Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 80 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 80 days to go!

80 Days!!! Johnstown was named after Johnstown, PA, a town that had undergone several major floods, the first being 1889. Johnstown would win the 1939 Kentucky Derby, which was the 50th anniversary of the 1889 flood.

Bred by Arthur B. Hancock, the bay colt was the result of breeding the Sir Gallahad III mare, La France, to the sire Jamestown. William Woodward, the owner of Belair Farm, kept all of his breeding stock at the Hancock’s Claiborne Farm, and having seen Johnstown, purchased him privately while he was a yearling. As he did with both of his Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha, Woodward sent the colt to “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons for his introduction to the track and conditioning.

As a 2YO, of his 12 starts, Johnstown would win seven races at six different tracks. Among his stakes wins were the Babylon and Richard Johnson Stakes, the Remsen Handicap, and Breeders’ Futurity. In Johnstown’s first start at 3, he took on and defeated older horses in the Paumonok Handicap. In the next ten days he would win a mile and 70 yards allowance as a prep race for the Wood Memorial. When he triumphed in the Wood four days later, the victory gave “Sunny Jim” his third Wood win. “The Belair Bullet” then headed to Kentucky for the Run for the Roses.

CBS had purchased the broadcast rights for the Derby, which saw a giant gathering of 85,000 fans. It was also the year that the envied and mysterious Room 20 was opened, a stronghold of the visiting millionaires.

Johnstown was the favorite in the eight horse field, ridden by the only jockey to ever pilot the colt in a race, Jimmy Stout. The race proved to be just a gallop for the partners, as Stout kept the colt under wraps throughout the entire race. He also kept the colt away from the rail, as people had been trying to grab the jockeys reins when they passed by. The first time they cruised past the grandstands, the duo was in front by 2 lengths. From there they just kept adding distance between themselves and the rest of the field. They crossed the finish line in a time of 2:03 2/5 by a record-tying 8 lengths. Several horses have won by 8 lengths, but never more. He was the third winner for owner William Woodward’s Belair Stud, taking only 10 years and six horses to win the Kentucky Derby three times.

Johnstown’s Derby was also the third for trainer Jim “Sunny” Fitzsimmons. After Johnstown’s runaway Derby, he encountered a muddy track in the Preakness, which he had never encountered, finishing 5th. He would then go on to run in and win the Withers by six lengths, prior to contesting the Belmont. The team of Johnstown and Stout would again win easily by 5 in 2:29 3/5, a time that was only a second off of War Admiral’s record. Johnstown would also go on to win the Dwyer Stakes, tying the track record in the process.

Following a successful 3YO season in which he won seven of his nine starts, he was retired to stud at his birthplace, Claiborne Farm. Johnstown is best known as the sire of Segula, who was the great Nashua’s dam. He passed away in 1950 and is buried at the farm. Johnstown was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.

(Photo courtesy Kentucky Derby Museum archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum