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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Here Comes Exterminator!

The Longshot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero

Eliza McGraw

Thomas Dunne Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


1


Uncle Henry


 


How did Exterminator and Henry McDaniel find their futures bound together on that hot day in 1924, with so much in the balance? How could so many people—in the stands, gathered around radios, scattered across America—love this one horse and care so desperately if he won or lost?


Exterminator’s story—and Henry McDaniel’s as well—begins just after the Civil War. Looking at McDaniel’s life, you could say he was made to discover Exterminator.


*   *   *


McDaniel used to tell reporters that he had been born on the Secaucus racetrack. His father, David McDaniel, was a brilliant racehorse breeder and trainer. By the time Henry arrived in 1867, the elder McDaniel was one of the most famous horse trainers in America; he won the Belmont Stakes three times in a row. “From the time I could first toddle I heard race horses discussed,” McDaniel wrote, “their doings applauded or condemned and their shortcomings or virtues commented on. I grew up in an atmosphere of horses.”


David McDaniel competed his horses throughout the South before the Civil War. Afterward, when racing was revived up north, he moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife and children. Henry was the youngest. McDaniel did not earn as much money there, and by 1869 some horses had been seized as payments for debt. Undaunted, he pooled his talents with others’ resources and formed a group of owners that became known as the McDaniel Confederacy. The group was “destined to shake the turf to its centre, and … dominated the race-course for a longer period than any one stable of which racing chronicles have any mention,” wrote a reporter for the sportsmen’s weekly the Spirit of the Times. Jockeys wore blue and red silks, and called McDaniel “the Colonel.”


The Confederacy’s pride, a temperamental, fast stallion named Harry Bassett, was only a yearling during the debt seizure, and McDaniel bought him back by 1870. Harry Bassett, named for a Confederacy member, was one of the most successful racehorses of his generation, and his jockey, James Rowe, would grow up to be a legendary trainer. One of Henry McDaniel’s earliest memories was going to Saratoga in 1872 to watch Harry Bassett win the Saratoga Cup against Longfellow; the race was one of the biggest sporting events after the Civil War. “My father thought there was no horse in the world like Harry Bassett,” McDaniel said years later. “The high regard that my father had for Harry Bassett I have always entertained for Exterminator.”


In those days, buoyed by Harry Bassett’s accomplishments and the Colonel’s skill, the Confederacy reigned over American racing. McDaniel had a special gift for getting horses to succeed. “It really seemed as if Col. McDaniel had only to buy the commonest plater in order to transpose him into a winner,” wrote one reporter. “He won with horses which other trainers had given up.” He did celebrity endorsements for products like Dr. Tobias’ Venetian Horse Liniment and Derby Condition Powders, and the advertisements said he was the owner of the fastest-running horses in the world.


But in 1876, Harry Bassett declined, winning only three of his final twelve starts. Some said the former champion deteriorated because he had been raced too hard. If that was true, it may have taught Henry a formative lesson: the ability to prolong a racehorse’s health and career would become one of his trademarks. Also, the Confederacy had overextended itself, with too many horses in training who could not earn their keep. Then, Henry’s mother died. The Colonel, training horses at Saratoga, learned about her death from a telegram.


By 1878, the Confederacy was over. The New York Times sent a reporter to cover McDaniel’s dispersal sale. He saw four Hoboken policemen trying in vain to force back the crowd arriving by trains from the North and South. “These visitors were clearly of the kind that travel about with great fat wallets choking in the throats with legal tenders and checks signed in good bold hands,” he wrote. Although the stallion wasn’t for sale, many of his sons and daughters were, and Harry Bassett was on display to remind people that every horse was related to the famous champion. The liquidation could not rescue the Colonel, who endured a series of setbacks and then died in 1885, at seventy-three.


