Countdown to the Kentucky Derby- 84 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby- 84 days to go!

84 Days!!! 1935 Omaha, racing’s third Triple Crown winner, was the only Triple Crown winner to be sired by another Triple Crown winner, being from Gallant Fox’s first crop. Omaha was bred, owned, and trained by the same connections as “The Belair Fox”; being owned by William Woodward, racing under his Belair Farm silks, along with receiving his conditioning from “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons.

The striking chestnut colt was born on Claiborne Farm, then shipped to Belair Farm where he resided as a yearling before being sent to Aqueduct for his prepping under Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons quickly realized that Omaha had inherited his sire’s penchant for laziness, seemingly uninterested unless he was challenged. The connections were also dealing with the fact that he was so large, he hadn’t quite grown into his frame. Due to the combination, he didn’t have an overly impressive 2YO campaign, winning only once, although he placed second in several stakes, showing potential. At 3, Omaha started the year with a win in an overnight stakes at Jamaica.

The next week in the Wood Memorial, he was knocked to his knees at the start, still managing to finish third. This showing was enough to convince the connections to send him to Churchill for the Kentucky Derby. The big colt needed distance, and the longer going gave him an advantage once he started rolling down the track, a large move that was often compared to a freight train. He was so large that he was barely able to fit into a starting gate, and usually needed the partition between two stalls removed in order for him to have room to be comfortable. His jockey was 20YO William “Smokey” Saunders, the son of a bronc rider, who grew up around horses. He earned the nickname due to his father’s name, Smokey Saunders, with adults referring to William as “Little Smokey”. Saunders discovered early on that Omaha didn’t like to be bumped by other horses while he was running. He didn’t like to be in a pack of horses, and would try to attack another horse if it knocked into him, so Saunders always tried to always keep him to the outside.

Derby Day was cold and miserable, with a drizzle that felt like ice falling throughout the afternoon. When people arrived, they noticed some big differences at the track. There was wire that was positioned across the top of the fences, as well as a police presence, mixed with first time arrivals, The National Guard. All the precautions were put in place to keep people from crashing the gates and trying to sneak into the track.

Additionally, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation purchased the exclusive rights to broadcast the Kentucky Derby. The Calumet 2YO Filly Champion, Nellie Flag, was made the luke-warm $3.80-1 favorite after the winter book favorite, Chance Sun, dropped out of contention; Omaha was right behind at 4-1. As the field of 18 broke from the gate, Omaha was slow to get away. It helped the large horse to escape traffic problems though, as Saunders was able to easily take him to the outside of the pack. They tracked the leaders until the backstretch when the chestnut colt with the giant stride picked them off and took the lead, never looking back, passing under the wire the victors. They were a length and a half in front of second place Roman Soldier, covering the distance in 2:05. He was the 2nd Kentucky Derby winner owned by William Woodward’s Belair Stud, as well as the second trained by James “Sunny” Fitzsimmons.

After winning the Derby, Omaha was made the favorite for the Preakness in front of a record crowd of 40,000. In the race he trailed in 6th until the final turn, when he took over and won by 6 lengths over Firethorn. Between the Preakness and Belmont, he competed in the Withers, only to finish second. The race was only a mile, not his best distance; still he made a good effort to just come up short. He was made the favorite in the Belmont despite the loss, and didn’t disappoint. Breaking last, the duo waited until the stretch to make their run; driving relentlessly they overtook Firethorn yet again, becoming the 3rd Triple Crown winner. Two weeks after his Belmont victory, Omaha faced older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, coming in third behind Discovery. He returned to take on other 3 year olds in the Dwyer a week later, gaining an easy win. In the Arlington Classic, Omaha would come from 8th to win in track record time of 2:01 for the mile and a quarter. The campaign earned Omaha the title of 3YO Champion Male for 1935. He was the only horse to win the Triple Crown and not take Horse of the Year honors.

In his 4YO season Omaha was sent to England in January with hopes of winning the Ascot Gold Cup. As he was unloaded from the boat, the photographer’s flashes spooked the colt, causing him to get loose from his handlers; racing through the dock area. Fortunately he was easily bribed with sugar and finally caught by his groom. While he was overseas, his training was taken over by Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, the race-riding was given to jockey Pat Beasley. The team would make their first start on May 9th in the mile and a half Victor Wild Stakes, where Omaha flew past his 3 rivals in an eye-catching move, all within 20 yards, to win by a length and a half. The two mile Queen’s Plate would be Omaha’s second victory, a thrilling finish where he bested Bobsleigh. In the Gold Cup, which was later described as the greatest race of all time, Omaha narrowly lost to the filly, Quashed. Nearly 150,000 people saw the thrilling race, with so many of the people pressing in around the colt before the race; he became visibly upset, breaking out into a lather. Never one to be a fan of being crowded, it was the first time pre-race that the colt became nervous. The two and a half mile contest was also over a hilly track that interrupted his giant stride, whereas the previous tracks he ran over were mainly flat. Still, the loss by mere inches after the stirring stretch battle as the horses ran head to head, only managed to add to his stature. He raced once more in 1936, finishing second to Taj Akbar in the mile and a half Princess of Wales’s Stakes. Once again Omaha became very upset prior to the running of the race, and the extra 18 pounds he was carrying took their toll. However, he still managed to make it an exciting race, coming up just a neck short.

He remained in training for hopes of winning the next year’s running of the Ascot Gold Cup, but was injured and retired. He was sent to Claiborne Farm to stand stud. Considered a disappointment, even though he did produce a couple of stakes winners, he was moved to New York for a time before finally sent to a farm in Nebraska to live out his days. He was paraded at Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack numerous times, even allowing children to ride him and get their pictures taken with him.

There is a monument to him in Nebraska, where he was buried. His American jockey, William “Smokey” Saunders, would later in the year of his Triple Crown victory, be in the headlines as an accessory to murder in a hit and run. It was overturned; however it was a giant scandal at the time.

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum