Warren Mehrtens experienced a magical spring of 1946. (Photo courtesy of the Wingert family)
By Michael Lewis
For several weeks in the spring of 1946, Warren Mehrtens and Assault made some magic and race horsing history together, winning the Triple Crown.
Assault started its well, assault, on the rare achievement by capturing the Kentucky Derby and then The Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
There have been only 12 Triple Crown winners in history.
Mehrtens is the grandfather of Cosmos B defender Chris Wingert.
Here is a quick look on how things came down the stretch, so to speak, in the first year of horse racing after World War II:
Churchill Downs, Ken.
Only a week separated The Preakness from the Derby in 1946,
“I was nervous as a cat on Derby day,” Mehrtens was quoted in Eva Jolene Boyd’s book, Assault. “I was walking up and down; going to the bathroom all day long. I thought the race would never come.”
It finally did.
Assault did not set any records because three days of rain made the track muddy and slow. Still, the 3-year-old colt became only the fourth horse to win the Derby by at least eight lengths in a time of 2:06 3/5 over 10 furlongs.
“No, he didn’t run like I expected,” Mehrtens said in the book. “I didn’t know he was going to run this fast.”
In contrast to other years, only a week separated The Preakness from the Derby in 1946.
Assault entered the race as 1.40-1 favorites. The horse took an early four-length lead, which was something Mehrtens did not want.
“I didn’t want to be in front,” he was quoted in the book, “and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what do I do now?”
Mehrtens hit Assault, but the horse ducked away. “So I hand rode him the rest of the way,” he said. “Lord Boswell almost caught me.”
Assault went on to win by a neck over Lord Boswell.
“I moved too soon,” Mehrtens added, “and when I hit him once at the head of the stretch, he ducked. … I was afraid that if I hit him anymore, he might sulk and back up, so I didn’t hit him again. Maybe I hit him in the wrong place or he didn’t expect it or something, but he ducked from it. I think he’d have won by farther if I hadn’t hit him.”
The Belmont was a homecoming for Mehrtens, who was born in Brooklyn and broke into racing in New York City.
In the race, Assault stumbled and Mehrtens was forced to fight to remain in the saddle. According to the book Assault, Mehrtens was helped by the fact he was wearing longer stirrups, which kept him in the saddle.
“He wasn’t really the favorite to win the Triple Crown and his horse actually tripped coming out of the gate at the Belmont,” Mehrtens’ daughter Noreen said. “In the beginning he was in fourth or fifth place and caught up and won by three lengths.”
Still, the colt had a lot of room to make up as he found himself in seventh place. He moved up to fourth place at the first turn. Halfway through the race Assault was five lengths behind Hampden with the great Eddie Arcaro in the saddle. After a mile, Hampden increased its lead to eight lengths.
At the far turn, Mehrtens and Assault made their move, bolting past War Watch. As the horse roared into the stretch, Hampden and Natchez were the only colts ahead of Assault, which was in fifth gear as he breezed past his two rivals to win by three lengths.
“I saw Natchez in front,” Mehrtens said, “got Assault out running and we won. I just wanted to ride a good race. I never thought the Triple Crown would happen to me.”
Mehrtens enjoyed a productive racing career, finishing with 614 wins. Most people don’t remember those other victories, however, important as they may be.
Warren Mehrtens would be remembered forever as one of the elite jockeys who pulled off the Triple Crown.