March 22, 2018

Bold Venture a Kentucky Derby winner that consistently beat the odds

Bold Venture, who upset the 1936 Kentucky Derby, has a firm place in the race's history (Associated Press photo)

Bold Venture

It wouldn’t be the last time Morton L. Schwartz decided to scale back his racing interests. A news wire report from November 24, 1920 said Schwartz, a banker by trade, had sold two of his star racers for $50,000 each, “the first sales by Mr. Schwartz in his plan to dispose entirely of his stable.” It was a princely sum at a time when the American economy was mired in a post-Great War depression, the presence of which aided Warren G. Harding’s election to the White House only a few weeks earlier in a landslide.

A decade and a half later, with the economy and the sport in an even deeper rut of indeterminable length, Schwartz, who had got back into the racing business later in the 1920s, was again ready to cash out on most of his Thoroughbred holdings. One of these was a two-year-old chestnut colt named Bold Venture, foaled 85 years ago this March 4 at Schwartz’s Elsmeade Farm in Kentucky.

Bold Venture was the product of a practice popular among American breeders at the time, the mixing of European stamina with American speed. His sire, St. Germans, had finished second in the 1924 Derby at Epsom before taking the 1 1/2-mile Coronation Cup over the same course the following year. Imported to stand stud at Greentree Farm in Kentucky, St. Germans made a quick impact as his second crop included Twenty Grand, the top three-year-old of 1931 who captured the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The dam of Bold Venture was Possible, who had won five times in 11 starts. She was a daughter of Ultimus, an unraced son of Commando inbred 2×2 to Domino. The latter was the 1890s star whose massive influence on the breed for generations to come was a statistical wonder given he only sired 20 foals before his premature death at age six.

With his pedigree and physical attributes already apparent Schwartz felt Bold Venture would bring a reasonable price, perhaps $20,000, even in the Great Depression economy of 1935. However, as Tim Capps recounted in the 2007 book Greatest Kentucky Derby Upsets:

“On May 18, 1935, Bold Venture was entered into a horses of racing age sale at Belmont Park. Displeased with the bidding, Schwartz had his friend Isador Bieber buy back the youngster at $7,100…”

Bold Venture Hits the Track

Remaining in the hands of future Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch, who had trained a top three-year-old named Gusto for Schwartz three years earlier, Bold Venture made his debut on June 1 over the straight Widener course at Belmont Park going five furlongs. Though beaten four lengths by the more experienced Delphinium as the 7-5 favorite, Bold Venture was precocious enough to come back a month later to break his maiden by a head at Aqueduct as an odds-on choice.

A general string of bad luck would haunt Bold Venture for the rest of his juvenile campaign. Shipped to Arlington Park to prepare for and race in the lucrative Arlington Futurity, the colt “tripped over the outer rail and suffered several deep cuts,” on his way to post for a 5 1/2-furlong allowance, according to Daily Racing Form‘s Norris Royden in a profile written the following spring. Allowed to compete anyway, Bold Venture ran an even fourth.

The preliminaries for the Futurity itself proved even worse. As the Associated Press reported:

“The start was delayed because Bold Venture, with Thomas Malley on his back, bolted out of the gate, tossed Malley over the fence into the bushes and ran a mile before he was caught.”

Incredulously by modern standards, Bold Venture was again allowed to compete. He finished 30 lengths behind the winning Grand Slam, trailing the field of 15.

Shipped to Saratoga to prepare for the Hopeful Stakes, Bold Venture raced three times in an eight-day span, finishing second in one allowance but winning two others over Granville (about whom more later) and his Arlington nemesis Grand Slam. In the Hopeful, five days after the latter allowance victory, Bold Venture was sent away as the 4-1 favorite in a field of 17. He found little luck in the congested field and finished ninth, but was beaten only 4 1/2 lengths.

A bizarre incident while being shipped by train to Belmont Park nearly ended the Bold Venture story. As Capps recounted:

“…[Bold Venture] was in a train car that caught fire and had his head held out an open door to avoid suffocation from smoke that claimed the lives of two other horses belonging to [Hirsch].”

A virus soon after knocked Bold Venture out of the Futurity Stakes and other lucrative fall events, and he was sent to South Carolina to winter with the rest of Hirsch’s stock. Schwartz, meanwhile, spent months licking his wounds. Daily Racing Form reported that Schwartz had declined an offer of around $50,000 for Bold Venture during the Saratoga meet, and the colt had earned a mere $2,500 despite winning three times in eight starts.

On opening day of the 1936 New York racing season, at Jamaica, Bold Venture was back under saddle for an allowance over one mile and 70 yards. Aboard for the first time was the 18-year-old apprentice Ira “Babe” Hanford, whose two older brothers were also jockeys. The oldest, “Buddy,” had been tragically killed in a riding accident at Pimlico three years earlier. The middle brother, Carl, would find more success in training than in race riding, making the Hall of Fame after conditioning Kelso to five consecutive Horse of the Year titles in the 1960s.

Hanford didn’t have to work very hard. Facing just three others, Bold Venture was under stout restraint throughout and coasted to a four-length victory over a good track. With the Kentucky Derby just 16 days away, Hirsch soon decided to skip the Wood Memorial and train Bold Venture up to the Churchill Downs classic. Speaking to columnist John Lardner, son of legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner, Hirsch said:

“The horse has got no weaknesses that I know of. He runs in the mud and he runs in the dust, and he runs at the start and the finish both. Keep your eye on him, because this is the triple-plated cinch bet of the Derby.”

