Hollywood Park, 1951: Citation's Grand Finale

At the age of six, he had done it all.

Thirty-one career victories. Third or better in all but one start. Champion 2-Year-Old of 1947. Champion 3-Year-Old, Champion Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year of 1948. Owner of the longest winning streak for a Thoroughbred. Triple crown winner. An all-time great.

In forty-four trips to the starting gate, there was nothing Citation could not do. He won at least one race at no less than thirteen different distances while taking a winner’s photo at a dozen racetracks. Equipped with talent and that instinct for victory reserved for the elite, Big Cy took full advantage of his gifts as he crafted a Hall of Fame career.

But going into the middle of July in 1951, Citation had one more field to conquer. And it was a field no Thoroughbred before him had even explored.

At that time, the bay colt’s earnings were well over $900,000. But the goal was to make the son of Bull Lea the first Thoroughbred to surpass $1 million. Given his remarkable record for consistency, it seemed like if any horse could reach that level, it was Citation.

It can be agreed that the Citation of 1951 was not the Citation of 1948. By the end of his sophomore campaign, Citation’s record stood at 27 wins and 2 seconds. Rare was the occasion that the colt lost. Like Man O’ War thirty years earlier, Citation possessed not just a formidable aura about him, but one of being virtually invincible during that prolific period of his career. When the conversation of once-in-a-generation Thoroughbreds begins among race fans, Citation is automatically part of it.

After missing the entire 1949 season, Citation began his 1950 campaign at Santa Anita. He picked up where he left off at Tanforan in 1948, getting the win against allowance foes. But over the next year and a half, Citation would not experience the dominance he had been accustomed to. Make no mistake, he was still competitive, but his next twelve starts consisted mostly of runner up finishes (four of them behind his great rival, Noor) and just one more victory. And that same stretch saw Big Cy finish off the board for the only time in his career when he took fifth in the Premiere Handicap at Hollywood Park, though he didn’t lose that race by much.

But something happened after the Premiere. Maybe Citation realized his lengthy streak had been broken and it rejuvenated him. Nineteen days after the Premiere, he finished second in the Argonaut Handicap at a mile and one-sixteenth. Two weeks later, Big Cy earned his first win in over a year when he claimed a one-mile handicap contest at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers. The winning streak reached two with a victory in the mile and one-eighth American Handicap on July 4. It seemed like the colt had searched within and found the Citation of old as Southern California racing moved into early summer.

Ten days after the American Handicap, the fans saw Citation on track again. And this time, it was in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Citation had never raced in the Gold Cup before 1951, missing out on the 1950 renewal that Noor won. But with the million dollar threshold ready to be cleared in Hollywood Park’s biggest race, Citation entered the venue alongside nine rivals as he sought to do something never before seen in Thoroughbred racing.

The fans believed he would do it, setting him at under 2-5 odds. Even with the long losing streak, racegoers never gave up on Citation. After his Santa Anita allowance win in 1950, Big Cy went favored in all but one race the rest of his career, and most of the time he was odds-on to win. That would not change in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and Citation set out to blaze a trail.

With regular rider Steve Brooks piloting him, Citation was third after a half-mile, staying near the front like he had so many times in his career. It would not take him long to get to the front, for he had the position after six furlongs. Leading by two lengths at that time, the lead soon increased to three lengths, and then four when he reached the wire in 2:01 flat.

The million dollar barrier had been broken, and the Citation of old gad completed his journey in front of thousands on Prairie Avenue. Win number thirty-two--his-last--came in the Hollywood Gold Cup. And with it came entrance to a second club. Only this time, he was the founding member.

No horse before him had won a million dollars in career earnings, and it would not be repeated for a few more years until Nashua followed suit. But for all Citation accomplished in his illustrious career, attaining this record was symbolic of both his durability and his special place in the annals of the sport.

He was the first Triple Crown champion to race in Southern California. He was the first Triple Crown champion to win the Hollywood Gold Cup. And in doing so, Citation became the first million dollar Thoroughbred. And in that moment, he became a Hollywood Park legend.

Citation never raced again after July 14, 1951. It was time for him to be retired. But he maintained a presence at the Track of the Lakes and Flowers for the rest of the venue’s timeline because of what he achieved in those 121 seconds in start number forty-five.

Published by Support California Horse Racing, December 22, 2023