Assault: "The Club-Footed Comet"

By Jenny Kellner

He was born during World War II on a sprawling Texas ranch best known for cattle and quarter horses. When he was young, he stepped on something sharp, purportedly a surveyor’s stake, which went right through his right front foot and left him with a permanent limp at a walk or trot. Factor in an unprepossessing frame -- he was barely 15-2 hands tall and weighed less than 1,000 pounds – and he would hardly seem a candidate for Thoroughbred racing’s most prized and crown.

At a full gallop, however, Assault was flawless, and his sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1946 epitomized the will to win of a true champion.

“He beat whatever they threw at him,” said his jockey, Warren Mehrtens. “Assault was all heart.”

King Ranch had acquired its first Thoroughbred, Chicaro, in 1936 with the express purpose of improving the outfit’s quarter horse line. Three years later, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Bold Venture was added to the breeding program and in 1942, he was bred to a King Ranch mare named Igual, a daughter of Equipoise.

The result was a rather delicate-looking liver chestnut who would suffer from kidney and bleeding difficulties throughout his racing career, not to mention the misshapen hoof that led to his nickname, “The Club-Footed Comet.”

“When he walks or trots, you’d think he was going to fall down,” said Assault’s Hall of Fame trainer, Max Hirsch. “I think that when the foot still hurt him, he got in the habit of protecting it, with an awkward gait, and then he kept it up. But he galloped true. There wasn’t a thing wrong with his action when he went fast.”

Assault broke his maiden in July at Aqueduct in his fourth start, finished a distant fifth in the East View Stakes six days later and then gained attention on August 6, 1945 – the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – when he won the Flash Stakes at Belmont Park at odds of 70-1, his only other victory of the year.

Troubled as well by splints, a bad ankle and a problematic knee, Assault’s delayed 3-year-old campaign kicked off with a victory in the Experimental Handicap at Jamaica on April 9 followed by a 4½-length win in the Wood Memorial less than two weeks later. Four days after finishing fourth in the mud in the Kentucky Derby Trial, Assault destroyed 16 rivals in the Run for the Roses, pulling clear to an eight-length win at odds of more than 8-1.

Sent off as the favorite in the Preakness – the only Triple Crown race in which he would be favored – Assault held a four-length advantage at the top of the stretch but barely managed to hold on to a desperate neck victory over Lord Boswell.

It was Lord Boswell, then, who would be favored in the June 1 Belmont Stakes, but when the field of seven turned for home, he would remain where he had spent much of the raced --  buried at the back of the pack. Meanwhile, Assault, according to the chart, “stumbled at the start but recovered quickly, was sent up on the inside, was steadied along the far turn, where he began to improve his position, came to the outside for the stretch run, swerved slightly, disposed of the leaders and drew away.”

His three-length victory over Natchez gave racing its seventh Triple Crown winner, but Assault would go on to write another chapter in his legend that fall. In eight meetings with the great Stymie over the next two years, Assault would win five, including a magnificent last-to-first victory in the 1947 Butler Handicap at Jamaica under Eddie Arcaro.

Assault was finally retired in 1950 with 18 victories from 42 races and a bankroll of $675,470, and his physical problems continued into his retirement. He was unable to produce any Thoroughbred offspring, but several quarter-horse mares he was pastured with reportedly became pregnant. He died on Sept. 1, 1971, at age 28, and is buried at King Ranch.

Of Assault, Hirsch said simply: “I never trained a better horse.”

Click here to view the 1946 Belmont Stakes results chart