Miss Disco


What do you say about the dam of the greatest American-bred sire of all time?  Perhaps that she was, indeed, the Queen Mother.  Yet no matter how eloquent, words hardly seem adequate to describe what Miss Disco gave American racing, and in turn American breeding, in 1954 when she foaled the dark bay *Nasrullah colt who would race as Bold Ruler.

Alfred Vanderbilt, who would give racing another, comparable gift in the form of Native Dancer, bought Miss Disco’s sire, Discovery, after he had liked the colt’s efforts in Saratoga’s premier event for juveniles, the Hopeful Stakes.  Discovery did not win that day, but he did run a good third.  Vanderbilt saw in him a horse who would be far more than just a good two-year-old, however; he saw a horse for the ages.

The payoff did not come immediately.  Discovery was a good two-year-old, a better three-year-old and a great four and five-year-old.  It was at four that the son of Display (by Man o’ War’s sire Fair Play) first began to demonstrate his great weight-carrying ability, eventually earning the title of “iron horse”.

After losing his first four starts at age four, the big chestnut began an eight-race winning streak that would see him win under 131, 132, 135, 138 and 139 pounds in handicaps.  He was just as staunch and sturdy at five.  In ten of his 14 starts, he carried 130 pounds or more.  Discovery also had a penchant for winning when it counted the most, such as in the Brooklyn Handicap which he virtually owned, winning it three years in succession from 1934-36.

Discovery was even assigned so high a weight as 143 pounds for the Merchants’ and Citizens’ Handicap, though he ran unplaced.  However, he won the best handicaps of his day.  In addition to the Brooklyn, he took the Whitney (twice), the Hawthorne Gold Cup, the Arlington H., the Stars And Stripes H., the Saratoga and San Carlos Handicaps.  He was no plodder, either, setting a world record of 1:48 1/5 for nine furlongs and equaling records for 1 3/16 and 1 1/4 miles under those incredible weights.

The big chestnut went to stud with high expectations of success and he never let anyone down, becoming a fine sire and a truly great broodmare sire.  Alfred Vanderbilt often said that Discovery was the secret of his success in the breeding business for it was, after all, Discovery’s daughter Geisha who gave Vanderbilt his immortal Native Dancer.

When the great horse retired, Vanderbilt began acquiring mares for him and one such mare was the Sweep On matron Sweep Out.  Vanderbilt bought her for $2,000 in foal to Pompey and named the resultant foal, a filly, Outdone.

Outdone won two of her 21 starts including the Sagamore H. (named for Vanderbilt’s Maryland farm).  However, as a full sister to a better daughter of Pompey named Clean Out, who won the Escondido and San Diego Handicaps in California and placed in the Spinaway and Test in New York, she was a worthy mate for Discovery.

Her first match with Discovery gave Vanderbilt the hardy Foiled, who raced 50 times but never approached stakes class.  She was followed by the gelding Thwarted, who won several stakes including the Oaklawn Handicap.  And from the third match came Miss Disco.

Miss Disco did not race in the Vanderbilt pink and white, however.  Young Alfred was busy with his Navy duties during WW II and instructed his farm manager to sell those yearlings who did not appear particularly promising.  One the farm manager chose to cull was Miss Disco, who was duly sold to Sidney Shupper for $2,000.

In Shupper’s colors, Miss Disco was a good, though not great performer.  She had her finest moment when winning Saratoga’s Test (now a Grade I) and she was tough and hardy, racing 54 times through the age of six.  Miss Disco’s ability to duke it out against males at high speeds attracted the eye of A. B. “Bull” Hancock of Claiborne Farm, who had spied *Princequillo earlier at Saratoga.  He inquired about her availability and purchased her for $27,500 for Claiborne’s growing broodmare band.

Claiborne, however, did not keep Miss Disco for long.  Gladys Phipps, long one of Claiborne’s best clients begged and pleaded until the Claiborne master gave in and sold the lovely young filly to her.  Mrs. Phipps was an astute breeder, however, and did ask Hancock’s opinion about which Claiborne sire would best fit her new broodmare.  Hancock answered without hesitation that Nasrullah, his newly acquired Irish-bred son of Nearco, would be his choice.

*Nasrullah was known as much for his temperament as for his racing ability when “Bull” Hancock bought the Aga Khan-bred from Joe McGrath for $400,000 in 1951.  The term most often used to describe *Nasrullah in training was “mulish”, as his obstinate disposition was blamed for his losses in all three English classics.  Thus despite being by the great Nearco from a Blenheim II daughter of Mumtaz Mahal, the Aga Khan let him go with nary a thought.

If *Nasrullah did not take long to make his presence known atop American sire lists, neither did he take long to make his temperament known around the farm.  One of the most famous stories about him concerns his sheer cussedness.

According to the story, *Nasrullah was being particularly difficult one morning in the breeding shed, worrying handlers to death with his antics which were alternatively savage and just plain stubborn.  The farm hands’ complaints reached the ears of the farms’ master and Hancock vowed that once and for all he was going to teach the horse some manners.  No one claims to really know what happened in the breeding shed at Claiborne that day, but it is known that “Bull” Hancock berated *Nasrullah with a broom.

