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This little ditty comes to you, dear reader, at the close of 2016 with my best wishes for a New Year filled with an abundance of lovely surprises, new adventures and discoveries, radiant health and many occasions for laughter. This narrative aspires to set a mood of joy and hope as we ring in 2017! Love, Abigail

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Dedicated to the family and descendants of W.J. Gray, and especially his granddaughter, without whom this article would have been so much less than it became.

 

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, captured in the lens of W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As many of you know, I am wholly addicted to photography and especially vintage photographs. One of my favourite haunts, even when I’m not looking to buy anything, is Ebay — a superb place to just enjoy old photographs of all kinds.

Over the years, my collecting of rare old photographs of thoroughbreds and standardbreds has netted a handful of surprise discoveries and chance encounters with people from all around the world. One was with a descendant of Colonel Phil Chinn of Kentucky, and another took place when I bought a photograph of Safely Kept beating Dayjur in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the now famous “shadow incident” (below). As it turned out, the seller was the then owner of the UK’s Pacemaker magazine (now Owner Breeder), who was in the midst of selling off his magazine’s photo archives. So it was that I was gifted with some rare and wonderful photographs of Nijinsky, Danzig, Danehill and Sadler’s Wells from the Pacemaker archives. As a thank you, I sent this gentleman a copy of Secretariat from the Thoroughbred Legends series, as he was a huge fan and this was one book he didn’t have in his collection.

But one of the most fascinating of my discoveries began on an ordinary day, when I was trawling Ebay for no particular reason. I was scrolling through a search I routinely do of vintage horse photos when I stumbled upon a relatively rare Phar Lap, at a ridiculous price. I bought it and then returned to the seller’s listing, to see what else s/he had on offer. What came up was the kind of “find” that makes a collector dizzy: photos of the beloved Exterminator, the great Discovery (BM sire of Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Bed O’ Roses and Hasty Road), of Blue Larkspur (outstanding in every way, the son of Black Toney is credited as being one of the X -chromosome, large heart sires), Pavot (US Champion Two year-old and grandson of Man O’ War), beloved Stymie, “The People’s Champion,” and a couple of more obscure thoroughbreds. These were large and possibly authentic photographs of the day. I bought the Exterminator and a few others. And then I sent a note off to the seller, asking about the provenance of the photographs. S/he duly responded to say that they were purchased at a garage sale in Los Angeles, where s/he had found them “stuffed into a cardboard box” on the front lawn, surrounded by vast arrays of household goods.

 

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. His signature is just under the colt’s hind leg. (This was one I was too late to buy, unfortunately.) Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

I waited for the arrival of my bounty, feeling that this might well be my personal “Antiques Roadshow moment.” You know the reference: the moment where the little lady from some tiny town that no-one has ever heard of is told that her photograph is worth a small fortune. Or not: many purchases turn out to be not quite what they appear to be in the Ebay listing, mostly due to sellers who know little or nothing about the difference between original and newly-minted photographs.

In the interim, I went back to the seller’s Ebay profile to check on other photographs that s/he might have sold. There I discovered images of a handful of thoroughbred champions who had been scooped up by other buyers: Calumet Farm’s Coaltown, who had the misfortune to race in the same years as Citation; the champions Alsab, Challendon and Gallorette, together with Reigh Count, the sire of Count Fleet; and Rosemont, he who famously beat Seabiscuit and Omaha and sired the champion filly, Bed O’ Roses.

Anyone who collects thoroughbred photos of the past will know that getting an authentic, original photo of Coaltown, Exterminator, Reigh Count, Phar Lap, Discovery or Gallorette is a definite coup because, for whatever reason, images of them are scarce. But what was equally fascinating in this seller’s lot was that the majority of the images were ones that I had never seen anywhere before. And this, of course, peaked my curiosity. I hoped that my own photos would yield some clue as to the photographer’s identity and/or the source (i.e. studio or printer’s mark, date of production, etc.)

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

My anticipation was rewarded shortly thereafter when a large, padded envelope arrived. As one photograph after another emerged, I was beyond delighted. Each one was 13.5 X 11 ” with very little border, printed on thick,nicely aged paper presumably used by printing studios/photographers of the day. The images themselves were crisp and compelling. With the exception of the Exterminator and the Phar Lap, each one bore either the signature (within the print itself) of a “W.J. Gray ” or an oval stamp that read “W.J. Gray, Photos, 411 So. Main Street, Los Angeles.”  

