By Morton Cathro
Racing is full of unlikely scenarios, few of which have been more unlikely than the one featuring Hollywood screenwriter Ethel Hill and War Knight, the Thoroughbred she called "Tuffy." Ethel Hill didn't write the scenario that follows. But perhaps poetic license allows one to describe her as producer, director, and co-star of the drama that played out on a warm winter's day at Santa Anita Park before a cast of thousands, including this then-young reporter... The date is March 9, 1946; the occasion, the ninth running of the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap. The marquee attraction is First Fiddle, the "Grey Ghost" from the East, third on the all-time earnings list behind only Whirlaway and Seabiscuit. Hill's closest brush with fame has been as co-scriptwriter of The Little Princess, a film that resulted in its star, 5-year-old Shirley Temple, winning an Oscar. On this historic afternoon, dark-haired, blue-eyed Ethel Hill, who loves horses even more than the movies, is competing for a trophy of a different kind. "Tuffy" is the apple of her eye, the offspring of the Stimulus mare Chosa she had purchased in foal six years earlier with her $1,500 life savings. By the time the 1946 Big 'Cap rolls around, the Cal-bred bay son of Preakness winner High Quest owns a tidy record of 10 wins from 28 starts at two, three, and four. But injury has sidelined him during all of 1945, and in '46 he's winless in five starts, none beyond a mile. Few think he can recapture his old form. So his appearance among the 26 entries for the "Hundred Grander" isn't taken too seriously. He's relegated to the mutuel field with other lesser players, and critics smile at the temerity of a scriptwriter's one-horse stable challenging such Turf powers as Louis B. Mayer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Ada L. Rice, Elizabeth Arden Graham, and Charles S. Howard. However, War Knight also is cross-entered in a seven-furlong handicap earlier on the day's card, trainer Charley Leavitt reasoning a sprint-oriented pedigree is incompatible with the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. As scratch time nears, Ethel Hill, who "produced" War Knight, now turns director. "He's a lot of horse," she bluntly tells Leavitt. "He should run in the big race. 'Tuffy' can do it." Twenty-three horses (there are three late scratches) go postward, the largest field ever to contest a major handicap in this country. The 11-horse mutuel field, a record number, is held at 6.65-1. Some 80,200 perspiring fans, the biggest assemblage for a horse race in the West, sardine their way into Santa Anita in 84-degree heat, and many are shut out at the windows. Jockey Johnny Adams, utilizing War Knight's inherent speed, hustles his mount out of the gate ahead of the stampede that follows, and stalks the pace of second-choice Snow Boots, alone on the lead under Basil James. Johnny Longden, stuck down on the rail, needs more than a mile to get untracked and make his bid with the favorite, First Fiddle. As the thundering herd reaches the head of the stretch--where I'm standing in the grandstand mezzanine, clutching my win ticket on First Fiddle and cheering him on--the "Grey Ghost" is fifth on the far outside and closing fast. But he comes up a whisker short at the wire as "Tuffy," validating Ethel Hill's faith, toughs it out to win by a nose. Snow Boots is another nose behind in third, and longshot Bail Bond, Herb Lindberg up, completes the history-making four-horse photo. Thus does a true Hollywood thriller come to The End, climaxing a record-shattering day, rewarding bettors who got 11 horses for the price of one, and surprising almost everyone save War Knight's devoted owner. Epilogue: Ethel Hill, who campaigned unsuccessfully for a 50-cent tax on every starter at every track to fund equine rehabilitation, died of cancer in 1954 at the age of 56. War Knight, the first Cal-bred to win a $100,000 purse, never raced again. Originally retired to stud in California, he lived out his days at Carbon Acres Ranch near Columbus, Mont., where as late as 1966, at the age of 26, he was getting mares in foal for a fee of $300.
Freelance Turf writer MORTON CATHRO is a former reporter, editor, and columnist for the Oakland Tribune.