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Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out who our great trainers of today would pick, if they were asked the same question?

 

James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons. The most prestigious American thoroughbred trainer of them all. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. The most prestigious American thoroughbred trainer of them all. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

James aka “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons (also known as “Mr Fitz”) sits right at the top of distinguished American thoroughbred trainers. He began his career as a stable boy, working his way up to jockey. When his weight put an end to riding, Sunny Jim began to train thoroughbreds, saddling his first winner, Agnes D., on August 7, 1900 at Brighton Beach. As time moved on, his star shone brighter than any: two Triple Crown winners in Gallant Fox and son, Omaha, together with a slew of great colts and fillies, including Hard Tack, Granville, Faireno, Seabiscuit (before Charles Howard owned him), Fighting Fox (Gallant Fox’s full brother), Vagrancy, Johnstown, Bold Ruler, Nashua and Misty Morn. Sunny Jim’s horses won both the Jockey Gold Cup and Wood Memorial seven times; the Kentucky Derby three times; the Preakness four times; and the Belmont six times. His long association with William Woodward’s Belair Stud and the Phipps’ Wheatley Stables meant that some very fine horses came under his care and management. He was U.S. Champion trainer by earnings five times from 1930 until 1955. A beloved figure in the world of thoroughbred racing, Sunny Jim was noted for his gentleness and warmth, although he brooked no nonsense from any who worked for him. And he knew thoroughbreds inside-out.

Sunny Jim’s last great thoroughbred was Nashua, and the exploits of the colt in the 1950’s thrust both he and his trainer back into the spotlight. In 1957, word was out about another potential star in the 82 year-old Fitzsimmons’ stable: a son of Nasrullah named Bold Ruler.

NASHUA with Sunny Jim, who adored his less-than straightforward charge. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

NASHUA with Sunny Jim, who adored his less-than straightforward champion. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

 

BOLD RULER, with Eddie Arcaro up, defeats GENERAL DUKE in the 1957 Flamingo Stakes.

BOLD RULER, with Eddie Arcaro up, defeats GENERAL DUKE in the 1957 Flamingo Stakes. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

On February 23, 1957, journalist Frank Ortell, writing for the New York World Telegram, published this feature article. He had asked the great trainer which thoroughbreds he would place in his own fantasy stable or, which thoroughbreds were the greatest of all time. Here, as it was published, is Sunny Jim’s reply. (Photographs added by THE VAULT.)

Standouts In All Divisions: Exterminator and Man 0′ War Among His “All-Time Choices”

Frank Ortell, Staff Reporter

Miami, Feb. 23 (1957): Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who got his first racetrack job the day Grover Cleveland was inaugurated, looks back on his 82 years with undoubtedly the richest over lit capacity for thoroughbred appraisal of any living man.

Sunny Jim, still one of the top conditioners of America who even now is preparing Bold Ruler here at Hialeah for next Saturday’s Flamingo, today gives this newspaper’s readers the benefit of his Panoramic background in a unique venture. He’s picking the finest horses he has known in each division, in short a “dream stable.’

It is typical of the breadth of Jim’s vision that, of the 19 fillies’ and colts he has singled out, no more than three were trained by him-Nashua, Gallant Fox and Misty Morn.

 

Weight-Carrying ‘Essential’

Jim, stoop·shouldered but erectly forthright in opinion, started off with his top vote among the handicap racers.

“Exterminator is my best there,” he reported. “A handicap horse must carry weight at a variety of distances and he must be as strong at two miles as at six furlongs. That was Exterminator: He ran as often as called on — I think he

started 100 times –and track conditions meant little to him.”

C.C. Cook's great shot of EXTERMINATOR, whom he once described as "the beautiful and the glorious." Copyright KEENELAND-COOK.

“EXTERMINATOR is my best there.” Copyright KEENELAND-COOK.

Jim recalled that Exterminator, a gelding, had been purchased by Willis Sharpe Kilmer for $15,000 from J. C. Milam mainly as a work horse for the speedy Sun Briar. When Sun Briar couldn’t go in the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator

won under Willie Frapp, later named as Upset’s jockey in Man 0′. War’s only defeat.

Fitz’ supporting choices in the same division were Kingston, from the 1880s, and Roseben. At the turn of the century the handicappers just couldn’t find enough weight to stop Roseben in the shorter races.

ROSEBEN aka The Big Train.

ROSEBEN aka The Big Train joined EXTERMINATOR and KINGSTON as Sunny Jim’s top Handicap Horses.

For fillies in the handicap category, he nominated Beldame, leased by August Belmont to Newton Bennington (Belmont preferred not to race her himself) and the more recent Gallorette. “I’d like to add Lady Amelia,” he continued. “George Odom, a great trainer and a great jockey in his time, tells me that Lady Amelia could pack 130 pounds and run away from them. She did it at Gravesend. She also beat Roseben at Hot Springs.”

BELDAME was one of Sunny Jim's Handicap Fillies.

BELDAME was one of Sunny Jim’s Handicap Fillies.

Fitz’ Dream Stable

This is the “dream stable” selected by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons from all the horses in his ken.

TWO YEAR-OLD COLTS: Colin, Sysonby, Citation

TWO YEAR-OLD FILLIES: Top Flight, Regret

THREE YEAR-OLD COLTS: Man O War, Nashua, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox

THREE YEAR-OLD FILLIES: Artful, Twilight Tear, Misty Morn

HANDICAP HORSES: Exterminator, Kingston, Roseben

HANDICAP FILLIES: Beldame, Imp, Gallorette, Lady Amelia

 

Count Fleet for Speed

It is Jim’s opinion — and many others — that Man O’ War was the best three year-old of all time. “After him,” he said, ”I’d like to have Nashua and Count Fleet. Nashua was as sound as one could ask and and was willing to run any time.

