Fair Grounds, Pan Zareta and Black Gold

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No matter what age we live in, every chapter of life is a bitter sweet, hard fought existence counting successes and failures and in the end our mortal or animal flesh returns to the soil for the next generation to continue the struggle.

In the infield of the Fair Grounds near the Finish Line stand, two markers commemorating struggles we cannot fathom in our modern life. Both Pan Zareta and Black Gold are heroically immortal and long forgotten Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame members and remind us of the transition of our country from frontier days to the industrial age. They were not from the same generation but are tied together by a thread of history completing their legacy and the New Orleans Fair Grounds unique contribution to our culture.

In the days of organized racings ascendance during the early years of the 20th Century, match racing was the best way for a local horseman to make a living. County Fairs and weekend challenges provided opportunities for winning a bet or a small purse in area competitions. Fans would bet hand in hand or through organized “Calcutta” pools selling horses to the highest bidder.

Ben Jones learned about training horses through hands on trial and error lessons. He learned his craft on the horses he could afford and honed his skills as he went. The Missourian’s future success was set when telegraphed by his development of the race mare Belle Thompson. Belle Thompson was formidable on her Missouri circuit, so much so she had to travel far and wide to find worthy challengers.

Belle Thompson launched “Plain” Ben Jones as a horse trainer to stratospheric heights. His white Stetson and cowboy boots were attached to a large frame and a reputation for brawling. His initial path in life was for a career in the banking world but he preferred cattle and horses and most of all wagering on the horses. In his career he trained six Kentucky Derby winners, five during his association with the legendary Calumet Farms. In 1941 he trained Whirlaway to a Triple Crown sweep. As part of his War Bond tour a race named the Louisiana Handicap was created at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Whirlaway in his traditional closing finish raced to the finish line as the markers of Pan Zareta and Black Gold stood silent witness to the victory.

In an earlier day, during the spring of 1909, Ben Jones brought Belle Thompson to Chickasha, OKLA on the old Chisholm Trail. They came to match a filly named Useeit. At best Useeit was unproven and a heavy underdog. She was owned by Millard Holcomb, a rancher from the area. Useeit was small, plain and unimpressive. She showed gameness in the match against Ben Jones mare but was beaten off by the end of the race by several lengths.

The Osage Indians were native to the Oklahoma Territory with large land holdings and Rosa Hoots had family land used for ranching. Rosa was married to an Irishman named Al. Useeit had made an impression on Al and he was convinced she was a racehorse. He convinced Rosa to trade eighty acres of land to Millard Holcomb for the little two year old filly. Thus began one of the most romantic stories in the history of the turf.

The Hoots agreed to engage a local trainer named Hanley Webb. Webb and Al Hoots oversaw the fillies training and racing matches. Useeit developed into such a good sprinter she like Belle Thompson needed to travel to find suitable competition. In her career there was one Mare she could not best, the Queen of Texas, Pan Zareta. By 1916 Useeit had won thirty four races and had to travel far and wide for racing opportunities.

In those years Terrazas Park in Juarez, Mexico ran organized racing under the regulation of the North American Jockey Club. These were wild times and the track on the border was a regular haunt of the bandit Pancho Villa. Ben Jones was known to wrap small stones in his horse’s leg bandages to make them appear in-firmed, so the horses wouldn’t be stolen from their stalls or claimed.

In those times of small purses and bad actors created a hustler and sharps smorgasbord of opportunities. Legendary Kentucky horse trader Col P.T. Chinn was always thin on resources and approached Villa about backing one of his horses for a percentage of the bet. Villa sent a messenger back to Chinn to reply the money was down but the horse must win. Chinn thought fast and sent a return message with his regrets but the horse had just contracted a case of colic and would not be able to race.

Another horse of Chinn’s who was heavily backed with the bookmakers was disqualified for having a flagrant form reversal. The Stewards suspended Chinn for the rest of the race meeting. When Chinn delivered his share of the coup to Villa, he explained his situation. The next afternoon a group of Villa’s soldiers stormed the Stewards Stand chanting, “Chinn go back up!” The Stewards used wise discretion and restored Chinn for the remainder of the meeting.