Henry’s father had been a complex figure. “Col. McDaniel may have had enemies,” read a Spirit of the Times article, “as men of strong individuality are bound to have, but none will deny that as a trainer he had few equals. He was a stern disciplinarian, and as such produced a disagreeable impression, but among his friends no man could be more cordial nor instructive in his discourse. His life was devoted to the turf: he had tasted the bitter and the sweet of the turfman’s career.”


*   *   *


More than a million horses and mules died in the Civil War, and in its aftermath many new horses were bred to work in an increasingly industrial and urbanized country—pulling taxicabs and delivery wagons, carrying freight—and to race. There were about seven million horses in America in 1860, and twenty-five million by 1900. Training for either work or racing was a rough business, because many people believed that breaking a horse’s spirit made him ready to ride. Professional horsebreakers would simply ride a bucking colt until, shaking with exhaustion, the horse gave up. Westerners called this “bronco busting,” but the general idea was that forcing a horse to obey was the same as training him. “If the animal sulks,” wrote one horsebreaker, “or exhibits deliberate impatience of control, he should be conquered, then and there.”


An Ohioan named John Rarey had wanted to change that. Before the war, he performed horse tamings in front of crowds in America and Europe, seeking out vicious horses—and in one case, a zebra—as subjects. Rarey allowed horses to become used to him before jumping on, and he designed special harnesses to encourage obedience. Stilling the horse to gain trust, he wrote, worked beyond whippings and bronco busting. “Any horse may be taught to do anything that a horse can do,” he wrote, “if taught in a systematic and proper manner.” Rarey published versions of his book The Complete Horse-Tamer through the 1860s and ’70s. “Old theories have been exploded,” wrote one veterinarian. “To those cheering indications of a better day for the horse.” Some claimed Rarey overstated his own abilities, but he had inspired a new conversation and focus on the idea of humane training.


This turning away from harsh treatment and toward what we might now call natural horsemanship was a big leap, and it relied on the idea that people and animals were not very different. The ASPCA was founded in 1866, the year before McDaniel was born. As Susan Pearson writes in The Rights of the Defenseless, her study of children’s and animal rights in Gilded Age America, “Positing both as essentially innocent and good, reformers argued that the character of beasts and babes was alike ruined through cruelty and redeemed through kindness. If animals or children behaved badly, owners and handlers, or parents and teachers, need look no further than themselves for the cause.” There was a moralist tinge to all of this; the seal of the ASPCA showed a wagon driver about to beat a horse, while an angel intervened.


Horsemen of an earlier generation may not have seen things that way. But for Henry McDaniel, gentleness with horses was a way of life and of work.


*   *   *


Henry had galloped Confederacy horses at the Broad Rock track near Richmond, Virginia, and ridden in at least one race at Latonia, finishing second on a horse named Wellington. He saddled his first winner, Forest, on September 8, 1885, less than a year after his father died. He was seventeen.


Several other trainers had failed with four-year-old Forest, so his owners paid McDaniel $12.50 a month (about $290 today) to figure out why the horse couldn’t win. Forest was odd-looking; a previous trainer had believed he suffered from rheumatism of the shoulder muscles, and had him blistered—a process involving repeated application of a caustic ointment—until the hair was entirely gone. McDaniel watched the horse move and realized the trouble was not in Forest’s shoulders at all. The problem was blind splints, an inflammation of the ligament between two lower leg bones. He treated the gelding with rest, care, and gentle workouts. Afterward, Forest won five straight races.


McDaniel kept a scrapbook of his early clippings, a composition book in which he cut and pasted each article, aligned with the paper’s lines. His handwriting was the horseman’s careful half script, efficient for writing long lists of names, times, and pedigrees. These early articles about him invariably mentioned his father. “Henry McDaniel, youngest son of the once famous trainer, is now training for R. J. Lucas, and deserves a good deal of credit,” wrote one reporter. McDaniel did not seem poised to challenge his father’s outsized reputation, but he was already a gifted, insightful horseman in his own right. He trained with gentle consistency, forging a reputation very different from the Colonel’s, although one reporter noted that McDaniel “had his sterling character molded by the uncompromising requirements of the old Colonel’s characteristics.” McDaniel’s contemporary, the trainer Sam Hildreth, was also a trainer’s son. He noted that “the craving I’ve always had for race-horses, I reckon my father passed along to me in his blood. It was horse, horse, horse, with him all day long, year in and year out.” The same seemed true of the McDaniels, father and son. It was horse, horse, horse, for both, all day long.