Count Fleet had plenty of speed.”  Here he asked for inclusion of a fourth three-year·old. ‘” I want to save a stall for Gallant Fox,” he said. “He was the best three-year-old I had until Nashua came along.”

The Great One, Man O' War, shown working over the Saratoga track.

Man O’ War was “…the best three year-old of all time.”

 

COUNT FLEET (shown here with owners the Hertzes).

COUNT FLEET (shown here with owners the Hertzes) “…had plenty of speed.”

 

William Woodward leads in his Triple Crown winner. The Fox got a little fractious in the winner's circle even though his owner managed to hang onto him until Mr. Fitz arrived to take charge. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

“I want to save a stall for Gallant Fox.” Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

For his three year-old fillies, our expert chose Artful, Twilight Tear and Misty Morn. Artful, remembered by all old-timers was owned by W. C. Whitney and trained by John Rodgers. Strangely, she was no success as a broodmare. Her

“best” was a mediocrity named Sam Slick, who was five before he won at Bowie.

"Artful was the fastest horse I ever saw."

“ARTFUL was one of the speediest horses I ever saw.”

 

MISTY MORN, a daughter of Princequillo, was in the Fitz stable at the same period as Nashua. She was an exceptional filly. As a broodmare, she was the dam of BOLD LAD and SUCCESSOR, both sired by BOLD RULER.

MISTY MORN, a daughter of Princequillo, was an exceptional filly trained by Sunny Jim. As a broodmare, she was the dam of Bold Lad and Successor, both sired by Bold Ruler, and both two year-old champions in their respective years.

 

“Artful was one of the speediest horses I ever saw,” he recalled. “Twilight Tear was like a machine …. Misty Morn came strongest in the fall, because she could come up to a distance better than most.”

 

TWILIGHT TEAR "...was a machine." She is shown here winning the Acorn. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

TWILIGHT TEAR “…was like a machine.” She is shown here winning the Acorn. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

 

For his prize two-year colts, Fitz  picked  Sysonby and Colin, two fabled names out of the past. Both were owned by James R. Keene, one of the turf’s most noted patrons. It was his recollection, fortified by the records, that Sysonby lost

only once in 15 starts and that Colin never lost in 15. In a small purse era, Sysonby earned $184,438, Colin $181,610. Sysonby died of blood poisoning.. His skeleton may be seen in New York’s Museum of Natural History. Colin suf-

fered from chronic unsoundness and, when shipped to England, broke down in a workout. He never was raced there . ”Jim Rowe used to tell me, ‘the proudest thing in my life was that I trained Colin’,” Jim pointed out. For his modern two

year-old colt he added Citation. “One of the best young horses of all time,” he summed up Citation.

SYSONBY

SYSONBY figures as one of Sunny Jim’s prize two year-olds, together with COLIN and CITATION. The latter he described as “…One of the best young horses of all time.”

The two year-old fillies: “I’d take two from the same stable, Top Flight and Regret (C. V. Whitney). They could run with anything that was sent against them and were game enough to run as many times in a year as a trainer would want.”

 

TOP FLIGHT, shown here with her Man O' War foal, joins

TOP FLIGHT, shown here with her Man O’ War foal.

 

REGRET

REGRET, who, with Top Flight, “…could run with anything that was sent against them.” Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

1)“Welcome to Fitzsimmonsville” — a delightful and historical site devoted to Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

http://www.fitzbook.com

2) Swaps & Nashua (video): 

3)  Bold Ruler runs in the Trenton Handicap for top honours (video):

4) Gallant Fox — rare footage (video) 

5) Twilight Tear wins the Arlington Classic (video)

http://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/video/the-arlington-classic-is-run-at-washington-park-race-news-footage/504412273

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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By all accounts, the brilliant William (Willie) “Smokey” Saunders led a somewhat “mysterious” life — both before and after guiding Omaha to win the Triple Crown.

Willie "Smokey" Saunders and Omaha's owner, William Woodward, celebrate the colt's Derby win.

Willie “Smokey” Saunders and Omaha’s owner, William Woodward, celebrate the colt’s Derby win. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE TIMES.

In a 2014 article about William Saunders in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle — Bozeman, Montana being the place of Saunders’ birth — journalist Kyle Sample begins:

“As best as anyone can tell, Willie Saunders was a time traveler.
He would sporadically pop up in the time’s newspaper headlines, and then just as easily drift away, leaving family members unable to tell what became of Saunders’ marriage to Pauline Waterbury, or even if the couple had children.
Not even Lou Ocauz,  {driving force behind the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame –AA} who wrote the biography of Saunders for the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame when the hall made Saunders one of its first inductees, could tell how Saunders came to fame, or what happened to him after it.
‘He’s a mystery,” Ocauz said. “Don’t try to interpret the mystery.’ ”

Mind you, evading publicity might have been what Saunders learned from the headlines that pursued him after the mutilated body of Evelyn Sliwinski was found on River Road in October 1935, just months after Saunders had swept to fame as the youngest jockey to win the American Triple Crown. It was an honour that would stick, until snatched away by Steve Cauthen and Affirmed in 1978.

