by Fran Jurga | 3 May 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog
On Wednesday, The Hoof Blog wrote about The California Cripple, a.k.a. Swaps, the winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Today we'd like you to meet The Club-Footed Comet, the unflattering nickname for Assault, winner of the 1946 Kentucky Derby, and the entire Triple Crown.
Poor Assault was plagued with health problems and it almost seemed like his mashed up hoof was the least of them. But he was lucky enough to be born in Texas on the expansive King Ranch, where he would receive the best care and be sent to the great trainer Max Hirsch.
Mr. Kleberg, owner of King Ranch, believed that his million acres of Texas was the ideal place to raise racehorses both because of the climate and because the feet could develop naturally. According to the archives of the New York Times, Kleberg's theories of raising horses would be in line with the natural horsemanship theories of today. He did not think young horses' hooves would develop correctly if foals were kept in stalls.
Unfortunately, the wide open spaces backfired on his most talented colt.
The story is that Assault stepped on a surveyor's stake while turned out as a foal and that his foot was not actually deformed but that he did walk with a limp that would make you think he could never run. But run was about the only thing he could do.
If Assault was around today he would probably never make it past the regulatory vet.
The nature of his injury is vague and radiographs were not available back in the 1940s, but perhaps he lost part of his coffin bone; it really could have been any sort of a traumatic injury.
The official King Ranch biography of Assault tells us that the injury caused the foot to "become infected and the damaged hoof to be cut almost entirely away. He wore a special shoe on that foot for the rest of his life and limped at a walk or a trot...It is incorrect to say that he was club-footed; when he was in a standing position, the misshapen foot showed no discernible defect." One writer described the frog as looking like a block of wood.
John Dern was Assault's horseshoer and it was always said that his shoe for Assault was a secret design, but it is described in the Assault's biography from the Blood-Horse's "Legends" book series as being nailed at the heels and having a very broad toe clip or perhaps even being a rockered toe, to aid in keeping the shoe on.
No photos of the bottom of Assault's foot are ever shown; it's likely that the deformity showed loud and clear on the bottom, even if the hoof capsule looked pretty normal in shape and size.
Max Hirsch recalled, "He never showed any signs that it was hurting him... I think that when the foot still hurt him, he got in the habit of protecting it with an awkward gait, and then he kept it up. But he galloped true. There wasn't a thing wrong with his action when he went fast."
Assault had some unorthodox training under Hirsch, who took several months off from racing each winter and shipped his clients' horses to the fair grounds in Columbia, South Carolina for the winter. They stayed in training, but all had their shoes pulled. Whether he made an exception for Assault or not is not known.
Hirsch claimed that that particular training track had the best soil in America and that he had never seen a horse break down there. At that time, many northern trainers wintered at Aiken, Camden or Columbia while others ran horses year-round by wintering at Hialeah. Hirsch chose not to race in the winter.
Hirsch said that none of the trainers at the Columbia track shod their horses but said shoes would be needed as soon as they returned to the sandy tracks of New York.
The archives of the New York Times are full of great articles about Assault. Even his name suggests the upbeat end-of-the-war attitude and recent memories of any number of assaults in Italy, Normandy, the Pacific...and lots of places in between. Racing was shut down in the United States until VE day in 1945. Assault won the first post-war Kentucky Derby and for him to go on and win the Triple Crown was just what American sport needed.
In August 1947, a match race worth $100,000 to the winner had to be cancelled between the also-timely-named Armed of Calumet Farm and Assault when Assault's foot pain flared up. Hirsch was quoted in the Times as saying, "The soreness developed in the foot that has been slightly deformed since Assault was a baby. Every time he is shod, it is like performing a delicate operation. It may be that the soreness is due to a nail that touches a tender spot in his hoof when I set him down for a hard effort. Under these circumstances it would not be fair to the public or to my great horse to run the match."
Assault had fertility problems and returned to racing after his initial retirement, only to retire again. He ended his life as he began it, turned out in the wide open spaces of King Ranch in Texas and lived to be 28.
Assault's biography is one of the most interesting and unusual you'll find. I wonder who has his shoes!
To learn more: The photo of Assault is from the King Ranch web site, which has a nice biography of him and lots more information about the Ranch's champion horses, both Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses.
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