It’s Derby time again here in North America and that familiar buzz is in the air. Everyone is busy choosing their favourite. But the best colt or filly doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the outcome depends on the Racing Gods who, as we all know, can turn the best laid plans on their ear.
1929: BLUE LARKSPUR VS CLYDE VAN DUSEN
When it was all over, racing mogul Colonel Edward R. Bradley, who owned the favourite, Blue Larkspur, described the winner as “…the worst horse to win the Derby in twenty years.” If the winner, Clyde Van Dusen, had anything at all going for him it was that he was a son of the American racing legend, Man O’ War. The other thing he had going for him on that rainy and sloppy first Saturday in May were his caulk shoes, which enabled him to get some traction on the slippery Churchill Downs track. Clyde was described as a “mere pony of a horse with a weedy frame” and was bred by New York businessman Herbert Gardner. Somewhere early in his career, the colt became a gelding and was named by Gardner after his trainer, Clyde Van Dusen, who was a former jockey. Although he was the seventh gelding in fifty-five years to win the Kentucky Derby, it would be another seventy-four before the beloved Funny Cide would do it again.
Blue Larkspur, on the other hand, was crowned HOTY in 1929 and he deserved it. The son of Black Servant and grandson of Black Toney was a really honest colt who almost always did his best. But his best was beyond him on Derby day, when the track played muddy and deep, and the assistant trainer (Herbert J “Derby Dick” Thompson, Bradley’s HOF trainer having succumbed to an attack of appendicitis) failed to shoe him properly for the track conditions. Blue Larkspur did brilliantly to manage fourth place and to come home in one piece.
And lucky for the American thoroughbred that he did, since as a sire Blue Larkspur had an enormous influence on the development of the breed. His genes passed most effectively to his daughters, among them the foundation mare Myrtlewood, and this allowed Blue Larkspur to top the broodmare sire list from 1944-1960, inclusive. His daughters produced some great, great thoroughbred champions, among them: Twilight Tear, Princess Turia, Bull Page, Durazna, Busanda, Cohoes and War Jeep. Clyde Van Dusen ran 42 times but the 1929 Kentucky Derby was his last major win. In retirement, the gelding was acquired by his trainer for use as a stable pony.
1933: HEAD PLAY VS. BROKERS’ TIP
As recently as 1993, the outcome of the 1933 Derby was still being hotly debated. Racing fans will recognize the famous photograph of Head Play and Brokers’ Tip coming to the finish line. The latter, owned by Idle Hour Stock Farm’s powerful Colonel Edward R. Bradley (of Blue Larkspur fame) would be declared the winner. To his dying day, Head Play’s jockey, Herb Fisher, would insist that his colt had actually won and that the decision of the judges had more to do with Bradley’s influence than with an honest assessment of who-was-where at the finish line.
Neither colt went into the Derby as a favourite, although Head Play was without question the better prospect of the two. He was a grandson of Fair Play, the sire of Man O’ War, and had won the Hawthorne Juvenile and Cincinnati Trophy as a two year-old, both at a distance of 6f. Head Play also came into the Derby as the winner of the Derby Trial Stakes, run over 8f. An interesting contemporary note about Head Play is that his second owner at the time of the Derby and until his retirement, Mrs. Suzanne Burnett Mason, was the mother of H. Burnett Robinson. After WWII, Robinson hooked up with racing’s Hal Prince Headley and, under Headley’s advice, bought a property that would become Winter Quarter Farm. And Winter Quarter Farm, still under Robinson ownership today, was the place where HOTY Zenyatta, as well as her Blue Hen dam Vertigineux, came into the world. (For more photos of Head Play, as well as Zenyatta’s page, go to the Winter Quarter Farm at this link: http://winterquarterfarm.com/about-us/)
The 1933 Derby became infamous for the shoving match that took place just before the finish, between Herb Fisher (on Head Play) and Don Meade (aboard Brokers’ Tip, in the blinkers on the inside). Believe it or not, the drama of the finish added some spice to an otherwise mediocre Derby field and gave horse racing what it desperately needed in America at the height of the Depression: a ton of publicity.
