The breeding of great horses, regardless of prevalent theories, is in the last analysis, a shot in the dark. And there is no better example of that than the birth of the great handicapper, Roamer.
Col. E. F. Clay and his brother owned Runnymede Stud one of premier breeding establishments in Kentucky which had been the home of numerous 19th century champions in Hanover, Miss Woodford, Ben Brush and many others.
In 1910 the Clay brothers had acquired a 14 year old blind mare by the name of Rose Tree II. She was a daughter of the 1892 Two Thousand Guineas winner Bona Vista, himself a son of Bend Or. She had been claimed for two hundred pounds in England and imported into the United States.
The idea was to breed her to Runnymede’s premier stallion, Star Shoot, but the plans fell through as there was some concern about breeding two blind animals.
Knight Errant, was the son of New Zealand sire and 1885 Melbourne Stakes winner Trenton. He was a decent runner but at this juncture in his life he was serving as the Farm’s teaser stallion. Legend has it that Knight Errant leapt over the fence and mated with Rose Tree II. The resulting foal was Roamer who was named after the parent who was the better jumper.
Roamer began his career on May 1, 1913 with an easy victory in a maiden race at Lexington. After a couple of second place finishes in allowances, he then had the misfortune to run into Old Rosebud, the two year old champion of that year. Roamer tried hard, but couldn’t get within six lengths of his rival in two starts.
The Clay brothers were suffering some financial setbacks at the time and Roamer was dropped into a claiming race at Belmont. Although they were able to retain ownership of Roamer after the race, shortly thereafter he was sold for $2,500 to Andrew Miller, the treasurer and secretary of Saratoga Race Track. For Miller, Roamer would make over 90 starts and earn championship honors in three of the seven years he raced.
As a three year old, Roamer really came into his own starting 16 times and winning 12 races, including the Carter, Brooklyn Derby, Travers and Huron Handicap. He was the leading money winner that year with $29,105 and set five track records including an American record for a mile and 1/8 in the Washington Handicap under top weight and spotting the second place horse twenty two pounds.
His shortest margin of victory was two lengths in the Carter and his longest was ten lengths in the Travers. He scared off all competitors in the Autumn Weight For Age and included a walkover in his victories that year. He was named the 1914 Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year Old.
In 1915 as a four year old, he was the Champion Handicapper starting 15 times with 8 victories in top races like the Brookdale, Saratoga, Merchants and Citizens Handicap and the Saratoga Cup. He carried top weight in these races easily giving away 22 pounds or more to some his rivals and winning with ease. He bested the top older horses like Borrow, Cudgel and Stromboli.
From 1916 to 1919, he started 52 times with 15 victories 18 seconds and 6 thirds. He met a new generation of talented horses in George Smith, the 1916 Kentucky Derby winner, Johren, and The Finn and renewed his rivalry with his initial foe Old Rosebud.
He gave them weight and still managed to win important races. Roamer set three track records in this period and in the 1918 Saratoga Handicap he lowered the track record by a full one and 4/5 seconds.
On August 21, 1918, Roamer became the first horse to run a mile in under 1:35 in a time trial where he blazed away from the pace setter and flew around the two turn Saratoga track stopping the clock at 1:34 4/5. This mark shattered the track record of 1:36 2/5 and ended Salvator’s record for a mile set on a straight course against time in 1890. Roamer’s record would stand for fifty years until Dr. Fager lowered the mark in 1968 at Arlington Park.
Roamer’s last victory was in 1919 at eight years old against Champion Three Year Old Sun Briar at Aqueduct. He was sent back to the farm to rest before starting his 1920 campaign with the goal of topping $100,000 in earnings. But it was not to be. His owner suffered a fatal heart attack in late December 1919. And a few short hours later, Roamer slipped on the ice in his paddock fracturing his leg and was euthanized.
Physically Roamer was a slightly built bay gelding who stood barely 15.2 hands and tipped the scales at just under 1,000 pounds. He was a fussy eater who needed a great deal of training to keep him sharp. He was a front runner who was not distance limited and remained sound for most of his racing career until at the age of eight the gallant warrior started to show some signs of wear. If his banner was a bit more tattered that year, it was because the grueling campaigns and staggering weights had finally taken their toll.
Roamer won at distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to a mile and 3/4. He set or equaled 11 track records in winning 24 stakes and placing in 27 more. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Roamer Handicap was named in his honor and run from 1944 to 1987.
His trainer, Jack Goldsborough was asked in 1930 to evaluate that years’ sensation, Gallant Fox, in light of the great horses he had seen. Goldsborough replied: “in my opinion there were only two great horses: Man O’ War and Roamer.