Henry McDaniel was preternaturally talented, with an uncanny gift for communication. Over the years, various animals—a white German shepherd, a goat—trailed him around the barn. He trained a hen to jump onto his lap and carried a terrier in his overcoat pocket. McDaniel was patient, calm, and a scholar of thoroughbred bloodlines, a representative of a contemporary breed of evolved American horseman, and part of a shift in horsemanship in which working with horses became less a show of dominance and more a mixture of wisdom, care, and knowledge.


Horsemen responded to McDaniel as well as their horses did. “You are the most competent, capable, and honest man that I have come in contact with, in the thoroughbred business,” wrote one of his owners to him. Reporters called him “unassuming,” “modest,” “reticent,” “painstaking and capable,” and a “thorough gentleman.”


*   *   *


Horse tamer John Rarey’s work had inspired that of other horsemen, including Oscar Gleason, who called himself the “King of Horse-Tamers” and wrote a practical treatise on breaking wild horses. In 1894, Gleason filled Madison Square Garden for an exhibition as Rarey had, claiming, “The better the horse, the better the master.” Another trainer wrote about the importance of patting, praising, and blanketing the family horse: “If he is tired and worn out, it is astonishing how these little attentions will encourage and cheer him up.” Understanding horses as friends and helpmeets, these trainers railed against common cruel practices, like whipping tied-up horses, lighting fires under balky ones, and “bishoping”—overfiling—teeth to make horses appear younger.


Even horses’ food became less mundane. Grooms stirred a little molasses and salt into oats cooked with linseed oil. They brewed “hay tea” by pouring boiling water over a bucket of clean hay, and pampered tired horses with gruel made from cornmeal, flour, and some sound ale. There were all kinds of horse items for sale: not just saddles and halters but also straw hats for horses who pulled wagons in the sun and heavy blankets for cab horses. Horse-training ideas melded with industry, which meant that streetcar operators were asked to brush and curry the horses they drove. If they understood, and even liked, each other, the horses and drivers would be safer and more effective, using that crucial postbellum idea of kinship with animals. “Intelligence is so clear as to almost startle us by the feeling behind the full, liquid eye of the horse … there is a mind kindred to our own,” wrote Gleason. “That [training] may require patience and self-control on the part of the instructor cannot be denied; but so does the instruction of a child.”


“If any year could be said to make the apogee of the horse world, the year 1890 would be an appropriate choice,” writes Anne Norton Greene in her study of urban horses. That year, the president of the Humane Association likened the British book Black Beauty to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


*   *   *


Around that same time, McDaniel married a young St. Louis woman, a dark-haired beauty named Leonora Mollencott and nicknamed Lonie. Their wedding announcement went in his scrapbook. Underneath, McDaniel pasted a sentimental verse: “Sweetheart of mine, remember this / Thro’ all the years to be: / True love that never, never dies / Lives in my heart for thee!” A portrait shows Leonora peering out from underneath an enormous hat, a drooping feather echoing the slope of her cheek. She evidently shared McDaniel’s affection for animals; Leonora poses with her own dog, a mournful-faced black spaniel whose downcast expression echoes the feather and whose wide, dark eyes look like his mistress’s.


Early in their marriage, the McDaniels lost a baby, and as the years went on, Leonora struggled with mental illness. She grew obsessed with the idea that she was going blind, although she wasn’t. At times, she stayed in the private, small sanitariums, or with friends while McDaniel worked. They never had other children.