The horse that had carried Saunders to glory was Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox, himself  the 1930 Triple Crown winner. And although Willie “Smokey” Saunders’ life may remain shrouded in mystery forever, one thing is certain: the 20 year-old loved Omaha.

OMAHA with 20 year-old Willie "Smokey" Saunders share a moment before the camera.

OMAHA with 20 year-old Willie “Smokey” Saunders share a moment for the photographers. Photo and copyright, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

Born in Bozeman, MO in 1915, the Saunders family moved to Calgary, Alberta when Willie was eight and it was there that the boy’s connection to thoroughbreds began. He was a hot-walker and exercise boy until returning to Montana to attend high school. But after growing up on the back field, high school must have seemed a very strange world and, predictably, Saunders shows up in the winner’s circle at Tanforan on April 14, 1932. It was his first recorded win.

Jockeys had contracts that were transferred to different trainers/owners and, shortly thereafter, the boy began working for the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and riding horses from the Phipps Stable and Belair Stud. So, as the “dirty Thirties” began to unleash their force on America, young Willie found himself in privileged circumstances. It isn’t a stretch to assume that the boy worked and worked hard to gain Fitzsimmons’ confidence. Fitzsimmons was kindly, but a hard task-master; and having come up through the ranks himself, Sunny Jim knew all about the vices of the track and tolerated none of it. He was tough to deceive and exacted high standards from all who worked with him, including indentured jockeys. In a race and occasionally when he was training, Omaha had the habit of trying to lash out at any colt that got near to him. Willie was able to work with the big chestnut to avoid these kind of attacks. Clearly, “Mr. Fitz” saw something special in the Saunders – Omaha connection and so it was that the young man from Bozeman got the call to ride the Belair colt on the Triple Crown trail.

It was the ride of Willie’s life.

"Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons aka "Mr. Fitz" as portrayed by PAP

“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons aka “Mr. Fitz” as portrayed by PAP

OMAHA WORKS OUT_$_57

March 7, 1935: The 3 year-old OMAHA works between two other colts. Although his 2 year-old season was less than stellar, OMAHA was still a Kentucky Derby favourite by March.

 

OMAHA in shed row_$_57

OMAHA walks the shed row. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

Two short takes of Omaha’s Derby and Preakness wins, followed by a 3-minute segment that summarizes his Triple Crown campaign from the ESPN series “Jewels of the Triple Crown,” moderated by the legendary Jim McKay:

 

OMAHA _THE BELMONT_2PpytBSY)!cB!C!~~60_57

OMAHA and Willie Saunders shown winning the Belmont Stakes to sweep the 1935 Triple Crown. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

 

OMAHA_1935_7703750_405141343_o

The kid aboard his champion colt.

Willie and OMAHA coming in following a work. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

OMAHA coming in following a work. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

One can only imagine the fame and fortune that landed in young Willie’s lap.

Racing in the early part of the last century was a popular sport, one that was patronized by the wealthy and working person alike. In the Thirties it also provided a grand escape from the woes of the Depression. William Woodward and Fitzsimmons were no strangers to all that accompanied great horses, but for their jockey it was all new — and undoubtedly overwhelming. There would have been scores of unsavoury types waiting to prey on him, as well as a mass of groupies only too willing to stand in his albeit diminutive shadow. Suddenly, he was a “Sir” at Kentucky restaurants and a notable to the press. And Saunders was, by all accounts, on his own — as were most youth who rode at the time — without the security of either his family or a real mentor, although some reports of his jockey days assert that he was mentored by the great George Woolf in the early years.

It was one thing for the great "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons to cope with the fame of OMAHA'S Triple Crown. After all, it was Fitzsimmons second Triple in a mere 5 years! But for Willie Saunders, it must have been overwhelming. Here, admirers visit with Mr. Fitz and OMAHA. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

It was one thing for the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons to cope with the fame of OMAHA’S Triple Crown. After all, it was Fitzsimmons second Triple in a mere 5 years! But for Willie Saunders, it must have been overwhelming. Here, the press visits Mr. Fitz and OMAHA. Photo and copyright, THE BALTIMORE SUN.

So it was that early one night in October 1935, Saunders and a friend, exercise boy Walter Schaeffer,25, showed up at a Lexington bar and dance hall called Howard’s looking for a good time. The policy at Howard’s was that men needed to be accompanied by a woman to get in, but the bouncer called upon one of the establishment’s regulars, Agnes Mackison, 28, to partner up with Schaeffer. Once inside, Saunders spied a woman sitting at another table with a couple and asked Mackison to invite her over. The woman was Mrs. Evelyn Sliwinski, 25, the wife of a Louisville tailor who may/may not have been another Howard’s regular, depending on whose story one chooses to believe.

Therein lies the problem: there were two different stories of what happened next, the Mackison version reported in the Louisville Courrier-Journal in detail, and the Saunders-Schaeffer account, that appeared in several national newspapers of the day, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. (Most papers reporting the story were at pains to draw a sharp contrast between the two versions of what happened that night, with a distinct preference for the Saunders-Schaeffer version.)

The foursome left Howard’s and climbing into Saunders’ car, stopped in at two other nightspots, The Venexia Club and the Cotton Club. The men had introduced themselves to their dates as “Jimmie” (Saunders) and “Tommy” or “Paul”(Schaeffer), according to Mackison. Both were great dancers and the money and drink flowed freely.

