With American Pharoah having just galloped into horse-racing immortality, I thought this might be the perfect time to write about one of the fastest and gutsiest horses you’ve likely never heard of.
In 191 starts during the late 1920s and early 1930s, My Dandy wound up in the money 116 times, including 47 wins. He earned nearly $138,000 (more than $2.2 million in today’s dollars) and is thought to be the all-time top money winner by the time he retired in 1934. But the numbers hardly begin to tell the story of this brave steed, according to Horace Wade.
“This little chestnut showed courage and determination rarely seen even in great thoroughbreds as he continued to run despite veterinary advice four times that he be destroyed,” Wade wrote in his article “The Horse That Wouldn’t Quit” for Spur magazine in 1986.
Here’s the real kicker: His sprint to fame started after he was purchased as a 3-year-old by William C. Reichert, who was part of the prominent metro-east family that ran a busy milling business between Belleville and Freeburg for more than a century.
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That’s how this subject came up. In a recent column, I tried to explain “claiming races” at horse tracks like Fairmount Park. These are races in which all horses entered have a price on their heads. If someone thinks a horse has potential, he or she can offer to buy the horse at a given price before a race begins. Once the bell sounds and the starting gate opens, the person who has made this “claim” for the horse becomes the new owner, sometimes for as little as a few hundred dollars.
That column opened a floodgate of memories for Joseph M. Reichert, of Belleville, who immediately wrote me that this was was how his Uncle William acquired a legendary horse just as the Great Depression was about to set in. But as with most everything in My Dandy’s racing life, it didn’t come easy.
As a 3-year-old, My Dandy was not exactly Triple Crown material. Foaled in Texas in 1925, the smallish animal debuted in a $1,500 claiming race and finished well back in the pack. When his claiming price dropped to $1,200, My Dandy perhaps figured he’d better get moving or wind up in a glue factory. He won this race going away, giving his original owner, Henry Batcheler, renewed hope that he was sitting on gold. After managing to avoid selling the horse in a $2,500 claiming race because of alleged claim-card discrepancies, Batcheler finally struck a $10,000 deal with Reichert, who was just becoming interested in racing.
“Both my uncle and my father (Elmer W.) were equal parties to thoroughbred racing,” Joseph told me. “But the money for it came from their father (William J.) and was based on the Reichert Milling Company and other assets in farming a lumberyard, cattle and commodity investing.”
His two sons apparently showed good horse sense, because, according to Wade, My Dandy’s story really began when the horse donned the green-and-white Reichert racing silks. Taken immediately to Chicago, My Dandy won his first Arlington Park race by 10 lengths, streaking in at 1:11 for three-quarters of a mile. He would win 10 more times that season as he zipped past noted Windy City equine speedsters.
But while the horse was being shipped to New Orleans for the winter, his long history of misfortunes began. Shipping fever, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia, set in. By the time he arrived in the Crescent City, a veterinarian who inspected him said, “This horse will never race again. He should be destroyed.”
Trainer Jack Carter wouldn’t hear of it.
“No,” he said, according to Reichert. “I know this horse. He’ll fight this out and win over it.”
That’s exactly what he did. As a 4-year-old, he won $40,000 in purses, small potatoes now but big money as the Depression hit. In doing so, he set track records at Fairmount Park (six furlongs in 1:10.6) and Arlington Park (1:10.4). He then beat Kentucky Derby runner-up Misstep in the Hawthorne Handicap. As a reward, he was entered in the $100,000 Agua Caliente Handicap, the richest race on the continent, but tragedy struck again. While cavorting in his stall, he jerked a halter from the wall and the nail to which it was attached dislodged and punctured his right eye. Again, a track vet ignorantly predicted the horse would never race again.
“My Dandy took it in stride,” Carter said. “He didn’t seem to miss the eye at all after a few workouts. It actually served, strange as that may sound, to increase his speed.”
The horse’s statistics bear out Carter’s contention. In 32 races the following year, My Dandy ended up in the money 27 times. His determination and grit, however, caught up with him. After being shipped to Miami for the winter season, he pulled up lame in his right foreleg. For the third time, experts doubted he would ever race again. Little did they know. The following summer while carrying top weight, he took a wire-to-wire victory in the Illinois Owners Handicap at Hawthorne. Later, he would post a 1:43.6 in a mile and a sixteenth at Lincoln Fields in Crete, the best time of the year by any horse at that distance.
It must have been a heady life for the Reichert family, which eventually ran a stable of seven horses at Elmer’s summer home and farm just outside Freeburg. During their adventures, they would rub shoulders with such celebrities as Tom Mix, the Ritz Brothers comedy team and numerous others. Joseph still remembers the family legend of his Grandfather William jockeying for position at the Aqua Caliente Race track in California.
“In those days it was common for fans to crowd the rails,” Joseph told me. “On this occasion my grandfather was trying to get close up and was being edged out by a stranger.
“He pushed my grandfather aside and said, ‘I don’t think you know who I am. I am (Oscar-winning director) Mack Sennett.’ My grandfather’s response was ‘Well, I am W.J. Reichert from Freeburg, Illinois, and that’s my horse so get out of the way.’”
But My Dandy’s glory days were fading. Soon after his brilliant performance at Crete, his lameness returned and yet another vet predicted his end. William Reichert, however, thought his star still had another win or two in those tired legs.
“When it is evident that he has lost forever the power which has enabled him to run with the best in the country, he will go into a rich man’s retirement,” he said. “He’ll never run with platers (claiming horses) and he will certainly never be entered in a claiming race.”
Instead, Reichert took his champ back to his rural Freeburg farm to rest. Soon, Reichert insisted, My Dandy began to mope over being put out to pasture. So, Reichert shipped him off to Rockingham Park in New England to train for the Inaugural Handicap, when tragedy struck one more time. After a workout, his jockey fell off, and My Dandy ran into a railing, nearly impaling himself. As he bled from deep gashes on his chest, a vet inspected the badly injured champion, shook his head and said euthanasia was the only choice.
Where did we hear that one before? After a two-month recovery, My Dandy was entered into the mile-and-a sixteenth Governor Green Handicap and, after a ferocious, battle won it by a length in 1:45.1.
With lameness setting in again, the 9-year-old horse that had worked so hard to evade the death penalty four times finally did start his “rich man’s retirement” on the Reichert farm. There he lived regally until he was 25, when he started swelling and bleeding around his head. This time Reichert had no alternative but to let his gallant horse start his run for the roses in the sky.
“That horse meant too much to me,” said William Reichert said of My Dandy’s death. “I couldn’t go out there, but I had to give the order.”
Reichert himself would pass away four years later, the farm would be sold and the milling business would close, but memories of My Dandy, whose name continues to be honored in a series of Texas Stallion Stakes, race on.
What might Lorillard customers have found in their packages of Century tobacco in 1860?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1970, singer-songwriter Dory Previn tried to get in the last word by writing “Beware of Young Girls” after her husband, Oscar-winning composer-conductor Andre Previn, left her for actress Mia Farrow, 16 years his junior.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.