The Exterminator bore an encircled C in one corner that I can attribute to the great equine master, C.C. Cook, as well as recognizing his distinctive hand in inscribing the horse’s name, the jockey (A. Johnson) and a few other details on the print itself. Affixed to the photo, on fading newsprint, were typed details of Exterminator’s race record.

 

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Photo and copyright: C. C. Cook.

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Note the paper note affixed, listing his race record. Photo and copyright: Keeneland-Cook.

The Phar Lap only carried a typed newsprint square of the date and locale of his death, together with his career earnings. Had it been taken at either Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente? I knew that, after his celebrated arrival in California and at the request of the American press corps, the champion was kitted up to pose for photos — the last that exist of Phar Lap before his untimely death.

There were no other identification marks on the print, although the image was superb and I knew that this was an exceedingly rare image of Australia’s beloved “Red Terror.” (At this writing, I have only managed to locate one copy of this photo online, but the site is in a foreign language so I was unable to read it. If any of you have any information about it — including recognizing the track where it was taken — please contact me here below, in the section reserved for COMMENTS. Thank you. AA)

 

The PHAR LAP photo.

The PHAR LAP photo. I am fairly certain that this is Billy Elliott in the irons and Tommy Woodcock in the background, in coat and hat. (Phar Lap’s Australian jockey, Jim Pike, had very noticeable cheekbones and a sharper nose. But at a distance, his official trainer, Harry Telford and Woodcock look somewhat similar. However, it was Woodcock and not Telford who accompanied Phar Lap to America, making it important to know who that figure in the background is, as it would date the photo.) Taken either at Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente, Mexico, or else taken in Australia at some point in his career.

Once I had fully savoured my treasures, and framed the photos of Old Bones (aka Exterminator) and Bobby (aka Phar Lap), I began a search for the mysterious Mr. W. J. Gray.  But “Gray” is a common surname and searches kept giving me any instance of “W.J.” separately from “Gray.” After several dead ends, I finally hit upon a lead.

As it turned out, W. J. Gray was a photographer of some of Hollywood’s most iconic stars:

 

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray, also carrying his signature on the right. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter's signature visible under Sinatra's. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter’s signature visible under Sinatra’s. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Too, I found one image of an iconic historical figure in American – World War II history that Gray had captured in understated dignity …

 

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

…as well as numerous aircraft, and one snowy scene of Los Angeles in the winter of 1944:

 

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This was enough to tell me that Mr. Gray was, indeed, a very fine photographer, one whose reputation for exceptional work was acknowledged. After all, not just anyone was called upon to photograph Ingrid Bergman or General Macarthur. As well, many of the airplanes he photographed were produced by the industry giant Lockheed, with whom Gray likely had a contract.

From the scanty information I was able to retrieve, it appeared that much of Gray’s extant work was done in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Gray’s characteristic signature sits to the left, below Wilde’s. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

But nowhere –nowhere — was there any indication of the photographer’s perhaps secret passion for the great thoroughbreds of his day. Whereas the Hollywood and possibly the Lockheed photos could well have been taken in California, several of the horses I had discovered never raced in California, indicating that Gray may have travelled around the country to record their exploits. Did he, I wondered, also work for (a)newspaper(s), capturing images of great thoroughbreds for their pages?

 

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O' Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O’ Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Copies of this shot can be found on Ebay by those unscrupulous dealers who copy and sell other people’s work. Photo, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Another thorny question: why a stamp and not a signature? Could the stamp indicate that the photograph was developed by Gray at his studio, whereas the signature, as seen in the Hollywood photos and on some of the thoroughbred shots, indicated that Gray himself was the photographer? This explanation seemed most likely, and is reinforced by the handwriting on the Discovery shot (above) that looks very much like C.C. Cook’s hand and carries only the Gray stamp. I hasten to add that, unlike today where so many unscrupulous types download someone else’s work from the internet and sell it on places like Ebay, if Gray did indeed sell others’ work in his store, it would have been through an agreement reached with the photographer, who likely made a commission on the sale of his work.

However, Gray — like C.C. Cook and other photographers of the day — was also given to writing on some of his negatives, as is the case with the photo of Alsab (above) that carries both writing and his signature (while minus the Gray stamp). If signature vs. stamp weren’t intended to discriminate the photographs Gray handled,  it’s equally possible that he just switched from signing his photographs to stamping them, making all those bearing either identification mark attributable to him. A tough call, and one impossible to resolve without the knowledge of someone who knew the man and something about his career.