There may not have been a clear winner, but apparently *Nasrullah did, in fact, behave better in the breeding shed from that morning on.  Apparently, he had finally found someone he could respect.

Miss Disco had one foal before her first meeting with *Nasrullah.  This was the winning Rosemont filly Hill Rose, who is responsible for one of the family’s better runners, Widener Handicap winner True North.

The mare’s first match with the great sire was in 1951 and she produced a colt who would later race as Independence.  For those who remember Bold Ruler’s speed, it may come as something of a surprise that his year-older full brother was a top class steeplechaser, but that was indeed Independence’s long suit.  When the family is viewed overall, it is apparent that any number of good hurdlers have emanated from it, and this is not a bad thing, for ‘chasers in a family indicate soundness.  Indeed, if *Nasrullah was the author of Bold Ruler’s swiftness, it was no doubt Miss Disco which enabled the horse to make 33 starts, for he was never 100% sound.

It was for this very reason that Bold Ruler had so very many fans during his racing days.  Many could empathize with his tender feet and aching legs, yet like the great horse they would go out and do their jobs each day.  Few did them so well as Bold Ruler, however.

When the dark bay colt was put into training, it was with “Sunny” Jim Fitzimmons, who had already had experience with a champion son of *Nasrullah, Nashua, with whom he had won the 1955 Preakness and Belmont Stakes.  Nashua, despite his often obstinate temperament, was just as sound as Bold Ruler was not, a veritable iron horse who looked like a racehorse until the day he died.  Bold Ruler, on the other hand, was a sweet-tempered horse and did not inherit his sire’s stubborn streak.

Bold Ruler’s birthday, April 6, 1954, marked one of Claiborne’s most remarkable historical moments.  On the farm, 30 minutes apart, were born two horses of the year.  For less than an hour after Bold Ruler’s birth, Round Table, who earned top honors in 1958, was foaled.  The two would be rivals as racehorses and sires and later their blood would mingle in the pedigrees of champions around the world.

Bold Ruler had his fair share of problems as a foal:  a hernia, an incident in which he cut his tongue, causing him to be always difficult to rate, another incident when he fell and almost broke a leg while being broken.  When he got to the racetrack, the problems continued.

Bold Ruler was an excellent two year old, far better than his two main rivals at three, *Gallant Man and Round Table.  He won seven of 10 starts including the Futurity, Juvenile and Youthful Stakes.

He hurt his back when he broke awkwardly from the gate in the Juvenile Stakes, and also suffered a minor injury to his hock.  He clipped heels and almost went down in the Garden State Stakes, a race he lost to Barbizon, who was ultimately voted the juvenile champion of 1956.  He also reared at the start in the Remsen and wrenched his back a second time.

The colt was still a highly regarded Kentucky Derby prospect despite his two late-season losses and was sent to Florida with his major goals being the Flamingo and Florida Derby.  He won the former and lost the latter to Calumet Farm’s brilliant Gen. Duke, a colt who never made it to the Derby.

He also won the Bahamas and Wood Memorial over *Gallant Man, who would prove a more persistent rival, and was sent off favored in Kentucky.  The 1957 Kentucky Derby went down in history, but not because of anything Bold Ruler did.  Instead, it will always be remembered as the Derby in which Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line aboard *Gallant Man, allowing Calumet Farm’s second-stringer Iron Liege just enough time to pass him for the win.  Behind Iron Liege that day, in order, were “the big three”; *Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler.

The Preakness was quite another story.  With Round Table declining the rest of the Triple in favor of the rich California purses and *Gallant Man awaiting the Belmont, the Preakness was all Bold Ruler’s.  But he then lost the Belmont to *Gallant Man, who set a track record of 2:26 for the 1 1/2 miles, a record that would stand until Bold Ruler’s son, Secretariat, lowered it when completing his Triple Crown in 1973.

Bold Ruler continued on and defeated older horses in the Queens County, Vosburg and Benjamin Franklin Handicaps, but he won his horse of the year title by defeating *Gallant Man and Round Table on a sloppy track in the Trenton Handicap.  He would return at four to confirm his gameness.

Bold Ruler may well have had his best season at four and it was in this, his last season, that he displayed the legacy that Discovery had bequeathed to him, becoming a great weight carrier in his own right.  He won five of seven starts, losing the Met Mile to *Gallant Man and dropping the other when he was injured badly enough to be retired and never did he carry less than 133 pounds.

When he broke down in the Brooklyn, the attending veterinarians could not believe the horse ran at the highest level with number of chips and the amount of damage they found in his x-rays.  How often, they wondered, had he won on heart alone?

Bold Ruler retired to Claiborne to stand his entire stud career, where he would write his name in the bloodlines of his great children and grandchildren til it shown like gold in the morning sunlight. It took him no time at all to prove his prowess as a sire, and his champions are familiar names to us all:  Secretariat; Gamely; Wajima; Successor; Bold Lad (USA); Bold Bidder; Queen Empress; Lamb Chop; Queen Of The Stage; Bold Lad (IRE); Vitriolic.  There has never been an American-bred or raced sire quite like him.

