Exterminator: The Legend of 'Old Bones'

Exterminator defeats Mad Hatter. (Blood-Horse Library)

“Who is it laughs at years that flow?

Who is it always gets the dough?

Whose only creed is go and go?


The above verse, part of a short poem titled “Old Bones,” was affectionately written by Guy McGee and published in the Daily Racing Form on June 22, 1922. Through the years, relatively few racehorses have inspired people to publish poetry in their honor, but then again, few horses have ever sparked the imagination of racing fans quite like Old Bones, the legendary Exterminator.

In the spring of 1918, racing fans had their eyes on the exciting champion 2-year-old Sun Briar, who was preparing for a start in the Kentucky Derby. Owned by Willis Sharpe Kilmer and trained by Henry McDaniel, Sun Briar had been such a talented 2-year-old that many were expecting great things of him in 1918, and winning the Kentucky Derby seemed like a mere formality.

But as good as Sun Briar had been in 1917, he was not training well in advance of the Derby, which led trainer Henry McDaniel to arrange the purchase of an unknown gelding named Exterminator to serve as Sun Briar’s training mate.

Bred by F. D. Knight and owned as a 2-year-old by J. C. Milam, Exterminator had shown promise in 1917, winning two races from four starts and finishing fourth in the others. Although he had never contested a stakes race, Milam had nominated Exterminator to the Kentucky Derby and thought enough of him to put a hefty price tag on the colt. But McDaniel had been impressed by Exterminator, and despite the price, the purchase was made, and Sun Briar had his workmate.

There was only one problem: Exterminator proved to be faster than Sun Briar. And when Sun Briar’s training continued to disappoint and he was withdrawn from the Derby, Kilmer reluctantly decided to enter Exterminator instead.

A roller-coaster ride lasting six years was about to begin.

Without the benefit of a single prep race — he hadn’t raced in 9 ½ months! — Exterminator shocked the world in the Kentucky Derby. Racing on a muddy track that he clearly relished, Exterminator took the lead in the Derby after six furlongs, was headed with an eighth of a mile to go, then fought back courageously to win by a length as a 29.60-1 longshot.

Over the rest of the year, Exterminator won four more stakes races, including the Pimlico Autumn Handicap, to prove that his Derby victory wasn’t a fluke. He also showcased amazing durability, racing five times during the month of October and four times during November, and he also demonstrated a love for long-distance races when he beat older horses in the 2 ¼-mile Latonia Cup Handicap.

His durability and stamina would soon make him a legend.

In 1919, Exterminator raced a remarkable 21 times at 10 tracks in four different states, winning the Ben Ali Handicap and Camden Handicap early in the season, as well as the 1 ¾-mile Saratoga Cup in August and the 2 ¼-mile Pimlico Cup Handicap at the end of the year. He didn’t achieve quite enough to be recognized as the champion handicap horse of the year — that honor was shared by the capable Cudgel and Sun Briar, who was back to his best form — but Exterminator nevertheless proved himself capable of beating just about any horse in the country, including Cudgel and the Triple Crown winner Sir Barton.

Most Kentucky Derby winners are retired by the time they turn 5 years old, but Exterminator — being a gelding — stayed in training for 1920, and like a fine wine, he got better with age. He started off slow, winning a few and losing a few, but got on a roll in August when shipped to Windsor racetrack in Canada. On Aug. 21, he won the Windsor Jockey Club Handicap over the capable Wildair, then beat that rival again in the Aug. 28 George Hendrie Handicap.

Showing off his iron constitution, Exterminator shipped from Windsor to Saratoga and on Aug. 31 — just three days after the George Hendrie! — he won the 1 ¾-mile Saratoga Cup by six lengths over the champion filly Cleopatra. Two weeks later, he carried 128 pounds to victory in the two-mile Autumn Gold Cup at Belmont Park, winning by a head over Damask while conceding that rival 30 pounds. Back in Canada 10 days later, Exterminator dropped down in distance and upped his weight assignment to 132 pounds, but still managed to win the 1 1/4-mile Toronto Autumn Cup by a head over My Dear, who carried 40 pounds less!

Exterminator brought his winning streak to six straight races with an easy win in the 2 ¼-mile Ontario Jockey Club Cup under 134 pounds, and following a defeat in the Bowie Handicap, he ended the season with a nose victory in the 2 ¼-mile Pimlico Cup Handicap, again showcasing his thorough domination of the long-distance cup races. All told, Exterminator won 10 races in 1920 — nine of them stakes races — to be recognized as the champion handicap horse that year.