So, on went the winding trail of the narrative of these stunning images and their creator, until I came across a blog that held a new Gray photograph. Although not of a thoroughbred, in the Comments section below it there was a reply from W.J. Gray’s great grandson, who confirmed that his great grandfather had owned a photography shop in Hollywood/Los Angeles. I duly obtained Mr. Gray’s great grandson’s coordinates from the blogger and shot off a hasty email. Could he tell me something more about his ancestor and about Gray’s thoroughbred photos?

CHALLENDON. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

CHALLENDON, in what appears to be a press photo. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Within a few days, I received a very cordial note from Mr. Gray’s great grandson, who told me that he was researching his great grandfather, knew he had taken photos of Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and commercial aircraft, but had absolutely no idea that he had an interest in thoroughbreds. I duly sent him copies of some of the thoroughbred photographs that had been listed on Ebay. Again I received a reply and a promise that he would forward the photos, as well as my letter, to other Gray family members. This was in 2014.

As the photos I had found were outstanding and reflected not only Gray’s skill but his knowledge about some of the most important thoroughbreds of his time, it was hard to forget about him.

Then, a day after I began writing this piece, I saw that there were many comments on The Vault that I had had no time to answer, given the Christmas holidays…and first among them was a message from W.J. Gray’s granddaughter. In fact, in a context where truth is stranger than fiction, she had written to me the day before I decided to try to pull something together about her grandfather for my first post of 2017.

Happy coincidence? Certainly.

I had been thinking about the mysterious Mr. Gray as a great subject for a new year post, because I believe that discovery is one of the great spices in life, even if its story is incomplete, which Gray’s clearly was until the moment I read his granddaughter’s note to me.

Sometimes the Universe is indeed inexplicable — and on December 26, 2016, it was presenting me with a gem.

 

Some horses don't wear well down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray's granddaughter.

Some horses don’t “wear well” down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

W.J. (Billy) Gray’s granddaughter’s initial message to me was followed by a flurry of emails and an actual “phone date.”

As it turned out, she had been born two weeks after her grandfather died, in January 1958, but had grown up hearing many stories about him. Her mother, Billy’s daughter-in-law, had only wonderful memories of him: “…She adored him and his gentle spirit, {he} was the absolute kindest person she ever knew! …My grandfather was a self-made man who lived his life with dignity, integrity and kindness.” (Private correspondence)

As she went on to say:

“…When you contacted my second cousin, his dad sent me copies of the photos you found (where did you find them?)

That began my search for horse racing photos…I couldn’t find any, except one that had been hand painted and was sold at an estate auction a few years prior. I searched for months! Many many months with no success.

Then one night I was watching the movie “Seabiscuit.” I was crying at the appropriate moment😊 and then put the movie on hold and asked out loud (no one was home) ‘Grandpa, am I ever going to find your horse racing photos?’.

I began to search on the internet, again. This time I searched ‘WJ Gray Seabiscuit’. On the third page of searches I found three lines that included contact info and:
‘large, original photos of Seabiscuit and War Admiral by Wm Gray of Los Angeles for $100, Philadelphia’

I called him immediately and told him that {the photographs he was selling} was my grandfather who died 2 weeks before I was born and I was searching for his photos. The man called me back the next day and said I must have those photos and {that he had} discovered 4 more in his stash! He said his father had bought them in Philly when a bar closed and they were selling the photos off the wall! He’d tried to sell them before and thought that no-one understood what they were. But he did. He liked the ‘ponies’.” (Private correspondence) 

 

WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph. Used with permission by his granddaughter.

A very dapper WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph, possibly at Santa Anita. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Then scans of the photos she had tracked down and purchased from the man in Philadelphia arrived. Once again, I was astounded. Not only were the images crisp, but most were shots of thoroughbreds I knew well but had never seen before: War Admiral in close-up coming into the final turn of the Belmont Stakes (and victory in the Triple Crown); Phar Lap after his win at Agua Caliente; an apparent press photo (because it included a typed byline) of Seabiscuit losing the Santa Anita Handicap to Rosemont; A.C. Bostwick’s champion, Mate, winner of some important races, notably the the Preakness, Champagne and American Derby in 1931; Equipoise winning The Metropolitan (1932); and Granville, a very good son of Gallant Fox, on track in the colours of the famous Belair Stud. Each large photo carried the oval “WJ Gray Photos” stamp.

 

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the Estate of WJ Gray.

