Hall of Fame Sprinter Housebuster: Electrifying Speed

Housebuster won the 1990 Withers Stakes, above left, and 1990 King’s Bishop Stakes, right, en route to champion sprinter honors, a title he would win again in 1991. (Bob Coglianese/NYRA)

Speed is the name of the game in horse racing, but fame and glory usually gravitate toward those horses with the stamina to negotiate longer distances of ground in two-turn classics.

Sprinters, the horses who can generate electrifying fractions, are usually in the background, except for a handful of champions who possessed speed so dazzling it left a lasting impression on anyone who ever watched them rocket to the winner’s circle.

Housebuster was one of those brilliant sprinters.

A son of Mt. Livermore owned by Robert P. Levy, Housebuster never raced beyond a mile but ranks among the best horses of the 1990s. He was that fast – and that good.

He ran 22 times from 1989 through 1991 and won 15 times. Trained by Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll for all but his three starts at age 2, Housebuster finished out of the money in just three races. Of those 15 wins, 14 were in stakes and 11 of them were graded, and his heroics earned him enshrinement in the Racing Hall of Fame.

On the three occasions he finished second in his career, he lost to two rivals who would be voted Horse of the Year and one who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic the previous year.

Housebuster had two gears: fast and blazing fast. He won by imposing margins. In nine of his victories, he crossed the finish line at least three lengths ahead of his nearest pursuers.

He was so dominant that he was named a champion sprinter in back to back years (1990 and 1991), a feat that would not be duplicated until Roy H matched Housebuster 27 years later.

"Housebuster," Craig Perret, the horse’s regular rider, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "is the fastest horse I've ever ridden.”

“He's the best," Croll said in the same story.

Bred by Blanche P. Levy and Murphy Stable out of the Great Above mare Big Dreams, Housebuster debuted for trainer Ronald Benshoff on Oct. 17, 1989 at The Meadowlands in New Jersey and finished third. He was much sharper for his second start, winning by 2 ¾ lengths as a 1-2 favorite. He then closed out his 2-year-old campaign by winning the ungraded Morven Stakes at The Meadowlands by seven lengths.

Turned over to Croll, Housebuster blossomed as the calendar turned to 1990. He opened his 3-year-old season at Gulfstream Park in impressive style, winning the Spectacular Bid by 2 ¼ lengths and then the Grade 3 Hutcheson by three lengths.

Those victories might have led to a profound case of Kentucky Derby fever among some trainers, but Croll kept his feet planted firmly on the ground and continued to point Housebuster toward sprint races.

The brown colt’s next target was Gulfstream’s Swale Stakes, a Grade 3 sprint at a seven-furlong distance. In that race, he faced Summer Squall, who would go on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and win the Preakness, and Thirty Six Red, who would win the Wood Memorial and finish second in the Belmont Stakes. Both of them were unable to keep pace with Housebuster, who grabbed the lead at the start and never looked back in scoring by a length over his talented rivals as a 9-10 favorite.  

Staying at sprint distances, he was then entered in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Lafayette at seven furlongs and his presence was so intimidating that only two rivals showed up to challenge him and wagering on the race was not allowed.

His 11-length romp raised conjecture that the Preakness could be an inviting target for Levy’s monster, but Croll quickly shot that down.

“[The owners] are thinking about it,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the Lafayette, “but I'm not.”

Then, just like 20 or so of the year’s top 3-year-olds, Housebuster headed to Churchill Downs, only his destination was the Derby Trial at a mile.

An easy 5 1/4-length score as a 1-5 favorite did not alter Croll’s stance on the Triple Crown and Housebuster then headed to New York, rather than Pimlico, where he won the Grade 2 Withers Stakes, again at a mile, by two lengths for his eighth straight victory.

Afterwards, Croll showed that steering away from the Triple Crown had everything to do with distance rather than concern over the competition as he picked out a spot for Housebuster with rivals more formidable than the year’s Triple Crown runners.

