“‘The Winnah’ Alligator – Horse of Iron” was the inscription that sporting artist and illustrator Paul Brown chose to describe Alligator, the bay gelding that he noted won not one, not two, not three, but an unbelievable FOUR steeplechases after various jockeys fell and remounted. The 1928 West Hills Plate, 1929 Maryland Cup, 1930 International Cup at Grasslands, and the Millbrook Hunt Steeplechase are annotated in the lower margin of one of Brown’s illustrations for his book, Ups and Downs (1936). The artist sketched some of Alligator’s gravity-defying crashes and wins for the book as well as his earlier publication, Spills and Thrills (1933), and his captions present entertaining and informative details.
The first race was for the West Hills Plate, the seventh annual meet held on Long Island on November 10, 1928. Brown’s drawing shows jockey Frederic C. Thomas going over the horse’s head at the first fence, swinging underneath its neck, and desperately trying to hold on before losing his grip. “An exhibition of indomitable courage was witnessed here this afternoon,” noted the next day’s article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Alligator won the thirty-first running of the Meadow Brook Cup with Lyman Wright up in 1929 without a fall. Brown’s exquisite illustration of the race held on sportsman F. Ambrose Clark’s estate captures a pivotal moment described in an article in the September 29, 1929 The Baltimore Sun: “…Hackenthorpe stayed with his rivals three-quarters of the way, but when the famous stone wall appeared again Hackenthorpe did not have enough left to get over and the race was left to Alligator and Reel Foot.”
Brown did not illustrate Alligator’s famed April 1929 Maryland Hunt Cup win in his books, but the wife of the horse’s trainer Harry Plumb found it worthy of a poetic tribute. Plumb was also the father of one of Alligator’s jockeys, Charles T. Plumb:*
From out the ruck / Of many a name, / “Alligator” / He raced to fame.
The Maryland Hunt! / The ‘CUP’ the prize: / “They’re off” the cry, / And then, surprise….
At number-two fence, / That timbered rail, / Alligator fell: / “Too bad” they wail.
But ‘blood’ will not tell / In man or beast. / And fame is made /At racing feast….
For quick as a flash / From starting gun, / Alligator’s up…./ And starts to run.
The ‘field’ out there / In front so far: / A hopeless chase / For this great star.
But fence by fence, / By hand and ride, / Alligator / In glorious stride
Picks up the loss / And leads them all / He wins the race: / “Hurrah” they call.
She continued with a description of a repeat performance by Alligator:
Then, once more, this / “Thorobred Crack” / Surprised the fans / At Grasslands track:
Fencing so clean / With jump and stride. / His praises sung / On every side.
But here, again, / This grand horse fell, / Next fence at last, / Pell-mell! Pell-mell!
Then up again / ‘Tis writ as history, / He galloped on / To cheers and victory.
– “Salute to a Great Horseman” by Elaine T. Plumb, The Chronicle, Dec. 31, 1948
Approximately 8,000 spectators witnessed the running of the grueling first International Cup held at the Grasslands Downs Course, TN, in 1930. Every single one of the seventeen entries either fell or pulled up. Brown’s sketch shows Alligator falling on his front knees going over the 25th jump and Waverly Star slipping. “Charlie Plum [sic] wiped mud and blood from face – remounted – went on – won,” wrote Brown in the caption describing the nail-biting ending of the race.
Viewing American sporting artist Franklin Brooke Voss’s serene 1929 portrait of Alligator in light of Paul Brown’s illustrations with the horse’s striking career in mind – is transformative. This is Alligator, “Horse of Iron,” and one of the most hardcore steeplechase horses that ever lived.
* Errata: The poem was previously incorrectly attributed to the wife of jockey and Meadowbrook Huntsman Charles T. Plumb.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org