Until the 55th running of the classic Hopeful at Saratoga last week there wasn't much one could say about the nation's Thoroughbred 2-year-olds. The average quality of the crop seemed high enough, although none of the young colts had as yet been able to gain the reputation of being clearly above that average.
The Hopeful did a good deal to clear up this somewhat out-of-focus picture, for when C. V. Whitney's Tompion won it by a length and a quarter over the four-time stakes winner Vital Force his come-from-behind performance was startlingly convincing. Opposing Tompion in this late-summer test were Weatherwise and Irish Lancer (both of whom had previously defeated Tompion in, respectively, The Sanford and The Saratoga Special), Udaipur and, of course, Vital Force.
Following the career of Tompion this fall—and during his 3-year-old season next year—should be both interesting and at times tremendously exciting. For this beautifully made brown son of Tom Fool, out of the Count Fleet mare Sunlight, manages to create that special kind of excitement associated with a good come-from-behind runner.
Tompion will cause another kind of anxiety, too. "He is a tough horse to ride," says Willie Shoemaker, who flew in from Chicago to ride him in The Hopeful. "He ducks in and out, throws his head all over the place and is green in manners and spooky in action."
Tompion's trouble in most of his previous races under other jockeys was a depressingly consistent habit of starting slowly and then narrowly missing the leaders after some fairly brilliant stretch drives. Shoemaker seems to have corrected this trouble. In The Hopeful he had the colt away with his field and fourth up the back-stretch, as Vital Force, followed by All Hands, cut out the early pace. "But we were getting a lot of sand thrown at us, and Tompion just didn't like it," said Shoe later. "So I waited with him a bit, then took him to the outside, and after I hit him on both sides he decided to do some running."
Some running he did, too. Turning for home, Vital Force had the race won. All Hands was ready to drop out of contention. As Tompion wheeled into the stretch on the outside, Shoe could see he had lots of ground to make up. "It looked like we were still out of it by four or five lengths at the eighth pole when he suddenly leveled off and turned on his speed." Tompion practically flew the last sixteenth and won going away in a good 1:17 2/5.
The rich 2-year-old stakes ahead, beginning with this week's Washington Park Futurity and winding up with the Pimlico Futurity on November 21, will, of course, provide ample opportunity for many another juvenile to earn both glory and money. The entire schedule of races for the division, however, has gotten so disproportionately out of whack in recent years that racing is now faced with a serious situation. Too many owners find themselves running against their better judgment in order to cash in on the richer stakes. And the stakes for 2-year-olds are getting richer: this season's Sapling and World's Playground stakes were both increased to $100,000; next year in Chicago you'll find not one but two futurities increased in value to $200,000.
All the excessive racing brought about by competition for these riches causes many potentially good horses to break down under the strain. Some of those who remain sound superficially can also be affected. For example, whatever may have caused First Landing's kidney troubles this spring, one cannot help wondering to what extent his general resistance may have been affected by his grueling race in last year's Garden State. There may have been no connection whatsoever between that race and his troubles this year, but I can't help recalling now the words of one owner that day last fall immediately after the race: "Put a 2-year-old into a drive for half a mile on an off track and wait and see what kind of a 3-year-old he turns into."
The only sensible approach to fall 2-year-old racing is to pick two or three definite objectives and stick to them. This has been done for Tompion, whose last three races until 1960 will be the Cowdin on October 5; the Champagne on October 17; and the October 31 Garden State. After that, he's off to Santa Anita.
A lot of good and as yet untested 2-year-olds will be unveiled in the next two months. Some of them will undoubtedly put Tompion to an even sterner test than he faced in The Hopeful. If, however, he runs the way he did last week his name could be one to remember for quite some time.
And if you're wondering how or why a son of Tom Fool is given the name of Tompion you'd never guess in a million years. Last fall, when this colt was outshining his stable-mates during the annual yearling trials at the Whitney Farm in Lexington, his owner found himself using the familiar phrase traditional among horsemen who have just timed an exceptionally fast workout: "He broke the clock." Some research on clocks and watches revealed to Whitney that one of the world's foremost clockmakers was an 18th century Englishman named Tom Tompion.
"I really must be pretty lucky," said Whitney after Tompion's first major victory. "First I have all that success with my fillies, Silver Spoon and Bug Brush, and just as soon as they lose form I come up with a colt like this." He looked up the track as Tompion was being led away. And, in a deadly serious tone, he added, "This colt finishes like a real runner. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he isn't the best colt I've owned since Equipoise."
Incidentally, Equipoise, the old Chocolate Soldier, knew something about breaking clocks, too.