Mar 5th 2016 04:37 pm |
An argument about the merits of “great” horses tends to follow a script with points and counterpoints repeated and delivered with little variation no matter the name of the animals in question. One point that will make an appearance among the partisans who partake in the “who was better” argument is the question about competition:
“[Horse #1] never had to face [insert name of one or more worthy competitors for horse #2 here] in his day.” Or a more simple variation, “[Proposed great horse] beat a bunch of tomato cans in [name of race or races].” Or, perhaps the most damning critique is to claim that a horse never beat any horse of note in his or her entire career.
The tradition of judging the merits of elite horses by looking at the quality of runners that served as their competition goes back to, I would guess, the beginning of debates about race horses. I found evidence in the pages of the Daily Racing Form that it goes back to at least 1930.
If I were king, a piece written by John “Salvator” Hervey in 1930 about Gallant Fox’s Kentucky Derby would be in the canon of writing related to America’s most famous race. Today, Salvator is known for his historical work related to the American Thoroughbred but he also wrote on the contemporary racing scene in his day. His piece from the Daily Racing Form about the freshly crowned Triple Crown winner, published less than a week after he won the Belmont Stakes, deserves to be remembered.
From 2016, we look back at Gallant Fox as a racing legend but all living memories of the famous runner are long gone so there are zero partisans for or against with significant skin in the game who would argue like we do today about Secretariat or Zenyatta. That is why the article by Hervey from the pages of the Daily Racing Form offers rare insight into the merit of one of the great colt’s signature wins. Time tends to suppress such criticism from the record of the all-timers like The Fox. The fact that we can so easily access these insights today is quite a gift.
We hear a lot about recency bias in major sports – every elite player and great play too easily becomes the best ever according to the Twitter masses or the dunderheads on ESPN. Horse racing trends the other way. The racing universe is far too contrary to easily accept undeserved superlatives. We take our “best” and “great” very seriously – a tradition that goes back to the legendary chroniclers of the game like Hervey and it’s clearly evident in his piece titled “Let the Rest Be Silence” from June 13, 1930. Here is an excerpt (read the entire article here):
Now that the thunders of the captain and the shouting have died away and the Kentucky Derby of 1930 has passed into history and is steadily receding from us to a point from which it may be dispassionately considered by the critic, I think it enforces one outstanding and definite conclusion….Namely, that, with the exception of the winner Gallant Fox…the field that went to the post at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 17, was one of the worst aggregations of Derby material that ever faced the starter in that famed event…
The exhibition that they made was certainly dismal. Gallant Fox had them, in the language of the street, ‘too dead to skin’ after he had galloped a mile in 1:40 4/5, and from then on [Jockey Earl] Sande was just letting him loaf along as he liked without allowing him to destroy all pretense of a contest by, as it were, running away and hiding from them.
There was not a glimmer of actual pace at any spot or place in the race. Quarter in :23 3/5, half in :47 4/5, three-quarters in 1 :14, mile in 1 :40 4/5 mile and a quarter in 2 :07 3/5.. These are selling-plater [claiming horse] figures in this day and age. In fact, they are worse than that for we have herds of platers that can do better…
In the pre-Derby publicity, of which, as usual, there were not merely seas but oceans, many reviews of past Derbies were given the air. And among most of them coming to my notice I discerned a contemptuous attitude toward all save a few Derby winners of former days.
This even extended to the length, on one occasion, of discounting the race of 1889, dismissing the winner, Spokane, as a colt of no particular class, and pronouncing his rival, Proctor Knott, merely a ‘morning glory.’ And this is the same breath in which floods of fulsome verbiage were being emitted [about] the steeds that scrambled around the track behind Gallant Fox and came crawling in on their hands and knees, giving one or the worst exhibitions that the world ever saw in a race worth over $50,000! …
What would a Spokane or a Proctor Knott have done to the ‘battered brigade’ that attempted to give Gallant Fox a horse race?…We can only draw a veil over what would have been witnessed, for assuredly it would have been shocking.
It is astonishing to what lengths self-delusion will lead its victims. If what good judges have told me is true, two of the most highly touted and perfervidly press-agented of the beaten ones in the Kentucky Derby of 1930 were individuals so inferior that only blindness could conceal their shortcomings…((Perfervid means intense or passionate (I had to look it up). The “press-agented” part of this is fascinating. The implication here is that owners hired press agents who then touted their colts to newspapers resulting in positive coverage that then misrepresented the quality of the field. While having a press representative isn’t uncommon for Derby entrants today, I didn’t realize the practice reached back to the 1930s or it could have such influence.))
Summing up the event, therefore, for the purpose of history, we may say, first, that Gallant Fox won it; secondly, that the Earl of Derby was present. Let the rest be silence.
Here is the page of entries from the 1930 Kentucky Derby program – only one, according to Salvator, worthy of a mention:
Gallant Fox went on to win the Belmont Stakes wire-to-wire against just four competitors (the Preakness was run prior to the Derby in 1930). He would never face more than five runners in any race for the remainder of his career. Something tells me that over a few beers Mr. Hervey would have told you exactly – in less then kind terms – how he felt about the great Gallant Fox compared to the many greats he had seen in his long writing career.
SOURCES, NEWS & NOTES
John ‘Salvator’ Hervey. “Let the Rest be Silence,”Daily Racing Form, 13 June 1930.
Special thanks for Ron Micetic for providing us a copy of the 1930 Kentucky Derby program. If you have historic racing programs to sell, you can contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading and good luck!___________
Sources / Notes
- There hasn’t been a slower edition of the Derby since the 1930 race. Hoop Jr stopped the clock in 2:07 to become the only other Derby in the 2:07 or over category since 1930 [↩]