Below, the great Mabel Lee who, along with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, spiced up the club scene of the Thirties:

By the time Saunders, Sliwinski, Schaeffer and Mackison left the Cotton Club, all were very drunk. Schaeffer took the wheel after an alleged row (Mackison reported) between a very woozy Sliwinski and Saunders, before the pair crawled into the back seat. Then they took off out of town and ended up on River Road. The whole time, “Jimmie” (Saunders) and Sliwinski continued to argue, according to Mackison, adding that Saunders then raped the woman several times (The Chicago Tribune).

At some point, Sliwinski threw up in the back of the car and Saunders pushed Sliwinski out of the car. According to Mackison, as Schaeffer accelerated, he ran over the staggering Sliwinski. According to Saunders and Schaeffer, they left her on the road and drove on. All agree that between 10-20 minutes later, heading back to Louisville, Saunders’ car struck “something” in the middle of the road, although Saunders testified that as he was in the back, he felt a “bump” but actually saw nothing. Both men also denied that Mrs. Mackison had been threatened when she was dropped off at her home: “You ain’t seen nothing; you ain’t heard nothing; you don’t know nothing and you’re lucky you’re alive.” (Oswald, writing The Courrier-Journal).

Evelyn Sliwinski’s mangled body was found by a high school student early the next morning. Beside the body was a man’s brown hat that carried a California label. The coroner described the murdered woman’s body as one of the worst he’d ever seen. There were strong indications that she’d been badly beaten.

The same following day, Agnes Mackison, accompanied by her brother-in-law, came in to report a crime. From photos made available to her, she identified Saunders and Schaeffer. A warrant was issued for the two men, both of whom had gone missing. Saunders turned himself in first and bail was set at $5,000 USD (a fortune at the time). Detectives arrested Schaeffer in Baltimore and charged him with murder; Saunders was indicted as an accessory.

Willie Saunders (foreground) and Schaeffer at the latter's trial for the murder of Evelyn Sliwinski.

Willie Saunders and Walter Schaeffer (foreground) at the hearing into the $100,000 civil suit launched by the Sliwinski estate. Published in The Courrier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky in 2014.

At Shaeffer’s trial, the defense argued that the teenager who had found Sliwinski’s body was the one who had initially run her over. Agnes Mackison was the only witness for the prosecution. The jury returned its verdict quickly: not guilty. The way they saw it, the two women were “experienced ladies of the night” looking to”pick up men,” whereas the two young men were innocent victims. Following Schaeffer’s acquittal, the charges against Saunders were dismissed.

Following the Schaeffer trial and Saunders acquittal, a $100,000 civil suit was launched by the estate of Evelyn Sliwinski. Following the acquittal,  a settlement of $10,000 USD was reached.

 

Post Script

Willie Saunders married Pauline Waterbury of Detroit in 1936. Among the winners he rode in a career that continued until 1950 are Fareino, a Belair Stud colt that he piloted to a win in the 1934 Rochambeau Handicap, Dunlin Lady, winner of the inaugural Santa Anita Oaks and, as first-string jockey for Hal Price Headley’s stable, Whooper (a grandson of Man O’ War). During World War II, Saunders joined the U.S. Army and fought in the South Pacific. Like so many who fought in the Pacific, he contacted malaria, which left him light enough to resume his jockey career when the war ended.

In the 1948 Preakness, Saunders rode Bovard to a third-place finish behind the mighty Citation and Eddie Arcaro. He rode the colt to a win in the Louisiana Derby the same year. Other races won by Saunders include the Chicago Derby (1936), Detroit Derby (1936), Monrovia Handicap (1936), San Juan Capistrano Handicap (1936), Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (1937), New Year Stakes (1937) and the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (1937).

After his retirement in 1950, Saunders worked as a racing official at various American racetracks.

He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1976.

Another shot of Willie and the great OMAHA. The two understood each other well and Saunders was able to stop the big chestnut from savaging other horses during a race. However, following the Triple Crown, Saunders never rode Omaha again. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Another shot of Willie Saunders and the great OMAHA. The two understood each other well and Saunders was able to stop the big chestnut from savaging other horses during a race. However, following the Triple Crown, Saunders never rode Omaha again. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 

Sources

The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame: William (Smoky) Saunders

Kentucky Derby/ Triple Crown? Murder? It was 1935 by Jessie Oswald in The Courrier-Journal, April 26, 2014

Various articles in newspapers of the day covering the Evelyn Sliwinski murder trial and acquittal of William Saunders: The Chicago Tribune, Schenectady Gazette, Lewiston Journal, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Herald-Journal

NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My grandfather, Carl Leroi Boynton Wheeler, was born at the end of the nineteenth century with what my family called “the horse gene” deep in his blood. As a little girl, I sometimes bugged him to tell me “horse stories.” There were four thoroughbred colts my grandfather cherished: Man O’ War, Gallant Fox (“The Fox”), Count Fleet (“The Count”) and Citation. They garnered his love and respect until the last days of his life. Whereas Man O’ War was incomparable, “The Fox,” “The Count” and Citation were the benchmark against which all other thoroughbreds — including Canada’s hero, Northern Dancer — were measured. 

As we move closer to the 2013 Triple Crown races, THE VAULT joins in the excitement with this weave of Grandpa Wheeler’s reckonings, together with other credible sources of the time, to tell the story of the unlikely colt who brought joy to North America in a time of fear and uncertainty. 

Gallant Fox, shown here in a rare portrait without the famous Belair stable blinkers! Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Gallant Fox, shown here in a rare portrait without the famous Belair stable blinkers! That white around one eye (“wall eye”) was said to intimidate other horses — one of those popular beliefs of the day that has never really been proven. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Sir Gallahad III raced in France, where he was brilliant, and shortly after going to stud, was sold to a partnership of William Woodward, A.B. Hancock.

