Twenty Grand and the Kentucky Derby, 1931

Apr 20th 2010 05:20 pm |

Twenty Grand with jockey Charley Kurtsinger (Hollingsworth)

Racing historian John Hervey called 1931 — the year Twenty Grand won the Kentucky Derby — the annus mirabilis (latin for ‘remarkable year’).  Kent Hollingsworth in his profile of Twenty Grand in The Great Ones, wrote:

He happened along in about the best crop of 2-year-olds America has ever seen…Twenty Grand’s contemporaries included C.V. Whitney’s great Equipoise, George D. Widener’s exceptional 2-year-old Jamestown, and A. C. Bostwick’s Mate, which from time to time beat everybody. Then there was Mrs. W.P. Allen’s Vander Pool, which got through 11 races at two without defeat, while Bob Collins big speed horse, Don Leon, was counted the best two-year-old in the Midwest.

While Equipoise would go on to have a more distinguished career, Twenty Grand stood out among the 3-year-olds of 1931. Twenty Grand, who ran under the colors of Mrs. Payne Whitney’s Greentree Stables, made his first impression on the racing world with two consecutive wins against Equipoise in 1930.  The second win was in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes where he set the track record for a mile at Churchill Downs and ran the fastest mile ever by a 2-year-old.

After winning four of eight starts at two, Twenty Grand changed trainers before his 3-year-old season. James Rowe Jr., son of the legendary trainer, took over from Tom Murphy. Twenty Grand did not make his first start at three until May 2, 1931 in the Wood Memorial where he finished first. In his next start, just a week later, he finished second in the Preakness (then run a week before the Kentucky Derby). Both Twenty Grand and Equipoise, his two-year-old rival, had troubled trips in the Preakness. Equipoise, the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, finished fourth and was injured during the race — he didn’t race again until 1932. Twenty Grand shipped to Churchill Downs, where he would run his third race in three weeks.

Twenty Grand was the post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby, as a coupled entry with two other colts from Greentree Stables. Here is how Alan Gould reported the race for the Associated Press on May 17, 1931:

Roaring acclaim echoed down the stretch of historic Churchill Downs today as Twenty Grand, bounded in giant stride to victory in the fifty-seventh running of the Kentucky Derby.

Belying his name, Twenty Grand looked like the proverbial million as he galloped down the stretch to a decisive victory over Sweep All, the west’s surprise contender, and the heavily backed Mate, the Preakness winner.

Twenty Grand, owned by Mrs. Payne Whitney and the outstanding favorite in a field of 12 contestants, came with a smashing burst of speed to beat Sweep All by four good lengths, and shattered the Derby as well as the track record for the mile and a quarter.

The big eastern colt, under a masterful ride by Charley Kurtsinger, riding his first Derby victory, covered the distance in two minutes and 1 4/5 seconds on a track that was fast under a blazing sun. The performance displaced the former Derby record of 2:03 2/5 made by Old Rosebud in 1914. It also knocked off the track mark of 2:03 1/5, credited to Woodgap, a half dozen years ago. It was short of the the world’s record of two minutes flat, held by the mighty Whiskbroom II.

A colorful crowd of nearly 60,000 spectators responded to the thrill of Twenty Grand’s great feat with an ovation rivaling that accorded Earle Sande and Gallant Fox a year ago. The west was prepared for this third successive triumph for the east and responded with enthusiasm as the rose wreath was draped over Twenty Grand’s neck and the gold Derby trophy was presented to Mrs. Whitney by Charles Curtis, vice president of the United States.”

Twenty Grand being led by owner Mrs Payne Whitney to the winners circle after the 1931 Belmont Stakes (Robertson)

Twenty Grand would follow up his win in the Derby with a ten length win in the Belmont Stakes.  After the Belmont, he was beaten only once during his 1931 campaign. He won the Dwyer, Travers, Saratoga Cup, and Lawrence Realization. Kent Hollingsworth, in The Great Ones, described the remainder of Twenty Grand’s 3-year-old season and career as follows:

He was 1-50 for the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and he won as he chose. That was the last of the greatness of Twenty Grand. He struck his left front pastern in the race, the inside tendon filled, the lower end of the splint bone was affected, and the nerve was deadened by the injury.