For Brokers’ Tip, who was declared the winner, the Derby would stand as the only race he ever won. (Note: There is no voice over on the footage. Head Play is wearing #9 and Brokers’ Tip, in blinkers, is #16)
1942: ALSAB VS DEVIL DIVER, WITH REGARDS & SHUT OUT
If the Derby field of 1933 was considered mediocre, the 1942 field was its polar opposite. Devil Diver and Shut Out were stable mates. Born at the Whitney’s Greentree Stable, Devil Diver was by the Whitney’s British import, St. Germans, whose son Twenty Grand had run himself into American thoroughbred history with wins in the 1931 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Shut Out was by an American legend, Equipoise, “The Chocolate Soldier.” Both Whitney colts were also trained by the HOF conditioner, John M. Gaver Sr. During a brilliant career that spanned thirty-seven years, Gaver also trained the champions Capot, Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny and Stop The Music.
Devil Diver had major wins in the Sanford, Hopeful and Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at two and had opened his three year-old season by beating Whirlaway in the Phoenix Handicap. Shut Out was also a fine colt who, although beaten at two by Devil Diver in the Hopeful, would prove a better three year-old than his popular stablemate. But Devil Diver would have his revenge at four: beginning in 1943, the colt would win the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap for three consecutive years. Like many fine horses of his day, Devil Diver won at punishing weights — often more than 130 lbs. But this couldn’t stop him and as a five year-old, his efforts were rewarded by receiving the title of American Champion Older Male Horse. However, that was in his future; the thinking in 1942 was that Devil Diver would continue his winning ways at three. So it was that Eddie Arcaro chose the accomplished two year-old who had defeated Mr. Longtail, America’s latest Triple Crown winner, to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Shut Out got the services of another HOF jockey, Warren Wright.
Shut Out’s chief rival as a three year-old was another famous name in American racing annals, Alsab. Taking his name from his owner, Albert Sabeth, the 1941 Champion Two-Year Old Colt, whose grandsire was the great Neddie, would chase Shut Out’s heels through the Derby and Belmont Stakes. Trained by Charles Swenke, Alsab quickly gained a massive fan base and at three, the colt annexed the Withers, American Derby, Lawrence Realization and the New York Handicap. Perhaps most impressively, Alsab defeated Whirlaway in a match race held at Narragansett Park on September 19, 1942:
Then there was With Regards, another terrific colt, winner of the Arkansas Derby and Myrtlewood Handicap. Owned by Josephine Grimes and trained by her husband, Ted, the son of Jack High was arguable the quirkiest of this distinguished group. It appeared that, among other things, With Regards had a “thing” about getting into the starting gate before mid-afternoon; in fact, retirement was forced upon him at age five for refusing to load two times in a row. By then, the colt had made 63 starts, with a record of 19-14-4 and winnings of just over $87,000 USD. For the Derby, With Regards got the services of HOF Johnny Longden — in Longden’s future, and only a year down the road, was the next Triple Crown winner, the incomparable Count Fleet.
The excellence of the 1942 Derby field prompted the hugest turnout since Colonel Matt Winn had taken the post of President of Churchill Downs. As Winn told a reporter from The Tucson Daily Citizen: “Son,” (Winn) said as the bright Kentucky sun outlined the faint stripes in his dark, blue suit, “I’ve been through four wars. I was born in the first year of the Civil War, I have weathered two others and now I’m in my fourth. And the one thing I have learned is that you should never sell America short nor America’s love of sport short. You take this race track. Now, I’m not talking about Saturday’s Derby, because Saturday’s Derby will be the biggest of all. I thought my dream of 100,000 people would come true last year but there were only 95,000. But I know my dream will come true this year because we can’t fill the demands we have had for tickets–from 50 cent tickets to $125 tickets. To me, this Derby is already history. It is the 1943 Derby I’m planning now. And do you know what I’ll tell you this minute? Son, I’ll promise you the 1943 Derby will be even bigger than this one. Gasoline shortages? Tire scarcities? America can take them in stride. America will come here–and America will go other places–(even) if America is forced to walk.”
Alsab went into the Derby as the favourite, with Devil Diver, Shut Out and With Regards getting a fair amount of play:
Despite the fact that Shut Out went on to win the Belmont Stakes, this time with Eddie Arcaro in the saddle, it was Alsab who took the honours as American Champion Three Year-Old Colt that year. Arguably, Alsab’s defeat of the mighty Whirlaway was the clincher, together with the romantic notion of a colt with a rather ordinary pedigree, bought by a rather “average” guy, who goes on to become a champion.
1953: NATIVE DANCER VS DARK STAR
Without question, the most famous of losers of the Kentucky Derby has to be the incomparable NATIVE DANCER. The loss would be the only one of his career.