The Fox’s sire, Sir Gallahad III, raced in France where he was brilliant. Shortly after going to stud, Sir Gallahad III was sold to the American partnership of William Woodward Sr., A.B. Hancock, Robert A. Fairburn and Marshall Field III. The stallion stood mainly at Woodward’s famous Belair Stud and at Hancock’s Claiborne. He is best remembered as the sire of three Kentucky Derby winners (Gallant Fox, Gallahadion and Hoop Jr.), as well as one Triple Crown winner (Gallant Fox).

The broodmare Marguerite was a Blue Hen, but her partner was only Sir Gallahad III

The broodmare Marguerite (shown here with Gallant Fox as a colt) was a great granddaughter of Domino, through Celt, a son of Commando. A Blue Hen, she was bred twice to Wrack and produced the champion, Peetee-Wrack. Other than Wrack, her only other matches were to Sir Gallahad III. As Hancock put it, “If you’re trying to strike oil, you drill in the same field where it’s been struck before.” The “first strike”was Gallant Fox. Although Marguerite never produced another like him, sons Fighting Fox and Foxbrough won races on both sides of the Atlantic. Her daughter, Marguery, is the tail-ancestress of modern-day champions Generous (Caerleon), Imagine (Sadler’s Wells) and Albertus Maximus (Albert the Great).

This story is about a great thoroughbred, but not one in the tradition of Seattle Slew, Affirmed or the immortal Secretariat.

This colt was a dreamer….always more interested in the world around him than he was in racing. Like Hyperion, he hated to be in training unless there was another horse to chase and catch. And once he’d moved on by the other horse, our subject was inclined to slow to a languid canter, while his eyes hunted the landscape for something really interesting. Fortunately, he had a kind nature and so would do what was asked of him on the track….most of the time.

Exciting as horse racing may be for humans, the life of a typical race horse, then as now, is filled with structure and routine. Not terribly interesting for a colt who, in another life, was almost certainly an explorer or a poet or even a philosopher.

As those who knew him best would expect, even after winning the Preakness, our boy (blinkers and all) is scouring the spectators for something far more interesting than their smiles or applause. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

As those who knew him best would expect, even after winning the Preakness, our boy (blinkers and all) is scouring the environment for something more interesting than the smiles of his fan club. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Marguerite’s boy was a big, handsome colt with a wide, white blaze that ran from his forehead to curl around each nostril, a “wall eye” and four white coronets. Of the eye, it would be said that it gave him a fierce, wild look that put paid to any horse who dared to draw up beside him.

Named Gallant Fox, the colt foal was born on March 23, 1927 and was quick to show his intelligence and the kind of curiosity that goes with it. By the time he hit the track in his 3 year-old season, Gallant Fox was walking into a world of shattered dreams. It was 1930 and North America needed something that transcended a faltering economy and lives lost to the cruelty of the unforeseen.

His bloodlines were impeccable. His sire, Sir Gallahad III was by Teddy (Ajax) out of Plucky Liege (Spearmint), one of the most important broodmares of the 20th century. Plucky Liege (1912) boasted the prepotent St Simon as her broodmare sire, as well as three crosses to another influential stallion, Stockwell. Other than Sir Gallahad III (one of America’s most influential sires), Plucky Liege also produced Bull Dog (sire of the brilliant Bull Lea), Derby winner Bois Roussel (broodmare sire of champion filly, Petite Etoile) and Admiral Drake (leading sire in France in 1955).

Bull Dog was another American foundation sire, produced by Plucky Liege.

Bull Dog was another American foundation sire produced by Plucky Liege.

Gallant Fox’s dam, Marguerite, was a direct descendant of Domino through her sire, Celt. As well, illustrious names filled her pedigree:  Bend Or (Derby and St. James Palace Stakes, Epsom Gold Cup), Doncaster (Epsom Derby, Ascot Gold Cup), St. Simon (champion sire and undefeated in 10 starts in the UK) and Lexington (leading American sire 16 times).

St. Simon was said to have perfect confirmation, a seemingly indefatigable fighting spirit and an exceedingly high-strung temperament.

St. Simon was said to have perfect confirmation, a seemingly indefatigable fighting spirit and an exceedingly high-strung temperament.

The legendary Domino line was responsible for Gallant Fox's dam, Marguerite, who was a direct descendant.

The legendary Domino line was responsible for Gallant Fox’s dam, Marguerite, who was a direct descendant.

Sculptor Gwen Reardon's figure of the stallion, Lexington, adorns Kentucky's Horse Park.

Sculptor Gwen Reardon’s figure of the stallion, Lexington, adorns Kentucky’s Horse Park.

There was no question that powerful blood ran in the veins of Marguerite’s curious son.

As a juvenile, Gallant Fox aka “The Fox of Belair,”or simply”The Fox,” was sent to one of America’s greatest trainers, James Edward (“Sunny Jim”) Fitzsimmons. “Mr. Fitz,” as he was fondly called, had come up through the ranks the hard way, beginning as a stablehand at the age of 10. He knew his thoroughbreds inside-out by the time The Fox arrived in his stable. Mr. Fitz was one of those trainers who was most himself around the barn with his horses. Gallant Fox, he was quick to discover, only trained his best in the company of another horse. Left on his own, the youngster was happier to watch the world go by and this meant, in turn, that he was never keen to be interrupted in order to head out to the track. The Fox wasn’t really a fractious colt, but like so many great thoroughbreds he didn’t like to be pushed around. You couldn’t dominate him — you had to partner up with him. So, Mr. Fitz selected a training trick that seemed to suit them both: the relay race. It involved a number of colts, each of whom took The Fox on at a different point around the track. The colt responded mightily to the challenge, refusing to be headed by another horse.

