A strapping bay colt with a flaming red hood on his head, his fluent and devouring stride made it seem as if he was floating across the ground. The first Kentucky Derby winner to break from a starting gate, Gallant Fox easily swept the 1930 Triple Crown. By season's end Gallant Fox had scored nine victories in 10 races and had become the greatest money winner in the history of American racing.
With his brilliant run of success, the press dubbed him the Fox of Belair, after William Woodward's historic Belair Stud near Bowie, Md. It was at Belair in 1774 that Samuel Ogle, the three-time provincial governor, imported the first pair of thoroughbred stallions to America.
James Thomas Woodward purchased the 500-acre tract of land in 1898. For Woodward, the president of Hanover National Bank (now Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan), Belair was a country oasis and the headquarters for his passion -- racing and breeding thoroughbreds. He also built the majestic stable that still remains today.
William Woodward took control of Belair after his uncle's death in 1910. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Belair Stud was the premier racing and breeding stable in America, and rivaled any in the world.
Just down the road from Woodward's stately five-part Georgian-style mansion past a grove of oaks and beeches sat the storied stable. It was home to Woodward's prized mare, Marguerite, the dam of Belair Stud's 1928 Wood Memorial and Carter winner Fighting Fox and later, 1938 Travers winner Petee-Wrack.
In April of 1929 a big, rakish 2-year-old was there too. Foaled at Claiborne Farm, Gallant Fox was a leggy son of European champion Sir Gallahad III who was purchased for $125,000. Standing 17 hands, the regal bay colt with the blazed face would eventually mature into a well-balanced 1,200-pound runner under the tutelage of "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons.
In his first racing season, Gallant Fox defeated Caruso in the Flash Stakes at Saratoga and added the Junior Champion Stakes at Aqueduct in his last race of the year. He was a good 2-year-old, but turf writers pegged him well behind division champion Whichone.
Gallant Fox loved galloping alongside other horses in early morning workouts, but quickly lost interest once he gained the lead. Fitzsimmons' remedy? The future Hall of Fame trainer would send out a veritable team of horses with him in the mornings -- relay style -- as no other horse in the barn was quick enough to keep pace with him.
By the spring of 1930, Gallant Fox had returned as a mature animal with what Woodward believed was classic potential. At Belair the owner met with Fitzsimmons to discuss which jockey would ride their talented 3-year-old. They both agreed upon Earl Sande, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. Having lost a considerable sum of money in the Wall Street crash of 1929, Sande came out of a two-year retirement.
In April the pair rolled down the stretch to a four-length victory over Crack Brigade in the Wood Memorial.
"As long as there is a horse in front of the Fox, you can ride him backwards," Sande quipped after the race. "He'll use his competitive spirit to find a way to win."
The week after the race, Woodward proposed a flat $10,000 to ride Gallant Fox for the 1930 season. Sande countered: 10 percent of the horse's earnings for the year.
"It's a deal," Woodward said, recounted in author Richard Maturi's book, The Earl Sande Saga. "It's only fair that we both prosper if you and Gallant Fox perform as expected."
Over the next several months Sande earned more than $30,000, a kingly sum in the Depression era.
Unlike modern times, back in 1930 the Preakness was the leadoff Triple Crown race, not the Derby. On May 9, Gallant Fox was the 9-5 favorite. Woodward's colt was shuffled back heading into the first turn, and dropped seven lengths behind at the half-mile marker. Then he began picking off horses around the far turn and set his sights on the leader Crack Brigade.
"It's the most electrifying dash that has been seen in Maryland in many a day," reported The New York Times. "Finding a hole here and a gap there Sande snaked his way through the field and was third at the far turn."
Driving down the stretch, the stout-hearted Gallant Fox snatched the lead and won by three-quarters of a length in a hand ride by Sande.
