He was the perennial come back kid. He raced for seven seasons until the age of 11. He was plagued with tendon injuries that sidelined him once for over two years at the height of his career. He was a study in courage and determination. When he was sound, he was one of the most formidable runners the American Turf has ever known.
Old Rosebud was foaled at Hamburg Place in 1911 and was the first of five Kentucky Derby winners bred there. He was a son of the highly touted Uncle who was Star Shoot’s best son at stud. His dam Ivory Bells produced four other stakes winners and was a daughter of the great Himyar.
Oddly enough Madden didn’t think much of Old Rosebud as a youngster and sold him to Frank D. Weir the trainer of the great Roseben for the rock bottom price of $500. Weir, gelded him and while retaining a life interest in the horse in turn sold him to Hamiliton Applegate whose family owned a distillery. He named the horse Old Rosebud in honor of the company’s flagship brand of whiskey.
Old Rosebud’s first start was in Juarez on a heavy track in the Yucatán Stakes where he won in a canter. He won another race at the track by five lengths and was then shipped north to Kentucky for the Idle Hour Stakes where he just missed by a head to Little Nephew another son of Uncle.
He would finish second again to Little Nephew in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. But after that loss it was Kelly bar the door as Old Rosebud racked up nine straights wins turning the tables on Little Nephew and defeating top horses like Roamer, Black Toney and Imperator. In this winning streak he set a track record for five furlongs and in turn lowered in his own mark for the distance three straight times. Not surprisingly, he was named the 1913 Two Year Old Champion.
In his first start as a three year old at the end of April, Old Rosebud easily won an overnight race by six lengths. Next up was the Kentucky Derby where he was sent to the front immediately after the start and coasted home by eight lengths. Old Rosebud set a track record for the mile and 1/4 that day which stood for 16 years until Twenty Grand bested the time in 1931.
Shipped to Belmont Park for the Withers Stakes, Old Rosebud had trouble negotiating the turns at the track and broke down finishing last in a field of five. To many observers that day, Belmont’s running of races in the English fashion may have contributed to Old Rosebud’s injury as the chart states “ he started to bear out while rounding the far turn and ran out when entering the homestretch...the reverse way of running causing the defeat.”
Following his injury, Old Rosebud was turned out for two years on a Texas ranch. When he returned to the races in 1917, he was primarily a sprinter. Never again would he win a race at the Derby distance of one mile and 1/4.
As a six year old in 1917, Old Rosebud saw one of his most productive years starting 21 times and winning 15 races accounting for the Clark, Queen’s County, Carter and Delaware Handicaps over top competitors like Roamer, King Gorian, The Finn, Cudgel, and the Western speed demon Pan Zareta.
He would then participate in one of the most famous turf races: the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap. Given the participants it was a race for the ages. It would be the first time three Kentucky Derby winners would meet in one race. There was the great Whitney mare, Regret now five; Old Rosebud; and Omar Khayyam the 1917 Derby winner. Rounding out the field were: Roamer, Stromboli, Boots and the other half of the Whitney entry, nine year old Borrow.
Regret went to the lead and was eased by her jockey firmly believing that the race was in the bag with the only challenger on the horizon being her stablemate Borrow. And as everyone knew, Whitney wanted to win the race with Regret. Well almost everyone knew this. It would not be the first time, Borrow’s jockey Willie Knapp, ignored orders. In the end Borrow nosed out Regret and Old Rosebud finished a game third that day with Omar Khayyam off the board.
Old Rosebud’s last race in 1917 was the Bayview Handicap where under 133, he equaled the track record for 1 mile and 1/16. Then he broke down again and was back at the Texas ranch for another year.
He came back in 1919 and raced until 1922 where he started 42 times winning only 11 races. In this period, Old Rosebud began a descent from stakes company down to the claiming ranks. At Jamaica on May 17th, he broke down for the final time in an allowance race and was euthanized after it became clear that nothing could be done for him.
Old Rosebud’s record shows: 80 starts 40 wins 13 seconds 8 thirds with earnings of $74,729. He was 1913 Two Year Old Champion and 1917 Handicap Champion. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1968. In the Bloodhorse list of 100 Top American Racehorses, Old Rosebud shows up as number 88.
Old Rosebud’s regular rider, John McCabe and trainer Frank Weir reminisced about the old champion in an interview in the 1970’s. McCabe said of Old Rosebud: he “was as good as any of them — Man O’ War, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat.” Weir agreed and added: “Old Rosebud is the kind of horse one sees in a lifetime. If he’d been sound, there’s no telling how great.”