The Heart that Wears the Crown: Citation

September 3rd, 2023

He was an immortal wrapped in a plain brown package who was anything but plain. The eighth of the 13, Citation became one of the two Triple Crown winners that Calumet Farm celebrated in the 1940s, but truly this son of Bull Lea stood head and shoulders above the long list of greats to come from the devil red and blue. Over his four seasons on the track, “Big Cy” dominated at racetracks across America, overcoming injuries to go down as the sport’s first millionaire.

At his core, Citation was a horse who was serious about his job, relentless in grinding down his competition, and unbending in the face of challenges. By the time he said goodbye to the racetrack, the eighth Triple Crown winner had made an indelible mark on the hearts of fans everywhere.

An Early Standout

Calumet in the 1940s and 1950s was the house that Bull Lea built. Though Blenheim II was the sire of their first Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown winner in Whirlaway, Bull Lea was not quite as good in his classic turns, finishing eighth in the 1938 Derby and sixth in that year’s Preakness, but his progeny more than made up for those unfortunate performances. In his first crop, he got Twilight Tear, a Hall of Famer selected as the first filly to win Horse of the Year, and Armed, whose performances in the era’s handicap division earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame and his own Horse of the Year honors. By 1945, owner Warren Wright had pinned all of his hopes on the brown stallion.

The other half of the equation in Citation’s case was a mare named Hydroplane II. She had little to show for her time on the English racecourses she called home, with only two places in seven starts, but her sire was Hyperion, a diminutive dual English classic winner who also happened to be an even better sire than he was a racehorse. To make it to her date with Bull Lea, Hydroplane II endured an adventurous journey from England to the United States in 1942, as the dangerous wartime waters forced her to take the scenic route through the Suez Canal and the Pacific Ocean. She made it in time to produce fillies by Sun Teddy and Blenheim II, both foals duds on the track and in the breeding shed.

Yet the 1945 crop of Bull Lea foals was different. These colts and fillies were to wear names like Coaltown and Bewitch, with Hydroplane II’s brown colt getting the moniker Citation. A solid brown from the tips of ears to the end of his tail, Citation did not have any flashy white to set him apart and yet he still made an impression.

“He struck my eye from the beginning,” Calumet Farm manager Paul Eberhardt said of Citation. “He always had that domineering look about him. He had a perfect growing period and grew into a well-balanced colt that made us all make rash predictions every time we saw him playing about in the fields.”

From his earliest days, Citation’s intelligence was clear to the humans around him. As a young horse, “He took his lessons as though he wanted to talk to you,” Eberhardt said. “And he did his work in a very willing manner.”

The Calumet training team of Ben and Jimmy Jones did not push their young horses early, but Hydroplane II’s colt showed a tenacity and grit that would aid him in his later days. As the younger Jones observed, “(Citation) had a good, bright expression, very dominant.  He was dominant all of his life. He walked right into things that would scare other horses. He’d walk in to investigate.”

Like Gallant Fox nearly two decades earlier, that curiosity about the world around him showed that Citation was a different kind of horse, which the people around him picked up on early as he started his education as a racehorse. That intelligence would serve him well as he hit the racetrack and showed the world just how good he really was.

A Strong Personality

That intelligence was part of a colt who was strong-willed too. Trainer Jimmy Jones had to fit him with a Norton bit, which also became known as the “Citation bit,” or a double snaffle with two rings that slid up and down. This setup allowed the rider more control over the colt; he was not like Whirlaway, who tended to be a bit unpredictable at times and bear out going around turns, but Citation had a mind of his own and was not afraid to use it. Though he got along well with all of the jockeys who rode him, including his long-term riders like Al Snider and Eddie Arcaro, Jones recognized that his charge needed that extra reminder of the rider’s role in their racing tandem.

That forceful personality came with Citation’s own singular running style. On the track, he was not flamboyant; where others might have flashed speed early, “Big Cy” preferred to wear his competition down.

“Sure, he was a horse, but his stride was piston-like,” the great Arcaro, who was aboard for the Calumet star’s Triple Crown run, observed. “Now, he wasn’t an angry or hateful horse; once in a race, he was merciless [...] Every time someone challenged him, he simply broke their heart by grinding their challenge into the dirt.”

Citation’s will to win was so strong that he even refused to lose when injured in the midst of a race. Before the 1948 Stars and Stripes H. at Arlington Park, an on-track incident gave everyone a scare when a filly got loose and crashed into a stable pony that Jimmy Jones had angled out to protect Citation. The eighth Triple Crown winner came away with a smack just above the right shoulder but otherwise seemed none the worse for the wear – until race day. In the midst of the nine-furlong race, Arcaro felt Citation was off, noticed him slowing down, and then gave the colt a rare tap with the whip. Citation felt the pressure of horses closing in on him and held them off to win despite clearly being compromised.

It was the mark of a horse with the heart of a champion, unwilling to give an inch even when hobbled, his will and grit taking over when his physical strength was not enough.

A Horse to Remember

To the end, through injuries that saw Citation miss a whole season, the eighth Triple Crown winner was a racing marvel, his consistency and determination winning him fans who flocked to see “Big Cy” say his farewell to the racetrack. They followed his every move as he sought to break the seven-figure mark in purses won and reveled in the great performances he left in his wake. In his 45 starts, Citation was unplaced only once, his remarkable record including races like the Triple Crown classics, the Futurity S., the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and more. He won at racetracks from sea to shining sea, at tracks like Churchill Downs, Hialeah, and Santa Anita.

At his best, Citation invited comparisons to the greatest of them all from none other than the man who might be called the sport’s greatest conditioner, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. Early in the colt’s three-year-old season, the trainer observed, “Up to this point Citation’s done more than any horse I ever saw – and I saw Man o’ War!”