Tom Fool: A Measure Above

Tom Fool after winning the Jerome Handicap. (Courtesy of Keeneland-Morgan)

Racing history features a long list of well-documented near-misses. They are the horses that came teasingly close to winning the Triple Crown, but fell short for one reason or another.

Falling into a far different category are the could haves and should haves. The horses who should have won the Triple Crown or could have captured it … but never even made it to one of the races.

Tom Fool is perhaps one of the sport’s greatest could haves/should haves.

At two, he was a champion. At four, he dominated the year in a fashion few other runners have matched.

Yet in between, during his Triple Crown season, he suffered an illness that kept him out of all three legs of the series and prevented him from regaining his top form until the fall of that year.

All told, in a career that spanned 1951-53, Tom Fool started 30 times, was victorious on 21 occasions and earned $570,165. He was voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, but perhaps the most telling commentary about his talents – and what could have happened in the spring of his 3-year-old season – came from Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson, his rider in all 30 of his races, who once said of him, “None of the others I ever rode, on their best days, could measure up with him.”

Tom Fool, a 1949 foal by Menow out of the Bull Dog mare Gaga, was bred by Duval A. Headley and was bought for $20,000 as a 2-year-old by the famed Greentree Stable, which was operated at the time by siblings John “Jock” Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson.


Courtesy of Keeneland-Morgan

Future Hall of Famer John M. Gaver Sr. trained Tom Fool, whose racing debut was delayed by minor setbacks that kept him away from the starting gate until Aug. 13, 1951, when he registered a four-length victory at Saratoga.

He then proceeded to win the Sanford and Grand Union Hotel, but then suffered his first loss when he settled for second in the Spa’s Hopeful Stakes.

Another second-place finish, this time at Belmont Park, raised doubts about the Greentree juvenile, accounting for his 5-1 odds in the year’s richest race for 2-year-olds, the Futurity at Belmont. Yet when Tom Fool rallied to post a length and three-quarters victory in the Futurity and then closed out his 1951 campaign with a victory in the East View Stakes at Jamaica Park, he was named the year’s champion 2-year-old.

At three, Tom Fool made his first start on April 7 in an allowance race at Jamaica Park and had to work harder than expected to win by a neck.

Next came the Wood Memorial at Jamaica, where he pressed the pace and forged to short lead in mid-stretch but lost by a neck to Master Fiddle.

After the loss in the Wood, Gaver announced the news that explained away Tom Fool’s disappointing efforts in his first two races of 1952. Tom Fool was suffering from a high fever and coughing that sent him to the sidelines until late June – after all three legs of the Triple Crown were contested.

Though he returned to the races on June 26 with a loss by a head in the Rippey Handicap at Aqueduct, Tom Fool struggled to regain the brilliance of his best efforts at two. He won only one of his first five races after the illness, capped by a third-place finish behind eventual 3-year-old champ One Count in the Travers at Saratoga.

The loss in the Mid-Summer Derby at Saratoga proved to be a turning point, however, as from then on Tom Fool won 14 of the final 16 races in his career.

He prevailed in the Empire City Handicap in his final start at three, then at four he embarked on one of the most impressive campaigns in racing history.

In winning all 10 of his races in that final year of racing, Tom Fool was unquestionably the Horse of the Year as he towered over that season’s other top runners.

Included in those wins were victories in the Met Mile, Suburban and Brooklyn, making him just the second horse to sweep New York’s Handicap Triple Crown. In four of his wins, he carried 130 pounds or more. He triumphed at 5 ½ furlongs and a mile and a quarter.

By the time he returned to Saratoga, gathering up rivals to face him was a nearly impossible task.

In the Wilson Stakes at the Spa, only one horse turned out to face him as he cruised to an eight-length win.

Four days later, in the Whitney Stakes, again just one horse dared to tackle him as Tom Fool carried Greentree’s pink and black silks to a 3 1/2–length win.

Back at Belmont in September for the Sysonby, Tom Fool continued to scare off the competition, taking on only two horses in a three-length score.

In his final start, the Pimlico Special on Oct. 24, he again dealt with only two challengers and won by eight lengths.


Courtesy of Keeneland-Morgan

Reflective of how Tom Fool was the dominant horse of that year, his final four races were non-wagering affairs.

With his racing career at end, Tom Fool began a life at stud and was syndicated for $1.75 million. He proved to be as successful in the breeding shed as he was on the racetrack. He sired 36 stakes winners, including Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam, who won the 1958 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and became one of the most unfortunate near-misses when he suffered a fractured leg in the stretch run of the Belmont Stakes and finished a hobbled second.

His most famous son mirrored dad in a rather ironic fashion. Buckpasser won 25 of his 31 starts and was a champion at two, three and four. But as magnificent as Buckpasser may have been, a quarter crack kept him from racing in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

Just like his dad – the famous Tom Fool - he was one of those great could have/should have horses.

Fun Facts About Tom Fool

  • Tom Fool was ranked sixth in the Associated Press’ poll of the best Thoroughbreds of the 20th Century and received one of the six first-place votes. He was 11th in the Blood-Horse poll.
  • Tom Fool was among the inaugural class of 30 horses honored in the “Hoofprints Walk of Fame” at Saratoga Racecourse.
  • Aqueduct is home to the Tom Fool Stakes, a Grade 3 stakes at Aqueduct.
  • Among Tom Fool’s descendants is Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
  • Tom Fool’s owner, Joan Whitney Payson, was one of the original owners of the New York Mets baseball team.

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