Exterminator wins the 1921 Merchants and Citizens Handicap. (Keeneland Library)
With each season of racing, Exterminator had risen to higher heights, and for all he had accomplished, the best was still to come. In 1921, now 6 years old, Exterminator started slowly once again and warmed up in August, defeating the talented Mad Hatter by a length in the Merchants & Citizens Handicap at Saratoga before winning the 1 ¾-mile Saratoga Cup in a walkover — no horse could be found to run against him at his favorite distance! A run in the Autumn Gold Cup resulted in another victory as he romped by six lengths under 130 pounds, after which he and My Dear put on a show in a second straight renewal of the Toronto Autumn Cup, with Exterminator carrying 137 pounds to win by a neck. He later added a third straight Pimlico Cup Handicap to his record to earn repeat honors as champion handicap horse.

Four years had passed since he’d won the Kentucky Derby, but no one told that to Exterminator, who continued to defy expectations by reaching even greater heights in 1922. At the age of 7, Exterminator opened the year with a display of mind-boggling versatility when he cut back to six furlongs and defeated the top sprinter Billy Kelly by a length in the Harford Handicap. Two starts later, he won the 1 1/16-mile Pimlico Spring Handicap by a head under 133 pounds and followed up with easy wins in the Clark Handicap and Kentucky Handicap while carrying 133 and 138 pounds, respectively, to victory. His next two starts were small handicap races (both of which he won) that served as preps for the 1 1/8-mile Brooklyn Handicap, where he would have a showdown with Grey Lag.

Grey Lag was a very talented horse, and quite possibly the best horse Exterminator had ever faced. As a 3-year-old in 1921, Grey Lag had been dominant, winning 10 of his 14 races — including the Belmont Stakes and Brooklyn Handicap — to steal Horse of the Year honors from Exterminator. Such was Grey Lag’s talent that he was heavily favored to defeat Exterminator in the 1922 Brooklyn Handicap, and the fact that he would carry just 126 pounds — nine less than Exterminator — was expected to make his task even easier.

But Old Bones wasn’t ready to give up the stage. Grey Lag followed the script to perfection, staying in front of Exterminator every step of the way and entering the homestretch with the lead, but then Exterminator stepped into the spotlight and rewrote the ending. As the racing world watched in amazement, Exterminator challenged Grey Lag with a furlong to go, refused to yield when Grey Lag fought back, and reeled in his younger rival to win by a head.

It was arguably the greatest race of his career.

Exterminator defeats Mad Hatter in the 1922 Saratoga Cup. (Keeneland Library)
Exterminator would win three more stakes races that year, including the Saratoga Cup and Toronto Autumn Cup, to finally secure the title of Horse of the Year. During an abbreviated 1923 campaign, he won the Philadelphia Handicap under 129 pounds but was sidelined with an injury after just three starts. The following year, his last season of racing, old age finally caught up to him and he failed to win a stakes race, but he did win three allowance races and finished fourth by 1 ½ lengths in the Coffroth Handicap, the richest horse race ever run to that point with a purse of $51,000.

Exterminator ended his legendary career with a third-place finish in the Queen’s Hotel Handicap at Dorval Park in Canada. Old Bones was retired to Kilmer’s farm, Remlik Hall, where he lived to the ripe old age of 30, adored by his fans to the very end.

Note: This story was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Exterminator’s nickname was ‘Old Bones,’ a reference to his rather bony appearance.
  • During his career, Exterminator was trained by eight different trainers and ridden by 18 different jockeys.
  • Exterminator retired with an official record of 50 wins, 17 seconds, and 17 thirds from 100 starts, with earnings of $252,996.
  • In retirement, Exterminator lived with a pony named Peanuts (there were actually three of them through the years), and he refused to go anywhere without Peanuts.
  • Exterminator won races ranging in distance from 5.5 furlongs to 18 furlongs, an extremely rare and remarkable display of versatility. He also won on tracks labeled fast, good, heavy, muddy, and slow.
  • Exterminator carried 130 pounds or more in 36 of his races, including 10 consecutive races in 1922. During that streak, he successful carried 138 pounds to victory in the Kentucky Handicap and attempted to carry 140 in the Independence Handicap, in which he finished sixth.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!