Grey Lag was a thoroughbred race horse born in Kentucky and bred by John E. Madden. At his Hamburg Place near Lexington, Kentucky, Maddon had a good stallion called Star Shoot which he bred to his good mares and his not so good mares. He got a great foal out of one of those good mares: Sir Barton. Out of a not so good mare called Miss Minnie who, though her pedigree was excellent, never won a race and never dropped a winner, he got Grey Lag. In his later days, Maddon said Grey Lag was the best horse he ever bred.
A Horse of Odd Color
Sired by Star Shoot (going back to Stockwell and Beeswing, out of Miss Minnie (by Meddler), Grey Lag wasn't grey. He was a chestnut with a few small grey patches on his belly, hidden when he was saddled. With three white feet and a large white blaze, Grey Lag was a minimal Sabino. (A Sabino is inherited and can be as dominant as pinto markings, or as minimal as a white spot on the chin, a small sock with jagged edges, or a few belly spots. Sabinos are capable of producing wildly colored off-spring.)
Horseflesh and Oil
Grey Lag (whose name came from a type of wild European goose) stood 16 and a half hands tall when was sold as a yearling to Hall of Fame trainer, Max Hirsch. Grey Lag remained a maiden until his fifth start. Hirsch raced him until he won the Champagne Stakes for two-year-olds, then sold him on to Harry F. Sinclair of Sinclair Oil (famous for his close connection to the 29th President of the United States, Warren G. Harding and very involved in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal). Sinclair took enormous pleasure in his recently purchased no-expense-spared Rancocas Stable in New Jersey while buying every horse that took his fancy. The trainer, Hall of Famer Sam Hildreth, not as well-heeled as Sinclair, nor as happy about the horse—a superstitious man, he hated the grey patches—nevertheless remained in the partnership. They paid $60,000 for the two-year-old once he'd won the Champagne. (Hirsch added $20,000 to his price because Hildreth had earlier snubbed Grey Lag and his grey patch.)
Grey Lag raced the remainder of his two-year-old season in Hildreth's name, but after that he was a Rancocas Stable entry every time. He wasn't an outstanding youngster, even with his win in the Champagne, the Remsen Stakes, the Autumn Days Stakes, and the Islip Handicap, but at three he came into his own.
The Year He Won Almost Everything
In 1921, he won the Belmont Stakes with Earl Sande up (this was the year after Man o' War's win and two years after Sir Barton's, half brother to Grey Lag), the Dwyer Stakes, the Empire Derby, the Knickerbocker Handicap, the Devonshire International Handicap, and the Mount Kisco Stakes. He placed in the Lawrence Realization Stakes, the Brooklyn Handicap, the Queens County Handicap, the Empire City Handicap, the Saratoga Handicap, the Kings County Handicap, the Excelsior Handicap, the Metropolitan Handicap, the Suburban Handicap, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He came home third in the Withers Stakes.
At three, he matched the American record for 1 and 1/8th mile, and beginning with the Belmont, he won eight straight stakes races, six of them in July. During this streak he beat the great Exterminator as well as other older horses, and set a Canadian record. (Later he won the Brooklyn, and then in a further running, lost to the iron gelding, Exterminator would turn the tables to beat Grey Lag.)
For all this, he was named not only Champion Three Year Old Colt of 1921, but Horse of the Year.
But, like so many horses (his half-brother, Sir Barton, for one), Grey Lag suffered with bad feet. After losing a few races at ages 4 and 5, he retired to stud. And like other horses before and after him (Black Gold for example), he wasn't up to much as a breeder (producing only a handful of foals), so was back on the track at 9 and 10 years of age. He won his two starts at 9, and one of his starts at 10, and was then once again retired, but this time to what was supposed to be a comfortable old age. He was given to a veterinarian as a riding horse. But shortly after the vet died, and Grey Lag was sold at the estate auction.
Time passed, he changed ownership quite a few times, and never for the better, until the public who knew him well discovered him running in $1,000 claiming races in Canada. He seldom won one and he wasn't claimed. The last purse money ever recorded for a son of Star Shoot was the $40 Grey Lag earned in one of those races—he'd finished third. Harry F. Sinclair, who'd gone to prison for his role in the Teapot Dome oilfield scandal, wasn't anxious for more bad publicity. There was an outcry, loud enough to shame Sinclair into buying him back.
At 13, Grey Lag found a home at Rancocas. And when Sinclair sold the farm, as well as his mansion in New York City, he was still a wealthy man and Grey Lag remained protected. He died 11 years later in 1942. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957.
In the Blood-Horse magazine ranking of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century, Grey Lag is #54.