[His trainer James] Rowe died in the fall of 1931 and Twenty Grand passed into the care of William Brennan, who spent the next season trying to get the colt back to the races. His left front was fired in the spring and was brought up to a race in the fall, but only as a memory of the colt the year earlier. He was all out to beat an indifferent horse, Masked Knight, in a hard drive. Three weeks later at Laurel he got to lead in the stretch, but could not hold it and went under to something named Mad Frump, Twenty Grand pulled up lame and was retired.

Unfortunately, he proved sterile. Two years later he was put back in training for a try in the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap as a 7-year-old. Equipoise, three time handicap champion, was assigned top weight of 130 pounds, equal by scale with the 129 assigned champion Calvacade; Twenty Grand was next at 126; old rival Mate was assigned 120.

Twenty Grand worked well, but his lameness recurred under stress. In preliminary races he finished third (High Glee set a track record, Mate was second), then was second (moved to to first upon the disqualification of Equipoise.) The two cripples met for the last time in the Santa Anita Handicap, running only on heart, which was not enough: Equipoise finished seventh, Twenty Grand 10th.

It was thought that a change of climate might do something for Twenty Grand and he was shipped to England in the care of Capt Cecil Boyd-Rochfort. He was started twice and he got nothing. Returned to the United States, he was sent to King Ranch for a while, then brought back to Greentree, where he joined the Gas House Gang of Jolly Roger and Easter Hero and Cherry Pie. He moved in top company until the day he died, March 2, 1948″


“Twenty Grand Winner of Historic Kentucky Derby; Sets New Track Record,” The Charleston Gazette, 1931 May 17

H.P. Robertson, The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America

While researching at the Keeneland Library, I was able to make some copies from Kent Hollingsworth’s The Great Ones, including the entry for Twenty Grand. This was the first time I had ever seen this book and must say it is a real treasure. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find. Considering the significance of The Great Ones, I have a hard time understanding why the BloodHorse wouldn’t reprint it and make it available again.  Or maybe they could re-publish it as a series in the magazine?  Or, better yet, make the content available online!  Any way they do it is fine by me, the bottom line is: it’s a work that deserves a wider distribution.

Charley Kurtsinger, who won his first Derby on Twenty Grand, would later ride War Admiral to a Triple Crown in 1937.

Countdown is less then two weeks to the Kentucky Derby and I am having a hard time getting past the favorites.  As always, my fingers are crossed for a Triple Crown and, if one of them can win on May 1st, Eskenderya and Lookin at Lucky have a chance to sweep all three.  Eskenderya is the logical choice but I am leaning heavily towards Bob Baffert and Lookin at Lucky. Baffert has proven that he can get a horse ready for the big dance and Lookin at Lucky has shown that he is a determined stretch runner. If he has daylight turning into the home stretch, he might be the only one who can catch Eskenderya.


Filed in thoroughbred racing history

3 Responses to “Twenty Grand and the Kentucky Derby, 1931”

  1. Ron Wasserman says:

    There was another great thoroughbred during that time frame, a horse who soundly defeated Mate and who—in the eyes and hearts of most—never was beaten.

    To this day, I am surprised that there has never been a movie about a horse whose rise to stardom was about unlikely as one could ever imagine. Perhaps it is because there would be a sad ending.

    The name of the horse was Chase Me.

  2. Bill Marshall says:

    Twenty Grand would probably have won the Triple Crown in ’31, but for being badly blocked at the head of the stretch in the Preakness by his stablemate, Surf Board. The Preakness was run before the Derby that year and, incredibly, not only Surf Board, but another entry mate, Anchors Aweigh, accompanied him to the post in the Derby. Fortunately, fate did not strike again, neither got in the way, and Twenty Grand beat thew Preakness winner, Mate, by about eight lengths while setting a stakes and track record that held until Whirlaway.

  3. Dale says:

    The Great Ones was serialized in the Bloodhorse. If you see an edition of the magazine with Sysonby etc. it is the article from Hollingsworth’s book. It was published by Bloodhorse and was available for purchase through them which how I got my copy.

    There are several on eBay for purchase.