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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
” 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.
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.”
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.
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.