Unusual for the times, the dark chestnut with a large white blaze was born in 1886 in California. James Ben Ali Haggin had purchased his dam, Salina, and shipped her to his 44,000 acre Rancho del Paso with Salvator in utero. Haggin had made his money in the California Gold Rush of 1849, so much of it he was suddenly one of the wealthiest men in America, and he used his new wealth to establish the biggest horse breeding operation in world history. Aside from the thousands of grazing acres he owned in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California, he headquartered at the Rancho del Paso near the present day city of Sacramento. He bought breeding horses from every state that bred fine thoroughbreds, as well as shipping them in from Ireland, Australia and England. Eventually he would buy Swigert's Elmendorf Farm and move his headquarters there and add to it until he held 8,700 acres of prime bluegrass. (Over time, and through several owners, this property was eventually broken up into stud farms like Spendthrift Farm, Greentree Stud, and others.)
In the fall of 1887, Haggin's eastern trainer, Matthew Byrnes, and the jockey George "Snapper" Garrison, arrived at the ranch to choose the best young horses to take back to New York. Salvator was one of their choices.
Because he had bucked his shins in one of his trials while training in California, Salvator did not start racing until August of his two-year-old season He made his debut in the Junior Champion Stakes against a seasoned colt, Proctor Knott (sired by the great Luke Blackburn). Proctor Knott, who'd already run six races (and who in the following year would lose the Kentucky Derby to Spokane in what seemed a dead heat), was the one horse Salvator could never beat. It was almost like a hex. (There was another colt running throughout Salvator's career who could never beat Salvator, a fine racehorse called Tenny. To the owners of Tenny, this must also have seemed like a hex.) In his first start, Salvator came in third. Proctor Knott and Salvator met three weeks later in the new Futurity at Coney Island and again Proctor Knott won, but this time Salvator came second by only half a length. The Futurity had attracted a great of attention because at the time it was the richest race in America. Proctor Knott, winning it and thereby winning more money than most 19th century horses in a lifetime, did not bother racing again that year. Salvator, meantime, went on to win four races in a row: the Flatbush, the Maple, the Tuckahoe and the Titan stakes.
Salvator met Proctor Knott only once as a three year old in the Omnibus Stakes. Neither one of them won, but Proctor Knott beat Salvator by placing, while Salvator showed. It was a blanket finish which a colt called Longstreet (a son of Longfellow who was known as "King of the Turf") won. Salvator never lost again. Only four days later he won the Jersey Handicap. He also proved himself the better horse that year by winning all seven of his other races, while Proctor Knott won only twice in nine starts. In the Tidal Stakes at Sheepshead Bay Salvator beat Eric, the winner of the Belmont Stakes.
And then came Tenny. Tenny was Salvator's closest rival for three-year-old honors. They met in the inaugural running of the Realization Stakes which Salvator won. Tenny placed. (This race is now called the Lawrence Realization Stakes.) But in their forth year, the rivalry became serious.
In any other year, Tenny would have been a stand-out. Though his back was somewhat low-slung, causing him to be called “The Swayback”, he was a superb race horse, having won ten of his eighteen starts. At the start of his four-year-old season, Tenny won four races in succession. But it was his misfortune to be born the same year as Salvator. Salvator had been sitting on the sidelines for the beginning of the year, but in his first race as a four-year-old, he faced Tenny in the 7th running of the Suburban Handicap, then taking place at Sheepshead Bay. (All the earliest American racetracks were on Long Island, except the two that were actually on the island of Manhattan: one where Harlem is now, and another, the New Market, on land which is now called the Bowery. The Bowery, a corruption of the Dutch word for "farm," was once a horse breeding farm.)
Salvator won the Suburban. Tenny’s owner, D. T. Pulsiver, was disgusted with the race and challenged Haggin to a match race. They went back and forth over the conditions of the match but finally came to an agreement. The race would be run at Sheepshead Bay on June 25, 1890.
It caused so much excitement that the “Spirit of the Times” halloo’d the result in the largest headlines possible. SALVATOR! TENNY! GLORY FOR VICTOR AND VANQUISHED.
Ridden by Isaac Murphy, Salvator won but Tenny, guided by “Snapper” Garrison, was more than gallant in defeat. He lost by half a head. Walter S. Vosburgh (from "Racing in America, 1866-1921," (The Jockey Club, 1922) described the race like this: "The two horses ran side by side for three furlongs. Then Salvator led by two lengths. Once in the stretch, however, Tenny came very fast and was overhauling Salvator, but the latter 'lasted' to win by a nose in 2:05. Both jockeys thought they had won after they had pulled up, and walked their horses back, chatting as they did so. ‘I think I beat you,’ said Garrison.”
He was wrong.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox was so overcome, she wrote a poem about it. It was called: How Salvator Won. The poem found its way into homes all over the country. It ends like this: “We are under the string now—the great race is done—And Salvator, Salvator, Salvator won!”
Meanwhile the stupendous new Monmouth Park Racetrack had opened, replacing the old Monmouth track It was enormous, the biggest in America. And it raced clockwise in the European fashion. Salvator made his appearance in the Monmouth Cup. Not a horse showed up to face him, and he jogged round for the $1,800 prize. After that, only the very game Tenny came out to contest his winning the Champion Stakes at the same track. Salvator easily won by four lengths.
Now Salvator had no horses to race. So he raced the clock. He won that too, shattering the old record for the mile. This was the last time Salvator would race.
Though Tenny raced for two more seasons than Salvator, both came at last to stud. And here, they were finally equal. They were both duds at being dads. But at the end, Salvator beat Tenny yet again. In 1909, when they were both twenty three years old, Salvator died first.
Following the creation of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955, Salvator was one of the first handful of horses inducted.