The legendary trainer Samuel Hildreth oversaw the careers of many talented racehorses, among them Grey Lag, Mad Hatter, Stromboli, King James, and Fitz Herbert. He won a remarkable seven editions of the Belmont Stakes, and trained ten horses that are recognized as champions of their divisions. But the best he ever trained may very well have been Friar Rock, a colt Hildreth described as “not only the best horse I have ever trained over a distance of ground, but the best I have ever seen.”1
Friar Rock was bred by August Belmont II, a man whose vast contributions to the history of the turf are generally overshadowed by his fateful decision to breed the mare Mahubah to Fair Play, which resulted in the birth of the immortal Man o’ War. Friar Rock was bred along similar lines to Man o’ War, being the tenth foal out of the stakes-winning mare Fairy Gold, well-known as the dam of Fair Play. Thus, Friar Rock was a half-brother to the sire of Man o’ War. Furthermore, Friar Rock was sired by English Triple Crown-winner Rock Sand, the great broodmare sire whose reputation as such was garnered in part by his daughter Mahubah, the dam of Man o’ War. Thus, where Friar Rock possessed the blood of Rock Sand and Fairy Gold as his parents, Man o’ War possessed their lineage another generation back, as grandparents.
Pictures of Friar Rock reveal a fairly plain colt, unmarked save a white star just below his forelock. In terms of conformation, he was deemed less-than-stellar; Belmont is quoted in the June 25th, 1916 edition of the Daily Racing Form as saying “I was prejudiced against him as a two-year-old because of his unattractive neck and shoulders”—not a quote one hears every day! But unattractiveness aside, Friar Rock’s talent on the racetrack would stamp him as the best of his generation, and very possibly several adjacent generations as well.
At the time of Friar Rock’s birth in 1913, Rock Sand was enjoying success as a sire through his son Tracery, who had won the St. James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes, and the St. Leger Stakes during a four-race English campaign in 1912. Tracery would later win the Champion Stakes, Eclipse Stakes, and Burwell Plate as a four-year-old to further establish himself as the best of his foal crop.
But whereas Tracery began his career on the largest possible stage in racing, debuting with a third-place finish in the historic Derby at Epsom, Friar Rock began his career in much less noticeable fashion. The chestnut colt made his debut on May 26th, 1915, in an ordinary five-furlong maiden race at Belmont Park, which he won by two lengths in the time of 1:01 1/5 over a good track. Off this solid debut, he was wheeled right back in an allowance race one week later at the same track and distance. This time, he won by five lengths after tracking the early pace, and stopped the clock in a remarkable :58 3/5.
For Friar Rock’s next start, Hildreth shipped the colt to the now-shuttered Jamaica race course, where Friar Rock romped to victory in another five-furlong allowance race, crossing the wire two lengths in front and posting a time of 1:01 1/5. Having thus gone unbeaten in his first three starts, Friar Rock made his stakes debut in Jamaica’s 5 1/2-furlong Youthful Stakes, where he and his stablemate Libyan Sands were made the solid favorites. For the first time in Friar Rock’s career, he did not reach the finish line first. Fourth early on through an opening quarter mile in :22 seconds flat, Friar Rock failed to muster a challenge of any kind and lost ground through the stretch, eventually finishing a distant fourth as Paddy Whack romped to a six-length triumph in 1:07 flat.
While some trainers might have been discouraged by this poor showing, Hildreth clearly was not, and Friar Rock’s next engagement was the 5 1/2-furlong Whirl Stakes on July 17th at Belmont Park, which Friar Rock won by four lengths in near gate-to-wire fashion. Paddy Whack finished 12 1/2 lengths behind him in sixth. The official final time was 1:03 4/5, a new track record by one-fifth of a second, although the July 18th, 1915 edition of the Daily Racing Form notes that independent clockers caught Friar Rock in 1:05 4/5, which seems a more likely time given Friar Rock’s reputation for stamina over sprinting speed.
From that point onward, Friar Rock had an up-and-down season. He did not appear under colors again until the August 14th Saratoga Special Stakes, where he ran into Dominant, who is considered to be the champion two-year-old of 1915. In the Special, Dominant lived up to his name, cruising to a spectacular seven-length triumph over Puss in Boots, who was in turn a length in front of Friar Rock. While the Belmont colt never challenged the winner, he was gaining ground on Puss in Boots at the finish, despite having raced wide throughout the race.
