Being born in the same year as a legend of the sport is a tough lot for a young horse. The year 1945 was especially bad, with the coming of both Citation and Coaltown, but it was in that year that a blaze-faced, long-legged chestnut colt named Billings was born
Billings was bred by R. W. McIlvain, and born on his Walmac Farm in late March, 1945. He was immediately a standout, both for his pedigree and striking good looks. Sired by Epsom Derby winner *Mahmoud and out of a maiden *Sir Gallahad III mare named Native Gal, his pedigree included at least five stallions which had led the sire lists in America. Though his immediate distaff line was unimpressive, his third dam had been a Classic-level racer in France in the early 1920’s.
In July of 1946, the yearling Billings was given into the care of Hunter Moody, a Lexington trainer specializing in trotters, in the belief that breaking a young colt under harness “improves his disposition and his manners, and…develops a good mouth.” There he stayed for a month before he began his race training with trainer Howard “Babe” Wells.
Mr. McIlvain was an owner who hated to push his juveniles too much, and this was no exception. What little there was of Billings’ juvenile season occurred entirely in Chicago in the last half of July, 1947. He made his debut as the favorite in a maiden race at Arlington on July 18, but he finished second after a slow start. His next race was much improved, and he cantered to a six-length score on July 23. In his final two-year-old race, the Elementary Stakes at Washington Park, he was outdistanced by an up-and-comer named Citation, though he did beat future Santa Anita Derby winner Salmagundi for second
Billings’ brief season, where he never finished worse than second and had competed well in stakes company, convinced his owner that he was a quality colt. In the interim between ‘47 and ‘48, Billings was sent to Columbia to begin spring preparations under Max Hirsch, though it was well understood that the colt would be returned to Wells in the spring. Both Hirsch and McIlvain, who frequently visited his budding star, had high opinions of the handsome colt
Billings made his season debut on April 10, a six-furlong a Keeneland, and he was the favorite. That he won was not singularly impressive, given that the rest of the field consisted mostly of maidens and claimers, but his time of 1:11 1/5 was considered a good clip. After this, it was on to his first stakes race of the year, the Blue Grass. Just as in the Elementary Stakes the year before, Billings was again helpless against a “Calumet Comet”, this time in the form of Coaltown. He “ran second most of the way, and finished there”. He was nearly three lengths ahead of hardy stakes-winning gelding Shy Guy, and Coaltown had run a track record for the nine furlongs.
Billings next met both Citation and Coaltown, as well as other stars of the track, in the Kentucky Derby. Pinched back at the start, Billings nevertheless moved up through the field until there were only three horses in front of him. He was unable to reel them in, however, and he finished a respectable fourth behind Citation, Coaltown, and My Request. Directly after the Derby, he was entered in the Crete Handicap at the Lincoln Fields meet at Washington Park, and there he threw in an uncharacteristic clunker, ending up seventh.
Following these three losses, Billing then won two straight. He started by winning a mile allowance on May 22, in which he beat future Classic winner Papa Redbird. That was a prep race for the 1 1/8 miles Peabody Memorial, nine days later. Coupled with Eagle Look, and sent off at 2-5, Billing scored his first stakes victory. He sat off the pace and went after the leaders on the stretch turn, gained the lead in mid-stretch, and then held off a late rally by Shy Guy to win by 3/4 lengths.
His next race was more than a month later, and this was a six-furlong allowance at Arlington. He was the favorite, but it was not his preferred distance, and he faded back to seventh after bleeding in the stretch. The bleeding kept him out of training, and again put a gap in his season.
Billings made his best grab at greatness at the Hawthorne meeting in September 1948. His long absence from the track saw him start at 16-1 for his return race, the Hawthorne Speed Handicap, on September 11. It was a thrilling battle, with Billings sitting back in mid-pack and making a late charge to beat good stakes performer Carrarra Marble by a neck, despite giving him seven pounds.
A week later, Billings started in the Hawthorne Season Handicap, at 1 1/16 miles. Carrying 116 and giving everything in the field weight by scale, he dogged the lead of California Derby winner May Reward, then “ran over him and won easily by five lengths.” Future champion sprinter Delegate was in third.
In keeping with his steady rise in quality, his next race was his biggest. The 1945 Hawthorne Gold Cup boated a field including veteran gelding Sun Herod, Argentinean import Colosal, and Hollywood Gold Cup winning mare Happy Issue (it ought to be noted that Happy Issue was well past her prime at this point, being 8 years old). Carrying 122 pounds, Billings was away slowly. With a quarter-mile to go, he “came fast under pressure to yoke the leading Happy Issue”, and went away to win by 1 1/4 lengths from Sun Herod. Happy Issue, who had “swerved out under punishment” in the stretch, finished third but was disqualified to fourth for interference.
Running his fourth race at Hawthorne, Billings nearly went undefeated. In the Charles W. Bidwell Memorial Handicap, he carried 128 pounds against Sun Herod, carrying 126. Billings “caught and brought down” Sun Herod in the stretch, but he was passed by the unheralded gelding Oration, who won by a nose. Jockey Mel Peterson, on Billings, lodged a claim of foul after the race, saying that Oration had lugged in on Billings in the stretch. The claim was disallowed
Billings was quick to recover from this loss, and on the last day of the meet, he took the Illinois Owners Handicap. He was eligible for the race because McIlvain was a legal resident of Illinois, but that clause eliminated most of the competition. He carried 128 pounds and was the 1-2 favorite, and he won “under a light hold” by 1 3/4 lengths
Billings was retired at the end of 1948, at sent to Spendthrift Farm for stud. His first major winner, the colt Midafternoon, came from his second crop. Midafternoon was a stakes winner at 4 and 5, and his biggest claim to fame was defeating Nashua in the 1956 Metropolitan Handicap. Jockos Walk, from his fourth crop, was another stakes winner, mostly at Jamaica in the late 1950’s. From a later crop came good steeplechaser Gramatam