During the glory days of the great Calumet Farm, the stable was filled with so many talented horses that when one went to the sidelines, even a Horse of the Year, a stablemate could step up and fill the void. Such was the case in 1949, when the legendary Citation was on the sidelines after an incredible campaign in 1948 that saw him win the Triple Crown, Horse of the Year, and 19 of his 20 races. For most stables, replacing such a star would be impossible, but Calumet had a simple solution: send out Coaltown to win Horse of the Year the following year instead.
From the very beginning, Coaltown had shown talent. A son of Calumet’s top stallion Bull Lea, Coaltown had been unraced as a 2-year-old due to a throat issue but burst onto the scene as a 3-year-old in 1948 with a gate-to-wire victory in a maiden race at Hialeah Park. His time wasn’t remarkable - 1:11 2/5 for six furlongs - but a little more than three weeks later he romped to victory by 12 lengths in allowance race at the same distance, stopping the clock in the track record-equaling time of 1:09 3/5.
COALTOWN ON COVER OF AUG. 27, 1949 BLOOD-HORSE
Coaltown clearly had speed, but could he carry it against tougher competition? After shipping to Keeneland in Kentucky, Coaltown answered with a definitive “yes” when he won the six-furlong Phoenix Handicap against older horses by 2 ½ lengths, and then stretched his speed to 1 1/8 miles for the first time and won the Blue Grass Stakes by a convincing 4 ½ lengths in 1:49 1/5, a new track record. At this point, many people believed Coaltown was superior to the more experienced Citation and that Coaltown would win the 1948 Kentucky Derby. But after opening up a six-length lead early on in the run for the roses, Coaltown was passed by his stablemate in the homestretch and wound up finishing second, beaten 3 ½ lengths.
For the remainder of the year, Coaltown raced in Citation’s enormous shadow, but that’s not to say Coaltown didn’t achieve success of his own. While he wasn’t unbeatable, he did win the Swift Stakes, Drexel Handicap, and Jerome Handicap in easy fashion before ending the year with a third-place finish behind Citation in the Synsonby Mile. Citation took home the year’s great accolades, but Coaltown - thanks to his remarkable speed and victories in sprint races - was voted champion sprinter of 1948.
The following year, Citation developed ankle trouble and was unable to race, leaving Coaltown as the star of the stable. Filling Citation’s shoes would not be easy, but Coaltown did so with aplomb, winning 12 of his 15 starts and finishing second in the other three.
Speed? He was faster than ever in 1949, routinely running six furlongs in less than 1:10 and even running the distance in less than 1:09 on three occasions. Stamina? Unlike the previous year, Coaltown could carry his speed well beyond a mile and did so in almost every one of his races. He started the year at Hialeah Park, where he won a couple of allowance races - one in the world record-equaling time of 1:47 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles - before beating 1947 Preakness Stakes winner Faultless in the McLennan Handicap. A week later, he tried 1 1/4 miles in the Widener Handicap - then the most prestigious winter race on the East Coast - and cruised home in front by two lengths, with Faultless finishing third.
Coaltown’s speed was so spectacular that in both the McLennan and the Widener he opened up large leads early on - three, four, five lengths - and never let his rivals get close to him. He did the same in the 1 1/4-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap, leading by 10 lengths partway through the race before crossing the wire in front by seven lengths in the terrific time of 1:59 4/5, which equaled the world record. Coaltown was so dominant that in the Edward Burke Handicap one month later, no horse could be found to run against him. He crossed the finish line alone in a walkover.
Coaltown extended his winning streak to eight straight races with a seven length romp in the Gallant Fox Handicap and a 12-length display of pure power in the Roger Williams Handicap. In the latter race, he not only won in easy fashion, he did so while carrying 26 pounds more than the runner-up.
After so much success in long races, it came as a surprise when Coaltown was beaten going a mile in the Equipoise Mile Handicap at Arlington Park, but Coaltown ran a game race in defeat, battling for the lead with a furlong to go before tiring to finish second to Star Reward by three lengths. But this was only a temporary setback, as Coaltown rebounded to win four straight races against some of the best horses in the country.
In the Stars and Stripes Handicap, he conceded 20 pounds to 1947 Horse of the Year Armed and beat him by 1 ¼ lengths when Star Reward finished third. In the Arlington Handicap, Coaltown beat Star Reward by three lengths and Armed by four lengths, once again conceding great weight to both. Then - as if wanting to completely and fully secure his revenge against Star Reward – Coaltown beat his one-time conqueror again in the one-mile Whirlaway Stakes, winning by 2 ¼ lengths in the world-record time of 1:34 flat. The 1949 Kentucky Derby winner Ponder finished second, while Star Reward came home third.
Coaltown’s final victory of the year came in the 1 1/4-mile Washington Park Handicap, where he tenaciously held off Armed by three-quarters of a length on a slow, tiring track. With such a busy, spectacular, and strenuous campaign behind him, Coaltown wasn’t at his best for his last two starts of the year, and he was beaten by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Capot in both the Synsonby Stakes and the Pimlico Special. Still, his remarkable exploits from earlier in the year were not forgotten, and Coaltown was voted champion handicap horse and shared Horse of the Year honors with Capot.
Coaltown would race on for two more years, and after an unsuccessful 1950 campaign that saw him win only an allowance race from four starts, he resurrected his career as a sprinter in 1951, reaching back to the glory days and winning the Art Sparks Handicap and Children’s Hospital Handicap at Bay Meadows. But his resurrection was brief, and after three straight defeats, Coaltown was retired to Calumet Farm.
Coaltown didn’t achieve much success as a sire and was soon sold to France, where he died in 1965. Today, many racing fans know him only as Citation’s overshadowed stablemate, but Coaltown’s brilliance and accomplishments in 1949 have been equaled by few before or since, making him worthy of a great legacy all his own.
Note: This story was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated.
- Coaltown retired with a record of 23 wins, six seconds, and threw thirds from 39 starts, with earnings of $415,675.
- Throughout his career, Coaltown was trained alternately by Ben Jones and his son Jimmy.
- Coaltown won stakes races at seven different distances ranging from six to ten furlongs.
- Coaltown’s dam was Easy Lass, making Coaltown a half-brother to Wistful, a talented Calumet filly that won the Kentucky Oaks, Pimlico Oaks, and Coaching Club American Oaks in 1949 to become that year’s champion three-year-old filly. Easy Lass was also the dam of the stakes winners Fanfare and Rosewood.
- During his 1949 campaign, Coaltown carried 130 pounds or more in eight consecutive races, including his walkover, and won seven of them.
- Coaltown was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1983.