Tall Tales of the Track: Kingston Goes the Distance

August 13th, 2023

Phil Kessel, a right wing for the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights, holds the record for most consecutive games played with 1,064 as of April 2023. Cal Ripken Jr. exited his 20-year baseball career having played 2,632 consecutive games over 16 seasons. Tom Brady exited his 22 seasons as an NFL quarterback with 251 wins, a record. Alongside these records stands that of another example of unbelievable athletic durability, this one of the equine kind.

Bred by a Pillar of the Turf in James R. Keene, Kingston’s longevity on the racetrack comes not only in the number of times he raced, but in the wins he accumulated over his nine seasons, his greatness sealed in the record books and the Hall of Fame for all time.

A Gambling Man

James R. Keene was a gambling man. Born in England and educated in Lincolnshire and then Ireland, he had tried his hand at publishing a newspaper, selling milk, and raising livestock before going to Nevada to make his fortune in the booming mining industry there. He made enough money hauling supplies to fund a move to San Francisco, where he parlayed that fortune into investments in mines in both California and Nevada. Soon, he had built enough prosperity to become president of the San Francisco Stock Exchange but decided to move east to New York to find even greater opportunities.

After he flipped railroad stocks for a major profit, Keene turned his attention to a favorite pastime of wealthy men of his era, horse racing. He purchased the excellent two-year-old Spendthrift in 1878 and then registered his white silks with blue polka dots. Spendthrift was a son of Australian and a grandson of West Australian, the first English Triple Crown winner, which made him an ideal candidate for the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes and Jersey Derby, both of which he took with ease. After amassing a record of nine wins in 15 starts, Spendthrift retired to stud.

Keene did not have a farm to stand his star, so Spendthrift stood at the Lexington, Kentucky, farm of William Kenney. He then bought 14 English mares and sent them to the court of his prized stallion. One of those was Kapanga, whom Keene and son Foxhall bought while they were in England for Spendthrift’s abortive attempt at racing there. That pairing produced a brown colt with a white diamond on his forehead, whom Keene named Kingston.

After an ill-fated attempt to corner the grain market that left him with massive debt, Keene was forced to sell his stable, including Spendthrift and Kingston. Trainer Evert Snedecker and his partner J.F. Cushman purchased the yearling Kingston for $2,200. While Keene took steps to recoup his fortune, Kingston started what would turn out to be a remarkable career in the colors of someone other than his famed breeder.

A Horse of Quality

Kingston raced six times at age two, winning twice and finishing second four times for Snedecker and Cushman. That season, he faced the likes of Hanover, future Belmont Stakes winner and damsire of Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, and Tremont, who still holds the record for the most wins at two with 13. Both were owned by the Dwyer brothers, Phil and Mike.

The Dwyers had started their careers in racing not as wealthy financiers like August Belmont II, but as butchers with a shop at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn. One of their customers was August Belmont II himself, who offered to sell them a horse named Rhadamanthus. Thus, the Dwyers found their niche in racing: buying horses that were already proven on the racetrack and then taking in the spoils of their success, rewarding themselves with purse money and gambling winners. Though Tremont and Hanover beat Kingston each time they met in 1886, the brothers still worried that the son of Spendthrift could be a problem for their horses the next year, so they bought him for $12,500.

In the brothers’ silks, red with a blue sash, Kingston became a star. At age three, he raced 18 times, with 13 wins and four in-the-money finishes. At four and five, he lost only once each season, compiling 23 wins in 25 starts over those two seasons. He also set a record for 10 furlongs, 2:06 1/2, in 1889 when he won the First Special at Gravesend with Isaac Murphy in the saddle.

In 1891, Phil and Mike Dwyer split up their stable with Mike buying out his brother’s share in Kingston for $30,000. The son of Spendthrift raced four more years until he was 10 years old and ended his career with 138 starts over nine seasons, which is still a record for the highest number of career starts. His tally stands at 89 wins, 33 seconds, and 12 thirds for $140,195 in total winnings. Remarkably, Kingston was out of the money only four times in his career.

An Extraordinary Record

Even more extraordinary than racing 138 times in his career is that Kingston was a whole horse, not a gelding like Zippy Chippy and Exterminator, both of whom are similarly known for their longevity on the track. Countering the assumption that horses who race too long sour as sires, Kingston excelled at his duties as a stallion in the same way he had succeeded on the track.

His fortune recovered, Keene bought his homebred stallion back from Mike Dwyer for $25,000 and sent him to his newly acquired Castleton Farm near Lexington. There, Kingston stood alongside horses like Domino, Commando, and others as Keene parlayed his wealth into a breeding and racing operation that turned out horses like Sysonby, Colin, and Maskette. Kingston sired Novelty, winner of the Hopeful and the Futurity at age two; Belmont Stakes winner Ildrim; and King’s Courier, who won stakes in both the United States and England, including the Doncaster Cup and the Jockey Club Stakes.

More than a century after he last set foot on a racetrack, Kingston remains an essential example of athletic longevity. Keene’s excellent son of Spendthrift raced successfully for more than one owner and then nearly 20 years of service as a sire, producing winners in both America and England. He remains a shining example of what the Thoroughbred can be.