Next, Friar Rock was beaten into fourth in a 5 1/2-furlong handicap race at Saratoga. His weight assignment might have had something to do with the loss—he was carrying 120 pounds and conceding the top three finishers twenty, fourteen, and twenty-one pounds, respectively—however, the Daily Racing Form of August 21st notes that the colt “was in a jam right after the start, but made up ground in a manner that showed he would have won with a clear course.” This opinion was vindicated when Friar Rock came back four days later to win Saratoga’s Adirondack Stakes by three-quarters of a length over the good colt Achievement, who had been fourth in the Saratoga Special.
The next major goal was the seven-furlong Champagne Stakes at Belmont, and in preparation for that affair, Friar Rock was entered in the one-mile Port Washington Handicap at Belmont. A minor race open to horses of all ages, Friar Rock was the only two-year-old among the four horses entered, the others including a decent four-year-old named Harry Shaw and an eight-year-old in Reybourne. The latter led during the early stages of the race, but blew the first turn and allowed Harry Shaw to secure the lead. Friar Rock put in a good run after being shuffled back on the first turn, gamely closing ground on his elder rival through the homestretch, but Harry Shaw held firm to win by 1 1/2 lengths in the time of 1:39 2/5.
This would mark the last on-the-board finish of the season for Friar Rock, who wrapped up his juvenile season by finishing fourth to the English-bred Chicle in the Champagne Stakes, fifth to High Noon in the Columbus Handicap, and finally a dull eleventh behind Dodge and Spur in the Maryland Handicap.
Looking back on Friar Rock’s juvenile season, it is clear that he was an above-average competitor, although certainly not in the same league as Dominant, or even George Smith, who won nine of twelve starts, including five stakes. But as we so often see, the very best two-year-olds of a given year tend to lose their lofty status as three-year-olds, while unheralded juveniles mature over the winter and turn the tables in the spring. Dominant would start only once as a three-year-old, finishing seventh in the Kentucky Derby behind George Smith, who would fail to win in his three other starts as a sophomore.
But for Friar Rock, the story went differently. The winter break did him a world of good, and when he emerged in the spring, he was an entirely different animal.
Friar Rock’s first engagement of 1916 was the prestigious one-mile Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park, in which he would compete against his elders for the first time. In demonstration of how times have changed, it is extremely rare nowadays to see a three-year-old contest the Metropolitan at all, let alone in their first start of the year!
While the entrance of Friar Rock in the Metropolitan certainly hints at the high regard that Hildreth had for the colt, Friar Rock was surely a bit rusty in his seasonal debut, and would be facing a stiff challenge from his older opposition. First and foremost among his rivals was The Finn, a very capable horse recognized by historians as the champion three-year-old of 1915. Bred by John Madden and own by H. C. Hallenbeck, The Finn had undergone a very busy season during that championship year, heading to post a remarkable twenty times from May through October while winning the Belmont Stakes, Withers Stakes, Baltimore Handicap, Dixie Handicap, and five other races. Leading up to the Metropolitan, The Finn had lost both of his prep races and was winless for the year. However, the most recent of his defeats had come in the ten-furlong Kings County Handicap, in which The Finn had just barely succumbed by a half-length to the good mare Capra, who—by the nature of handicap racing—enjoyed the benefit of carrying twenty-two pounds less than the champion.
Another well-regarded contender in the Metropolitan was Stromboli, a stablemate of Friar Rock that was both owned by Belmont and trained by Hildreth. Stromboli was the defending Metropolitan champion, having won the race during a 1915 campaign that also saw him win the Suburban Handicap. In recognition of his achievements, he was asked to carry 122 pounds in the 1916 Metropolitan, two more than The Finn and twenty-two more than Friar Rock.
As was to be expected, Friar Rock was indeed a bit rusty, and never really reached contention while finishing seventh behind The Finn, who came running on the far outside under jockey Andy Schuttinger to defeat Stromboli by three-quarters of a length in the good time of 1:38 flat, which missed the stakes record by just one-fifth of a second. Spur, a three-year-old carrying just 100 pounds, finished three lengths back in third.
