“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and the Kentucky Derby experience

Mar 22nd 2015 07:02 pm |

There are few people in horse racing history I love more than Jim Fitzsimmons. Mr Fitz – as he was respectfully called – spent a lifetime at the racetrack. Starting as a stable hand for the Dwyer Brothers in the 1880s, he rose up the ranks to become one of the most revered trainers in American racing history by the time of his death in 1966. He trained two Triple Crown winners, saddled a cavalry of stakes winner, and led all trainers in earning five times with the first coming in 1930 and the last in 1955 at the age of eighty.

Image: Bold Ruler with jockey Eddie Arcaro and James Fitzsimmons in the winner’s circle at Pimlico after winning the 1957 Preakness.

For those of us interested in racing history, we are lucky that Mr. Fitz left behind a wonderful record of his life, times, and personality through his cooperative relationship with the press. As early as 1930, one finds articles that are more transcript than news story. He seemed to enjoy the company of a reporter. He was an elite trainer when most are enjoying retirement and yet he remained humble – a trait that comes through clearly in the many articles written about him during his career. At the age of 82 he told reporter Jimmy Breslin in an article for the Saturday Evening Post, “I don’t know everything about racing — far as I’m concerned, the longer a person is in the sport the more he has to learn.” A year earlier, he told writer James McNulty in Collier’s Magazine, “Give me 25 more years and I’ll have a pretty good hold on the horse racing business.”1

In doing research on the Kentucky Derby in the 1950s, I came across a piece by Evan Shipman in the Daily Racing Form that includes a lengthy quote from Fitzsimmons about his experience in the big race at Churchill Downs. It’s a typical piece about Mr. Fitz during the period where you can imagine the reporter frantically transcribing as the old trainer talks. In this particular article, he discussed his hard luck experiences as a spectator at the Derby. It is a funny, unique, and revealing look at a race that usually inspires platitudes for those who have graced its winners circle.

Here is what Mr. Fitz told Evan Shipman for his article in the 1950 Derby Day edition of the DRF:

…do you know, I’ve seen only one running of the Kentucky Derby? Sure, I’ve been at Louisville every time a colt from my stable started, but the only time I got more than just a brief glimpse of the horse was in 1935. That was Omaha’s year, and I was well seated that time in Mr. Hancock’s box.”

All the other years, beginning with the season I started Distraction, I seemed to get lost in the shuffle. It got to be kind of a joke down there, and the last time we won a Derby — Johnstown’s year [1939] — friends of mine got the best seat in the house, or so they thought. I had a chair in a box that was low down, right in front of the judges stand. When the field got away everybody got up in the chairs, and you know I’m not built on very big lines. Again, I missed my Derby.”

I was in the centerfield when the ‘Fox’ won [1930], and maybe I saw them run a sixteenth of a mile…”2

Another article in 1957 adds to Mr. Fitz’s history of being at Churchill on Derby day without seeing the big race:

The year that [Fitzsimmons] took Granville to Churchill Downs he was gently pressing his way through the crowd when he met Jimmy Stout, his jockey, fighting his way back, blood running from the deep cuts across the bridge of his nose and his left cheekbone. All Mr. Fitz knew was that the race was over. He could tell that from the rising and falling roar of those at track side.”

“Where did you finish?” he asked Stout.

And Jimmy, fingering his cuts, said: “Right on my face.” It still is only by hearsay and the pictures he’s seen that Mr Fitz knows Granville was knocked to his knees coming out of the gate, pitching Stout over his head.3

Sunny Jim won three Derbys in the 1930s — the last coming in 1939 with Johnstown. He had his best opportunities to win it again with post-time race favorites Nashua in 1955 and Bold Ruler in 1957. Nashua finished second behind Swaps and Bold Ruler fourth. Nashua went on to win the Preakness and Belmont. Bold Ruler won the Preakness and was the last of his runners to win a Triple Crown race.

A 1955 article in the New York Journal-American reported on Sunny Jim’s experience watching Nashua’s Derby. By that time, it seems Mr. Fitz had enough of attending the race in-person and not seeing a thing. He watched the 1955 edition in Marshall Cassidy’s office at Belmont Park surrounded by reporters and cameramen. After Nashua, the consensus favorite, finished second to a California colt named Swaps, the old trainer turned to the cameramen and told them, “It’s all right, boys. I’m not going to cry.” After obliging the photographers by wiping his brow for the cameras, the eighty-year old trainer made no excuses. Telling the assembled reporters:

I was a little anxious there, but I can take it as good as the rest of them. Nashua ran a good race. The other horse just ran a better race. That’s all. I would have loved to win, of course, and that Swaps sort of surprised me….This Swaps must be a good horse. I can’t say the rain and the mud hurt my horse. I have no complaints about the horse. If he couldn’t run in the mud, he wouldn’t have run at all, and he ran a good race today.”

