called, and in 1942 Kilroe chose to place his racing career on hold to serve in the U.S. Army. He eventually saw action as part of the 11th Armored Division fighting under General Patton during the Battle of the Bulge.
Upon his discharge in 1946, Kilroe picked up where he left off in racing, resuming his work in New York before accepting the role of racing secretary at Arlington Park and Washington Park in 1949.
Writer, soldier… racing secretary? It wasn’t a typical career progression, but Kilroe made it work.
Kilroe’s position at the Chicago tracks required him to allocate the weight assignments to horses competing in prestigious handicap races, a task he had witnessed firsthand while working with Campbell. Kilroe excelled at his new job and soon gained a reputation for issuing fair assignments — even if the weights were imposing for top horses — and for sticking to his guns when challenged by horsemen seeking lighter assignments.
“There are those who feel that weighting a great horse is like requiring Mickey Mantle to play in a blindfold,” wrote acclaimed sportswriter Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times of Feb. 17, 1963, “but Jimmy Kilroe isn’t one of them. Without weighting, he feels, you might as well mail the good stables the money.”
Soon, Kilroe’s services were in demand across the nation. He became the assistant racing secretary at Santa Anita in 1950 before graduating to the top job in 1953. Then, upon the death of Campbell in 1954, Kilroe added the duties of his former mentor to his plate, wintering in California while spending the rest of the year as racing secretary at Aqueduct, Jamaica, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course in New York.
“Jimmy Kilroe has been called the toughest of all horse racing handicappers,” wrote Jim Leaming in a column published in Camden, New Jersey’s Courier-Post of Jan. 13, 1959. “The accusation about his toughness comes from trainers and owners who are unhappy about the amount of weight Kilroe assigns to their animals … but there is at the same time a reluctant acknowledgment that somehow the man seems to make it all come out fairly and equally.”
As the 1950s wound down, Kilroe retired from his position in New York to focus his attention on California, eventually taking on duties at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar — all three of the major southern California tracks. Kilroe was especially prominent at Santa Anita, where he became director of racing and later vice president.
Under Kilroe’s direction, California racing experienced impressive growth throughout the 1970s.
“Regarded as an incredibly knowledgeable man who commanded high respect in racing circles the world over, Kilroe was credited with helping to attract many horses from Europe and South America during an incredible run at ‘The Great Race Place,’ ” Santa Anita’s publicity department wrote in an April 2019 press release. “Over a period of more than 35 years, Kilroe helped to forge a top-quality, consistent racing program that placed Santa Anita Park at the pinnacle of American racing.”
Kilroe’s passion for the sport led him to innovate. He helped create the National Thoroughbred Championship, a 1 1/4-mile handicap with a record purse of $350,000, run on Nov. 1, 1975, and broadcast live on CBS.
Kilroe also helped introduce the grading of stakes races to North America, serving on the small panel that assigned the initial grades for races held in 1973-'74.
Seemingly every area of racing held some degree of interest to Kilroe. Later in life, he expanded his duties to include membership in The Jockey Club and roles with the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which funds research related to equine health. Kilroe even found time to resurrect his writing career, contributing to industry publications like The Blood-Horse and the Daily Racing Form.
Kilroe remained deeply involved in racing until 1989, when he suffered the first of several strokes. He retired from his roles at Santa Anita the following year and passed away in 1996, leaving behind a legacy of accomplishments few have ever matched.
“Kilroe is good, very good,” Jim Leaning insightfully foreshadowed all those years ago in the Courier-Post. “Weight assignments is a touchy business and he is a firm, resolute man comforted by the fact that he knows he is doing an honest job.”
Kilroe’s memory lives on every March with the running of the Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. As a founding member of the North American Graded Stakes Committee, Kilroe would be happy to know his namesake race carries Grade 1 status, a fitting tribute to a truly Grade 1 racing executive.
- Recognizing his vast contributions to the sport of racing, Kilroe was awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1979.
- In 2019, Kilroe was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame as a “Pillar of the Turf.”
- Kilroe’s successor at the New York tracks, Tommy Trotter, followed Kilroe’s lead by assigning imposing weights to the era’s greatest champions, helping embellish the legacies of Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, and others.