As a child, a local librarian gifted me with some books on horses, many of which were from the 1950s and 1960s: titles like Black Gold, Misty of Chincoteague, and nonfiction books on horses soon graced my room’s shelves. Included in this stack was a plain brown book with the drawing of a horse’s head: Old Bones, the Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace. Long before I would sit down to write about another wonder horse, I read about the tall, lanky gelding that wowed crowds for ninety-nine starts, the heart-shaped blaze on his forehead an enduring symbol of a beloved thoroughbred. And, nearly thirty years later, I got to read about him again in Here Comes Exterminator! by Eliza McGraw.
If Pace’s book on Old Bones enchanted you as a child, McGraw’s will do the same for the adult you. McGraw dives deep into the gelding’s career while also telling the parallel stories of legendary trainer Henry McDaniel whose keen eye and masterful instincts brought him to the mercurial owner that raced Exterminator all of those years. The story is not just about Exterminator, but about McDaniel as well, recounting the circumstances that would make both historic figures in racing in the early part of the 20th century. As she traces their moves, she recounts the role that Willis Sharpe Kilmer played both directly and indirectly in the careers of both horse and trainer. Without these two men, Exterminator would not have this storied career, but neither owner nor trainer would have had the impact they did without the horse at the center of McGraw’s narrative.
Kilmer used his family’s wealth to enter racing with a flourish, buying a highly regarded French colt named Sunday. Renamed Sun Briar, the colt would become Kilmer’s star, the sun which his early racing years revolved around. McDaniel, the son of famed trainer Col. David McDaniel, had risen slowly through the ranks of racing, finally landing in the big time when Kilmer hired him in 1916. When Sun Briar needed a training partner to help push him in workouts, Kilmer tasked McDaniel with finding a suitable horse for the job. Enter Exterminator, whom McDaniel purchased for $9,000 (a package with two other fillies) from owner Cal Milam. After Sun Briar was deemed not ready for the Kentucky Derby, Colonel Matt Winn convinced Kilmer to enter Exterminator instead. The gelding won, kicking off a long career where the owner did not hesitate to send Exterminator after records and purses until the horse was nine years old. Yet, despite all that Exterminator brought Kilmer, he still named his estate Sun Briar Court.
McDaniel stayed with Kilmer for as long as he could, but, when tensions arose between the two men, McDaniel said goodbye to his famous gelding and took on training for other owners, including Commander J.K.L. Ross. It was McDaniel who ultimately decided that Sir Barton could not withstand another season’s worth of racing and likely recommended that Ross retire the Triple Crown winner. As McGraw recounts Exterminator’s milestones, she tracks McDaniel’s as well, always keeping the Hall of Fame horse and the Hall of Fame trainer moving on their parallel tracks, hinting at an inevitable reunion.
For Exterminator, his career and its impact within his historical era are the focus of McGraw’s story. She weaves in the tidbits that add color and context to each moment, but her gaze remains steadfastly on the gelding and the races he ran. As McDaniel advocated for Exterminator back in 1918, so McGraw does the same in 2018. One hundred years after Exterminator’s breakthrough in the Kentucky Derby, McGraw takes us back to those golden years, before Seabiscuit, when it was the lanky brown gelding who represented the everyman: he was a horse with a pedigree that didn’t necessarily scream great and yet here he was, celebrated and dominant.
If the name Exterminator falls quizzically on your ears, pick up McGraw’s book and learn more about Old Bones. If Man o’ War and Sir Barton and their era moves you, seek out Here Comes Exterminator and learn about how the “Race of the Century” was almost a three-horse affair. Find yourself once again deep in the first part of the 20th century, a golden age of racing, and see one more time what a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work can create for a horse, an owner, and a trainer.