Terms of endearment

Perhaps Exterminator had so many nicknames because his proper name didn’t quite fit him.

Horsepeople may bestow more nicknames than anyone else. Maybe this is because so many horses have show or racing names as well as barn names, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of our famous sentimentality. My family’s mare is registered with the American Paint Horse Association as Dude’s Cupid Prize, but we call her Sugar. My gelding’s halter plate read When In Rome, but he was Romeo around the barn, and always The Bear to me.

Because turf writers, fans and trainers all gave him nicknames, Exterminator may have had the most ever. His 1918 Kentucky Derby victory represented only the beginning of his extraordinary career; he started in 100 races, won 50, and became one of the most beloved racehorses of all time. Fans focused on his uncannily human interactions with people and other horses. He seemed to bow to the crowd as he went to the post, and he calmed fretful competitors by leaning on them, the equine equivalent of resting a quieting hand on someone’s shoulder.

Other famous horses of the period—the slangy, revolutionary Jazz Age—had nicknames, too. Fans called the great Man o’ War Big Red, and 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton was sometimes called Dempsey, because he ran with punch. But none had as many as Exterminator, and many of his referred to his outsized frame. Stable boys who worked with Henry McDaniel called Exterminator Slim. 

To turf writers, Exterminator was the Big Train, because he gained steam as he ran, or The Galloping Hatrack because of his ribby anatomy. They also called him Cassius (because he had a “lean and hungry look,” as Shakespeare described Julius Caesar’s enemy), the Iron Horse, the Lion of the Turf, the Wonder Horse and Old Poison, because he put his rivals to sleep, one by one.

He was sometimes Old Slim. The “old” was a contemporary endearment modification—like Jay Gatsby’s habitual “old sport” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby—but I think this, too, had to do with Exterminator’s appearance. Even when he was young, the gelding had a kindly, almost elderly looking expression, with thumbprint hollows above his eyes that belied his substantial youthful strength.

W. C. Vreeland, who wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, claimed to be the first to use Exterminator’s most famous nickname: Old Bones. 

In Mildred Mastin Pace’s Old Bones: The Wonder Horse, a much-loved children’s version of Exterminator’s story published in 1955, he is called Old Bones even as a foal. But that nick-name did not actually come into much use until 1920 or so. Also, Old Bones had originally been the nickname of Raceland, another long-running gelding. (Raceland died in 1894). But it fit Exterminator’s angular frame and courtly persona so well that it became his own.

I have a theory that Exterminator collected nicknames because his real name didn’t quite fit him. Cal Milam, who owned him as a yearling and a 2-year-old, liked the colt’s speed so much that he said he would exterminate the competition, and his wife suggested Exterminator. And even though his incredible athleticism—track records, 50 victories—entitled him to that title, his personality made him more of an Old Bones, which carried so much affection and familiarity.

So I understand why Exterminator’s legions of fans, who flocked to visit him at each racetrack, and sent him crates of carrots on his birthday, saw Old Bones as his “real” name. But I like to imagine that those closest to Exterminator, the ones who knew him the way I knew The Bear, would have used a different name as they patted his neck, picked out his feet and snapped a carrot in two for him: Good Old Slim.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #441.




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