Al Hoots, Hanley Webb and Useeit found themselves in Juarez in1916. A decision was made to enter Useeit in a Claiming Race after the Racing Secretary had asked for help filling the race. Claims were not common in those days but they did occur. The race was run and a claim was dropped for Useeit. The new owner approached to collect his purchase but Hoots refused to turn over the horse. In ruling on the matter, the Stewards banned Useeit from ever racing again and banned Al Hoots from ever participating in organized racing again. Useeit’s ban also included being banned from the Jockey Club registry, making any offspring she produced unable to be registered as a Thoroughbred.

The threesome returned to Oklahoma. Even with the ban, Al’s dream was for Useeit to be mated to a prominent Kentucky stallion Black Toney who stood at Colonel E.R. Bradly’s Ide Hour Farm. Bradley’s breeding operation was iconic.

In 1926 Bradley became the owner of the Fair Grounds and was renowned as an innovator in the racing world. Under his leadership Fair Grounds became the first track with a steam heated grandstand, added retractable front glass, was the first to use a mechanical starting gate. Bradley experimented with barn designs to improve air circulation and make storage more efficient for barns at the track.

As Al contemplated the mating he contracted pneumonia and died. Before his passing, he insisted Rosa promise to see the mating take place. Rosa wrote the Colonel and plead Useeit’s case. In addition to agreeing to the mating, she was asking Colonel Bradley to intercede with the Jockey’s Club and reinstate Useeit to the stud book so the foal could be registered to race. She also wrote, since oil had been discovered on her land, she had funds to cover any expenses involved in the process.

Colonel Bradley was moved by the plea and agreed to the mating. He also agreed to assist with having Useeit reinstated to the Jockey Club registry. When the colt was born Bradley corresponded with Rosa Hoots describing the colt as black except for a faint white mark on the forehead. He also enquired if the colt was for sale. Rosa declined and with the discovery of oil on her land chose the appropriate name of Black Gold. Bradley was also successful in allowing the foal to be registered, thus the next chapter of the story came to pass.

Rosa chose to continue the relationship with Hanley Webb in the training of Black Gold. Webb oversaw the horses early years and breaking as a yearling. He then brought Black Gold to New Orleans to start his career on January 19, 1923 at Fair Grounds.

As a two year old Black Gold won the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill Downs. This race has historically been a stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby. As a three year old in 1924, Black Gold won Derby races in four different states. In New Orleans, the Louisiana Derby run at Jefferson Park, the Ohio Derby, Chicago Derby, established a new American record for one mile and one eight in the Latonia Derby, and the Kentucky Derby.

He was so heavily bet in the Kentucky Derby with the bookmakers, they were unable to lay the bets off and many were overwhelmed by their losses and put out of business. He became a national racing fan favorite of the populace.

His last race came in the Salome Purse as he prepped for the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds. He broke down in deep stretch and breathed his last near the position of where his memorial marker would be placed. His adulation by the race going public was so great, many people came to the track as the word spread of his demise to get one last glimpse of the champion. Legend has it, members of the public streamed onto the racetrack to snip pieces of his mane and tail for keepsakes of their hero.

He is memorialized by the infield marker at Fair Grounds and every year homage is paid with a dedication of roses on the site of the monument by the winning jockey after the Black Gold Stakes is run. The Thoroughbred Record acknowledged the greatness of Black Gold at the time in the following quote, “No more brilliant racehorse than Black Gold has been seen under colors the past decade. He was as game a horse as has stood on plates and answered the bugles call.”

It was more than seven decades before another horse won both the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. His life has been chronicled in bestselling books and popular movies. His memorial was preceded by memorial marker of a queen, Pan Zareta.

Tippity Witchet, another Fair Grounds Hall of Fame member, had won eight in a row in Maryland when his groom “Hot Stuff” was asked about the obscurely bred little gelding’s pedigree. The question was asked, “Hot Stuff, who’s that Tippity Wichet by?” Hot Stuff’s replied, “Well, generally when I sees him he’s by his self.” The racing term was coined and was aptly used to describe Pan Zareta at the finish of one of the greatest match races ever run.

Pan Zareta was a foal of 1910. She was bred and owned by J.F. Newman of Sweetwater, Texas. She was named for Pansy Zareta, the daughter of the former Mayor of Juarez. Legend has it she raced with a solid gold bit and carried it through 151 starts over six seasons of racing. Her 76 wins, 31 seconds and 21 thirds are mind boggling, especially considering the weights she was assigned and the competition she faced.