As the story goes, the “Grey Ghost” as he was famously dubbed by the racing public of 1953 had to weave in and out of horses just to get to the lead. And with each manoeuver, the colt lost ground on the leader, the aptly named Dark Star. In the third quarter, Native Dancer ran from the outside in a time of 23 seconds. But close to the final dash, HOF jockey Eric Guerin went back to the rail, only to be blocked again by Dark Star’s jockey, the cunning Henry Moreno. Guerin gave Native Dancer a couple of smacks and the colt fired, losing at the finish by a head. Which is to take nothing away from Dark Star, who ran the race of his life. His time of 2:02 was better than that of champions like Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Ferdinand, Swale, Winning Colours and Alysheba.
1957: GALLANT MAN VS IRON LIEGE
This is the story of a great jockey who made a terrible mistake. It remains the most infamous of all of the “what-went-wrong” Derbies. The jockey in question, Bill Shoemaker, first said that his horse had taken a bad step, until he was remanded by the track stewards. Their verdict was to suspend “The Shoe” for 15 days. In his biography, published many years later, Shoemaker stated that as he crossed the finish line, “I knew I’d made a boo boo.” Which would be to put it mildly.
The horses at the centre of the controversy were the John Nerud-trained Gallant Man and Calumet Farm’s Iron Liege. But it was a prestigious field that went to the post on that cold, grim day, led by the favourite — Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons’ Bold Ruler. In the field was also the great Round Table, trained by Moody Jolley, the father of HOF trainer Leroy Jolley.
Iron Liege and his stable mate, Gen. Duke, were both sons of Bull Lea and although the former had the advantage of War Admiral as his BM sire, he was the lighter-regarded of the two Jones-trained colts. However, Gen. Duke was scratched after coming home from the Derby Trial lame, so it was Iron Liege and jockey Bill Hartack who carried Calumet’s banner on Derby day.
Bold Ruler was well-regarded by racing pundits of the day and his trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, was a legend — the only conditioner to ever train two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and his son, Omaha. Although he would be more famous as the sire of the mighty Secretariat, as a three year-old Bold Ruler came into the Derby a winner of the Flamingo Stakes (in which he shattered the track record) and of the Wood Memorial.
Travis M. Kerr’s Round Table, trained by William Molter, came into the Derby off a win in the Blue Grass Stakes. A “son” of Claiborne Farm, as was Bold Ruler, the colt had been sold to oilman Kerr by Bull Hancock with the understanding that he would stand at Claiborne after his retirement. Round Table dominated thoroughbred racing in 1958, but as a three year-old he was still a year away from his best form.
John Nerud’s Gallant Man was hardly a lightweight and 1957 saw him take some prestigious races, among them the Travers and the Jockey Gold Cup. But the press only seemed to give the Irish-bred son of HRH the Aga Khan’s Arc winner, Migoli, a lukewarm reception until Gallant Man chased Bold Ruler to the finish line in the Wood Memorial, only losing by a whisker. The little bay carried an impressive bloodline, albeit a European one, that he would pass down to two of the greatest American fillies ever: Gallant Bloom and Genuine Risk.
These, then, were the best of 1957 Derby field. And as they broke from the starting gate, no-one could possibly have anticipated the outcome:
After the loss, John Nerud gave Gallant Man some time off, skipping the Preakness and entering him in the Belmont Stakes instead. Bold Ruler won the Preakness for Sunny Jim and his connections and was promptly entered in the Belmont. Iron Leige, who ran a game second to Bold Ruler in the Preakness, wasn’t entered in the last leg of the American Triple Crown. Silent footage of Bold Ruler’s Preakness, with the winner being chased to the wire by Iron Leige (#4):
The Belmont Stakes belonged to Gallant Man. With The Shoe back in the saddle, Nerud’s colt ran a monster race, sailing home 8 lengths ahead of the second-placed Inside Tract, with Bold Ruler finishing up third. Gallant Man’s time for the Belmont stood until, ironically, a son of Bold Ruler, the mighty Secretariat, took it down.
When he heard of Gallant Man’s death, at the age of 34 years at Spendthrift Farm, HOF trainer John Nerud remembered his champion colt with pride, ” When he was sound and good, a horse never lived who could beat him…he had it all — speed and endurance.”
http://www.horseracenation.com. Derby Remix
http://www.jockeysite.com. Kentucky Derby: Legendary Losers
Bolus, Jim. Kentucky Derby Stories. Pelican Publishing Company (ISBN: 9781565544659)
Reed, William F. Duking It Out At The Derby in SI Vault (si.com)
Winter Quarter Farm website. About Us (winterquarterfarm.com)
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (www.racingmuseum.org)
Colin’s Ghost. Bold Ruler Wins The Wood Memorial, 1957 (colinsghost.org)
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