Here Comes Malicious

By Morton Cathro
Racing fans shopping for that increasingly scarce commodity, the equine hero, are finding slim pickings these days as the shelf life of star Thoroughbreds continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

Factors include the increasing fragility of today's racehorse and the tendency of owners to desert the racetrack early for the more lucrative lure of the breeding shed.

And while 2003 champion 2-year-old filly Halfbridled could loom as the Turf's next hero, her future value as a broodmare appears so enormous as to make her racing career predictably brief.

Thus are nostalgic racegoers turning to reminiscences of yesteryear and iron-horse heroes such as John Henry, Kelso, Forego, Stymie, Exterminator, and, among numerous others, Malicious.

Malicious?

"After Seabiscuit, he was the most popular horse in the West in the '30s," said lifelong racing fan Dan Arrighi, who as a youngster growing up in Southern California saw both run. "Few people today can believe that an $800 claimer could be that charismatic. But he was such an honest horse--and he was around for a very long time."

What made Malicious so enduringly popular were his dramatic last-to-first finishes in marathon races, accomplished over a remarkable span of a dozen years, on as many tracks. Called "America's Two-Mile Champion," Malicious drew adoring crowds, got big press coverage, and, like Seabiscuit, was the centerpiece of merchandising promotions, including a personal appearance at San Francisco's 1939 World's Fair.

The stentorian trademark call by track announcer Joe Hernandez, "Here Comes Malicious!" echoes to this day on the Internet (secondrunning.com).

Sired by 1917 Kentucky Derby and Travers winner Omar Khayyam, Malicious, a foal of 1927, began his racing career as a 2-year-old. From 1929 to early 1940, the tireless brown gelding competed up and down the West Coast, from Agua Caliente to Longacres, compiling a record of 185 starts, from which he emerged victorious 32 times.

One would have to go back to 1915 and Tippity Witchet, with 266 starts and 78 wins, to surpass Malicious in number of starts. Champion fillies Imp (1894), with 62 wins from 171 starts; Pan Zareta (1910), 76 from 151; along with Princess Doreen, Gallorette, and Bewitched, led durable distaffers of old. The aforementioned Stymie (1941), a $1,500 claim, gutted it out with 35 victories in 131 starts.

According to trainer Noble Threewitt and his wife, Beryl, who also saw him run, Malicious was trained for several years by Lonnie Copenhaver. "Lonnie was known as 'king of the gypsies,' " the Threewitts remembered. "He and his claimers traveled a lot, but in those days you didn't ship east unless you had a stakes horse like Seabiscuit."

Today, thanks to a best-selling book and popular movie, Seabiscuit (33 victories in 89 starts) is back in memory's spotlight--a spotlight Arrighi believes Malicious deserves to share. "Saturday after Saturday," he remembered, "Santa Anita would card a two-miler as the last race, knowing fans would stick around just to root for Malicious."

A retired transportation company executive now living in the town of Washington, Utah, Arrighi recalled one Saturday when he sneaked into the infield and positioned himself at the far turn. "Malicious was next to last when they went by me, and (jockey) Johnny Adams let out this loud shriek. The horse took off. And in the distance I could hear 'And here comes Malicious!'...It was a thrill I'll never forget."

As a teenager in the autumn of 1939, this writer witnessed a series of Saturday marathons at Bay Meadows for top routers. Old Malicious showed up for the Nov. 11 finale, the four-mile Thornton Stakes. The weary road warrior, who hadn't started since that spring at Santa Anita, made his patented late surge to gain fourth in a blanket finish.

That was his final race in the U.S. On Jan. 28, 1940, at age 13, one of the toughest iron horses of all time closed out his gallant career--a marathon in itself--by running second at Agua Caliente. His final paycheck was $100; his legacy, a claimer's place in the pantheon of sound, stout-hearted stakes horses--and in the hearts of a devoted public.

Retired newspaperman MORTON CATHRO's marathon affair with horse racing began in the 1930s.

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