Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Brian Frey, WSKG’S prolific writer and producer, has completed more than 20 films for the public television station, and his latest effort, Old Bones: The Story of Exterminator, is terrific.
I attended a screening of the new documentary this past Tuesday (Nov. 27) where WSKG President and CEO Greg Catlin, shared with a smile that Frey does some of his best work when a deadline looms. Well, it must have been closing in on him fast in the last few weeks, because the finished product is entertaining, informative and really beautiful to watch.
Frey and Bailey Normann, WSKG’S TV production coordinator and researcher, have done an outstanding job. Frey commended Normann for her diligence. “She’s not a procrastinator, so we make a good team,” he joked.
“Old Bones” was just one of the unflattering nicknames given to Binghamton’s legendary four- legged wonder, Exterminator. A surprise winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator went on to win many more races in his career, eventually beating the purse earnings of Triple Crown winner Man O’ War by $3,531.
When not one, but two people — Bill Gorman and Ron Akel — approached Frey separately in the span of just two days with a book written about this horse with strong ties to Binghamton’s past, he was intrigued.
Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator!: The Longshot Horse, The Great War, and The Making of An American Hero is a touching and in-depth look at the life and times of Willis Sharpe Kilmer’s thoroughbred race horse and the trainer, Henry McDaniel, who took the gangly gelding from the shadows to the winners’ circle.
Kilmer, was, of course, the peddler behind the cure-all known as Swamp Root, making millions on the gullibility of the general public. His treasured, beautiful racehorse, Sun Briar, needed a workout buddy to prepare him for the 1918 Kentucky Derby.
Enter Exterminator, who not only ran with Sun Briar on the practice track on Binghamton’s West Side but beat him, much to Kilmer’s chagrin. He wasn’t pretty, but, by golly, he could run. And when Sun Briar was scratched from the Derby due to a condition known as ring bone, Exterminator, at 30 to 1 odds, raced in his place … and won.
In McGraw’s beautifully executed book, she writes how she happened upon the story of Exterminator while researching an article about a Cavalry remount depot during WWI. McGraw describes herself as “horse besotted” and saw something in Exterminator that reminded her of her beloved first horse, Romeo.
She writes, “I started seeing Exterminator’s name in headlines that also mentioned records and winning and crowds. I remembered the illustrations from the children’s biography of Exterminator, Old Bones: The Wonder Horse.”
Wesley Dennis’ illustrations from Old Bones: The Wonder Horse figure prominently in Frey’s documentary, captivatingly animated by WSKG media editor and videographer Alyssa Micha.
In her research for Here Comes Exterminator!, which she wrote over the course of five years, McGraw was surprised to discover how his name had been all but lost to the racing community. His Kentucky Derby win was 100 years ago, but his story was, she believed, every bit as compelling as Seabiscuit’s, for instance, and needed to be told. She published her book in 2016.
Exterminator came of age during a time in history fraught with pivotal moments: World War I, the “great influenza” and the dawn of the Roaring 20s. Kilmer’s colorful history and even some indiscretions play a big part in painting a picture of the times in which the horse and the man lived and provides some funny moments for the film.
By Frey’s account, footage and photographs were scant, but with the cooperation of McGraw, as well as Muriel and Garrett McDaniel, who agreed to be interviewed for the film, Frey and Normann were able put flesh on this bony horse.
The McDaniels are descendants of trainer, Henry McDaniel. They traveled from Philadelphia to attend the premiere and joined Frey and McBride to answer questions at the conclusion of the screening.
Longtime residents of Binghamton will remember Exterminator, who died in 1945 at the ripe old age of 30. His grave is on the south side of Binghamton in a quiet pet cemetery on Morgan Road. Frey did not want to include an image of a headstone in the film, but I’ve added it here. He is buried with Sun Briar and another Kilmer horse, Suntica.
Gorman not only alerted Frey to the advantages of making this film, but narrates it as well. He has acted as Kilmer in a play performed at the Kilmer building in Binghamton, so he has a special affinity for the story. Gorman’s voice is mellow and resonant and pleasant to listen to.
Additional familiar and versatile voices also featured in the film are those of Jennifer Corby, Greg Keeler, Sam Goodyear and Mitch Tiffany.
TO WATCH: Old Bones: The Story of Exterminator will premiere on WSKG TV at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, repeating at 9:30 p.m.