Mr. Gray’s granddaughter was also kind enough to send photos of her grandfather, as well as biographical notes.

 

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

William (Billy) J. Gray was born on Edisto Island, SC in 1883, the youngest of ten children. He was orphaned at the age of seven and while in an orphanage was taught a trade that presumably allowed him to work on the railroad, possibly as a cabin boy. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles CA. Some time before 1919, Billy had bought himself a camera and learned how to use it, because in that year he took a photograph of Woodrow Wilson that he sold to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. (A signed copy of this photograph hangs in the Ronald Reagan Library, where it was discovered by Billy’s granddaughter. She tells me that the family has the original print.)

It was the sale of the Woodrow Wilson to the LA Times that suggested to the twenty-six year old Billy Gray that his photography hobby could, in fact, be potentially lucrative. And he had the courage to follow his instincts — and his heart. As Hollywood and its stars together with various newspapers came to recognize Billy’s endowment, it was possible for the then father of five to support his family during the dark days of the Depression by taking pictures. At some point soon after the sale of the Woodrow Wilson photo, Billy opened his first place of business in Los Angeles, to be followed by a second establishment, also in Los Angeles.

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An early advertisement placed by W.J. Gray, sometime after 1921. Note the company name: FILM STARS PORTRAIT CO. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As the ad above indicates, Billy Gray was targeting Hollywood stars in the early years of his career and to say that he was successful would be an understatement. Below, a W.J. Gray photograph of Hollywood icons and, in his own hand, a note on the back:

 

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This was Charlie Chaplin’s private plane. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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Back of the photograph above, listing of the names of the Hollywood icons pictured. Used with the permission of Billy’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A cousin also supplied memories of Billy “on the job,” as in this excerpt from my private correspondence with Billy’s granddaughter:

“My cousin, as a little girl, remembers visiting our grandparents in Los Angeles and walking to our grandfather’s studio on Pico (his other studio). Grandfather was developing his own film and in those days you printed a photo, ad or sheet of stationary one-at-a-time. She remembers helping stack the sheets of naval ship stationary, one at a time. During and after the war, grandfather would go down to the docks and take a photo of the ships. He’d come back, develop the film and then print one sheet at a time on stationary. She added that they {other members of the Gray family} would help Grandpa as he printed the individual stationary paper and envelopes: she would fold them and place them into the envelopes which was how they were sold.

Then he would go back down to the docks to sell it. The sailors would buy the stationary that featured their ship to write home on.

My cousin was born near the end of the war and grandfather was still producing this stationary after the war.”

In addition, Billy’s granddaughter mentioned a photograph she had of Billy in a printing shop in Chicago, as well as evidence that he had travelled to Greenland at some point. She further told me that her grandfather’s wife hand-coloured portraits and other photographs associated with the Gray’s photography business and that she had located one, of a thoroughbred, that had sold at auction.

In our lengthy exchanges, she was also able to confirm that Billy was indeed a horse lover (as opposed to just a photographer of thoroughbreds), who had friendships with several of the jockeys at the California tracks and possibly at other racing venues. (This reported by her aunt, Billy’s 91 year-old sister.) As for the “stamp vs. signature” issue, she was unable to provide clarification. However, when I asked about the typing at the foot of some of the photographs, she told me that it was indeed her grandfather who had typed in these details himself.

 

 

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The Santa Anita Derby of 1937. Typed underneath by WJ GRAY: “Start –Santa Anita Derby. Won by “FAIRY HILL.” (M. Peters up) Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

 

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Finally, Mr. W.J. Gray was emerging out of the shadows for me and I was glad. He was an exceptionally gifted photographer and one who deserves to also be celebrated by anyone interested in thoroughbreds and the history of racing in America.

In recording facets of the world as he knew it, Billy made his mark in the world a lasting one.

He could not have known that his photographs would leave a trail for a little girl who loved him to follow. But I’m betting he’d be pleased. I know that his granddaughter is.

What a precious, precious gift Billy Gray left her: the opportunity to literally see a part of his world, through his eyes.

W. "BILLY" J. GRAY: Here's looking at you?

W. “BILLY” J. GRAY: Here’s looking at you! Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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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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NOTE TO MY READERS: I have recently had a death in my family and this, together with the natural excitement about this year’s American Triple Crown and flat racing overseas accounts for the lapse between VAULT articles. But I will be back soon with more stories of great horses from around the world. Thank you for your understanding.

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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. 