It was a good thing that Mr. Fitz was running a large stable, because not one of his other horses could keep up with The Fox all the way around the track.

Gallant Fox was more interested in everything going on around him than he was in racing. Although Sunny Jim never doubted his courage, intelligence or ability, it took some doing to train him for competition.

Gallant Fox was more interested in everything going on around him than he was in racing. Although Mr. Fitz never doubted his courage, intelligence or ability, it took some doing to train him. Shown here at trackside, just checking out the action, The Fox is so intent that he poses all alone for the camera — barely moving a muscle.

Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (foreground) pictured with his 1939 Derby winner, Johnstown. "Mr. Fitz" dominated American horse racing's "Golden Age." He trained two Triple Crown winners (Gallant Fox and Omaha), as well as winning the Derby 3 times, the Preakness 4 times and the Belmont, 6 times. Other notables trained by Mr. Fitz include Bold Ruler, Nashua and Granville. All told, the trainer sent out 155 stakes-winning horses who captured 470 stakes races.

HOF trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons (foreground) pictured with his 1939 Kentucky Derby winner, Johnstown. “Mr. Fitz” dominated American horse racing’s “Golden Age.” He trained two Triple Crown winners (Gallant Fox and Omaha) and won the Derby three times, the Preakness four times and the Belmont, six times. Other notables trained by Mr. Fitz included Dark Secret, Bold Ruler, Nashua and Granville. All told, the trainer sent out 155 stakes winners to capture 470 stakes races during his career. As well as training for Woodward’s Belair Stud, Mr. Fitz also trained many champions who ran in the colours of the Phipps’ family.

In his 2 year-old campaign, Gallant Fox continued to be calm, friendly….and insatiably curious.

In the second start of his career, the colt was left at the starting gate — looking at an airplane in the sky overhead. He did, eventually, get going but it was too late to finish in the money — the only time in his career that he wouldn’t.

It was in the Flash Stakes, on his third try, that The Fox broke his maiden, although the second-placed Caruso would beat him four days later. In his fifth start, the Futurity Trial, the Woodward colt seemed to get the hang of it and he put in a good effort, almost catching the winner, Polygamous, at the wire. Next came the Futurity itself, where the 2 year-old star of the 1929 racing season, Whichone, hooked up with The Fox for the first time.

Artist Art Krentz's sketch of champion, Whichone, done in 1929.

Artist Art Krentz’s sketch of champion, Whichone, done in 1929.

As it turned out, The Fox couldn’t quite catch Whichone. But he gave it his best shot, ending up in a tie for second place which he lost by a nose, to place third. The Fox’s last start of the season was in the Junior Champion Stakes at Aqueduct, which he won going away. Whichone captured Champion 2 year-old honours that year, but Gallant Fox was on the radar as “one to watch” in 1930. His flip-flop juvenile season didn’t faze either his owner or his trainer: like many in their day, neither William Woodward Sr. nor Mr. Fitz saw a colt’s 2 year-old season as a more than a dress rehearsal for what lay ahead.

The Fox at three was stronger and more experienced. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

The Fox at three was stronger and more experienced. Of the colt, Grandpa Wheeler said, “He could look a bit like a plough horse but he was a blue-blood through and through. He got the Triple with his ears pricked forward.” Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

As youngsters do, Gallant Fox grew into his 3 year-old year a stronger, more experienced horse. He was joined by jockey Earl Sande, who had been persuaded to come out of retirement to ride him. Sande had been a champion jockey in his day, riding horses like Zev, Flying Ebony and the great Man O’ War (once) to victory. Damon Runyon had even penned him a poem, “There Never Was A Guy So Handy As Sande.” Retiring in 1927, Sande decided to try his hand at training, but his wife died that same year and the champion jockey fell apart. Overweight and almost penniless, Sande headed back to what he knew best, only managing a single win in the 1929 season.

In the meantime, Mr. Fitz was working hard with The Fox to get him to focus on racing rather than sightseeing. He positioned him in the stable so that the 3 year-old could watch all the action and when Mr. Fitz was talking to someone, he’d often acknowledge the colt by reiterating, “Isn’t that so, Mister?” And The Fox would nod his head in agreement. The trainer also indicated to Woodward that it would be ideal if they could land a single jockey for the colt’s 3 year-old season. It was his feeling that The Fox would do his best in the hands of an experienced rider, one who would form a real relationship with him and learn to handle his strengths and quirks.

Mr. Fitz and The Fox.

“Isn’t that so, Mister?” Mr. Fitz and The Fox.

The colt didn’t have a mean bone in his body. But he was a character and although Mr. Fitz had managed to improve his attitude and work ethic, The Fox still had his moments. For one thing, the coppery bay with the wild eye had a tendency to dawdle once he got on the lead: if there was nothing in front of him, The Fox just couldn’t see the point of knocking himself out. It was equally tricky to get him to rate just off the pace. Too, he was quite capable of coming to a sudden halt if something of interest caught his attention, blinkers or no. Heeding Mr. Fitz’s advice, Woodward, acting on the recommendations of his trainer as well as that of Doc Pardee, manager of the Biltmore Stable in Arizona, approached Earl Sande.

