The Heart That Wears the Crown: Assault

August 2nd, 2023

Sometimes greatness comes in small packages. War Admiral showed a mighty turn of foot in a compact frame, earning him the nickname "The Mighty Atom," while the 15.2 1/2-hand Sir Barton dazzled the sport with his pioneering wins. What each horse on the short list of Triple Crown winners possessed was the speed, stamina, and fortitude necessary to outrun every challenger.

With a heart as big as Texas, Assault did not let his small size or disfigured hoof keep him from wearing a crown and sealing his place in racing history.

Youthful Perseverance

The year after Omaha won his Triple Crown, Bold Venture secured narrow victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before a bowed tendon forced his retirement. After two years at stud in Kentucky, King Ranch’s Robert Kleberg bought the stallion for $40,000 and brought him to the expansive breeding operation in Texas. In 1943, Kleberg paired the dual classic winner with the unraced but well-bred mare Igual and produced a wee chestnut colt with a hind sock and a splotch of white. He was given the wartime name of Assault.

Like the 15.1-hand Bold Venture, Igual was also smaller than most Thoroughbreds, standing under 15 hands, and the foal by her side seemed similarly sized. However, as bounded around the mare-and-foal paddock he shared with his dam and others, Assault betrayed no awareness of his stature and rushed around with same vim and vigor as his taller peers. He boldly rushed across the vast enclosure, but avoided the thick brush and its potential dangers, like snakes and uneven ground. All that caution, though, was not enough to avoid an accident.

Surveyors had laid out the paddocks that the King Ranch mares and foals roamed, picking up the wooden stakes once their work was done — all except one. When Assault’s tiny foot came down on the stake, it punctured the frog, or shock-absorbing pad inside the hard hoofwall, and came out at the coronary band, where the hoof met his lower leg. The injury was a painful one, but the ranch’s veterinarian Dr. J.K. Northway had already seen what a horse’s will to live could do. Igual herself had survived a life-threatening abscess in one of her hind legs, one that left her so sickly and debilitated that she had a hard time standing up at birth. Assault was made of the same stuff, it seemed.

When the terrible wound became infected, Assault could not walk on the affected hoof, so Dr. Northway took the drastic measure of cutting away most of the hoof’s middle. Round-the-clock care met the colt’s determined personality and he healed slowly but completely, leaving behind a hoof that helped garner him the nickname "the Club-Footed Comet."

Bold Determination

With his affected hoof healed, Assault went through the same lessons his cropmates did. He learned how to be saddled and ridden and showed that eagerness to run that had marked his earliest days. Yet the compromised foot made his gait at a walk or a trot awkward, like he might stumble at any time, but he galloped like a champion with a smooth stride that betrayed none of the gracelessness of his other gaits.

When he walked out to the Widener chute at Belmont Park for his debut, Assault stumbled and nearly went down, likely leaving observers wondering why this lame colt was part of the field. When he raced, though, Igual’s colt left no doubts about his ability.

At two, he won only twice, including the Flash Stakes, in nine races, a record similar to that of both Sir Barton and Omaha at two. But Kleberg had noted before Assault had debuted that the colt was “sound and tough-looking” and deserving of the chance to run in the three-year-old classics. The first half of his three-year-old season fulfilled the expectations that Kleberg had outlined two years earlier. He earned a trip to Louisville with wins in the Experimental Free Handicap and the Wood Memorial. With regular rider Warren Mehrtens, the tenacious colt stepped out onto the track, the Twin Spires looming in the background, and stopped.

That was his way, this son of Bold Venture. He wanted to look around and take in his surroundings. “He wasn’t spooky,” Mehrtens said of him years later. “And, if you let him look, he was never any trouble, but if you tried to hustle him, he would get rank.” This small colt, only 15.1 hands fully grown, knew himself and just how big he was. During his Triple Crown-winning season, Assault knew “he was head of the stable and over the winter he became even more certain of that,” his behavior at age four showing that self-knowledge.

Moreover, the King Ranch champion used his status as king of the stable to demand his supper a bit early one day. He spied his feed tub outside his stall 15 minutes ahead of his usual feeding time and insisted that dinner must be right then. His groom obliged. Assault was never mean like some horses can be, but he did not shy away from using his status to his advantage.

Gritty and Resolute

As his four-year-old season wound down, injury plagued the hard-trying Triple Crown winner. A match race with the good handicapper Armed loomed, but questions about Assault’s fitness lingered, especially after he returned from a workout lame. With $100,000 for charity on the line, the two met at Belmont Park for the 10-furlong battle. Armed took the lead from the start while Eddie Arcaro and Assault did their best to keep up, but the famed jockey could tell the champion did not have it that day and pulled him up before the finish line. “He started badly, but the poor guy, he was all heart,” Arcaro said of Assault. “He wanted to go hard, but I did not let him. You don’t do that to someone you respect.”

The nickname "the Club-Footed Comet" follows Assault even to this day, but the seventh Triple Crown winner was much more than that hoof. He was determined and dignified, a horse that gave his all and earned the respect of the humans around him. His heart was one of confidence that he could overcome every challenge and challenger that he met and be the master of each.