McDaniel worked relentlessly, moving around the country in rattling train cars, from Saratoga to Hot Springs to Chicago. By 1894, he was training horses for Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who founded the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. Locals gave Baldwin his nickname when he earned millions through mining investments. Baldwin was “the kind you never forget once you laid eyes on him,” Sam Hildreth wrote, “with his Prince Albert coat and large fedora hat and a look about him that only comes to the fellow who has been a pioneer on the other side of the Rockies.”


The partnership between the flamboyant investor and the young trainer profited both when Baldwin’s Rey el Santa Anita, a head-tossing, mistrustful stallion, won the 1894 American Derby at Chicago’s Arlington Park. McDaniel discussed the race with emerging confidence. He called the famously up-and-down Baldwin “possibly the richest and the poorest man on the turf. He has never got a cent in cash but is possibly worth millions.” When Rey el Santa Anita won the American Derby, Baldwin wired McDaniel from California to send his part of the prize right away. Asked if Rey el Santa Anita showed any signs of lameness, McDaniel said with pride that “he came out of the race perfectly sound.” Later, McDaniel wrote that the American Derby “was the first really big race in which I had trained the winner. Things looked very good to me that day. I felt that I was riding on top of the world.”


He praised the jockey, too. “I had watched his work and made up my mind that he was a good, intelligent rider … He is a quiet, trustworthy little fellow, and you might be around the stable here with him for a week without hearing him say a word.”


McDaniel seemed to approve of hard work, calm, and reliability—qualities others praised in him. Already, he showed the reticence and concern for horses that was becoming his trademark. He told a reporter that even though Rey el Santa Anita was eligible for a long race called the Realization, he was not sure he would send him, because it might not be the right thing to do. “From the way he won yesterday it would seem that he could go on and on and do still better in a longer race,” McDaniel said, “but this business is a mighty uncertain one.”


McDaniel was a handsome young man, light eyed and even featured, with a full mustache that was current but not foppish. In a photograph taken at the time, he wears a white shirt and striped tie. He looks like the consummate horseman: less sober than a banker but more conservative than a gambler.


*   *   *


Lucky Baldwin’s up-and-down ways seemed to wear on McDaniel, so he left to train for the more staid Memphis-based stable of George C. Bennett in 1899. He was continuing to climb, but with aching slowness. McDaniel needed a horse he could train for the prestigious eastern courses in New York and Maryland if he was going to ascend, but Bennett’s string bound him to smaller-time venues like Memphis and Little Rock. He seemed self-assured during interviews, though: “I have often been asked why with my success in picking winners I have never been more of a plunger [habitual bettor], for I seldom bet more than a ten-dollar note,” McDaniel told a reporter around 1900. “It’s a great secret, but I will tell you the reason. It’s because the life of a trainer is longer than that of a plunger. That’s why I’m a trainer.”


At first, the Bennett horses won for McDaniel. By 1902, McDaniel trained his two hundredth winner for Bennett in a little over two years. His willingness to travel the country, finding meets in which his horses could succeed, probably kept his numbers up. But a later season went less well. (A horse named Henry McDaniel had better luck; Sam Hildreth had apparently named the colt for his friend, and he won at New Orleans in the winter of 1902. Naming horses after people was a common custom at the time. There were horses named Sewell Combs, James T. Clark, Jim Heffering, and Alice Forman.) McDaniel acted unruffled about his losses: “Well, we cannot win all the time,” he told a reporter.


By January 1903, however, McDaniel was still struggling. He could not win with Bennett’s horses in New Orleans. The going was wet and sloppy in the Louisiana winter, and it seemed like every horse in his string preferred a fast track. McDaniel refused to train them in the mud—they might slip or pull a muscle—which kept them out of shape. Without having won a single race, he decided to send the horses back to Memphis.


