And finally Tuscalee gets in the Hall of Fame.
The 37-time jump winner will be a commensurate line at the end of most stories about the Hall of Fame. Of course, rail-skimming Kentucky Derby scion Calvin Borel will garner the most lines of type, the most minutes of ovation.
Greased-lightning miler Lure will get his accolades. Invasor, even though he seems too recent, deserves it. It took a while but, two-time champion sprinter Housebuster get his plaque. McDynamo, after winning the biggest American steeplechase five times in a row, gets in at first asking.
Then there’s Tuscalee.
If you grew up in steeplechasing, Tuscalee walks on water. His name rolls off the tongue, his exploits etched in your heart, every horse who wins a lot of races gets compared to Tuscalee. Quietly determined, he won 37 wins, the most of any steeplechase horse. Owned by Alfred Smith, trained by J. Leiter Aitcheson and ridden by his son, Joe Aitcheson Jr., Tuscalee showed up every weekend, the real hunt meet horse, from the time he was 3 until his retirement at 12.
Joe Aitcheson, 85, couldn’t make the trip to Saratoga. A Hall of Famer since 1978, Aitcheson couldn’t make the trip to Saratoga this summer.
Thursday day evening, he picked up the phone on the third ring.
“You tell them, he was the toughest horse I ever rode. He could be a little bit sore and he’d run his heart out. He was a little bit of a rogue when he was a stud, Mr. Smith sent him up to my dad. I got him straightened out. He loved to jump fences, I just found that out, out in the woods, I had built a few little fences, he was still a bit of rogue, he’d shy and do all this stuff, I headed him to those fences, I bounced him over a couple and he loved it, he was a perfect horse to ride after that. He was nice and quiet, head him toward a fence, he would gather up and tear at them and handled them good.
“They called him the Iron Horse. He ran 80 some races, it was amazing, I’m telling you. He was barely 16 hands. He was a little small for a jumper, the more I rode him, the better I liked him. He was the perfect horse to ride.
“You’d break him in the pack and he’d come out of there running. He was great, a perfect kind of horse to ride. He could jump little fences or big brush fences, he would jump anything. He was the perfect jumper. I could not find fault with him at all, you tell them that tomorrow.
“My dad loved him. Like me, he wasn’t so sure about Tuscalee at first, but the more he had him, the better he liked him. He won a race every year from when he was 3 until he was 12. He was a great horse.
“He was roguish at first, but he loved to jump. If they love to jump, they’ll do well. He trained at my dad’s farm, on a little half-mile track, my sister Jane, galloped him.
“At Monmouth Park, the Midsummer Hurdle, it used to be a tough race to win for any horse. When I heard he was running in that, I felt like my dad shouldn’t have entered him, I thought they would probably run away from him. I said, ‘One thing I’ll do is try to break him off in the first couple of horses, so it doesn’t look too bad when they pull away from him.’ He got on the lead, I slowed it up a little bit, for the whole race, he had a good hold of me, when they came to him at the end, he pulled away from them.
“He could jump any type of fence, at the hunt meets, they had all types of fences, some of them were good and some of them were bad. He piled up more wins at the hunt meets, that’s the reason I thought when they put him in the Midsummer Hurdle Handicap that he was just a hunt meet horse and he wouldn’t be able to handle those horses coming down from New York. He pulled away from all of them.
“He’s most definitely a Hall of Famer. Don’t forget to them they called him the Iron Horse. A lot of people who knew him would call him that. Tell them what I told you, OK?”
No problem, Joe.