Throwback Thursday: A horse named Juggernaut

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In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6.

The first thing you notice? The schedule. The second thing? The sustained excellence. Third? It has to be that flapping tongue.

When you look back at Juggernaut, a timber horse of the late 1970s and early 1980s, many things attract attention. The French import won twice in five days at Fair Hill in 1979. He was the divisional champion in 1978. He won the Virginia Gold Cup in 1981. He was ridden at various times by every member of the Fisher family – Jack, Rush and John in races, Dolly in the foxhunting field, Katharine for a retirement appearance at the Virginia Gold Cup.

But the tongue might win out. As a young horse in France, Juggernaut broke his jaw and lost his bottom teeth in a fall. The injury meant his tongue pretty much had a mind of its own – sliding out while he relaxed in the stall and lolling and flopping along as he ran. Not that it bothered him much.

John Fisher was in France looking at horses owned by his client Larry Gelb (who founded Clairol with his wife Joan Clair in 1931). Gelb owned the famed Haras de Gouffern stud, then known as the Haras de la Vente, in the national stud region in France’s Ure Valley. Now owned by Jean-Pierre de Gaste, the farm bred star English hurdler Big Buck’s among others.

In 1975, Fisher was there shopping for prospects when a gelding poked his head out of the stall window.

“Beautiful chestnut, big blaze, great eye and he had his tongue hanging out,” recalled Fisher, who told Gelb that the horse would have to come to America. On behalf of Diana and Carl Norris, Fisher paid “not that much money” and Juggernaut came across the Atlantic to Pennsylvania.

He started his American career as an amateur flat mount for Carl Norris in 1975. They won two bumpers together that fall, at Rolling Rock and the Colonial Cup. Switched to hurdles in 1976, Juggernaut won twice, but was not quite good enough for stakes competition.

Fisher recalled a rather fateful trek to Saratoga for what was supposed to be a hurdle start. Juggernaut didn’t like new surroundings and would walk the stall at night. By morning, he’d have cuts on his head and ears and be exhausted. Fisher tried putting a tranquilizer in the horse’s feed. Juggernaut ate around it. The trainer tried putting straw bales in the center of the stall. Juggernaut walked around them. Finally, someone suggested a goat. Fisher drove his Triumph Herald into the country near Saratoga, bought a goat and put it in Juggernaut’s stall (after a harrowing ride back to the track). The horse walked the stall all night while the goat – who ate the tranquilizer – slept on the floor.

Juggernaut went back to Pennsylvania, without running. And the goat went back to the farmer. The Triumph was never the same.

“He would get very upset in a stall he didn’t know and would race around it at night,” Fisher said. “The goat was one of those brilliant ideas that didn’t work. When I pulled up to the (stable) gate, the goat’s head was out the window and the guard took one look and said, ‘Now I’ve seen everything.’ ”

After missing 1977, Juggernaut emerged over timber in 1978 and found his calling for new owner Joe Iglehart. In his late 80s, Iglehart would show up at every Juggernaut race in a suit, tie and polished shoes and hold the horse back at the barn until it was race time.

That first season, the son of French stallion Dilettante won his debut at Marlborough Point-to-Point and added three sanctioned wins plus three seconds to claim the timber championship over stakes horse Dosdi (who had three wins and one second). 

Ross Pearce, now a steward at the Maryland Jockey Club tracks Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, took over from Steve Secor midway through the 1978 season and was Juggernaut’s regular rider in 1979. Pearce was aboard for the Fair Hill double, plus two other wins and narrow defeats in the My Lady’s Manor and Virginia Gold Cup.

“He was a really cool horse,” said Pearce this week. “I should have won a lot more races on him. He had a burst of speed but you just had to be careful how you used it. If you used it too soon, that was it. He was fast enough to win any race he was in, really. He was a classy horse, fun horse to ride.”

Jumping mattered to Juggernaut.

“He was a very safe jumper,” Pearce said. “If you made him take a big one all the time, it took a lot out of him. He’d make that leap when you asked him, but it was hard on him. If you did that four or five times in a race, he would come up just a hair empty in the end.”

Pearce thought he cost Juggernaut two wins in the spring of 1979: the My Lady’s Manor in April when he was “riding two horses” and finished second to Mod Man by a length; and the Virginia Gold Cup in May when he tried an inside move on Sam Son Of A Gun and Charlie Fenwick only to get stopped and lost by a neck. Yesterday’s jockey thought he had a case and claimed foul. Today’s steward is more diplomatic.

“We thought they should have taken him down at the time,” Pearce said. “Maybe they should have, maybe not.”

Juggernaut didn’t mind as he won his next two starts at Fair Hill. On May 28, the 10-year-old got revenge on Sam Son Of A Gun with a 42-length shellacking going 3 1/2 miles. Five days later, again at Fair Hill but shortening up to 3 miles, Fenwick brought Dosdi. The heavy favorite led until the stretch, but was pressed throughout by Juggernaut who swarmed past last and won by 2 lengths. It was Dosdi’s only loss in eight starts en route to the timber championship that year.

“He actually ran better the second time,” said Pearce of Juggernaut’s 6 1/2-mile Fair Hill double.

Pearce rode Juggernaut just twice more, a loss to Dosdi at Foxfield in September and a debacle at Virginia Fall in October. Pearce and three other jockeys completed an extra circuit of the course and were ultimately disqualified – after a hearing in New York City. Pearce quit riding after that race (save for one comeback win in an amateur hurdle race a year later) to concentrate on a training career.

“I was mad at myself,” he said. “I remember saying I wasn’t professional enough and I quit.”

Juggernaut4Juggernaut and Ross Pearce won two (2) races five days apart at Fair Hill in 1979. Douglas Lees/NSA photoPearce went on to train for Buckland Farm, conditioning (among others) Grade 1 winners Colonial Waters, Seattle Meteor and Southern Sultan before turning to officiating – first on the steeplechase circuit and now in flat racing. This week, he paid some credit to his old friend Juggernaut.

“He helped me become a much better horseman,” Pearce said. “I learned that you could sit quiet on a horse and not make too many premature moves and I could tell Julie Krone and Pat Day and people like that. You can let the horse run underneath you, keep him relaxed and save every bit of energy.”

After Iglehart’s death in November 1979, John and Dolly Fisher became Juggernaut’s owners. The horse raced two more seasons. In 1980, he won point-to-point starts with Jack Fisher (age 16) at Middleburg and Winterthur and scored at Fair Hill for Johnny (age 41). In 1981, Juggernaut won two to open the season – at Middleburg Spring in April and the elusive Virginia Gold Cup in May – then finished second in the final three starts of his career. Jack Fisher, now an 11-time leading trainer on the steeplechase circuit, has won nine Virginia Gold Cups as a jockey but Juggernaut was first.

In all, Juggernaut won 17 races in his American steeplechase career (point-to-point, flat, hurdle and timber). The chestnut finished second 13 times, third eight times. Equibase lists 65 lifetime starts – from 1971-81 – in France and the U.S.

He retired to life as a foxhunter with the Cheshire Foxhounds, mainly for Dolly. He is buried on the Fishers’ Pennsylvania farm, along with 10-time timber winner Island Stream and Maryland Hunt Cup winner Revelstoke.

“He was one of those horses,” Fisher said. “You don’t get many like that in your lifetime. He was a real treat and did everything we ever asked him to do.”

One More Story
The Gelbs were major players in racing and beyond and spun Clairol into major roles with the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers and later Bristol-Myers Squibb. Larry Gelb’s son Dick was, as Fisher put it, at a fancy dinner with “high muck-a-mucks” in New York City when the waiter leaned over and said, “Hi Mr. Gelb, I’m Steve Secor and I rode Juggernaut.”

Now that’s a horse.