Housebuster was entered in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park where he faced the mighty Easy Goer and Criminal Type, who would be named the 1990 Horse of the Year. Getting seven pounds from Criminal Type and 14 from Easy Goer, the 2-5 favorite, Housebuster was sent off as the 2-1 second choice before a crowd of more than 32,000. He rushed out to the early lead through blistering fractions of 45 seconds and 1:09 1/5, but was unable to hold off a late bid by Criminal Type, who beat him by a neck.

Easy Goer checked in a length and a half behind Housebuster in third as he finished worse than second for the only time in his 20-race career.

Undaunted by that setback, Housebuster resumed his winning ways, taking the Grade 3 Sheridan at Arlington Park at 1-20 odds and the Grade 3 King’s Bishop at Saratoga as a 3-10 choice. He then demolished four rivals in the Grade 1 Jerome Handicap at Belmont by 13 lengths at 2-5 odds.

With eight graded stakes wins under his belt, Housebuster was mentioned as a leading candidate for not only the 3-year-old championship but Horse of the Year honors until a fateful trip in the Grade 1 Vosburgh dashed those hopes. He suffered a strained ligament in his ankle and cuts to his legs while finishing sixth and was also diagnosed with a lung infection.

The injuries kept Housebuster out of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, where he would have been heavily favored.

“We'll skip the Breeders' Cup. It's tough. He's been a good horse all year. He's run his heart out, and then this happens. But you've got to look after your horse,” Croll told the Los Angeles Times after Housebuster’s 15-length loss. “He rapped himself pretty hard. He cut his hind leg, and just all in all, he needs some time. We don't figure he could get back for the Breeders' Cup in a proper way.”

Despite missing the Breeders’ Cup, Housebuster was crowned as the champion sprinter of 1990.

Housebuster returned to the races in 1991 and in his 4-year-old debut ran into Unbridled, the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, in the seven-furlong Deputy Minister Handicap. Giving three pounds to the Eclipse Award winner, Housebuster finished second by three lengths to Unbridled.

He finished second again in the Grade 3 Commonwealth at Keeneland, this time to Black Tie Affair, who would win the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Classic to cement Horse of the Year honors.

Housebuster avenged that loss to Black Tie Affair in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, beating him by 2 ¼ lengths.

An uncharacteristically weak effort followed in the Met Mile, where Housebuster finished eighth, but he returned two months later to take the DeFrancis Dash at Laurel Park by five lengths.

Back in New York, he won the Grade 2 Forego by a nose while giving 14 pounds to runner-up Senor Speedy and then at level weights blew away five rivals to win by 5 1/2 lengths in the Grade 1 Vosburgh.

His final start came in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, where expectations were as high as the clouds that he would achieve the victory that eluded him a year earlier. Fate, though, had different plans. A 2-5 favorite, Housebuster bobbled coming out of the gate. He grabbed his right quarter and then suffered a strained suspensory ligament in his left leg during the race while trying to compensate for the initial injury. He ran gallantly, leading briefly in the stretch, but weakened in the final furlong and wound up ninth while returning lame.

“The fact that he ran this far this fast is just unbelievable," Levy said after the race. “An ordinary horse would have stopped right away, but he ran on heart alone.”

It was not the end that was expected for the charismatic two-time champion, but the loss still could not diminish a brilliant career by any standard – be it one turn or two.

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

Fun Facts

  • He entered the Hall of Fame in 2013.
  • He was sent off at odds of less than even money in 14 of his 22 races and won nine of them.
  • He won races at nine different tracks in his career.
  • Ta Wee (1970 and 1971 champion sprinter) was the dam of Great Above, who was Housebuster’s broodmare sire.
  • In his breeding career, Housebuster sired 39 stakes winners and 15 group or graded stakes winners. He stood breeding seasons in Kentucky, Japan, and Virginia and was also shuttled to New Zealand and Argentina.
  • The 1991 Breeders’ Cup Sprint served as the first race in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup National Pick 7. Due in large part to Housebuster’s loss, no one correctly picked all seven winners.

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