Despite Friar Rock’s poor showing, Hildreth apparently lost no confidence in the colt, and Friar Rock’s next start came in the ten-furlong Suburban Handicap, where he would carry 101 pounds into battle against The Finn (127) and Stromboli (123) once again. This time around, with the benefit of having a recent race under his belt, Friar Rock unleashed a marvelous performance. After tracking longshot Hauberk through an opening quarter in :24 2/5, Friar Rock took command of the lead on the backstretch, opened up a decisive advantage entering the homestretch, and finished under restraint to defeat the Irish-bred Short Grass by 2 1/2 lengths, with Stromboli and The Finn salvaging third and fourth.
Having achieved the early-season goal of defeating his elders, Friar Rock was returned to his own age division to contest the one-mile Withers Stakes. Given his credentials against the top handicap horses, Friar Rock should have found his competition in the Withers considerably easier to handle, and this belief was reflected by his being sent off as the heavy favorite. However, Friar Rock encountered a great deal of trouble during the course of the race. The June 7th Daily Racing Form notes that “on the far turn Friar Rock, attempting to go through [an opening] was forced to be taken back, losing many lengths,” and also that “E. Haynes, who rode Friar Rock, was thrown against the fence and his leg was badly scraped in the mixup.” Spur, who we mentioned previously as having beaten Friar Rock in both the Maryland and Metropolitan Handicaps, stayed out of trouble on the outside and went on to defeat Churchill by three-quarters of a length in 1:38 2/5, with Friar Rock another six lengths back in third.
Given the distance by which Friar Rock lost, it’s difficult to say with certainty whether the interference cost him the race or not. Regardless, Friar Rock would even the score next time out in the historic Belmont Stakes, then run at one-mile and three-eighths. Off his defeat in the Withers, Friar Rock was sent off at odds of 5-2, with Spur being favored at about even money. Churchill and Chicle, the latter having been fifth in the Withers after setting the pace, were the only other horses in the race. Although rain had turned the track to mud, it didn’t make any difference to Friar Rock, who waltzed around Belmont Park as if galloping through the mud was the most natural thing in the world. Back in 1916, Belmont Park actually consisted of two oval tracks; the present main track and a training track known as the “Belmont course,” joined together at somewhat of a right angle at what is today the midway point of Belmont Park’s first turn. As a result, the Belmont Stakes consisted of a long run down the homestretch of the training track, followed by a left-handed turn into the backstretch, at which point the horses crossed over on to the main track, negotiated a right-handed turn, and entered the Belmont homestretch running from right-to-left. It was at this crossing juncture that joined the two courses that Friar Rock and jockey E. Haynes won the 1916 Belmont Stakes. After leading for most of the way, Friar Rock had been surpassed by Spur and Churchill, and was racing a close third. At that point, the Daily Racing Form of June 11th explains that Friar Rock’s victory “probably was due to Haynes’ action in making a perfect turn out of the Belmont course into the main course, whereby he saved about six lengths… in almost a fraction of a second Haynes shot Friar Rock across the track and in less than fifty yards secured a lead of three lengths, which he maintained to the end.” Friar Rock won eased up by three lengths over Spur in the time of 2:22 flat.
Having proven himself superior to his brethren—at least, over a distance of ground—Friar Rock was entered two weeks later in the Brooklyn Handicap, where he would once again face older horses. Stromboli and The Finn were not present, but there were plenty of other talented runners to be found, including Short Grass—whom Friar Rock had beaten in the Suburban—as well as the seventeen-time stakes winner Roamer, who is considered to have been the Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old colt of 1914, as well as the champion older horse of 1915. On his best day, Roamer was the equal of any horse in the country, as he had demonstrated in the National Handicap of 1915, in which he carried 132 pounds to a decisive three-length victory over Stromboli (123), with Short Grass (123) finishing third.
However, Roamer was not at his best entering the 1916 Brooklyn, having lost his first two starts of the year, and he would be carrying top weight of 131 pounds. In contrast, Friar Rock—as a three-year-old facing his elders—got into the race with only 108 pounds.
Before an estimated crowd of 20,000 spectators, longshot Sand Marsh was away quickest and opened up a three-length advantage through an opening quarter mile in :23 3/5, with Slumber II and Pennant his closest pursuers. Friar Rock, in the meantime, was in seventh place early on, 6 1/2 lengths behind Sand Marsh.
Sand Marsh continued to set a quick pace through a half-mile in :47 and six furlongs in 1:11—remarkably quick fractions for 1916—after which Slumber II moved up to take the lead, with Pennant and Roamer right behind him. A wild stretch run thus ensued, with Pennant claiming a narrow lead past the eighth pole, Roamer looming a threat for the win, only to tire in the final yards, and Slumber II digging deep to try and come back at Pennant.