Gallant Fox with Earl Sande in 1930. The two would form a partnership as legendary as that of Ron Turcotte and Secretariat.

Gallant Fox with Earl Sande in 1930. The two would form a partnership as legendary as that of Ron Turcotte and Secretariat.

It was, as they say, “a match made in heaven.” Not only did Sande ride Gallant Fox into thoroughbred legend, he also groomed and worked him. Sande taught the colt to play guessing games, hiding treats behind his back. And they seemed to be in a constant conversation that often ended with the colt butting Sande out of his stall. Best of all, Sande adored Marguerite’s handsome son and the colt revelled in his attentions. It was fun when Sande was around and Mr. Fitz began to notice that The Fox’s attitude was improving, largely because he wanted to please his new buddy. For the first time, in a consistent way, Mr. Fitz saw his colt show a competitive edge when training with other horses.

Earl Sande wasn’t one to use his whip unnecessarily. He had quiet hands and a patient way of working with his young horse. The combination of Mr. Fitz’s wisdom and Sande’s quiet confidence in The Fox framed what was to be an absolutely brilliant 3 year-old campaign.

The Fox’s season began with the Wood Memorial, where he met up with the dashing Crack Brigade, owned by Thomas Cassidy. Despite getting a less-than-ideal trip, Gallant Fox beat Crack Brigade by 4 lengths. Next, it was on to the Preakness, which in that year was run before the Kentucky Derby at a distance of 1 3/16 (the same distance as today).

The Fox and Earl Sande after winning the Wood Memorial.

The Fox and Earl Sande after winning the Wood Memorial. As Sande had told the press, “As long as there is a horse in front of The Fox, you can ride him backwards. He’ll use his competitive spirit to find a way to win.” Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The Fox would again take on Crack Brigade, as well a really lovely filly named Snowflake, who came home third. Snowflake, owned by Walter J. Salmon, would end her 3 year-old campaign taking champion co-honours with the more famous Alcibiades, owned by Hal Price Headley. She was that good.

Here’s an excerpt from turf writer and CBS (radio) broadcaster Bryan Fields’ report of the race that appeared in the New York Times:

BALTIMORE, Md., May 9    

William Woodward won his first Preakness and Earl Sande rode his first Preakness winner when Gallant Fox captured Maryland’s greatest turf classic before 40,000 persons at Pimlico today.

The son of Sir Gallahad III and Marguerite came from next to last position at the half-mile mark to the heels of Thomas Cassidy’s pace-making Crack Brigade at the mile. Three-sixteenths further, the end of the race, and Gallant Fox was the winner by three-quarters of a length and had earned $51, 925. The time was 2.00.35. 

… The snapping of pictures at the finish and a talk over the radio took considerable time and quite obscured the quiet stroll in from the infield of a smiling , middle-aged figure. It was Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, trainer of the winner. Asked if he ever was worried when Gallant Fox ‘s prospects looked so poor, he said: ” No, he’s a fine colt and when he got close to the leaders I knew it was all over. But that Crack Brigade is a nice horse too.”

Gallant Fox comes home in The Preakness, ears pricked forward. Crack Brigade is at the rail. The Fox won it in the second quickest time ever recorded.

Gallant Fox comes home in The Preakness, ears pricked forward. The Fox won it in the second quickest time ever recorded. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Next up was the Kentucky Derby. Other runners included second-place finisher in The Preakness, Crack Brigade, as well as the filly Alcibiades and Tannery, the “pride of the Bluegrass” and the colt thought to be the best hope of defeating The Preakness winner. Gallant Knight and Ned O. rounded out the favourites the field of fourteen.

The day was rainy and grey, but this didn’t deter the fans, who began rushing in at 7 a.m. when the gates opened. By race time, an estimated 60,000 had assembled. Among the spectators, the most distinguished was undoubtedly England’s Lord Derby, who was housed in a glass pagoda near the finish line with William Woodward and other luminaries of American racing.

In the winner's circle, wearing the famous wreath of roses. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

In the winner’s circle, wearing the famous wreath of roses. Gallant Fox had come home to win the Derby in the pouring rain, with Earl Sande’s gentle hands encouraging him on. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Gallant Fox swung into the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs today, running free in the van [vanguard] of the Kentucky Derby field, while a quarter of a mile away in a glass-enclosed pagoda near the finish line a big-shouldered man dropped a pair of binoculars from his eyes with a throaty exclamation, ‘ Great stuff! I’m glad!’ 

It was Lord Derby of England turning to William Woodward , owner of the horse, which stands alone tonight as the champion 3 year-old in America.

Sixty thousand persons massed at the track were still roaring themselves hoarse for Gallant Fox or one or more of the fourteen thoroughbreds behind him when Lord Derby made his remark to Mr. Woodward. The race was far from over, but Lord Derby’s ancestors have been racing horses for centuries and he had seen the best in the Derby field challenge Gallant Fox only to be beaten off in the backstretch and on the bend…He knew the race was over and said so. Perhaps ten seconds later the big bay colt swept passed the little glass house to the finish line…

… Gallant Fox and Sande saluted the stewards, were drawn into the tiny protected oblong of greensward next to Lord Derby’s pagoda and Mr. Woodward stepped out into the rain. Without a topcoat, he strode across the lawn and grasped Sande’s hand and congratulated him on riding his third Derby winner, the first jockey to do this since Isaac Murphy in the previous century.

