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The Longest Shot

The Longest Shot: Lil E. Tee and the Kentucky Derby

John Eisenberg
Copyright Date: 1996
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Longest Shot
    Book Description:

    On the first Saturday in May every year in Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after 5:30 PM, a new horse attains racing immortality. The Kentucky Derby is like no other race, and its winners are the finest horses in the world. Covered in rich red roses, surrounded by flashing cameras and admiring crowds, these instant celebrities bear names like Citation, Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, and Seattle Slew. They're worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in 1992, a funny thing happened on the way to the roses. The rattling roar of 130,000 voices tailed off into a high, hollow shriek as the horses crossed the finish line.

    Lil E. Tee? ABC broadcasters knew nothing about him, but they weren't alone. Who knew about Lil E. Tee? A blacksmith in Ocala, Florida, a veterinary surgeon in Ringoes, New Jersey, a trainer a Calder Race Course, and a few other people used to dealing with average horses knew this horse -- and realized what a long shot Lil E. Tee really was.

    On a Pennsylvania farm that raised mostly trotting horses, a colt with a dime-store pedigree was born in 1989. His odd gait and tendency to bellow for his mother earned him the nickname "E.T." Suffering from an immune deficiency and a bad case of colic, he survived surgery that usually ends a horse's racing career. Bloodstock agents dismissed him because of his mediocre breeding, and once he was sold for only $3,000. He'd live in five barns in seven states by the time he turned two. Somehow, this horse became one of the biggest underdogs to appear on the American sporting landscape.

    Lil E. Tee overcame his bleak beginnings to reach the respected hands of trainer Lynn Whiting, jockey Pat Day, and owner Cal Partee. After winning the Jim Beam stakes and finishing second in the Arkansas Derby, Lil E. Tee arrived at Churchill Downs to face a field of seventeen horses, including the highly acclaimed favorite, Arazi, a horse many people forecast to become the next Secretariat. A 17-to-1 longshot, Lil E. Tee won the Derby with a classic rally down the home stretch, and finally Pat Day had jockeyed a horse to Derby victory.

    John Eisenberg draws on more than fifteen years of sports writing experience and a hundred interviews throughout Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas to tell the story almost nobody knew in 1992. Eisenberg is a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun and has won more than twenty awards for his sports writing, including several Associated Press sports editors' first places."

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4877-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Pedigree of Lil E. Tee
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    Something strange had happened out there on the track. You knew by the sound of the crowd. The din that had accompanied the stretch run, the rattling roar of one hundred thirty thousand voices, tailed off into a high, hollow shriek as the horses crossed the finish line. There was little exultation. It was not the sound that usually greeted a Kentucky Derby winner. It was the sound of confusion. The winner was who? What was that name? What kind of a Derby winner was that? What kind of a name was Lil E. Tee? How did you spell that?...

  6. 1 “I was not expecting much.”
    (pp. 4-10)

    The alarm sounded at four in the morning in the house on the grounds of Pin Oak Lane Farm, breaking the stillness of the chilly country night. A sudden clanging in the darkness would jangle anyone else’s nerves, but not those of Dr. William Solomon, the lanky veterinarian who owned the four hundred-acre horse farm set in gently rolling hills and tall poplar groves on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, forty miles north of Baltimore.

    The ringing heralded the beginning of a new life in the foaling barn that stood across a driveway from Solomon’s front door. The alarm was connected to...

  7. 2 “The fee was cheap.”
    (pp. 11-24)

    He was not a patriarchal horse farmer, not a landed baron with a handlebar mustache, not a scion of wealth raised on a manicured lawn. Larry Littman was a high school dropout, a machinist’s son who played ball in the streets, a rowhouse kid raised amid the urban clutter of northeast Philadelphia, far from Kentucky’s pristine bluegrass country. That he would wind up on the roll call of thoroughbred racing history was as much of a longshot as the horse that would put him there in 1992.

    He was a child of the Depression and World War II, part of...

  8. 3 “He was just a horse.”
    (pp. 25-37)

    The horse farm that Littman leased was a thirty-six-acre spread in Pennington, New Jersey, in the rolling countryside between Philadelphia and Trenton. Stanley Joselson’s Josco Farm was right across the street. Littman’s farm had not had tenants for a year. Tall weeds had sprouted in the sheds and along the fence line. The barn roof leaked. Not a single piece of equipment could be found anywhere on the grounds. But there were a modern house, a swimming pool, and three large fields in back, a feed tower, a barn, and a small field and six paddocks in front. The place...

  9. 4 “The look of eagles”
    (pp. 38-56)

    Average horses can easily become lost in the great shuffle of horseflesh in Ocala. Built on a foundation of rich limestone soil and caressed by a warm, sunny climate, Ocala and the surrounding countryside of Marion County are home to some four hundred horse farms where three thousand foals are delivered every year. Almost four thousand horses are sold every year by the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company (OBS). Horses are always corning and going to and from sales, competing for the favor of the hundreds of horsemen in the area. The competition is relentless and tough. Losers far outnumber winners....

