Book Review: Here Comes Exterminator!
By Eliza McGraw
Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
Reviewed by Margaret Evans
Everyone loves the underdog, the long shot, the horse that despite all odds goes on to become a legend. This is the story of Exterminator, and it all began one spring day in a Kentucky bluegrass meadow.
“In 1915, surrounded by tall oaks and the soft smells of late May… a dark chestnut foal unfolded his legs for the first time. He did not have any markings on his legs, which was auspicious. Horsemen were just shedding the superstition that white socks and stockings were bad luck.”
So began life for a somewhat homely Thoroughbred colt that would be named Exterminator, the 30-1 odds outsider that ran through the mud to victory at the 1918 Kentucky Derby. It was a stunning, unbelievable win, especially as the horse had been selected to replace one of the favourites scratched due to ringbone – Exterminator’s stable mate, Sun Briar.
Exterminator not only ran in 99 races, and was twice voted Horse of the Year, he also became a celebrity, a horse with fans and a following. The story of the easygoing, long-shot horse that won more stakes races than Man o’War and Secretariat combined is told in Eliza McGraw’s fabulous book Here Comes Exterminator!
New York Times and Washington Post contributor McGraw has done meticulous research to bring together the story of the horse in a time of war and change, weaving the tale between his hotheaded millionaire owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer and his talented trainer Henry McDaniel.
Exterminator’s victory came at a time when victories were needed. This wasn’t just a great race win; it was a win for the country. The horse became a symbol of patriotism, of an all-America brand.
Exterminator was sired by McGee and his dam was Fair Empress. Long legged and ungainly, he wasn’t the prettiest of horses – almost an ugly duckling - and he was gelded. He was bred by F.D. “Dixie” Knight, bought by Cal Milam, then purchased by Kilmer who wanted the colt as an exercise partner for the prized Sun Briar.
But Exterminator’s successes opened up dialogue as much about the times as the culture and the interconnection between people and horses. He was a gelding and the question of whether geldings should compete at races became a critical debate. European tracks were running stallions, and stallions of course could produce more great horses for the war effort. The war ended in 1918 but the connection between horse racing and cavalry horses remained strong.
Exterminator showed that America had its own brilliant Thoroughbred bloodlines. By the time he was seven in 1922, he had $200,000 in race earnings, a stunning sum in those days. There was a belief that American horses would never live up to the bloodlines of the horses of Europe and Britain, but Exterminator proved them wrong.
Exterminator had one of his earliest races in Canada at Windsor, Ontario, where he suffered a muscle sprain. His last and 99th race was also in Canada in 1924 when he was a nine-year-old, but this time he pulled up lame, finishing third. He was retired to a luxury of grass and leisure with a succession of companion ponies (all named Peanuts) after a racing life of 50 wins including 33 stakes wins, a record still unbroken by any thoroughbred raced in North America.
Exterminator died at age 30 on September 26, 1945 and is buried at Whispering Pine Pet Cemetery in Binghamton, New York. He shares the headstone with Sun Briar, the horse he replaced that fateful Derby day 27 years previously.
In her book, McGraw draws on an incredibly rich source of materials to provide vivid and lively prose and she gives an authentic sense of story that draws readers in. Throughout, she portrays the amazing personality, consistency, and athleticism that hallmarked the gangly, 17 hand, much loved horse.
This book is historically accurate and a great read that deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.