Then he caressed Gallant Fox, undefeated this year…Photographers by tens scaled the fence and in three minutes Mr. Woodward and Sande were surrounded…” (Bryan Field, The New York Times)

There were other “firsts” attached to the Derby win. It was the first Derby where the horses started from an electronic starting gate. And Gallant Fox became the first thoroughbred in the twentieth century to annex both The Preakness and The Kentucky Derby, in that order. (Sir Barton had won the first Triple Crown in 1919, but the order of Derby and Preakness were reversed. Too, The Preakness was 1 1/8 miles in 1919.)

All seemed as it should be for Gallant Fox’s Belmont, until — just two days before the race — Earl Sande was involved in a horrendous car crash with fellow jockey, Harry Gross. Sande got away with cuts to his hands and face, so it was a bandaged Earl Sande who rode “The Fox of Belair” — the latest monicker picked up by the Woodward colt — onto Big Sandy on Belmont Stakes day.

Rain was lashing down in thick, grey sheets. And back to contest the Belmont was The Fox’s nemesis, Whichone, still considered by many to be the best 3 year-old in the country. But the red-hooded Fox strode past the stands to the start with his typical nonchalence, Sande sitting quietly, the reins slackened over the colt’s withers.

The first fractions were slow, but The Fox was on the lead and held it throughout. Each time another horse tried to get close to him, Sande let out the reins a notch and The Fox was off again. There was no speed duel between Whichone and Gallant Fox, as had been anticipated. Instead, The Belmont became a procession, with a champion in the lead. William Woodward’s colt crossed the finish line 4 lengths ahead of Whichone, going away. The Fox had won the “triple crown” under a hand ride and his victory marked the christening of the term “Triple Crown” to describe a winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

The running of the Belmont Stakes of 1930. Gallant Fox is just getting ready to leave Whichone behind in the stretch in this shot. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The running of the 1930 Belmont Stakes. Gallant Fox is just getting ready to leave the Whitney’s Whichone behind in the stretch. The Fox’s win set a Belmont Stakes track record. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

William Woodward leads in his Triple Crown winner. The Fox got a little fractious in the winner's circle even though his owner managed to hang onto him until Mr. Fitz arrived to take charge. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

William Woodward leads in his Triple Crown winner. Gallant Fox got a little fractious in the winner’s circle, even though his proud owner managed to hang on to him until Mr. Fitz arrived. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

For a re-cap of Gallant Fox’s Triple Crown, enjoy this great piece of old newsreel footage. (Some highlights include The Fox and Sande breaking through the barrier at the start of the Preakness — twice! And there is also some superb footage of Alcibiades and Snowflake (white blaze) coming up to get third in the Preakness. In the Belmont footage, the blur is rain!!!!)

Following his Triple Crown, Gallant Fox went on to take the Dwyer and to win a hard-fought battle with Gallant Knight in the Arlington Classic. The latter endeared him to fans and turf writers alike, and he began to be compared to the great Man O’ War. The New York Times’ Bryan Field made the following observation: “Gallant Fox is a horse of individuality and magnetism, and thus far has behaved in the opposite manner to the tempestuous Man o’ War, who was a devil to break and a big, raw colt to handle and train as a two-year-old. He gives the impression of unusual grace and distinction and his symmetry and harmony have attracted thousands of admirers, as did Man o’ War’s effervescent temperament.”  

In the Lawrence Realization, the colt met up with the brilliant Questionnaire, who had only lost once — to Gallant Fox in the Belmont, where he finished third. It was a match-up that showed the greatness of the nation’s second Triple Crown winner. Trailing at the start of the race, Gallant Fox and Questionnaire went eyeball-to-eyeball in a driving finish, with Belair’s red-hooded super horse crossing the finish first by a head. The Fox also annexed the Saratoga Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which only one other horse stepped up to race him. He was declared the 1930 Horse of the Year or, as many preferred to say, the “Horse of the Century.”

Questionnaire, shown here at stud, gave Gallant Fox one of the toughest challenges of his career.

Questionnaire, shown at stud, handed Gallant Fox one of the toughest challenges on the track.

The biggest upset of The Fox’s career came in the Travers (1930) when he and Whichone duelled each other from the start, enabling a rank outsider, Jim Dandy, to leave them both behind — by some 8 lengths. In the silent footage below, you get a sense of what transpired. (NOTE: Clearer at thumbnail size than on a full screen.)

Gallant Fox was retired to Claiborne Farm after his Gold Cup win when he came up with a fever and cough. His all-too-brief appearance on the stage was always recollected with a certain melancholy by my grandfather, who stressed that the champion was “just starting to show his real mettle” late in his 3 year-old season.

At stud, Gallant Fox produced a third Triple Crown winner in his very first crop, at the age of 5: Omaha. He also sired Flares, a full brother to Omaha, who won the Ascot Gold Cup, as well as the 1936 Horse of the Year, Granville. He was a moderately successful sire; his full brother, Fighting Fox, was less successful as a runner but more consistent in the breeding shed. Still, Gallant Fox remains the only Triple Crown winner to sire a Triple Crown winner and that only adds to his cachet.

Gallant Fox's full brother, Fighting Fox. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Gallant Fox’s full brother, Fighting Fox. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

" He was a meteor who swept across the sky of racing in 1930."

” He swept like a meteor across the racing sky of 1930.”

When he died in 1954 Gallant Fox was laid to rest at Claiborne, where he had first come into the world.

His epitaph reads, “He swept like a meteor across the racing sky of 1930” — a fitting tribute to a thoroughbred whose dignity, determination and capacity to dream illuminated the darkness of the Great Depression.

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