Of the twelve Triple Crown winners, Omaha is perhaps the one most often overlooked in discussions of great horses. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Citation, Count Fleet, and Whirlaway remain legends to this day; Sir Barton is often recalled as the first Triple Crown winner; War Admiral is remembered for his match race with Seabiscuit; Gallant Fox and Assault are recognized for the overall breadth of their accomplishments. And of course, no one will soon forget American Pharoah, who joined this elite club with his historic victory in the Belmont Stakes a little more than two weeks ago.
However, Omaha’s legacy is often overlooked, perhaps because while he did win the Triple Crown, his overall level of success failed to match that of the other Triple Crown winners. He didn’t win by large margins, he was beaten in several races as a three-year-old, and he failed to win a major race as a four-year-old.
But what many people don’t realize is that Omaha’s four-year-old campaign as actually one of the most ambitious and sporting in the history of horse racing. In a time before horses flew on airplanes, and in a time before U.S. racetracks had turf courses, Omaha shipped to England in 1936 with an eye on winning the Ascot Gold Cup, then one of the most prestigious races in all of Europe.
As a premise to this story, let’s briefly recap the first two seasons of Omaha’s career. In terms of success as a juvenile, Omaha was one of the least-accomplished of the Triple Crown winners, winning only a single race from nine starts in 1934. However, he did flash hints of talent, running second by a nose in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont (then held at 6 ½ furlongs) and second by a head in the one-mile Jr. Champion Stakes at Aqueduct.
After a winter break, Omaha returned to action on April 22nd at Jamaica racecourse and scored an impressive two-length victory in a 1 mile and 70-yard allowance race, then came back five days later to finish third in the Wood Memorial over the same track and distance. With those preps under his belt, he rallied to win the Kentucky Derby by 1 ½ lengths, then sandwiched a runner-up in the Withers Stakes between victories in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, giving him a sweep of the Triple Crown. He started three more times that season, finishing third behind future Hall of Famer Discovery in the Brooklyn Handicap before winning the Dwyer Stakes and Arlington Classic against fellow three-year-olds. Unfortunately, he suffered a minor injury while gearing up for the Travers Stakes and did not race again that season.
But once the colt had recovered from his injury, Omaha’s sporting owner, William Woodward, decided to give his star colt a try against the best horses on the English turf. In January 1936, Omaha shipped via boat to England and began training toward a start in the Ascot Gold Cup, a 2 1/2-mile test of stamina and talent that would challenge the limits of Omaha’s abilities. The courses would be unfamiliar, as would the training regimen, and given the magnitude of the challenge, it would not have been a surprise had Omaha failed to handle the conditions and run poorly in all of his races.
Yet despite the obstacles, Omaha achieved remarkable success in England. Under the care of British trainer Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, Omaha made his international debut on May 9th in the 1 ½-mile Victor Wild Stakes at Kempton and won by 1 ½ lengths over the talented Montrose. With that success under his belt, Omaha tackled two miles in the Queen’s Plate, a handicap race at Kempton, and prevailed by a neck over Bobsleigh in an exciting finish.
Having gone 2-for-2 on the turf, Omaha was sent off as the favorite against eight rivals in the Ascot Gold Cup, a race that would stamp his legacy among English racegoers. Before a crowd that the Daily Racing Form of June 19th, 1936 reported to be nearly 200,000 strong, Omaha settled toward the rear of the field early on before moving into contention entering the final half-mile of the race. But moving with him was the filly Quashed, and entering the homestretch of the tiring, rain-soaked course, Omaha and Quashed drew clear of their rivals and engaged in a thrilling battle for supremacy of the race, with Quashed clinging to a tenuous advantage. As the crowd cheered in appreciation of the great race, Omaha reached even terms with the filly in deep stretch, but drifted outward just a bit as the finish line approached, an unfortunate swerve that would cost him the race. At the wire, Quashed was in front by a nose, with Omaha second by five lengths.
It may have been a defeat, but no one could deny that Omaha had run a fantastic race. Unfortunately, he would only run once more in his career, finishing second by a neck in the 1 1/2-mile Princess of Wales’s Stakes before being retired the following year with a tendon injury. But even today, Omaha’s accomplishments in England stand out as remarkable, given that he was able to adapt to a complete different track, racing surface, and distance to nearly win one of the most prestigious races in British racing. As a testament to the enormity of the challenge he undertook, Omaha remains the only Triple Crown winner to have run outside of North America.
So the next time anyone overlooks Omaha in a discussion of great racehorses, be sure to tell them the story of Omaha’s quest for glory in England. For an American horse to run well in a major English race remains a huge accomplishment to this day, and Omaha’s forgotten efforts deserve a more prominent place in the tapestry of racing history.