The 1930 Kentucky Derby came eight days later. Sixty thousand fans turned up at Churchill Downs. It was the first time an American classic was run with an automated starting gate. Three days of rain had created a sloppy track. Gallant Fox went off as the even-money favorite. Breaking well, he dropped back to fifth going down the backstretch. Knowing the rail was heavy going, Sande swung Gallant Fox to an outside path and reeled in the marvelous filly Alcibiades flashing by the wire with an easy two-length victory over Gallant Knight and the rest of the Western colts. Only late 19th century jockey Isaac Murphy had won as many Derbies.
Press reports recounted the singular white-rimmed eye that made him appear wild. When a horse drew up to Gallant Fox on the outside and saw his "wicked eye" they were too frightened to challenge him. As for Sande, he regained his post as America's premier jockey. Sporting Belair's white shirt splashed with red polka dots, Sande used his whip sparingly, preferring to persuade his mounts with gentle hand riding and singing softly in their ears.
The phrase Triple Crown also came into racing parlance in 1930. In the days leading up to the Belmont the New York Times wrote: "In America, the idea of the Triple Crown being duplicated came when the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby, and the Belmont Stakes reached such prominence as to overshadow all other Spring 3-year-old events in this country. And as in England, to win the Triple Crown in America carries with it the utmost that can be won on our race courses."
Two nights before the Belmont Stakes a tire burst on a car driven by fellow jockey Harry Gross. The automobile flipped over and tossed its passengers out on to the road. Sande suffered lacerations to his nose, cheeks and hands. But nothing would keep him from his date with destiny.
On a gray misty afternoon in Long Island, Harry Payne Whitney's Whichone awaited Woodward's star in the $60,000 Belmont Stakes. Only four horses answered the call to post. Whichone, the 1928 juvenile champion who had beaten Gallant Fox the previous year in the Futurity, was bet down to 3-5 odds. Gallant Fox was second choice at 8-5.
Many in the rain-soaked crowd pressed against the rail for the start. Still sporting a bandage below his left eye from his car smash-up, Sande put the Woodward colt on the lead. He rated his horse at the quarter pole and had a lead of two lengths down the backstretch, but Gallant Fox was galloping under restraint. Powering down the homestretch, Gallant Fox bounded away from the favorite Whichone, winning by three lengths.
Despite the muddied track, Gallant Fox galloped to a new record for the mile-and-a-half race in 2:31.60 and proved his rightful claim to the championship of the 3-year-olds. More importantly, Gallant Fox cemented the notion of an American Triple Crown comprised of the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.
Gallant Fox joined Sir Barton (1919) as a winner of the Triple Crown. He would go on to race six more times as a 3-year-old, piling up victories in the Dwyer, the Arlington Classic, Saratoga Cup, Lawrence Realization and Jockey Club Gold Cup. In one of racing's most historic upsets Gallant Fox was defeated in the Travers Stakes by Jim Dandy, a 100-1 long shot. Gallant Fox retired after the 1930 season with earnings of $308,275, topping the record set by Zev in 1923.
Earl Sande won repeat victories in the most important races of his era, including three Kentucky Derbies, five Belmont Stakes, and five Jockey Club Gold Cups. He took up training after his retirement in 1932. He was America's leading trainer in 1938 after developing champion 3-year-old Stagehand. At age 55, Sande returned briefly to the saddle. He won once and then retired permanently. He died in 1968.
At the end of the 1930 season, Gallant Fox was retired to his birthplace and stood at Claiborne Farm for 22 years. As a sire, Gallant Fox enjoyed great success, siring 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha in his first crop. From the second group of foals sired by the Triple Crown winner came Flares, the full brother to Omaha who scored in the Ascot Gold Cup, as well as 1936 Horse of the Year Granville. The Fox of Belair sired a total of 20 stakes winners before he passed away on Nov. 13, 1954. He is buried at Claiborne Farm near his sire, Sir Gallahad III. Inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1957, Gallant Fox remains the only one of the 11 American Triple Crown winners to sire a colt, Omaha, who became another winner of the Triple Crown.
For a glimpse at Gallant Fox's brilliant career, click here.
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at email@example.com