But there was trouble there, too. McDaniel did not like Bennett’s jockey. William Coburn was very popular in Memphis, both as a rider and a man about town, but his eating and drinking made him overweight, which the disciplined McDaniel could not tolerate. “That boy,” he said, in an uncharacteristically heated interview, “has not told me the truth in eight months. He is disreputable and cannot be relied upon, and if I can prevent it he will never ride Bennett’s horses again.”


Then McDaniel advised Bennett to retire his leading racer, Abe Frank, to the stud. Bennett took this so far as to decide not to buy any new horses, but race only homebreds from his western Tennessee farm. McDaniel had not meant that Bennett should never buy more horses, just that Abe Frank was ready to retire. Bennett’s sentimental attachment to his own bloodlines would never yield the winners they needed. Abe Frank was a nice horse, but he was no Harry Bassett.


“That was the reason why Henry McDaniel, as nice a fellow as anyone would want to know, a good judge of a racehorse and a first-class man in charge of a stable, left my employ,” Bennett said. “He was not pleased with my youngsters as yearlings, and actually disliked them as two-year-olds.” Other horsemen weighed in: a bookie and former partner of Bennett named Thomas Shannon said that Bennett was spoiled by “a series of lucky strikes on the turf and cheap investments in horses turning into bonanzas … Shannon says Bennett can’t get the notion out of his head that cheap stuff is as good as the more expensive article in thoroughbred yearlings, and as a result he has loaded up on McDaniel a lot of material that the noted trainer could not condition to get inside the money, much less win a race.”


McDaniel’s departure represented another lost chance, another stable of well-trained, underperforming horses left behind. A photo pasted in the composition book shows McDaniel heavier about the jaw, still with a stylishly full mustache, and some dark strands of hair showing underneath the brim of his spring fedora. He is wearing a vest, a white shirt, and a loose coat. The lightness of his eyes is still apparent, and striking, but now they look a little cooler.


*   *   *


McDaniel accepted a standing offer from a Chicago millionaire named M. H. Tichenor in 1904. One of the places he raced Tichenor’s horses was Los Angeles’s Ascot Park, which stood just outside the city limits. McDaniel usually stayed out of contentious situations, but even he was swept up when he got to Ascot, a new, raw racetrack overwhelmed by constant rumors of doping and fixed races. Things got so bad that a race official visiting from Montana, not exactly known as a leading horse-racing state, forbade Ascot trainers from coming to his state in 1905. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” he said. “I have made up my mind that certain horsemen now operating at Ascot shall not enter Montana if I can help it.” The Jockey Club hired Pinkerton detectives to patrol the track undercover. A cranky debate wore on, because some city supervisors wanted to close the track, but others insisted on keeping it open.


McDaniel added legitimacy to the troubled, upstart track. “From the time he could toddle the ways and moods of the horse were the pet study of the present manager of the Tichenor stable,” one reporter wrote. (His father and lineage were still the most consistently mentioned things about him.) He took up a position in the infield before every race, glasses glued to his face, stopwatch ticking. He stood alone. He timed his horses’ opponents but did not ask about them. “His own judgment is all he relies on,” wrote a reporter.


The accompanying photograph shows McDaniel with his leather binoculars case looped over his arm, a flat-brimmed hat with a light band, a white shirt, dark bow tie, and light vest. A dapper horseman whose hat brim shades his eyes, and whose mouth beneath his mustache is not smiling but not grim, either. He stands with one foot a step forward, as if he hopes the photographer will hurry, because he has more important places to go.


*   *   *


At Los Angeles’s Ascot and other tracks, in a weird mirror image of the new wave of understanding horses, outlaws imagined often cruel innovations to force racehorses to lose. Like other sports connected with betting, racing has a shadow history of rigged outcomes. Spongers placed small pieces of sponge inside horses’ nostrils, so that they couldn’t get enough wind to run at their usual speed. Dopers used stimulants called hop, which could contain anything from cocaine to nitroglycerin cut with rosewater, injected or mixed with molasses and ladled over horses’ oats in the hopes of making the horses run faster. Other ingredients included strychnine, capsicum, and ginger. Enforcement was mostly through the night watchmen stable owners hired. Police and jockey clubs were at a loss; saliva testing for drugs did not start until 1934, and officials did not have time to probe every single horse’s nostrils before a race.