The author of the piece, Caswell Adams, ended with a quote he overheard from a photographer after Fitzsimmons left the room, “Gee, the old man took it pretty good…”4

All I have read about James Fitzsimmons, I don’t think he knew any other way.



As I began to dig for additional sources for this piece, I found a goldmine at fitzbook.com, a site about the Fitzsimmons family that includes a treasure trove of racing sources. The site appears to have been founded to document family history and it includes news clippings and one of a kind items about the legendary trainer. It is a great resource and one I plan on revisiting it again. Among a few favorites not used for his post include this image from the newspaper of the Dwyer Brothers stable hands and an article authored by Joe Palmer about Marshall Cassidy.

Racing lost a living legend with the passing of Allen Jerkens this past week.  Our friend Teresa contributed this excellent piece for the Bloodhorse about the Hall of Fame trainer.

After a long, cold, and nasty winter, I am thrilled to say that I will be at Gulfstream Park for this year’s Florida Derby. It’s my first trip to the track in Hallendale and, needless to say, I can’t wait.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

  1. “I like the Derby but…,” Saturday Evening Post, 4 May 1957. “A Visit with Mr. Fitz and Nashua,” Collier’s Magazine, 30 March 1956. []
  2. “Preparing a Horse for Derby is Nerve Wracking, James Fitzsimmons Says,” Daily Racing Form, 6 May 1950 []
  3. “Graham’s Corner: Mr. Fitz on Tv,” 1957  []
  4. “Trainer has no Complaints for Nashua’s Race,” New York Journal American, 8 May 1955 []

Filed in Fitzsimmons, Sunny Jim,Kentucky Derby

9 Responses to ““Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and the Kentucky Derby experience”

  1. Ron Micetic says:

    Great stuff!!!

  2. Laura from RI says:

    Johnstown won the 1939 Ky. Derby. He was sired by Jamestown.

  3. Kevin Martin says:

    Hi Laura:

    Whoops! Fixed. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. Kevin Martin says:

    Thanks, Ron!

  5. Brad Telias says:

    Nice piece, Kev.

    Wonderful historical remembrance and so glad you had the reference to The Chief. It triggered the thought of how the two were revered by their fellow horsemen.

    Your mention of Evan Shipman, Joe Palmer and the era’s other celebrated racing writers who wrote about Sunny Jim, brought to mind another — Ken Kling, cartoonist and handicapper for the NY Mirror, who created the famed Joe and Asbestos feature cartoon.

    When Sunny Jim died in Florida in 1966, Kling wrote a wonderful ode to the legendary trainer, who was tied at 13 triple crown race winners with Wayne Lukas until Lukas eclipsed the mark with Oxbow in 2013.

    I can’t remember the beginning of the catchy poem with references to Sunny Jim’s beginnings as a jockey and transformation to trainer, but the last stanza could easily apply to the Allen Jerkins today, despite his never having saddled a Triple Crown race winner.

    “So here’s to the Dean,
    To the end he was keen at saddling winners galore,
    And horsemen all bow to the champ who knew how,
    He’ll always be their Man ‘O War.”

    Yes, their likes only come around once in a generation.

  6. Marlaine Meeker says:

    Thanks so much for these stories. I just love to read about the grand old men and their grand racehorses of yesteryear. Hope you enjoy your trip to Florida.

  7. Kevin Martin says:

    Hi Brad:

    I found the King Kling poem at the fitzbook site: http://fitzbook.com/1966March17NYDailyNews.pdf . I had never seen it before. Thanks for sharing the memory!!!


  8. Kevin Martin says:

    Thank you Marlaine!

  9. Dale says:

    Jimmy Breslin also wrote a book about Sunny Jim which is now available as an e book. In reading an old Turf and Sport Digest, it spoke about how Sunny Jim developed special liniments etc. And also special equipment to grip a horse recover from various injuries. Supposedly a special sling he developed help save Swaps’ life after he was injured. He also used an electro magnetic blanket on Bold Ruler to help the horse with his severe arthritis. Eddie Arcaro said that Bold Ruler never ran better when this was used.