She was purely a sprinter. In the course of her travels she set eleven track records and three world records. She won under the weights of up 146 pounds, carrying over 130 pounds on twenty eight occasions. It wasn’t so much she carried the weight but how she carried the weights assigned. She was called the “Queen of the Turf” because of spectacular performances under heavy weights. As reported by the Daily Racing Form on December 14, 1913…

“Just one week ago today J.F. and H. S. Newman’s fast 3yo filly Pan Zareta equaled the American Record of 104 3/5 for five and a half furlongs in winning a race at Juarez. On that occasion carried 124 pounds. This afternoon, with two more pounds up, she duplicated her brilliant performance of a week ago. As in her preceding record equaling performance, she made all the pace and won easily, with plenty of margin to spare. It is evident, had it been necessary, Pan Zareta could have reduced the American Record on either occasion.”

In her immortal match against Joe Blair at Terrazas Park in Juarez the race was described by the Daily Racing Form in this way…

“Pan Zareta’s feat was made more notable from the fact that Jockey Loftus, misjudged starter Cassidy’s intentions, held her back in check when the barrier went up, thereby allowing Joe Blair to obtain an advantage of several lengths right at the start.

Joe Blair’s jockey, Acton, attempted to make the most of his advantage by letting his mount step right along, and the result was sensational from the time standpoint. The first quarter was run in 21 3/5, three eights in 33 2/5, and half in 44 4/5.

As the final furlong was begun, Pan Zareta moved up on even terms with the flying pacemaker, wrested the lead from him and went on to victory by herself (the margin was five lengths), with jockey Loftus easing her up at the finish.”

It was said by old timers to be the most wonderful performance it had ever been their privilege to witness.

Pan Zareta was a traveler. She raced at Jaurez, Aqueduct, Salt Lake, Churchill Downs, Butte, For Erie, Coeur d’ Alene, Lexington, Oaklawn, Jamaica, Fair Grounds and many other stops. In eleven starts in New Orleans at Fair Grounds, she won four and placed six times. In November of 1917 she shipped to Fair Grounds from Kentucky and contracted lung fever. A month later she developed pneumonia and on January 19, 1918, she died in her stall.

As reported by the Times Picayune, “An air of mourning fell over the Crescent City and many people, horsemen and racing fans alike, were said to have openly grieved at news of her death. She was buried two days later beneath a giant live oak just inside the inner rail at the sixteenth pole.” Just as with the later internment of Black Gold, Fair Grounds named an honorary memorial race for Pan Zareta and the winning Jockey lays a tribute of roses on the monument as part of the Winner’s Circle ceremony.

Pan Zareta and Black Gold’s markers are iconic in FG history as memorials to two champions in an era of our history when the time of life was physically demanding and life was much harder for man and beast. Horses were still at the center of man’s productivity and a major focus of life.

As the years rolled forward and progress at the Fair Grounds demanded a Turf Course be added inside the main oval, the markers were required to be moved. The mortal remains of Pan Zareta and Back Gold remain where they were laid to rest and now lie inside the 1/16 pole under the Turf. It is a fitting tribute to the two champions of the Kingdom of the Heart to be part of the finish of races, even today.

A post script, in addition to Pan Zareta and Black Gold, there are two other horses of note buried in the infield at Fair Grounds. 1977 New Orleans Handicap winner Tudor Tambourine who was owned in a partnership including Ruth Fertel the founder of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. Mrs. Fertel was the first licensed female Thoroughbred Trainer in Louisiana and a prominent horse owner for many years.

Also posthumously interned in the Fair Grounds infield is 1978 Fair Grounds Oaks winner La Doree who was owned by Earl Scheib, a prominent west coast owner for many years. Another asterisk to this story involves a marker stone with the name Tenacious which for years was near the memorials for Pan Zareta and Black Gold.

Tenacious, owned by Joe W. Brown, was an imposing fixture at Fair Grounds winning three consecutive running’s of the Louisiana Handicap (1958, 59 & 60) and the New Orleans Handicap in 1958 but he was not buried in the infield. The marker has been removed since 2005 and is unaccounted for.

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