Discovery: A Legend in the Truest Sense

Discovery was one of the greatest stars of the 1930s in Thoroughbred racing, winning 27 of 63 starts including three straight editions of the Whitney Stakes. (Morning Telegraph photo/BloodHorse Library)

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there were Thoroughbreds that could carry heavy weight assignments, set multiple track records, run 16 to 20 times a year … then come back the next year, and the next year, and do it all again.

In the modern world of horse racing – an era in which the connections of champion racehorses carefully pick their spots and rarely race more often than once a month – it can be incredible to reflect on the careers of true “iron horses” like Discovery.

Born in 1931, Discovery was sired by the talented Display, a tough-as-nails runner that made 103 starts during the course of his career. His dam was Ariadne, a daughter of Light Brigade who was winless in four starts, and Discovery would be her only foal to win a race. At first, even Discovery didn’t look very promising.

Racing in the silks of Adolphe Pons, Discovery debuted on June 3, 1933 and finished an uninspiring fourth in a five-furlong sprint at Belmont Park. His next two starts were losses as well and, by the end of his 2-year-old season, he had only won twice from 14 starts – hardly the record of a future legend. But Discovery had placed in five stakes races and shortly before his final start of the season he was purchased for $25,000 by a young Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, who was just getting started with a racing stable of his own.

Transferred to the care of trainer Bud Stotler, Discovery ended the year with a runner-up effort in the Walden Handicap, beaten just a neck after dueling for the lead. It was the best race of his career to that point, and a sign of things to come.

Discovery (BloodHorse Library)

In 1934, Discovery made his 3-year-old debut in the Chesapeake Stakes – a prep race for the Kentucky Derby – and finished a respectable third before heading to Churchill Downs for the Derby. Sent off as a longshot at 12.10-to-1, Discovery tracked the pace in third and opened up a convincing lead with a quarter-mile remaining, but he couldn’t hold off the late run of Cavalcade in the final furlong and finished second.

Still, for a colt who had not yet won a stakes race, Discovery’s runner-up effort in the Derby was impressive, and it provided the first hint that he might be a very talented horse. He would finish behind Cavalcade on four more occasions that year, including in the Preakness, but signaled his own talent when he faced older horses in the prestigious Brooklyn Handicap and won by six lengths over talented 5-year-old Dark Secret. Shortly thereafter, Cavalcade went to the sidelines with an injury, setting the stage for Discovery to begin his domination of the sport.

After his busy start to the year, during which he ran nine times from April 28 through July 14, Discovery received a one-month freshening and returned better than ever. He won the Kenner Stakes at Saratoga against fellow 3-year-olds, then took on older horses in the Whitney Stakes and crushed the opposition by 10 lengths. Two starts later, he beat his elders again in the Rhode Island Handicap (run in then-world-record time of 1:55 flat for 1 3/16 miles), and wrapped up the year with two more wins from his final three starts, including the Maryland Handicap. He concluded the 1934 season with eight wins from 16 starts.

Discovery’s 3-year-old season was just a preview of what was to come, a foreshadowing of what he eventually would accomplish. In 1935, he returned as a more mature racehorse and, after beginning the season with five losses – some of them admirable efforts – everything came together at once, as though someone had flipped a switch. On June 15, Discovery finished a modest third in the Rockingham Park Handicap, beaten three lengths. On June 22, he turned into a beast, winning his second Brooklyn Handicap by eight lengths over Metropolitan Handicap winner King Saxon, with recent Triple Crown winner Omaha another four lengths back in third.

With this breakthrough victory behind him, Discovery became almost unstoppable. In his next start, he beat Santa Anita Handicap winner Azucar by 30 lengths (yes, 30!) in the Detroit Challenge Cup, setting a track record of 1:58 1/5 for 1 3/16 miles. Then, he won the Stars and Stripes Handicap by six lengths, the Butler Handicap by 1 ½, the Bunker Hill Handicap by 15, the Arlington Handicap by five, the Wilson Stakes by six, and the Merchants and Citizens Handicap by two lengths.

During this remarkable win streak, track handicappers started giving him higher and higher weight assignments, and in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, he successfully carried 139 pounds to an easy victory while conceding 22 pounds to the runner-up. He couldn’t repeat the feat in the Narragansett Special, finishing second while conceding 29 pounds to the winner, but this was only a temporary setback. Three days later, he won the Whitney Stakes by two lengths. He ended the year with two more wins from his final four starts and is recognized as the Horse of the Year and champion older male for 1935.

The following year, 1936, was Discovery’s final racing season, and while he wasn’t able to string together as many consecutive victories, his campaign still featured plenty of highlights, including three-peats in the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes. The Whitney would be particularly memorable in hindsight, as it marked the final victory of his long career. After defeating the talented mare Esposa by 10 lengths, Discovery finished second in the Saratoga Cup and Narragansett Special before ending his career with a fifth-place finish in the Havre de Grace Handicap.

Disctovery won 27 of his 63 career starts, finishing second and third on another 20 occasions while earning $195,287. He was retired to stud at Alfred Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm, and while it would have been very difficult for Discovery to become a better sire than he was a racehorse, one can make a case that he did just that. Twenty-five of his foals became stakes winners, a respectable total, but his legacy would be established by his daughters, who turned out to be very successful producers. Among their best foals were the legendary pair of Bold Ruler and Native Dancer, whose descendants include fellow top stallions Raise a Native, Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew, and A.P. Indy. Native Dancer’s daughter Natalma is the dam of breed-shaping sire Northern Dancer.

Thus, without Discovery, there would be no American Pharoah, no California Chrome, no Zenyatta, no Rachel Alexandra

Talk about a legend in the truest sense!

Note: This story was oroginally published in 2015 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Discovery carried 130 pounds or more in 21 races, winning 10 of them.
  • The highest weight assignment Discovery ever carried was a staggering 143 pounds in the 1936 Merchants and Citizens Handicap, in which he finished fifth.
  • Discovery was ranked No. 37 on BloodHorse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century,
  • Showcasing his versatility, Discovery ran at 11 different distances during the course of his career, ranging from five to 14 furlongs. He also ran on tracks labeled fast, good, slow, heavy, muddy, and sloppy.
  • During his four years of racing, Discovery ran an average of 15.75 times per year, and won an average of 6.75 races per year.

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