Assault won the Triple Crown in 1946, making him the seventh horse to claim the honor. A fact that makes Assault unique is that he is the only Triple Crown winner to be bred in Texas. The horse was sired by Bold Venture and foaled at the legendary King Ranch. The ranch was mostly known for cattle breeding, but Assault forever guaranteed King Ranch a place in the thoroughbred racing history books.
The King of King Ranch
No one can say for certain what inspired the most famous ranching operation in America to get involved in thoroughbred racing. Get involved they did, however, and Assault was foaled at the massive spread on March 26, 1943. As you might imagine, expectations were very high. King Ranch had a reputation for excellence in everything it did.
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The immediate impression made by Assault was not a good one. The horse seemed to have a propensity for hurting himself. As a yearling, Assault was curiously investigating his King Ranch surroundings and stepped on a surveyor’s stake. The stake pierced the colt’s right front hoof. Healing was a tedious process, and the hoof suffered a permanent deformation that would remain with Assault his entire life. He developed a limp. Most horses who suffer such injuries in their youth find their racing careers jeopardized.
Such was not the case with Assault. The horse learned to compensate for his abnormality. He had a strange walk and gait, but somehow the colt learned how to run despite the ailment. Later, this ability would earn Assault a nickname. Racing fans began to call him the Club-Footed Comet.
There were other problems. Assault suffered from a kidney ailment, a splint bone, and problems with his fetlock and knee joints. All of these injuries had the potential to end his career before it even started. Even worse, Assault was a bleeder. When horses run, the capillaries in their lungs can become engorged with blood. This blood can then be forced through the nostrils when a horse exerts itself while running, making it hard for the horse to breathe. In many cases, a horse that continues to bleed will be permanently barred from the sport of horse racing.
The physical issues were bad enough, but there was something else. King Ranch did not have a foothold in the thoroughbred horse racing industry. They had made a name for themselves breeding quarterhorses, but this breed was typically looked down on by thoroughbred owners as inferior. King Ranch was an outsider in a world of blue blood race horse owners, and some of those owners would have preferred the ranch stick to raising cattle.
The prominent owners didn’t know that Assault was going to succeed on a grand scale despite their objections. Assault was destined to become the King of King Ranch.
Racing Into the History Books
Assault was sent to Max Hirsch for training and made his racing debut in 1945 at the age of two. His first effort was everything the racing community had hope for and expected. The colt could only finish 12th in his first race. It was an embarrassment for the King Ranch owners, and those owners did not take kindly to being embarrassed on a national level. It would not be surprising if the ranch considered scrapping their thoroughbred experiment. Instead, they persisted and Hirsch continued his patient work.
Things did not immediately improve. Assault raced nine times in his two-year-old year and won only twice. One of those wins was a four-way photo finish in the Flash Stakes, not necessarily something to be proud of.
At the age of three, Hirsch decided to put the colt in the Wood Memorial Stakes. The Wood Memorial has long been a prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Most people sneered at the inclusion of Assault. His race record indicated that he was no where near the caliber of horses that he would be competing against. Nevertheless, Assault won the Wood Memorial and was firmly established as a Derby hopeful. Then came a disappointing fourth in the Derby Trial, and racing insiders considered Assault an outsider for the Kentucky Derby at best.
Jockey Warren Mehrtens was given the mount in the Kentucky Derby, likely because Hirsch and King Ranch could not secure the services of a more talented rider. Mehrtens was a second-tier jockey but rode often for Hirsch in low-level races. He could not have known on Kentucky Derby day that he was about to forever ingrain his name in horse racing legend.
Assault and Mehrtens were not supposed to win the Kentucky Derby. No one must have told them that. Win they did, and in stellar fashion. Assault destroyed his field of rivals by eight lengths. Heading into the Preakness, Assault was installed as the favorite.
In the Preakness, the inexperience of Mehrtens almost cost Assault the second leg of the Triple Crown. Mehrtens asked the horse for a strong run in the early stages of the race. As the horses entered the stretch, Assault was being tracked by Lord Boswell. Lord Boswell narrowed the gap but the tiring Assault managed to hold on by a neck. Many racing fans considered this victory a fluke and put their money on Lord Boswell to win the Belmont Stakes and spoil Assault and King Ranch’s quest for a Triple Crown.
A bad break from the starting gate caused Assault to stumble early in the Belmont. The colt surrendered valuable ground to his rivals. The bobble might have been a blessing in disguise, however, because it allowed Mehrtens to relax the horse and take up a comfortable position near the back of the field. The Belmont Stakes is 1 ½ miles, and he jockey knew he still had a chance to unleash a late run.
Assault trailed the field throughout, but in the final 200 yards the colt began to pass other horses as the race entered the long home stretch at Belmont Park. He won the race by three lengths and became the seventh horse to claim the Triple Crown.
Despite his accomplishment, Assault was still dismissed as a champion. It was not until he won the Dwyer Stakes after the Belmont that some began to proclaim him the best three-year-old horse in America. However, the claim with a caveat. Racing insiders were also quick to point out that the crop of three-year-olds in 1946 was weaker than most. A last place finish in the Arlington Classic seemed to verify the notion that Assault was just lucky and not very talented.
Hirsch had other ideas. He first examined the horse for ailments that could explain his poor performances. It was discovered that Assault had a sever kidney infection. This could have been what contributed to all the disappointing finishes that came after winning the Triple Crown. No one really wanted to hear that, though. Assault was proving himself to be an embarrassment to the Triple Crown legacy. Most champions went forward from the Triple Crown to win other important races and then retire with dignity. Assault was quickly turning the honor into a joke.
It is a fact in horse racing that poor performances lead to changes. Someone has to fall on the sword when a talented horse performs poorly. Owners and trainers need someone to blame. More often than not, this person is the jockey. Such was the case with Assault. Mehrtens was replaced by veteran rider Eddie Arcaro. Almost immediately, things improved. Assault finished the year with two impressive victories in the Westchester Handicap and Pimlico Special.
In 1947, Assault had possibly the best year of his career. He was, in all likelihood, a late bloomer. Over the winter he had grown. He also developed a voracious appetite. Assault would charge his grooms if his precious meals were late in being delivered. He also developed a humorous habit of paying close attention to his exercise riders. Assault would watch the rider and note if they failed to pay attention to him. If they did, the colt would duck to the side suddenly. For a moment the exercise rider would be hanging in mid air as Assault continued forward. The rider would crash to the ground and Assault would continue his exercise without the benefit of a rider.
Assault competed in seven races at the age of four and won five of them. He never finished worse than third. Some of the races he won were very important events like the Brooklyn and Suburban Handicaps. Even though he had success, few in the racing industry cared. Assault and King Ranch were still looked down on by the racing elite. It was almost as if Assault were giving the racing industry a parting shot by performing well at age four. It was like he was saying, “I could have done this all along but I am not here for your amusement.”
Assault would race until the age of seven. He would never again achieve the greatness he showed at age four. The length of his racing career could have been because King Ranch and Hirsch were trying to prove a point, a point they could never prove even if Assault won 100 races.
Assault in Retirement
Assault was retired at age seven and failed miserably as a stud. Some even believe he was sterile. He was eventually turned out to pasture at King Ranch where it is believed he bred pasture mares. This was only more fuel for those who believed King Ranch disgraced horse racing in America.
Assault is buried on King Ranch where he has become a part of the ranch’s enduring legacy. He was also placed in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1964.
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