DEGAS' sculpture of a thoroughbred walking seemed a fitting opening to this article.

“Thoroughbred Horse Walking” by EDGAR DEGAS. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9flaRIstGXk#t=16 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.

BLUE LARKSPUR was a really handsome horse and this photo shows him to advantage.

BLUE LARKSPUR was a really handsome horse and this photo shows him to advantage.

MYRTLEWOOD, a daughter of BLUE LARKSPUR, during her racing days. She would go on to become a foundation mare of the American thoroughbred horse.

MYRTLEWOOD, a daughter of BLUE LARKSPUR, during her racing days. She would go on to become a foundation mare of the American thoroughbred horse.

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.

Trainer CLYDE VAN DUSEN with his namesake after the gelding's retirement from racing. CLYDE the horse lived to be 22 years old and was, by all accounts, a favourite of his trainer.

Trainer CLYDE VAN DUSEN with his namesake whom he bought after the gelding’s retirement from racing. CLYDE the horse lived to be 22 years old and was, by all accounts, considered a gem — albeit with a character all his own — by his trainer.

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.

The famous photo of the 1933 Derby finish shows the jockeys fighting it out as BROKERS TIP (blinkers) and HEAD PLKAY come to the finish.

The famous photo of the 1933 Derby finish shows the jockeys fighting it out as BROKERS’ TIP (blinkers) and HEAD PLAY come to the finish.

It was a very different story in the Preakness, where HEAD PLAY came home first under the great Charlie Kurtsinger.

It was a very different story in the Preakness, where HEAD PLAY came home first under the great Charlie Kurtsinger. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

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) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxBrMrj39uU   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 with the legendary EDDIE ARCARO.

DEVIL DIVER gets some loving’ from the legendary EDDIE ARCARO.

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 at work as a three year-old. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

SHUT OUT at work as a three year-old. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlNaBhmLW_s 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 handsome WITH REGARDS and trainer, TED GRIMES. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The handsome WITH REGARDS and trainer, TED GRIMES. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Colonel MATT WINN, the President of Churchill Downs, played a huge role in shaping the sport. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Colonel MATT WINN, the President of Churchill Downs, played a huge role in shaping the sport. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw6r39Rj-QY 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBBvKILL1IM 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.

DARK STAR wears the roses in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

DARK STAR wears the roses in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

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.

IRON LIEGE works, wearing the fashion of the day for horses with sensitive ears.

IRON LIEGE works, wearing the fashion of the day for horses with sensitive ears. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

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.

BOLD RULER (inside) narrowly beats GALLANT MAN (outside) in the 1957 Wood Memorial.

BOLD RULER (inside) narrowly beats GALLANT MAN (outside) in the 1957 Wood Memorial.

BOLD RULER arrives at Churchill Downs to run in the 1937 Kentucky Derby.

BOLD RULER arrives at Churchill Downs.

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.

ROUND TABLE with trainer, William Molter.

ROUND TABLE with trainer, William Molter.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkQ57ANF1KE

Bill Shoemaker inexplicably misses the finish line by standing in the stirrups on GALLANT MAN for a split second, allowing IRON LIEGE to charge through to win.

Bill Shoemaker inexplicably misses the finish line by standing in the stirrups on GALLANT MAN and allowing IRON LIEGE to charge through and win. It was a split second error that changed the course of history.

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): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6PuKjzWATs 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.

GALLANT MAN wins the 1957 Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths, leaving Bold Ruler well behind at the finish.

GALLANT MAN wins the 1957 Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths, leaving Bold Ruler well behind at the finish.

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.”  

GALLANT MAN, according to his brilliant trainer, John Nerud, "had it all."

GALLANT MAN, according to his trainer, John Nerud, “had it all.” This kind of praise from such a brilliant horseman is a fitting tribute to a colt who truly embodied what it means to be a thoroughbred champion.

GALLANT BLOOM, a daughter of GALLANT MAN

GALLANT BLOOM, a daughter of GALLANT MAN, was Champion Two and Three Year-Old filly in 1968-69. A winner of 12 races in a row, she was GALLANT MAN’S best daughter. GALLANT BLOOM was inducted into the HOF in 1977.

The Lady Is A Champ: Genuine Risk, winner of the

The Lady Is A Champ: Genuine Risk, winner of the 1980 Kentucky Derby, was only the second filly to ever do so. A beloved filly who will never be forgotten, GENUINE RISK’S BM sire was GALLANT MAN. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

SOURCES

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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