Each week, Bourbon and Barns will catch up with one of the finalists for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, the top award in thoroughbred literature. This week, we chat with Eliza McGraw, author of Here Comes Exterminator?: The Longshot Horse, the Great War and the Making of an American Hero. The book examines amazing rise of Exterminator from afterthought to Kentucky Derby winner. The book is published by Thomas Dunne Books and is available at https://www.amazon.com/Here-Comes-Exterminator-Longshot-American/dp/1250065690.
Bourbon & Barns: Congratulations on being named a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. That really says a lot about the research and hard work you put into this book. How did you become interested in the story of Exterminator?
Eliza McGraw: Thank you very much—I’ve always appreciated how Dr. Ryan’s award focuses on the unique connection between horses and books, so this is an exciting time for me and Exterminator.
I actually first became interested in Exterminator when I was in second or third grade—many people probably remember Mildred Mastin Pace’s terrific book Old Bones, The Wonder Horse, and there was a copy in my elementary school’s library. Then, I got re-introduced while I was researching an article about the Remount for an article. Exterminator’s name was everywhere in the newspapers of the time. I felt like he was tugging at my sleeve. I had to know more.
BB: Before we get into Exterminator's racing history, let's start at the beginning. Where was Exterminator bred, born and raised?
EM: Exterminator was born in Nicholasville, on what’s now Ramsey Farm. Then Cal Milam bought him as a yearling at Saratoga, and brought him home to Kentucky to train. Probably one of the huger thrills I got while I was doing research was spending a morning with Jeff Ramsey. He gave me a tour of the farm, and showed me all the historic buildings. I got to meet Kitten’s Joy, too. That was a great day.
BB: While owned by J. Cal Milam, Exterminator raced twice as a two-year-old, winning both races. Then, Exterminator was sold to Willis Kilmer to become a workhorse to push his stablemate (Sun Briar) in workouts. Did Kilmer or trainer Henry McDaniel know they might have a great racehorse on their hands?
EM: Henry McDaniel knew Exterminator was special; he’d found him in the first place. He knew where to look—Cal Milam always had nice horses. But at the beginning, Exterminator really had one job, which was to make Kilmer’s juvenile champion, Sun Briar, run faster.
BB: Remarkably, Exterminator's two wins as a two-year-old were his only races before entering the 1918 Kentucky Derby off a whopping 10-month layoff from racing. How was the decision made to enter Exterminator in the 1918 Derby?
EM: That really is something, isn’t it? That ten months off? Kilmer made the decision because he didn’t have a choice. Sun Briar, who had gone into Derby season as the favorite, wasn’t training right. Exterminator was an understudy. McDaniel liked him, and thought he had a chance, but Kilmer was furious about the idea until Matt Winn, who ran Churchill Downs at the time, intervened. Then, he decided it was all right; Exterminator would run. Kilmer was so undone that Sun Briar couldn’t race in the Derby that he wasn’t too focused on Exterminator. He was glad to see his colors were in the race, and he was cheery and pleased with the success once it was over, but it was McDaniel who showed faith in Exterminator from the beginning.
BB: Exterminator raced between 1917 and 1924, which was an incredibly momentous time in American history when World War I (or the Great War as it was known as the time) and a booming stock market were the prevailing headlines of the times. How did the war and the economy of the Roaring 1920s impact the story of Exterminator?
EM: That’s a great question, because Exterminator’s legend was actually a product of the war, in some ways. There was a big link between Thoroughbred racing and the war, because Thoroughbred breeders and owners helped so much with the Remount and the cavalry. And then, people loved that Exterminator was not foreign-bred, that he was a hard worker, and that he was an underdog at first. All of those things made him seem like a symbol of the country at war. Afterward, when the culture became glitzier and more stylish, Exterminator stayed his hardworking, versatile self. People adored him not just for being an incredible athlete, but for being solid, and reliable, and for winning just by a nose all the time. They liked that work ethic. I think Exterminator represented something uniquely American.
BB: Did Exterminator's breeder (Dixie Knight) or Milam ever express regret over not holding on to a horse who would go on to win the Derby and become a Hall of Famer?
EM: I didn’t find anything about how the Knights felt, but Cal Milam was a pinhooker, and he very professional about it. When a reporter asked him how he felt watching Exterminator win the Derby, he said it was the old “bird in the hand,” meaning that Kilmer had bought the horse fair and square. McDaniel did tease Milam about it one time, though. After Exterminator won a race one time, photographers were coming at him with big cameras, and Milam shouted that McDaniel should open his eyes—meaning, don’t blink when they take your picture. And McDaniel said, “I had my eyes open when I bought this horse from you, Cal."
BB: Horse racing was immensely popular during the years Exterminator was racing. How would you describe the popularity of racing at the time?
EM: It was one of the biggest sports, along with boxing and baseball. It’s really hard for us to imagine, because as horse people today we might get fired up about Songbird or Arrogate and depending on where you live, you can’t start water cooler talk that way. But that wouldn’t have been true during Exterminator’s time. You could ask anyone on a streetcar how they liked Morvich or Mad Hatter or Sir Barton and you would have a lively conversation going.
BB: I understand there may have once been an arrangement in place for Exterminator to race against Man o'War. Do you know the details of that arrangement? Why did these two legends and contemporaries never face off against one another on the track?
EM: Many people were dying to see Exterminator face off against Man o’ War, who was the most exciting horse of the time. It was a big deal: could Exterminator, with his stayer’s power and resilience, tackle Man o’ War’s blinding speed? But Kilmer and Riddle couldn’t agree on terms, and Riddle didn’t really need Exterminator, because he had a rival in Sir Barton to make it a match race. It’s too bad—it would have been quite a race.