It was well inside the eighth pole, with about a hundred yards to go, that Friar Rock unleashed his run. Rallying with powerful strides on the extreme outside, he swallowed up Pennant in the blink of an eye and won going away by two lengths.
The June 25th edition of the Daily Racing Form described the stretch run as follows: “Every jockey went to the whip in the last eighth and Pennant appeared like the winner when a sixteenth out. Roamer was done at that point. Out of the scramble came Friar Rock in the last hundred yards and, challenging Pennant, got up to win in the most sensational manner.”
Sensational it was. The final time of 1:50 shaved three-fifths of a second off the track record. Slumber II finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Pennant in third and a neck ahead of the late-running Short Grass. Roamer, hampered by his substantial impost, tired late to finish fifth, although as we shall soon see, this would not be his final meeting with Friar Rock.
At this stage in time, with two major victories against older horses and the Belmont Stakes under his belt, there seemed to be nothing that Friar Rock couldn’t do. However, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, Friar Rock’s entrance in the Brooklyn Derby against fellow three-year-olds seems a bit curious. The race came just four days after the Brooklyn Handicap, and outside of monetary compensation, there seemed little to gain by running Friar Rock against a group of horses he had already beaten. There was, however, something to lose; that being the race itself. Whether the result of too little time between races, an off day, or something else entirely, Friar Rock could only manage a fifth-place finish in the Brooklyn Derby, beaten three lengths. 8-1 shot Chicle, whom Friar Rock had soundly beaten in both the Withers and the Belmont Stakes, was reported in the June 29th, 1916 edition of the Daily Racing Form to have “amazed ninety-nine [percent] of the spectators by winning in a canter after leading from start to finish.” Star Hawk, an English-bred colt that had finished second in the Kentucky Derby, was the runner-up by a half-length over Churchill, with Spur yet another half-length back in fourth and a nose in front of Friar Rock.
The Brooklyn Derby marked the first of three consecutive sub-par showings by Friar Rock. Given two weeks rest, he emerged under colors on July 12th for the nine-furlong Empire City Handicap, where he would face eight rivals that included Roamer, Short Grass, Spur, and Stromboli. Once again, he failed to bring his running shoes, and wound up sixth as Short Grass beat Roamer by a length, with Spur another head back in third. Nineteen days later, Friar Rock was out again for the ten-furlong Saratoga Handicap, a race that was particularly notable at the time due to the presence of Regret, the filly that had famously won the 1915 Kentucky Derby. Making her first start in nearly a year, and only her second since the Derby, Regret set a moderate early pace of :50 seconds for the half-mile in 1:14 4/5 for three-quarters, after which she gave way to finish eighth and last as the 9-10 favorite. In the meantime, good old Stromboli came with a solid run that carried him to a 1 1/2-length victory in the time of 2:05 1/5, with Ed Crump finishing second by a similar margin over Friar Rock. Short Grass and The Finn were among the others in the field.
With Friar Rock showing signs of emerging from his slump, he was geared up for a run at the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup, which would be the longest race of his career. Given his affinity for distance races, it appeared clear that Friar Rock would be difficult to beat, and possibly as a result, only two horses showed up to run against him. However, those two horses were Roamer and The Finn.
The Saratoga Cup would be a particularly important affair in regard to Friar Rock’s legacy, for the simple reason that it was a weight-for-age race. No longer would Roamer and The Finn be asked to concede the young Friar Rock great amounts of weight; under the weight-for-age conditions, they would carry the weights believed to best compensate for their advantage in maturity. As a five-year-old, Roamer would carry 127 pounds. The Finn, being one year younger, would carry 126 pounds. Friar Rock would carry 113, a substantial shift from his runs in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps.
The Finn, having just tied the track record in Saratoga’s Merchants’ and Citizens’ Handicap one week prior, was favored at 9-10. Roamer, who had won the Saratoga Cup in 1915, was sent off at 9-2. Friar Rock split the two in terms of wagering, being sent off as the second choice at a bit less than 2-1.
