Roamer, the original American idol
By Eliza McGraw
“Idol Lost Forever to American Turf,” ran a headline on the second day of 1920. The idol was the famous gelding named Roamer who died in a tragically everyday way: he broke a leg in an icy pasture and had to be put down. What was newsworthy, however, was not just Roamer‘s fame as a fast and beloved racehorse, but the timing of his owner’s death. Andrew Miller had died only a few hours earlier.
That uncanny fact would become linked with Roamer just as closely as the story of his humble birth. As William H. P. Robertson writes, “Roamer was the product of a chance mating; his dam [Rose Tree] was blind and while she ordinarily would have been booked to the Runnymede Farm stallion, Star Shoot, that would have resulted in two blind parents, so the mare was sent to Star Shoot’s ‘teaser’ [Knight Errant] instead.” A more common story dictated that Knight Errant hopped a fence to get to Rose Tree, which is why the colt was called Roamer. In either case, the teaser’s son could run. By 1918, he was hailed as an iron horse. “In action Roamer is marvelously smooth and could carry a glass of water on his back without spilling it. All his work is done with his legs. . .No horse is more true to his trials than is Roamer and a fast trial always means a good race,” reported The New York Times. In fact, at seven years old, Roamer lowered speedy Salvator’s record for the mile to 1:34 1/2.
Most important, however, was the way in which Roamer was loved. Turf fans adored him, considering him almost a pet as well as an admirable athlete. But it was his humble origins that won him the most affection. As another Times article said in August of 1918, “Roamer’s pedigree is not considered superlative, and Roamer’s owner, Andrew Miller, is not a California millionaire. If Salvator was an aristocrat, the new champion may be regarded as a democrat, for Roamer, ungainly in appearance, developed into a great race horse by a homespun trainer, has a strong hold upon the affections of the man in the street who goes to the races.” There were a lot of those men on the street, and they lined up to watch Roamer. This was especially incredible because Roamer ran at an insecure time for New York racing, when gambling legislation kept track management on edge. “Had he lived in the halcyon days of twenty years ago there is little doubt that with the rich purses of those times at his mercy he would have gone down in history as the greatest money winner,” wrote a New York Tribune reporter. People loved Miller, too. “In the dark days following the passage of the anti-betting laws, when almost every one had despaired, Mr. Miller threw the whole weight of his influence behind the game, and lived to see his faith in the sport vindicated beyond the wildest dream of hope.”
Roamer headed up a line of much-beloved geldings–Raceland, Roseben, Exterminator–recognized for their longevity and dauntlessness. They often won the same race multiple times; for Roamer, that was three times for the Saratoga Handicap and two for the Empire City. On Christmas of 1919, the Daily Racing Form reported, in a headline that would become uncanny: “The Loss of Roamer Keenly Felt.” It meant that he had stopped racing; at the time, Roamer’s retirement was the loss the headline referred to. The Form’s reporter could know not that less than a week later, the loss would be even more heartbreaking. Andrew Miller died on December 31, and Roamer shattered his leg in his pasture hours later. By the evening of New Year’s Day, 1920, both were gone.
The horse’s body, some reported, was offered to a museum, but on January 6, Roamer was buried at home, in New Jersey. The legacy he created was of the racing gelding as a democrat rather than an aristocrat; that legacy lived on in the great underdogs Exterminator, Funny Cide, who was owned by a proletariat conglomerate, and Mine That Bird, who traveled to the Kentucky Derby he would win in a trailer rattling behind a pick-up truck.
These champion geldings owe the lineage of their admiration to Roamer, the original American idol.