  10. 5 “He’s going to win by a pole!”
    (pp. 57-79)

    In 1693 William Penn wrote that “men generally are more careful about the breeding of their horses . . . than the breeding of their children.” There was probably still some truth to that statement in North America fifty years before E.T. was foaled. Racing was a closed society dominated by a small coterie of families such as the Wrights, Woodwards, Whitneys, andVanderbilts. They owned the fashionable stallions and protected the thoroughbred breed from “common” blood. Horses showing little racing ability or signs of unsoundness simply were not allowed to reproduce. Colts sometimes were gelded. As a result, many of...

  11. 6 “A dying breed”
    (pp. 80-97)

    Until he trained At The Threshold beginning in the fall of 1983, Lynn Whiting believed in miracles. His father had trained horses for forty years without taking one to the Kentucky Derby. Whiting had not come close to the Derby in his sixteen years of training. He had come to believe that a Derby contender had to be some sort of super horse, so rare and superior that a trainer just needed to stay out of the way. Finding such a horse, Whiting figured, was racing’s version of a miracle.

    At The Threshold taught him otherwise. The colt was a...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 7 “He knew he was special.”
    (pp. 98-112)

    Racing was a slumping industry by 1991. Track attendance, television ratings, foal crops, and auction prices had declined since the mid-1980s. Several tracks were considering closing. State supported lottery games and new gambling casinos were taking a bite out of the racing economy. Not since Spectacular Bid, a three-year-old in 1979, had there been a horse with the talent and charisma to transcend the sport’s boundaries. Racing news, once the stuff of headlines, now was buried deep in most of the nation’s sports pages.

    These problems were far too numerous and complicated for one horse to correct, but a new...

  14. 8 “It’s just God-given talent.”
    (pp. 113-127)

    Five days after the Southwest Stakes, Pat Day recorded three victories in six races at Oaklawn Park on a Thursday afternoon, then took an evening flight to Miami. He was scheduled to ride a colt named Scream Machine in the Florida Derby that weekend.

    Many of the top jockeys strayed similarly from their bases early in the year to ride in three-year-old stakes around the country, all angling for the first call on a horse that might develop into a Kentucky Derby contender. The more horses they rode, the better their chances. With thirty graded stakes and thirty other major...

  15. 9 “Bet him.”
    (pp. 128-149)

    At eleven years old, the Jim Beam Stakes could not begin to match histories with such hallmarks of the Derby prep season as the Wood Memorial Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes. But of the five dozen races constituting the season, the Beam was undeniably the rising star.

    It had been a minor race with a different name, the Spiral Stakes, when Turfway Park was known as Latonia Race Course in the 1970s. After the Jim Beam Brands Company began sponsoring the race in 1981, the name was changed, the distance was lengthened to a mile-and-an-eighth-making it more...

  16. 10 “We’re gonna win it!”
    (pp. 150-171)

    In the weeks leading up to the Derby, Churchill Downs is a glorious place. Clean, chilly mornings give way to warm, sunny afternoons. Derby horses fill the stakes barns at the east end of the backside and grace the track in the mornings. Trainers, jockeys, owners, grooms, veterinarians, track officials, and turf writers trade shop talk, opinions, brags, and bluffs. It is a convention of racing’s best and brightest, the patina of dreams so strong you can almost feel it.

    Arazi was not due to travel from France until six days before the Derby, but the American-based contenders arrived throughout...

  17. 11 “Lil E. Tee Ate Here.”
    (pp. 172-181)

    Larry Littman was in the living room of his house in Palm Beach. He and his wife, Roslyn, had dinner reservations with another couple. They were about to leave for the restaurant.

    “Wait a minute,” Littman said, “I want to see the Derby” Of course. Even though he had sold E.T. for $2,000, how many times would a Littman-bred run in the Kentucky Derby?

    When Arazi passed E.T., Littman said, “Well, that’s it.” Time for dinner. But then E.T. rallied around the turn, ran down Arazi, and headed for the wire. Littman leapt to his feet.

    “Goddam, Roz!” he shouted....

  18. 12 “He made history.”
    (pp. 182-190)

    E.T. was shipped to Baltimore for the Preakness and installed in the traditional home of the new Derby winner, stall forty of the stakes barn at Pimlico. Christine Martin accompanied Whiting and E.T.

    In the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness, turf writers around the country uncovered the text of E.T.’s improbable story. Larry Littman, Mary Deppa, Bill Solomon, Chuck Wieneke, Al Jevremovic, and the others experienced their Warholian fifteen minutes of fame.

    “How could this big horse have been so awkward and weak as a yearling?” a reporter asked Whiting one morning.

    As surprised as anyone about what...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 191-198)

    Larry Littman cut all but a few strands of his connection to racing in 1994. He shut down his farm in New Jersey and pared his broodmare band to two. He retained ownership of Lil Fappi, his stallion.

    “Some people would say that anyone who gets into the business and breeds a Kentucky Derby winner is a success, and it’s certainly something they can never take away from me,” he said. “I did it. I accomplished it. No matter how I accomplished it, I did it. Out of the millions of horses that have been foaled over the years, mine...

  20. Index
    (pp. 199-206)