Faded Glory: Forgotten Kentucky Derby Winners (Gallahadion, 1940)

July 5th, 2024

The 1940s dawned under the shadow of escalating conflicts in both Europe and Asia. As the United States continued its economic recovery, questions about its role in those hostilities abounded, with sports serving as a relief from those heavy issues. The 1940 Kentucky Derby season gave fans plenty to talk about as the big day approached. 

Bimelech entered the year as Colonel E.R. Bradley’s best hope for a fifth Derby win, his undefeated record making a win on the first Saturday in May a veritable certainty. In the wings waited a surprise for the overwhelming favorite, Gallahadion, an unheralded contender who would deliver a sweet victory for a familiar name. 

Delightful Pursuits

Frank Mars learned candy-making as a child when polio left him unable to help around the family farm. After one unsuccessful attempt to start a candy company in Tacoma, Washington, Mars moved back to his native Minnesota with his second wife Ethel to start the Mar-O-Bar Company, later renamed Mars, Inc. Offering candy bars like Milky Way and later Snickers, the company made the couple wealthy enough to purchase Milky Way Farm, a 2,800-acre property near Pulaski, Tennessee.

The Mars made Milky Way a home for Saddlebreds and Hereford cattle first and then expanded into Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds after success in the show ring. Frank bought 20 yearlings from Claiborne Farm to start his new racing stable but passed away in 1934 before he could see Milky Way’s first victory. Ethel took over and continued buying yearlings to supply the farm’s racing stock. 

By 1936, Sir Gallahad III had solidified his spot as one of the country’s leading sires with progeny like Gallant Fox, the second Triple Crown winner among his best performers. Prominent breeder Robert Fairbairn had been a member of the syndicate that brought Sir Gallahad to the United States from France and then sent his unraced mare Countess Time to the Claiborne stallion. That foal, Sir Time, was a winner at two and three, enough reason for Fairbairn to pair the two again. On March 31, 1937, Countess Time foaled a bay colt with a trickle of white down his face, Gallahadion.

At the 1938 Saratoga Yearling Sale, trainer Bob McGarvey acted as agent for Ethel Mars and paid $5,000 for the Countess Time colt. He joined Roy Waldron, Milky Way’s new trainer, as the former jockey prepared him for a career on the racetrack.

Delicious Preparations 

At two, Gallahadion started five times, but did not find the winner’s circle, with only one in-the-money finish to his credit. Meanwhile, Colonel E.R. Bradley, who already had four Derby wins, was in hot pursuit of a fifth. In 1939, he unleashed a colt he thought was a cinch for the first Saturday in May, Bimelech. The dark bay colt was part of the last crop by the stallion Black Toney, also sire of 1924 winner Black Gold, and foaled by La Troienne, the French-bred mare who would prove to be one of the most influential producers of the 20th century. Bimelech raced six times in 1939 and won all six, including the Futurity at Belmont Park and the Hopeful at Saratoga. 

As Derby Day 1940 approached, Bradley’s colt sat alone atop the winter book as one of the shortest priced favorites to date, his odds 4-1. Unbeknownst to handicappers, the Black Toney colt was not quite at his best. “Derby Dick” Thompson, who had conditioned all of Bradley’s Derby winners, had died in 1937 and second-string trainer Bill Hurley had taken over the Idle Hour stable. Over the winter, Hurley left Bimelech at Idle Hour to mature and grow. In the days before the big race, it was clear the colt had not had enough preparation, which forced Hurley to rush his preparations for the April 25 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Bimelech won with ease and followed that up with the one-mile Derby Trial on April 30, just four days before the 10-furlong classic. Again, the Bradley colt had no trouble taking that race, and, with two wins in less than a week, Bimelech was looking unstoppable. But one man saw something else as the favorite jogged to the winner’s circle: a tired horse. 

Sweet Victory 

In the Derby Trial, Gallahadion had made up ground to finish 2 1/2 lengths behind Bimelech, a move that caught Roy Waldron’s attention. As Derby Day approached, the son of Sir Gallahad III became the trainer’s choice to represent Milky Way Farm, but his long odds reflected what the colt had accomplished to that point in 1940. He had spent the winter in California where he finally broke his maiden on January 5 at Santa Anita. He won his first stakes in the San Vincente H. and then was unplaced in two other stakes before his second in the Derby Trial. 

With jockey Carroll Bierman in the saddle, Gallahadion joined Bimelech and six others at the post for the 1940 Derby. Joseph Widener’s Roman led early in the race with the Bradley colt hanging back in second and then Gallahadion moving with him. Bimelech took the lead with a quarter of a mile to go, but Bierman and the Milky Way colt snuck up the rail to surprise the favorite inside the last sixteenth, looking the Bradley colt in the eye before passing him to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The time was a pedestrian 2:05, but those who bet on Gallahadion were too busy counting their money to care about that: the 35-1 shot paid $72.40 for a $2 win bet. 

A week’s rest helped Bimelech recover from that frenetic schedule and win the Preakness and then the Belmont. Gallahadion finished behind the future Hall of Famer in both and never won another stakes race, but his finishing kick in the 1940 Kentucky Derby ensured his name would forever be a part of the history of this great race.