Kentucky Derby

Exterminator: a Kentucky Derby winner who wasn’t supposed to win

Exterminator, ridden by jockey Willie Knapp, was the winner of the 44th Kentucky Derby in 1918. He beat out Viva America (third place), War Cloud (fourth) and American Eagle (eighth). The United States was still at war during that year’s Derby. Potatoes were planted in the infield to help the American Red Cross.
Exterminator, ridden by jockey Willie Knapp, was the winner of the 44th Kentucky Derby in 1918. He beat out Viva America (third place), War Cloud (fourth) and American Eagle (eighth). The United States was still at war during that year’s Derby. Potatoes were planted in the infield to help the American Red Cross. Kentucky Derby Museum

Exterminator wasn’t supposed to win the Kentucky Derby. His owner didn’t even want to enter the horse in the race.

But the chestnut gelding shocked Churchill Downs and the Thoroughbred world by winning the 1918 Derby at 30-1 odds. He became a great distance runner, was voted horse of the year, surpassed the earnings of Man o’ War and developed a following of loyal fans.

Now, just in time for Derby, the story of the horse foaled in Jessamine County has been resurrected in a new book, Here Comes Exterminator! by Eliza McGraw.

“The way he gave back to his fans, he was just a really incredible, special horse,” McGraw, 43, of Washington, D.C., said in an interview at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. “As I read more and more about him and realized that contemporary writers felt that way about him, too, I just got really drawn into the story. And I felt like, how is this the horse that we’ve forgotten?”

Exterminator was born in May 1915 on the Knight farm near Nicholasville, which is now the Ramsey Farm owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Exterminator’s dam was Fair Empress and his sire was McGee, the father of 1913 Kentucky Derby winner Donerail.

Lexington owner/trainer Cal Milam bought Exterminator for $1,500 at the 1916 yearling sale in Saratoga, N.Y. By Thoroughbred standards, the colt wasn’t much to look at. McGraw describes him as “overtall and gangling,” with an extra-long face, bony knees and “mule-long ears.”

Milam brought the colt to Merrick Place, his farm off Tates Creek Road in Lexington, and trained him there. Milam liked him and told his wife that he thought the then-unnamed colt might kill off the competition. For that reason, she suggested the name “Exterminator.”

He made his racing debut on June 30, 1917, in a 6-furlong race at Latonia Race Course in northern Kentucky. He won by 3 lengths. He had one more win in Canada before an injury in July 1917 cut short his racing season.

Meanwhile, the champion 2-year-old in 1917 was Sun Briar, owned by patent-medicine entrepreneur Willis Sharpe Kilmer and trained by Henry McDaniel. Sun Briar had won $59,905, more than any other horse that season. He was seen as an early Derby favorite, but there was a problem. He was training poorly and he lost in Lexington in his first start as a 3-year-old.

McDaniel was looking for a horse that could run alongside Sun Briar during workouts, and he thought Milam might have a good prospect. McDaniel thought Exterminator was the right horse.

“Not a picture horse, but he looked all business to me,” McDaniel said later.

So two weeks before the Derby, Milam and McDaniel met at the Phoenix Hotel in downtown Lexington — now City Hall — and signed the sales papers. For $9,000 and two fillies to Milam, Exterminator belonged to Kilmer.

In a morning workout with Exterminator, Sun Briar did run faster. But trainer McDaniel still wasn’t relieved, and he said he “still had an indefinable feeling of mistrust” in Sun Briar. Another workout two days before the Derby seemed off, and after conferring with McDaniel, a devastated Kilmer announced that he was withdrawing Sun Briar from the Derby.

But despite suggestions of a substitution, Kilmer wasn’t ready to swap Sun Briar for Exterminator. In his statements to McDaniel and to Churchill Downs president Matt Winn, Kilmer said Exterminator was “a cussed billy goat” but “no race horse.”

At one point, an exasperated Kilmer told Winn, “That horse isn’t fast enough to run past me.”

In his 1944 autobiography, Winn remembered a dialogue he had with Kilmer.

“You still think Exterminator is a Derby horse?” Kilmer asked.

“Yes,” Winn answered.

“If he were your horse, would you start him in the Derby?”

“I certainly would.”

“All right; he starts.”

Said author McGraw: “As trusted as Henry McDaniel was, it wasn’t enough for Kilmer. His emotions were running high and he wanted to see his colors in the race, but he was like, ‘I don’t want to see that horse in.’ But Winn knew so much about horses, and he’d been watching Exterminator and he was like, ‘I think you’ve got something here.’ It was truly his convincing that Kilmer needed. That was a really important moment for Kilmer, and I think it gave him some validation from a Thoroughbred authority he needed.”

And so on May 11, 1918, Exterminator won by a full length on a muddy track with jockey Willie Knapp aboard. Exterminator’s 30-1 odds, the longest since half-brother Donerail won in 1913 at 91-1 odds, paid $61.20 to win.

Exterminator made 15 starts as a 3-year-old, winning seven and finishing in the money 14 times. But he got better as he got older. His best season was in 1922, when at age 7 he won 10 of 17 starts. Fans longed to see him kick in with extra speed on the stretch, and when he did they would give the rallying cry “Here comes Exterminator!”

In 1924, his last year of racing, Exterminator’s final earnings tally was more than $252,000 to Man o’ War’s $249,465.

Exterminator died on Sept. 25, 1945, at age 30. He was buried next to Sun Briar in Binghamton, N.Y.

In her book, McGraw writes that Exterminator challenged the notion that American horses would never live up to the British and the meticulously charted pedigree records for their horses. At a time when World War I was coming to a close, Exterminator became a patriotic icon.

“He was described for his ‘bulldog American courage’ and as an ‘American Thoroughbred,’” McGraw said.

“And there was something about his workman-like ethic, and the way he always did the best he could. He reflected what we consider the best of us.”

For more about the book Here Comes Exterminator! and author Eliza McGraw, go to