Clarence Kummer: A quiet path to greatness
Best known for his association with Man o’ War, Hall of Fame jockey Clarence Kummer wasn’t as flashy as some of his contemporaries, but his achievements guaranteed his status as one of the elite riders of the 1920s
By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director
At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, the American sports scene was entering a nicknamed era of its own — the Golden Age. Baseball had Babe Ruth, who was swatting home runs at a prodigious rate and dizzying turnstiles throughout the country. In the boxing ring, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was on par with the Bambino as a drawing card and public idol. Baseball and boxing were joined by thoroughbred racing as the decade’s most popular sports. In 1920 — when Ruth crushed a record 54 homers and Dempsey walloped Billy Miske and Bill Brennan in the early days of his four-year reign as champ — Man o’ War was decimating all his competition on the racetrack during an undefeated 11-race campaign. In the irons aboard Man o’ War for nine of those victories was a little-known member of the Hall of Fame, 21-year-old Clarence Kummer.
For much of the 1920s, Kummer was regarded as one of the elite jockeys in America. He more than held his own with the era’s greats, a group that included Hall of Famers Earl Sande, Laverne Fator, and Mack Garner. Although his legacy is first and foremost tied to the mighty Man o’ War, Kummer’s body of work in racing is considerably more extensive than those specific exploits.
“He seems to always be ready, Moreover, he is as courageous as they make them,” the Thoroughbred Record said of the emerging Kummer in 1918. “He never takes the outside if there is anything resembling a hole by the rail through which he can slip. Being an intelligent lad, he gives heed to advice, and he will learn.”
Born in New York City in 1899, Kummer won stakes on six Hall of Famers in addition to Man o’ War — Billy Kelly, Crusader, Exterminator, Sarazen, Sir Barton, and Zev — and counted such notables as Chance Play, Coventry, Dangerous, Ladkin, St. James, Vito, and War Cloud among his other major stakes winners.
Kummer first appeared in the racing charts in 1916, going winless with 12 mounts. The following year, he won 11 of 129 races. Kummer began to make a name for himself in 1918, winning 69 races from 439 mounts and finishing among the top 10 riders nationally in both wins and purse earnings ($73,308). He won his first stakes races that year, the Aberdeen Stakes with Ormonda at Havre de Grace and the Champlain Handicap with Westy Hogan at Saratoga.
Kummer emerged as a full-fledged star in 1919, ranking fifth nationally in earnings ($137,809) and sixth in wins (82). His victories that year included the Latonia Derby, Beldame Handicap, Westchester Handicap, Pimlico Cup Handicap, Bayview Handicap, and the inaugural Jockey Club Stakes (later renamed the Jockey Club Gold Cup). That November, in the span of a week, he rode Triple Crown winner Sir Barton to a pair of victories at Pimlico in the Fall Serial Series and piloted Exterminator to his Pimlico Cup win.
Recognizing that Kummer had quickly developed into one of the finest jockeys in the sport, Man o’ War’s connections — owner Samuel D. Riddle and trainer Louis Feustel — entrusted the young rider with the great responsibility of piloting their champion for his 3-year-old season. The coveted assignment became available when Johnny Loftus, who rode Man o’ War in all 10 of his races as a 2-year-old in 1919, was denied a license by The Jockey Club for 1920. No reason was ever made public for the license denial, but there was much speculation it had to do with the ride Loftus gave Man o’ War in his lone defeat in the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga. There were numerous rumors that Loftus conspired to fix the race, but nothing was ever proven. Loftus, who eventually was inducted into the Hall of Fame, never rode again.
Kummer began his partnership with Man o’ War in the 1920 Preakness Stakes. It was the colt’s first race in more than eight months, but he showed no signs of rust and seemed to have an instant kinship with his new rider.
“The first few strides that Man o’ War took after the barrier was sprung were his answer to any that doubted his prowess,” said the New York Times. “Breaking from a position near the outside, he was in front in 10 yards, and from then to the finish he showed his heels to the country’s best 3-year-olds. Jockey Kummer, who came from New York to ride Man o’ War, held his mount in slight restraint all through the backstretch.
“The real test for Man o’ War came in the turn into the stretch when (jockeys) Rodriguez and Ambrose gave the (Harry Payne) Whitney colts (Upset and Wildair) their heads and sent them after the leader. Kummer just let out a wrap, and Man o’ War, instead of showing the slightest signs of fatigue, bounded out to a greater lead. He was eased up at the finish and won by a length and a half. Upset had come through the stretch courageous, but he never had a chance.”
Eleven days after the Preakness, Man o’ War and Kummer took the Withers Stakes at Belmont by two lengths in American-record time of 1:35⅘ for one mile. Once again, Kummer was gearing down his mount in the stretch. Only a lone overmatched opponent, Donnaconna, was sent out to face Man o’ War in the Belmont Stakes on June 12. Man o’ War was never threatened and won by 20 lengths while setting a world record of 2:14⅕ for 1⅜ miles. Kummer let Man o’ War run freely for a bit at the top of the stretch, but he once again eased him in the final furlong. Victories at Aqueduct in the Stuyvesant Handicap (at odds of 1 to 100) and Dwyer Stakes (a world record of 1:49⅕ for 1⅛ miles) followed before Man o’ War was sent to Saratoga. Kummer, however, had to sit out Man o’ War’s wins in the Miller Stakes and Travers Stakes because of an injury.
