A Battle of Titans: The 1917 Brooklyn Handicap

June 14th, 2024

Occasionally, the sport gives us opportunities to see something that we will talk about years later: Man o’ War’s lone defeat in the 1919 Sanford Stakes; Secretariat’s incredible 31-length gallop into immortality; Affirmed and Alydar’s duel down the stretch in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. These are races we still talk about and treasure long after each horse’s racing days were done.

On June 25, 1917, another memorable clash played out at old Aqueduct Racetrack, as three Kentucky Derby winners and three Hall of Famers made that dirt oval their arena in a historic battle of titans. In this epic saga, the finale yields a surprising twist as these superstars play off each other over nine furlongs on the Gotham stage.

1915 Kentucky Derby Winner Regret

The Players

In this drama are 11 players, each an equine athlete from prominent owners with the era’s leading jockeys on board: 

Old Rosebud – Bred by John E. Madden at his Hamburg Place, the son of Uncle was a bargain at $500 for owner Hamilton C. Applegate. A year after Donerail’s big payoff brought the Derby some much-needed national attention, the 1914 edition saw this diminutive gelding set a record of 2:03 2/5 for the 10 furlongs. Injuries had sidelined him for nearly two years, but he returned in 1917 nearly as good as new and ready to tote weight against younger competition.

Regret – The first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, her 1915 win sent the race’s reputation skyrocketing as her owner Harry Payne Whitney proclaimed his satisfaction with her rosy victory. Undefeated until her four-year-old season, the mare entered her 1917 season with a win in an allowance race at Belmont Park before entering the Brooklyn Handicap with stablemate Borrow.

Omar Khayyam – The English-bred son of Marco was fresh off his win in that year’s Kentucky Derby. His three-year-old season would see him add the Travers, the Brooklyn Derby (later the Dwyer Stakes), and the Lawrence Realization, but first, he would confront three future Hall of Famers in Old Rosebud, Regret, and Roamer.

Roamer – this gelding and rival of Old Rosebud had set multiple records over his five-year career and won races like the Travers at 10 furlongs and the Carter Handicap at seven furlongs. His speed would inspire one car company to name a model after him, and his consistency would earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame decades later.

This cast also included Borrow, former English stakes winner and Regret’s stablemate; Boots, multiple stakes winner owned by A.K. Macomber; August Belmont, Jr.’s Stromboli, the oversized Fair Play gelding; Ormesdale, owned by Richard T. Wilson, a partner in Saratoga Race Course and director of Belmont Park; Chiclet, a British import for Joseph E. Widener; Clematis II, a mare imported from England for Oscar Lewisohn; and Old Koenig, a sprinter owned by Beverwyck Stable. 

The jockeys tapped for the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap included future Hall of Famer Johnny Loftus, who would later ride Sir Barton to the first Triple Crown; Willie Knapp, the jockey who would ride Upset to victory over Man o’ War two years later; James Butwell, who won the 1913 Preakness on Buskin and the 1910 Belmont on Sweep; and Frank Robinson, who would ride Belle Mahone to victory in the 1917 King’s Plate. 

The state was set for this blockbuster showdown over a fast track at the old Aqueduct.

The Drama

Breaking from post 3, Regret was fastest to the front of the line, followed by Ormesdale and Chiclet. Roamer moved up to second at the half-mile mark and chased Regret until the field hit six furlongs, and the gelding was soon overtaken by both Borrow and Old Rosebud. The filly was always one to two lengths ahead of the field as they approached the stretch with her stablemate in close pursuit.

In the waning strides, Borrow inched closer to the Derby-winning mare, whose pace was such that her one-mile time was just a fifth of a second off the world record. Knapp could see that his mount had a chance if he could drive the gelding a little bit harder. To Regret’s inside, Borrow rode the rail, creeping up on his stablemate as she desperately drove to keep her head in front. In those final yards, Borrow was eye to eye with the famed mare as she strained to maintain her advantage, but he had already gotten the best of her, eking out a victory by a neck. Old Rosebud came home a length back in third and Chiclet another length back in fourth. Roamer was fifth, the favored Boots sixth, with Stromboli, Ormesdale, Clematis II, Omar Khayyam, and Old Koenig rounding out the field. The final time for the nine furlongs was 1:49 2/5, a new American record.

The star-studded Brooklyn and its record-breaking time earned rave reviews from turf writers of the day. The Sun called it “one of the greatest races yet seen on the American turf,” while the Daily Racing Form proclaimed the Brooklyn “a thrilling contest every step of the way.” To this day, this 1917 stakes stands alongside the 1967 Woodward Stakes, with Damascus, Buckpasser, and Dr. Fager finishing 1-2-3, as one of the deepest fields to ever grace an American racetrack.

This meeting of equine champions played out like any other epic in front of a crowd enthralled by the action, men and women who would long remember how the elder Borrow got the better of Regret, the best mare of her generation, in a stretch battle that deserves another recounting for racing fans of all ages to enjoy.

1917 Kentucky Derby Winner Omar Khayyam