Trainer John Shirreffs, shown with Mr. Commons at the Stakes Barn of Pimlico… (Jim Dietz / Associated Press )
Poor old Noor should be allowed to rest in peace. He earned that with a thoroughbred racing season in 1950 that track old-timers remember fondly.
Endangering Noor's after-life resting place is that great American symbol of progress and ingenuity, the real estate development. Noor currently rests in Grass Valley, in the old gold mining country near Nevada City, Calif. His resting place is the former site of Loma Rica Ranch, which is on the drawing boards for eventual bulldozers, leading to cement and condominiums.
Left where he is, in the former infield of the half-mile training track at Loma Rica, bulldozers might bring him a final fate almost as dreadful as that of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, who allegedly ended up on dinner plates in Japan.
That, of course, is not likely to happen. A woman from Redding named Charlotte Farmer, who claims interest in thoroughbred racing through a love of another champion, Kelso, has already led the effort to locate Noor's remains, via an electronic ground device, and has found a home for them. As soon as she raises $5,000, Noor will be retrieved in his underground box, put on a truck and shipped off to Old Friends Equine, near Lexington, Ky.
That new resting place will make at least one prominent person in the sport very happy.
Trainer John Shirreffs, winner of a Kentucky Derby with Giacamo and steward of the unprecedented career of Zenyatta, remembers Loma Rica Ranch as acres of sprawling green, with undulating hills and "white fences for as far as you could see."
There could be no better description of the horse farms around Lexington.
Noor was an Irish bred who performed well in Europe as a 3-year-old, including a third-place finish in the Epsom Derby in 1948, an impressive showing for a young horse in a field of 32. But he didn't improve as much as expected, and eventually was put on the market. Charles Howard, who had achieved the fame of ownership with Seabiscuit in the late 1930s, wanted to buy a horse named Nahoo and could only achieve that if Noor came along in the deal. Howard paid $175,000 for both, and wasn't happy about the price.
Noor had much to learn. In Europe, horses raced mostly on grass and clockwise. But with trainer Burley Parke and jockey Johnny Longden as teachers, and the 1950 season underway, Noor took his learning curve to the turns at Santa Anita. The expectations were low, but by the end of the year, the statuesque-looking, 17-hands, who had won barely $40,000 in Europe, would add $350,000 to his winnings.
He faced Citation in an early race at Santa Anita and lost. That surprised few. Citation was, after all, the 1948 Triple Crown winner. A few weeks later, they would hook up again in the Santa Anita Handicap and this time, the surprise was real. Noor won, and would do so in races against Citation three more times in 1950.
And if that wasn't enough, in the then-late-season Hollywood Gold Cup, Noor went up against the 1946 Triple Crown winner, Assault, and beat him, too. Noor was the first horse to beat two Triple Crown champions, a distinction that, alone, makes it essential that racing protect his dignity at all times.
Noor was retired to stud in his sixth year, and eventually ended up at Loma Rica, a ranch managed for 37 years by Henry Freitas, who died 10 years ago. His daughter, Roxanne, lives nearby and frequently drives past the old ranch, which hasn't been a breeding and training facility since 1984. In her 20s, she worked the ranch alongside another young man.
"John Shirreffs was like part of our family," she says.
Farmer, who has researched those days meticulously, says: "Only two people, John, and a man named Lou Machado, were allowed to ride Noor in his retirement days."
Shirreffs recalls: "Noor had the stall in the corner, the first stall. He was the No. 1 horse."
Farmer has no personal stake in her campaign to take get Noor back to a proper resting spot. She says she discovered the situation a few years ago, while skimming author Laura Hillenbrand's website about her Seabiscuit book. She got permission from Howard's great-great grandson to pursue getting Noor's remains out of harm's way, and she has been steadfast in that ever since.
She tried the Southern California tracks first, got logical answers from Del Mar (it's a state-owned facility and probably at too low a ground level for such a burial) and from Hollywood Park (it might be condos before Loma Rica). She said Santa Anita President George Haines remained noncommittal. Haines says he had been looking for a spot, but had been told Farmer had found a place.
Noor died Nov. 16, 1974. He was 29. The body was still willing and able, but he was put down, suffering from dementia.
Last March, when Farmer got a crew with equipment to locate Noor and the box he was in, they were guided by directions from Shirreffs.
"He said Henry Freitas would bury him pointing East, toward the barns," she says. "And that's exactly where he was."