Kummer was back aboard Man o’ War at Belmont in early September, and the prosperous relationship hadn’t skipped a beat. Man o’ War won the Lawrence Realization by 100 lengths in world-record time of 2:40⅘ for 1⅝ miles. Writer B. K. Beckwith called the performance “the most astounding display of arrogant annihilation” and said Man o’ War was moving “like a big red sheet of flame running before a prairie wind.” The New York Times said Man o’ War “gave what was undoubtedly the greatest exhibition of speed over a considerable distance of ground ever witnessed anywhere.”
Man o’ War and Kummer then set an American record of 2:28⅘ for 1½ miles in winning the Jockey Club Stakes by 15 lengths. After next winning the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace, Man o’ War and Kummer met 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in a match race at Kenilworth Park on Oct. 11. The race received tremendous hype, but it proved to be just another romp for Man o’ War and Kummer. In winning by seven lengths in 2:03, Man o’ War broke the track record for 1¼ miles by more than six seconds. The Kenilworth race marked the conclusion of Man o’ War’s career. Kummer and Man o’ War won all nine of their races together. The brilliant partnership prompted the New York Times to note that “it takes time to know a horse. Clarence and Man o’ War were good friends.”
At the end of 1920, Kummer had won a career-best 87 races (24.6 percent) and led all North American jockeys with purse earnings of $292,376, the highest total of any rider in more than a decade. Kummer enjoyed another strong year in 1921, winning 58 races and raking eighth nationally in earnings. His wins that year included the Suburban Handicap, Carter Handicap, Toboggan Handicap, Astoria Stakes, Demoiselle Stakes, Juvenile Stakes, and Tremont Stakes, among others.
Increasing weight became an issue for Kummer in the mid-1920s, but he continued to be successful in many top-level races. In the 1924 International Special No. 2, Kummer earned considerable praise for his ride aboard Ladkin in defeating the French champion Epinard. Ladkin, bred and owned by Hall of Famer August Belmont II, defeated Epinard by a nose before a crowd of more than 20,000 at Aqueduct. The New York Times described the race as “one of the most brilliant and thrilling contests between thoroughbreds that has been witnessed in America in a generation” and said Kummer “rode a perfect race … a heady race every inch of the way.”
In 1925, Kummer earned his second victory in the Preakness, riding the maiden Coventry to the lone win of his career. That summer at Saratoga, Kummer won the Travers Stakes aboard Dangerous. Both Coventry and Dangerous were owned by Gifford Cochran and trained by Hall of Famer William Duke. Three years later, Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch gave Kummer a leg up on Vito for the rider’s second victory in the Belmont. By this time, Kummer was riding infrequently because of his difficulty making weight. In fact, the 1928 Belmont was Kummer’s final notable victory. He won only seven races in both 1927 and 1928 before deciding to retire.
Kummer, however, didn’t completely walk away from racing. Although he was no longer riding in the afternoons, Kummer remained active in the sport by galloping horses in the mornings for several trainers, including Hall of Famer James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. But the allure of the game tugged at Kummer, prompting a comeback attempt that proved unsuccessful and ultimately played a role in his death.
Weakened by extreme measures to reduce weight, Kummer developed pneumonia and died at his New York City home on Dec. 18, 1930. He was 31. Kummer left behind a wife and two young children. In 1932, his widow married another Hall of Fame jockey, Earl Sande. Kummer’s brother, jockey Edward Kummer, said Clarence died “because he couldn’t give up the saddle. He always wanted to ride. He was born to ride, and he died because he loved the horses.”
“Clarence was a wizened little old man at the age of 31,” Daily Racing Form said. “He was wracked by a cruel diet, shriveled and worn. He looked like one of the signs of the zodiac. A whiff of frosty air and Clarence was gone.”
Kummer’s career statistics — 464 wins from 2,468 mounts (18.8 percent) and purse earnings of $1,248,895 from 1916 through 1928 — are modest by today’s standards, but he was considered one of the best of his day, especially when the stakes were the highest. In 1972, more than 40 years after his death, Kummer was inducted into the Hall of Fame, validating for all time the stellar reputation he maintained throughout his time in the irons.
That consistent excellence was perhaps best summed up by Riddle, for whom Kummer rode several other horses in addition to Man o’ War.
“He rode a great many races for me and never gave me a bad ride,” Riddle said.
Although many of his mounts were exceptional, Kummer always put Man o’ War on a pedestal.
“I have been on (Kentucky Derby winners) Sir Barton, Omar Khayyam, Exterminator, and many other good horses,” Kummer said, “but Man o’ War is the greatest one I have ever ridden.”
Born: Feb. 5, 1899, New York City
Died: Dec. 18, 1930, New York City
Career Statistics (1916 through 1928)
Mounts — 2,468
Wins — 464
Win Percentage — 18.8%
Earnings — $1,248,895
- Led all North American jockeys with earnings of $292,376 in 1920
- Won the Preakness Stakes 1920, 1925
- Won the Belmont Stakes 1920, 1928
- Rode Hall of Famers Man o’ War, Billy Kelly, Crusader, Exterminator, Sarazen, Sir Barton, and Zev
- Inducted into the Hall of Fame 1972