It was, therefore, all the sadder when it first became apparent that Bold Ruler would not live a long life.  All writers of Thoroughbred history have one special story that is their master work and in 1974, the late Pete Axthelm wrote a story for Classic magazine called “Deep Down, Some Quality Of The Spirit” about Bold Ruler.  In the article, Axthelm describes the circumstances under which Bold Ruler died:

“The end came quietly on a warm summer morning in the languid time after the busy breeding season had been concluded at Claiborne Farm.  Ed Fields, a groom known simply as “Snow” to everyone at the huge Paris, Ky., property, walked into a roomy black-and-gold-trimmed stall at the end of Stud Barn No. 3, looked at an untouched tub of feed and shook his head.  For a moment Snow stood next to the handsome dark bay stallion that he had tended for 13 years.  then he patted Bold Ruler on the neck and ambled, unsmiling and resigned, down the path to the office of farm owner, Arthur (Bull) Hancock, Jr.  ‘Mister Arthur,’ said Snow, ‘Bold Ruler’s still not eating.'”

It was with these words that Bold Ruler’s fate was sealed; it meant the cancer was back.  The great horse, who was the first of his species to be treated with cobalt for an inoperable brain tumor, had done well for a while, but he had run out of time.  Later in the day, Hancock said, “Just put him down, and say no more to me,” then drove off as he always did when a horse was to be destroyed.  Which says something about what a kind man Bull Hancock must truly have been; he simply could not stand to see his champions die.

Axthelm’s story tells us that Fields snapped the lead shank on Bold Ruler’s halter and prepared to lead him out to a waiting van where a lethal dose of barbiturate would be injected into his neck.  A farm hand asked where he was taking his horse and Snow replied, “Bold Ruler’s goin’ down to die.”

Perhaps the bottom line to Bold Ruler’s legacy comes down to the fact that, since 1948 we have had only three Triple Crown winners.  Two of them owe their blood to Bold Ruler.  Secretariat, of course, was his son, conceived in the last, desperate days of his battle with cancer.  Seattle Slew was by Bold Ruler’s grandson Bold Reasoning, who sired only two and a half crops before he died, but in those two crops left a Triple Crown winner and a European champion in Super Concorde.  Then, imagine the combined power of that blood in 1992 Horse of the Year A. P. Indy, and Bold Ruler really needs no other epitaph than to acknowledge that A. P. Indy, as well, has become a major sire.

When Bold Ruler died, Leon Rasmussen wrote, “The king is dead, long live the king.”  And the king is, indeed, living long and prosperously.  If Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector have passed him in current popularity it is well to remember than part of their legacy is built upon the foundation of Bold Ruler blood they have encountered along the way.

Miss Disco never got another horse as good as Bold Ruler, but then it would have been impossible for her to do that.  She did, however, get several good daughter branches.  Three of her daughters that were full sisters to Bold Ruler have held their own:

Explorer has been influential in Europe; Eastern Princess got the good grass horse Shady Character and the family branches out to include stakes horses in several countries; Highness is responsible for several stakes horses including some graded winners in Brazil.  Miss Disco’s best producing daughter, however, was Foolish One, an unraced daughter of Tom Fool.  From this branch have come such good ones as Protanto, Funny Fellow, Touching Wood, Fool’s Holme and a blossoming group of Florida stakes winners from her daughter Affectionate One’s sub-branch.

Miss Disco’s own pedigree is worthy of some brief commentary.  If it is true that Bend Or is the agent through which much of our speed is passed, then Miss Disco’s blood was a wellspring, for she owned four lines of Bend Or.  She was also rich in the stamina blood of St. Simon, the cup horse Isonomy and the American speed of Domino.

When matched with *Nasrullah, Miss Disco’s foals would have more St. Simon blood, of which Bull Hancock was particularly fond, but there would also be a 6 x 6 x 6 cross of full siblings Sainfoin and Sierra and Sundridge would be balanced via Lady Josephine and Sun Briar.  There are also three lines of Canterbury Pilgrim via a Swynford double to a line of Chaucer.

It is worth mentioning that Miss Disco’s sire, Discovery, descended from the same line (Fair Play) as Man o’ War.  When Fair Play was crossed with Rock Sand (by Sainfoin), it was considered the greatest nick of its time.  With the mating that produced Bold Ruler, something similar happened, as Miss Disco’s Fair Play meets the Sainfoin in *Nasrullah’s male line (Phalaris).  For what it is worth, Fair Play and Sainfoin combined account for five crosses of Pocahontas, using three lines of Stockwell and one each of Rataplan and King Tom.

We’ve waited far too long to add “Queen Mother” Miss Disco to the Reine-de-Course list.  Welcome her now, along with her daughter Foolish One.  Few mares can be said to have foaled horses who have altered history, but this one can.

Family 8-D