Sysonby was an American Champion Thoroughbred racehorse. Born in Kentucky, he was the son of the 1885 Epsom Derby winner, Melton, out of the English mare Optime. Optime was the daughter of Orme and the granddaughter of the great, never beaten, Ormonde.
In the list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine, the little bay Sysonby ranks 30th. And yet today hardly anyone remembers his name or knows why he is ranked so high on this prestigious list.
Remembering One of the Greats
Sysonby's racing life was brief, but brilliant. At only four years and four months of age, Sysonby's career was cut short by death. He'd broken out with bloody sores all over his body, having contracted a serious disease called variola—and it proved fatal. He died in his stall at Sheepshead Bay.
But before that, he glowed with talent. Although that talent wasn't spotted right away, or at all—except by one exceptional man of the turf who eventually became his trainer.
The mating of Melton and Optime was arranged by Marcus Daly who had had the good luck to be involved with the Anaconda Copper Mine. But Daly died before Optime, stabled in England, could foal. His stock, including the still pregnant Optime, was brought to New York to be auctioned. James R. Keene, a Wall Street wizard (said by some to be tough and mean, but "he loved horses"), purchased Optime for $6,600, sending her to his Castleton Stud in Kentucky, which he himself rarely visited. This made him the breeder of record.
Apparently Optime's foal, observed in his paddock, was anything but inspiring. Considered unattractive and small, as well as slow, young Sysonby was to be sent back to England for sale. But Keene's trainer, the well-regarded James G. Rowe, Sr. had seen Sysonby in action during some early trials. He was so impressed that he resolved to resort to trickery if he must to keep Sysonby in Kentucky. When it was time for the lesser yearlings to be sent away, Rowe, a leading trainer who had once been a leading jockey (guiding Harry Bassett to his Saratoga Cup win amongst many other successes), covered Sysonby in blankets convincing Keene he was too ill to make the long ocean journey.
Now in the care of Rowe, Sysonby showed his true mettle. He won everything Rowe entered him in, and by sizable margins...all except the Futurity Stakes (USA) where he came in an unaccountable third, beaten by the filly Tradition and another star, the filly Artful. (Artful ranks 94th in the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine). Rowe wrested the truth from Sysonby's groom whom he'd seen exhibiting a rather large sum of money. The groom admitted he'd been bribed to drug Sysonby before the race.
If not drugged, nothing beat Sysonby. The turf writer Neil Newman ranked Sysonby as one of the three best colts he'd ever seen. The other two were Colin (also trained by Rowe) and Man o' War.
Almost Winning Them All
Over the course of his two year racing career, Sysonby was:
- 1st - Brighton Junior Stakes
- 1st - Flash Stakes
- 1st - Saratoga Special Stakes
- 1st - Junior Champion Stakes
- 1st - Metropolitan Handicap (in a dead heat with the older horse, Race King, who carried 97 pounds against his 107 pounds and who had raced seven times while Sysonby had not raced for seven and a half months. It was also Sysonby's first experience in a race longer than 6 furlongs.)
- 1st - Tidal Stakes
- 1st - Commonwealth Handicap
- 1st - Lawrence Realization Stakes
- 1st - Iroquois Stakes
- 1st - Brighton Derby
- 1st - Great Republic Stakes (where he was left at the post and had to overcome an almost hundred yard disadvantage, still beating Oiseau as well as Broomstick, a great son of the great Ben Brush.)
- 1st - Century Stakes
- 1st - Annual Champion Stakes
Many of these races he won by up to ten lengths. His only loss was the Sheepshead Bay Futurity.
Sysonby was the top earner of 1905. His lifetime earnings equaled $184,438.
Sysonby died on June 17, 1906 of septicemia brought on by a illness consisting of multiple skin lesions, fever and profound muscle wasting, now thought to be variola. After his early and unexpected death, his owner Keene donated his remains to New York City's American Museum of Natural History to become part of the Chubb series of skeletons as studies in anatomy and locomotion. At this time, Sysonby is in the storage area of the Museum with other horses of the Chubb Collection. These other horses include Lexington, General Philip Sheridan's American Civil War steed, Winchester, General Robert E. Lee's Traveller, Commanche, the sole survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and Roy Rogers' Trigger.
Sysonby was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1956. He's also recognized by Blood Horse magazine and serious horse people everywhere as one of the true greats of the Twentieth Century.
James Rowe, Sr. was also inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame as a trainer.