To say that the race was a thriller would be a dramatic understatement. The August 27th Daily Racing Form described the race as a “[grueling] struggle from the start.” The Finn and Roamer were the quickest into stride, and they alternated the early leader through the first ten furlongs, which included an opening half-mile of :55 seconds and a full mile in 1:47 1/5, the track being labeled good. Friar Rock was content to track them closely in third for much of the race, but rounding the far turn, he moved up strongly to engage The Finn in a duel for the lead. The pace quickened substantially at that stage, and from the end of the first mile to the time the field entered the homestretch—a distance of a half-mile—the runners were timed in an exceptional :49 2/5 seconds. The Finn, racing at a distance that was probably several furlongs beyond his best, gave way around the far turn and retreated from contention. But Roamer had been eyeing the battle from third place, and with Friar Rock having finished the dirty work of reeling in The Finn, Roamer set off to try and reel in Friar Rock.
The two horses came together at the top of the stretch, and were separated by just a head as they raced past the eighth pole. Locked in unison, with the Saratoga crowd cheering them on, it was as if the race was only now beginning; as if the first thirteen furlongs had been a mere appetizer for the show-stopping finale. Stride for stride, Friar Rock and Roamer raced as equals; stirring the emotions of those who witnessed the battle. It was unfortunate that one would have to lose, for both had run races worthy of winning. In the end, it was the stamina of Friar Rock that shone brightest. Inside the final hundred yards, he finally shook clear of the gallant Roamer, and drew away to win by two lengths in the time of 3:03 flat. In demonstration of how well both horses ran, the final quarter mile was timed in :26 2/5, a brilliant fraction coming at the conclusion of such a long race.
Unfortunately, the Saratoga Cup would prove to be Friar Rock’s final start. According to the book Sire Lines, by Abram Hewitt, Friar Rock was sold “to the great breeder and horse trader, John E. Madden, at the end of the Saratoga meeting,” for the price of $50,000. As Madden was primarily a breeder, Friar Rock was not kept in training for the 1917 racing season, being retired immediately to stud. Thus, the colt ended his career having won $20,365, the result of nine victories, one second, and three thirds from twenty-one starts.
Not surprisingly, historians consider Friar Rock to be the champion three-year-old colt of 1916, as well as the Horse of the Year. Being bestowed with the latter honor was perhaps as much the result of the lack of a standout older male as it was respect for Friar Rock’s form, as good as it may have been. The reality is, Short Grass, Stromboli, The Finn, and Roamer exchanged victories throughout the year, and in beating each other time and time again, they also eliminated each other’s chances of claiming Horse of the Year. For the record, Short Grass and Roamer are considered the co-champions of their division in 1916, despite the latter having only won a single race!
It is also interesting to note that Friar Rock ran against fellow three-year-old Spur five times in 1916, with Spur coming out ahead on four occasions—in the Metropolitan, the Withers, the Brooklyn Derby, and the Empire City Handicap. Friar Rock got the better of his rival just once, in the Belmont Stakes. Given that Spur also won the Travers, the Jerome Handicap, the Southhampton Handicap, the Knickerbocker Handicap, the Midsummer Handicap, and the Huron Handicap—while finishing unplaced just once in twenty-one starts!—it is a bit of an oddity that Spur wasn’t considered at least co-champion of the age division.
As a sire, Friar Rock is generally regarded as a failure, although he did beget seventeen stakes winners, the best of which was probably Pilate, who won twenty-four of forty-four races from 1931-1933. Other notable foals included Emotion, champion three-year-old filly of 1922 and runner-up in both the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes; Friar’s Carse, winner of the Fashion Stakes, Keene Memorial Stakes, and Clover Stakes; Inchcape, winner of the Tremont Stakes; and Rockminister, who—like his sire—showed an affinity for races of great length in winning the 1 3/4-mile Latonia Championships Stakes and the 2 1/4-mile Pimlico Cup during the course of his career, the former victory coming in track-record time.
Friar Rock died in 1928 at Shoshone Stud, having been sold by Madden in the mid-1920s. History generally considers Roamer to have been the best of the 1916 handicap stars, and in a ranking of the top one-hundred racehorses of the twentieth century compiled by The Blood-Horse, he made the list as number ninety-nine. Friar Rock failed to make the list.
But on that summer day at Saratoga, when Friar Rock and Roamer matched strides in an epic battle for supremacy of stamina, it was Friar Rock who emerged the winner. We won’t claim he was the greatest racehorse there had ever been to that point in time, but then again—maybe he was.
1. Bowen, Edward. Masters of the Turf. Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2007. p.66.