Little Bold John Succumbs to Colic at 21

Little Bold John, one of the most popular horses ever to race in Maryland and one of the most prolific stakes winners in North America, died Jan. 21 after a bout of colic at Weston Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. He died in the same field where he romped as a baby, outside the barn where he was born 21 years and two days earlier.

Bred by the venerable Hal C.B. Clagett and trained by Jerry Robb, Little Bold John competed 105 times during nine seasons, winning 38 races, of which 25 were stakes. That ranks him fourth in stakes victories among thoroughbreds in North America behind Native Diver (34), John Henry (30), Who Doctor Who (26) and tied with Stymie (25).

In a 1997 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Robb said that Little Bold John, who earned $1,956,406, was the best horse he had ever trained.
"Not only that," Robb said. "I think he's the best horse we ever had in Maryland. I could run him short, long, on the turf, the dirt, in the mud, and he'd win anyway. That makes him special over any horse I've ever seen."

Little Bold John overcame injuries and raced. He even overcame retirement and raced. Robb tried to retire him a couple of times, but Little Bold John rebelled against farm life and persuaded Robb to put him back into training.

Finally, Robb had no choice but to retire the gallant gelding.

"His last race, he hurt himself about the quarter pole and dropped back to third or fourth," Robb said. "He pulled his suspensory ligament.

"Most horses, when they get hurt, pull up. But he came back to win the race, like he was three-legged. After that, I knew he'd end up killing himself if I kept running him."

Little Bold John's final race was Halloween 1992 at Pimlico. He was 10, having raced every year since 1984 when he was 2. His biggest win came at Gulfstream Park in the Donn Handicap when it was a Grade II stakes worth $147,600. Little Bold John paid a record $113.80 to win.

He won two $200,000 stakes in Maryland, but mostly, as Robb put it, his nearly $2 million in earnings came the hard way, "$50,000 at a time."

Fans lined the paddock and winner's circle to cheer for this brave horse with the catchy name. One woman for years sent sugar cubes, his favorite snack, to the stable gate. The parents of a young man killed in a car wreck called Robb asking for photos and mementos of Little Bold John for display at the funeral.

"They said he was all their son ever talked about," Robb said.
A breeder of horses for more than half a century, Clagett, 86, took particular pride in breeding Little Bold John. The horse far exceeded the accomplishments of his dam, Little Bold Sphinx, and his sire, John Alden.

Clagett sold Little Bold John after his fourth start to Jack Owens, an Anne Arundel County businessman. Robb, who remained as trainer, bought Little Bold John from Owens in 1990 and then, in 1996, gave him back to Clagett.

Clagett said Little Bold John had been as rambunctious as ever up to the end, romping in his hillside paddock with other horses. Never forgetting that he was Little Bold John, the gelding held his head even higher in the snow.

"When that fell he acted as if it was raining glory on him," Clagett said.

About midnight Jan. 20, Little Bold John began showing signs of abdominal distress, indicating colic. He died about 6 a.m. the next day. He was buried along the fence line where, eventually, a monument could be erected, Clagett said.

No better epitaph could be written for Little Bold John than the "Daily Racing Form" headline in 1992, the year he finally had to give up racing: "Courage, thy name is 'John'."

Read more about Little Bold John in Barbara D. Livingston's Old Friends.