Despite generating some hype after working six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 over a sloppy strip two days before the Run for the Roses, support for Bold Venture dried up on Derby Day as much as the track, which was labeled fast by post time. The odds-on favorite was Brevity, who had captured the Champagne Stakes at two and the Florida Derby (later renamed the Flamingo Stakes) at Hialeah Park. Second choice at 5-1 was Indian Broom, who had set a world record of 1:47 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles earlier in the spring. Bold Venture was 20-1, third highest price in the field.

The start of the 1936 Derby was a rough affair. Granville, who was beaten a nose by entrymate Teufel in the Wood Memorial and was the 10-1 third choice in the Derby, went to his knees immediately and dumped jockey Jimmy Stout. Breaking from post 4, Granville had been bumped from both sides. Hanford, riding Bold Venture in post 5, claimed a bump from the horse to his outside caused Bold Venture to hit Granville. It was also said that Indian Broom, in post 2, turned right at the start and bumped eventual pacesetter He Did, who in turn collided with Granville. However, existing film of the race start suggests Indian Broom might not have had much to do with Granville’s misfortune.

The start was not much better for Brevity in post 10, though the claim by announcer Clem McCarthy and the chart-caller that he was “knocked to his knees” soon after the break could be disputed watching the same film. Despite receiving a very hard hit that forced him closer to the rail passing the stands, Brevity was able to save ground going into the first turn while Bold Venture was kept outside and in the clear by Hanford.

Down the backside, Bold Venture made an impressive, wide middle move to the lead, reaching the front with just under three furlongs to go. At the quarter pole, he was up by 1 1/2 lengths, but Brevity had reached contention by that point and was poised to make a race of it through the long stretch. A two-horse affair from the three-sixteenths pole onwards, Bold Venture dug in gamely after four solid strikes from Hanford and fended off the heavy favorite by a head.

While a $43 mutuel awaited those who bet Bold Venture and Hanford to win their first stakes of any kind, Schwartz, who had taken to the sport as a Louisville native, collected a $37,725 first prize with the prospect of more to come.

Bold Venture and Hanford

Hanford, meanwhile, collected something a little less wanted. He was one of three jockeys set down for 15 days by Kentucky stewards for rough riding in the Derby. “The other imps of Satan who drew a penalty,” said John Lardner, were Nick Wall, who on Coldstream instigated the bumping that affected Brevity, and George Burns, who rode Indian Broom.

The suspension meant Hanford had to sit out the Preakness two weeks later. His replacement aboard Bold Venture was George “The Iceman” Woolf, still two years away from his legendary ride aboard Seabiscuit in the Pimlico Special match against War Admiral but already one of the most heralded members of his profession. Brevity was not among the 10 that chose to take on Bold Venture at Pimlico, but the unlucky Granville was back for redemption. Bold Venture was the 9-5 favorite, with Granville starting a little under 4-1.

Shuffled back at the start and 10th after a half-mile, Bold Venture improved his position on the final turn while Granville, who had taken the lead by the six-furlong mark, had shaken off the other speed by upper stretch and waited for the challenge. In a thrilling drive, Bold Venture’s long stride ultimately proved too much for Granville, but only a nose separated the pair at the finish.

Speaking to Lardner again, Hirsch said:

“We’re off the spot now. After the Derby, people said we were lucky. They can’t say that any more. We’ve won the two big races of the spring and Bold Venture has licked every horse they asked him to lick — which includes a couple real good horses, because Brevity and Granville are no toads on that track.

“Venture was even better in the Preakness than the Derby. He had terrible racing luck. He just couldn’t get clear. He lost several lengths picking his way around that pack, and he didn’t really run till the last three-sixteenths.”

At the time Bold Venture was the fifth horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Three — Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, and Omaha — had completed the sweep. Unfortunately, Bold Venture’s racing destiny was not so bright due to circumstances similar to that which derailed Burgoo King in 1932.

On May 25, following a six-furlong work in 1:15 at Belmont Park, Bold Venture was found to be lame after returning to the barn. He had bowed a tendon in his right foreleg. Attempts to return him to racing proved unsuccessful.

With Bold Venture on the sidelines, the rest of 1936 belonged to Granville. After losing the Suburban Handicap against older horses by a nose, the son of Gallant Fox won out by taking the Belmont Stakes, Arlington Classic, Kenner, Travers, Saratoga Cup in a match with the older Discovery, and the Lawrence Realization. The first year-end championship poll was conducted in 1936 by Daily Racing Form, and the inaugural three-year-old and Horse of the Year titles went to Granville.

Like much of the stock Schwartz sold at auction at the time, Bold Venture eventually found a home at Robert Kleberg’s King Ranch in Texas following his purchase for $40,000 in 1939. Despite a stallion career beset with infertility issues, his place in history is secure as he remains the first and to date only Kentucky Derby winner to sire two Kentucky Derby winners. Both Assault (1946), who swept the Triple Crown, and Middleground (1950), ridden by the last Derby-winning apprentice, Bill Boland, were King Ranch homebreds and trained by Max Hirsch.

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