Saratoga, where in 1918 Roamer attempted a race against time to try and break the American record for a mile.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
It may not seem like much today, but for 28 years, the time of 1:35 1/5 stood alone as an untouchable, unbreakable record of American racing; a veritable speed limit for the distance of one mile that no horse could surpass.
The record had been set on August 28th, 1890 over a one-mile straight course at Monmouth Park, and the horse that achieved the feat was the four-year-old Salvator. Renowned for decades after his career was over as one of the finest horses to ever grace the American turf, Salvator had established the record with the aid of two talented pacemakers and a vigorous ride from his jockey, an ideal setup for achieving a fast time. But ideal setup or not, his time of 1:35 1/5 was astonishing, as it eclipsed the previous American record for a mile by more than four seconds. Twenty-eight years later, his time still stood alone, unmatched and untouched by any horse in the country.
Then along came a horse named Roamer.
In the summer of 1918, the seemingly ageless Roamer was considered an “old man” of the American turf, but the popular seven-year-old gelding was showing no signs of slowing down despite his advanced age. As a three-year-old in 1914, the Jack Goldsborough-trained runner had been almost unstoppable, racing to victory in twelve of his sixteen starts while winning some of the most prestigious races on the East Coast, including the Travers Stakes. Although no official championships existed at the time, historians consider Roamer to have been the 1914 Horse of the Year and champion 3yo male, and those would not be the last titles Roamer would earn. Over the next two years, he would win eight more stakes races en route to two titles as champion older male, and while he wasn’t a champion in 1917, he continued to compete with success and won four more stakes, including the prestigious Saratoga Handicap.
By 1918, in his fifth year as one of the best horses in the country, there was little that Roamer hadn’t done and few races he hadn’t won. And so as another summer at Saratoga arrived, and Roamer prepared for his usual stakes engagements, a plan began to formulate in the minds of the sportsmen in charge of the Saratoga meet: Could Roamer… the remarkable champion; the aging veteran; one of the most beloved horses in history… could Roamer break Salvator’s record for a mile against time? It was clear that Roamer was in great form, having just set a track record of 2:02 1/5 for ten furlongs while winning his third Saratoga Handicap… was it possible that he could be Salvator’s successor?
The notion that a horse Roamer’s age could break such an elusive record was met with skepticism by some, and Roamer’s owner, Andrew Miller, was initially reluctant to embrace the challenge. But after some thought, Miller agreed to let his champion shoot for the record, and the great race was scheduled for August 23rd. A two-year-old named Lightning was supplied as a pacemaker to keep Roamer focused and ensure that he had every chance to break the record, and for the sake of fairness, Roamer would carry 110 pounds, the same assignment that Salvator had carried 28 years earlier.
Roamer’s biggest challenge would be the conditions of the race track. It was agreed that the race would only be held if the weather was good and the track was fast, but that couldn’t change the fact that Saratoga was an oval racetrack with two turns, unlike the straight course over which Salvator had set his record. For Roamer to break the record would not only require a great performance; it would require him to achieve that performance while racing around turns, where he would be unable to reach the same level of speed as on a straight.
The race began partway around the first turn, and to give Roamer the best chance to break the record, he and his pacemaker were allowed a running start, the same as Salvator had been allowed 28 years prior. However, a problem quickly became apparent that no one had considered or anticipated: Lightning wasn’t even remotely fast enough to act as a pacemaker. A few strides after passing the starting point of the race, Lightning had been left behind and Roamer found himself alone on the lead, racing against nothing but the clock as he lengthened his strides and accelerated around the first turn.
His jockey, Andy Schuttinger, had a challenging task ahead of him. Without a pacemaker to help gauge Roamer’s speed, Schuttinger would have to rely on his mental clock to try and ration Roamer’s speed over the course of eight furlongs and make sure that he didn’t go too fast or too slow in the early stages of the race. As Roamer completed the first furlong, the official clocker Jack Odom clicked his stopwatch and recorded a time of :12 1/5 seconds, which would put Roamer on pace for a 1:37 3/5 mile. It was clear that Roamer needed to go faster, and as the gelding entered the backstretch—on to the first straight where he could lengthen his stride and go for glory—Schuttinger let his mount out a notch, and Roamer accelerated sharply. As the Saratoga crowd watched in anticipation, Roamer threw down a second furlong in :11 2/5, then blazed the third furlong in :11 flat and the fourth in :11 2/5. All of sudden, the complexion of the race changed dramatically as Roamer passed the halfway point in a swift :46 flat, meaning that he only had to run :49 seconds for the final half-mile in order to break the record.
But now Roamer had reached the end of the backstretch, and as he rounded the final turn, his pace began to decrease. His fifth furlong was timed in :12 flat; his sixth in :12 1/5. His strides were still coming strongly as he reached the quarter pole and turned for home, but he had run six furlongs in 1:10 1/5, and would need to shade :25 seconds to break the record. The Saratoga crowd believed that he could do it, for according to the August 22nd, 1918 edition of the Daily Racing Form, “as [Roamer] showed no signs of diminishing his frictionless stride in the stretch the turfmen began cheering the horse long before he reached the finish.”
The penultimate furlong was timed in :12 1/5, and from that point to the finish, there was little doubt that Roamer would eclipse the record. And when Roamer ran the final furlong in :12 2/5 to complete the mile in 1:34 4/5, it sparked a tremendous celebration that lasted for long after Roamer returned from the track. The Daily Racing Form noted that “the applause for the great gelding was tumultuous, each trying to outdo his neighbor in according homage to the fleet-footed and game racer.” The accolades continued for days, and in the August 24th, 1918 edition of The Daily Racing Form, writer J. R. Jeffrey opined that Roamer’s performance placed him “into a class all by himself in the whole history of the American turf.”
Unofficially, Roamer’s record did not last long, for in September 1918, the talented Sun Briar clocked the distance in 1:34 flat in an unofficial time trial at Saratoga. Over the years, the American and world record for a mile has been lowered many times, most recently in 2010, when the six-year-old gelding Mandurah blazed a mile in 1:31.23 over the turf course at Monmouth Park. But it was Roamer who paved the way with his monumental mile at Saratoga, and his achievement will never be forgotten.
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