Sixty years ago, on May 6, 1950, the King Ranch colt Middleground won the 76th Kentucky Derby at odds of 7.90-to-1 and paid $17.80. He beat the favorite, Hill Prince, owned by Christopher T. Chenery of Virginia and ridden by the incomparable Eddie Arcaro. 

The King Ranch sprawls over 825,000 acres in South Texas between Corpus Christi and Brownsville on the border with Mexico, a land mass bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It was founded in 1853 by (riverboat) Captain Richard King, who was born the son of Irish immigrants in New York City. The young King began his work life indentured to a jeweler, but he ran away when he was eleven in search of freedom and opportunities that ultimately took him to fame and fortune in the Lone Star state. Among his friends in the early years of the King Ranch was U. S. Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee.

King Ranch’s entry into Thoroughbred breeding and racing came in 1934 under the guidance of Robert J. Kleberg Jr., a grandson of Richard King, with the purchase of the stallion Chicaro. Both Thoroughbred mares and Quarter Horse mares were bred to him. In 1939, Bob Kleberg bought the 1936 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Bold Venture and stood him at stud at the King Ranch. Bold Venture sired King Ranch’s 1946 Triple Crown champion Assault and 1950 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Middleground. They were trained by the native Texan and National Museum of Racing & Hall-of-Fame inductee Max Hirsch.

Assault stepped on a surveyor’s stake when he was a foal and sustained an injury to his foot.  Consequently, as a racehorse, he wore a shoe that brought him the nickname “The Club-Footed Comet.” In fact, he was not club-footed at all, but walked and trotted with a limp, which was not present when he galloped.

In the 1950 Kentucky Derby, Middleground ran as an entry with his stablemate On the Mark, sporting the King Ranch’s brown and white silks, with a white Running W emblazoned on the front and back of the shirt. The Texas-bred Middleground was out of the Chicaro mare Verguenza. He came into the Kentucky Derby off second place finishes in the Wood Memorial and the Derby Trial. His jockey was William Boland.

Starting from post position 14, Middleground went from fifth place by the time the field had traveled a half mile to the lead by the stretch. He won by 1 ¼ lengths.

The official chart read as follows:

MIDDLEGROUND, never far back and saving ground under a steady ride, moved up boldly at the stretch turn and, after taking command, held HILL PRINCE safe. The latter, on the inside from the start, was in close quarters at the upper turn, continued willingly when clear and, after suffering some interference from the tiring YOUR HOST, closed resolutely, but could not overtake MIDDLEGROUND. MR. TROUBLE, a sharp factor from the start, was much used engaging YOUR HOST until the inside stretch, then failed to rally when set down in the drive. SUNGLOW began fast, dropped back after the start, then recovered and moved up steadily, but could not better his position when hard ridden during the final furlong. OIL CAPITOL began fast, raced well after the break and made a good bid nearing the stretch, then tired, but deadheated with HAWLEY for fifth. HAWLEY tired after showing early speed, but finished on equal terms with OIL CAPITOL. LOTOWHITE was outrun. YOUR HOST began alertly, gave way to MR. TROUBLE after three-quarters, then came again to assume command, but tired badly during the stretch run. ON THE MARK was never dangerous. HALLIEBOY showed nothing. DOOLY was through early. TRUMPET KING could not keep up. STRANDED was never a factor. BLACK GEORGE failed to stay after showing early speed.

Middleground finished second in the Preakness to (eventual Horse of the Year) Hill Prince by five lengths but won the Belmont Stakes (Hill Prince was seventh). Middleground had 15 lifetime starts–with six wins, six seconds, and two thirds, and earnings of $235,475.

In June 2008, I took a tour of King Ranch and my guide was Beto Maldonado. He was born on the King Ranch in 1931. Beto’s father, Librado, gentled and showed Santa Gertrudis cattle for the King Ranch and Beto’s brother, Lee, was a groom on the racetrack with the King Ranch stable. A 2009 book from the University of Texas Press titled The Master Showmen of King Ranch chronicles the lives of Beto and Librado Maldonado. Beto has vivid boyhood memories of the King Ranch racehorses, especially Assault. He recounted how, as a teenager, he listened on a radio at the ranch as Assault won the Triple Crown.

Beto made sure to show me the barn where Assault and Middleground lived as youngsters, near to where Bold Venture stood at stud. The barn was nothing like the classic stables around Lexington, Kentucky, that are nestled amidst miles of plank fencing and lush bluegrass. The King Ranch barn was a simple wood structure on almost barren land scorched by the sweltering heat and infrequent rain. From this Spartan environment on what is called The Wild Horse Desert came the seventh American Triple Crown winner in 1946 and a Kentucky Derby/Belmont Stakes winner in 1950.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. T. Charlene (squeaky) Walker says

    As a child in the early fifties, I would visit these horses on the ranch withVal Leman our neighbor who worked with the ranch. Wonderful memories.

  2. Diana Mendez says

    My father Jesus Sanez Mendez is now 86 years old born and raised at the King Ranch, recalls how he and his father Jose Pena Mendez would care for the horses including Assault and Secetariat. He has amazing stories living at the King Ranch.