In February 1906, things at Ascot came to a head when veterinarians were able to verify that a horse named The Huguenot had run under some kind of stimulant. A drugged horse sometimes behaves very oddly; one horse was so hopped up that he bucked his rider off, and then, while onlookers watched gape mouthed, ran around the track three and a half times by himself before collapsing. The case “aroused the indignation of the better class of horsemen here, and they hope some decisive action will be taken to completely eradicate this nefarious practice which has lately thrown the sport into disrepute in California,” reported the Los Angeles Times.


At the same time, McDaniel, along with two other trainers, lodged charges against Ascot’s manager. The two cases melted into one scandal. McDaniel and his friends—to add to the confusion, one of these was a defendant in the doping case—charged that one owner bribed officials to arrange races for him. (Names of the involved parties included “Overcoat Jack” Atkins and “Boots” Durnell.) After each race, the official would be given a box of cigars with a $100 bill hidden under its paper flap. Another owner, they claimed, would race horses in heavy shoes to slow them. Then, when their odds were long enough, he reshod them with lightweight racing plates so the horses could beat their old competitors. Eventually, the dopers, including McDaniel’s friend, were suspended, but the board of directors merely reprimanded the crooked manager for some lapses in judgment. The San Francisco Chronicle sided with McDaniel: “The turf scandal at Ascot is apparently closed,” an editorial ran. “That such a state of affairs was permitted to exist is a grave reflection upon the management.” “The verdict in the Brooks case is considered by many as a ‘whitewash,’” agreed the Los Angeles Times.


McDaniel left Ascot and the turmoil behind. He sold many of Tichenor’s horses, except California Derby winner Good Luck, whom he took back to Memphis, another sign of restlessness. Tichenor’s stable had not yielded any particular champions. Good Luck was not as promising a runner as Bennett’s stalwart Abe Frank, and neither was as fast as Lucky Baldwin’s American Derby winner, Rey el Santa Anita, now a distant memory.


McDaniel quit training for Tichenor. He still had not found his Harry Bassett. “While I feel very much disappointed, I want to congratulate you upon your new undertaking,” wrote Tichenor in October 1906, “and sincerely hope that it will be for the good, as I know it will be, as I think that you are the most competent, capable, and honest man that I have come in contact with, in the thoroughbred business.”


*   *   *


Time sped along. McDaniel was a veteran. He lived the horses’ life: the sweet smell of hay, the muffled clatter of shod hooves on hay-strewn brick aisleways, sparrows picking at spilled grain in dawn’s shaky light. Horses, he said, knew themselves best. You had to watch them carefully to understand what they were trying to tell you. “Horsemen get up early,” he told a reporter in his drawl, “but horses get up earlier.” He studied American bloodlines so much that he knew what each horse was bred to do, but also understood—for himself as well as his horses—that there was more to racing than blood. “Good horses have a lot of poor relations,” was another of his sayings.


By 1913, McDaniel sounded pragmatic, telling one reporter that he would not take the horses he was training to Kentucky. “I feel that I must go where I can win, even if the purses are smaller,” he said. “I know that my horses are not good enough to race with success at Louisville and Latonia this season.” It seemed that he was recalibrating his expectations and tabling the idea of rivaling his father in terms of accomplishment. No one was more respected, but plenty of trainers had earned more glory.


*   *   *


McDaniel and Leonora grew from a young married couple into middle-aged people. The McDaniels now lived in the Sheepshead Bay area of Coney Island. When the Sheepshead Bay track was built in what had been an oak and maple grove, horse-owning millionaires built huge homes and docks on the north shore of the bay, and the surrounding area was popular with turfmen; the Long Island Rail Road even had a special train that shuttled horses between Belmont and Sheepshead Bay.


The gambler Diamond Jim Brady—who liked to yell and jump when his horses were running—ate with the burlesque actress and singer Lillian Russell at Sheepshead Bay’s Gold Room restaurant. Celebrity jockeys like Snapper Garrison and Jimmy McLaughlin lived in brownstones on the Eighth Avenue area now known as Park Slope, then called Sportsman’s Row. Famous trainers Sam Hildreth, Max Hirsch, and James Rowe all lived nearby.


But many peers passed McDaniel by. He spent so much time in barns and saddling areas that horsemen called him Uncle Henry, after the member of the family who’s always around, the one you turn to for counsel and support. He was a respected and painstaking hardboot. But McDaniel did not have Harry Bassett, the McDaniel Confederacy, or three-Belmonts-in-a-row fame.


*   *   *


During this period, McDaniel began to find himself in the local news more than in the sports pages. In October 1907, he lost his wallet—which contained $9,500 in cash—riding home from Belmont. A racetracker named Stanley French picked it up, and when he overheard conversations about the lost money, he returned it. McDaniel gave French $1,000 without counting his own money, a gesture that became a story told as an example of Uncle Henry’s decency.


Next, in 1909, a talented, scofflaw jockey named Cal Shilling fought over a contract with R. L. Thomas, an owner for whom McDaniel was training. Shilling stabbed Thomas several times. As the police took Shilling off to jail, he handed over his diamond pin, ring, and gold watch for safekeeping. McDaniel had to nurse Thomas, who lay bleeding on a couch in his barn office.


Then crises began to move even closer to home. One January night in 1914, McDaniel was at home asleep next to Leonora. Suffering from one of her breakdowns, she had been living in the nearby Sunshine Sanitarium while McDaniel traveled. He awoke to find a man standing over him with a gun. “Be quiet, not a move,” said the robber. He fired two shots. Leonora screamed and hid under the sheets. McDaniel removed his own revolver from under a pillow and shot once toward the fleeing robber, and then again through his bedroom door. Passing pedestrians said they saw the bullet hit the burglar in the shoulder, but the man kept running. The next morning, McDaniel found both of the bullets that had been intended for him—one in the sheets and the other in one of his boots. There was no explanation for why the robber had picked the McDaniels’ house; the disturbing episode only highlighted a life that included instability and randomness.


McDaniel needed to get back to Toronto, where he was training horses for a Canadian owner. “You can’t settle down and be a racing man too; it’s one or the other,” Hildreth’s father had told him. McDaniel’s life proved that. Before he left, he closed up his house in Sheepshead Bay. He took Leonora to live with some friends, and hired a nurse named Jennie Larsen to take care of her. On Valentine’s Day, about a month after McDaniel shot at the robber, Larsen took a lunch tray up to Leonora’s room. She found Leonora standing in a closet, fingering a revolver. Larsen ran out, shouting for help. The couple Leonora lived with rushed up the stairs, and all three—husband, wife, nurse—heard a gunshot. Pushing open the door, they found Leonora dead in a spreading pool of blood, the gun beside her on the floor. She had shot herself in the heart.


Just as his father had, McDaniel learned of his wife’s death by telegram.


Only half of McDaniel’s scrapbook is filled in. The last page in it contains lyrics titled “The Angel in Our House.” “We did not know, when she was present here / How great a void her absence would have left / But since forever stilled her voice of cheer / Our home of all its brightness is bereft.”


He would never marry again.


*   *   *


McDaniel kept training. In November 1914, he was working for owner Robert Davies, in Canada. Things went along in an everyday way. He missed a yearling sale because Davies’s horses had distemper, and he told a reporter he had modest hopes for one colt. But by May 1915, Davies’s string proved unexceptional.


More than ever, McDaniel needed a champion.


 


Copyright © 2016 by Eliza McGraw