Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: A Question of Calks

April 13th, 2024

It's the Little Things; Blue Larkspur's story

Sometimes the difference between a victory and a defeat can be simple: a lost stirrup at the wrong moment, an accidental brush with the starting gate, or even a quick bump in the stretch. When the stakes are high, every little thing must be in place to ensure a horse has what it needs to win.

Blue Larkspur had what it took to win the 1929 Kentucky Derby – speed, power, and tactical talent – yet met defeat for one surprising reason: calks.

The Bradley Boy

Colonel E.R. Bradley was a self-made man who made gambling his business and horses his passion. His youth in the steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania inspired him to escape west where he found games of chance a lucrative trade, opening gambling rooms from Texas to Chicago and working as a bookmaker at racetracks along the way. By middle age, though, the stresses of building his businesses prompted his physician to recommend that Bradley get outside more. What better way to get outside than a trip to the racetrack?

By 1929, Bradley’s Idle Hour Farm had become a breeding and racing powerhouse, racking up two Derby wins, and a Preakness, and producing a leading sire in Black Toney. His horse for the 55th Kentucky Derby was Blue Larkspur, the handsome bay by Black Servant, Bradley’s runner-up in the 1921 Derby. At two, the colt won three stakes but faltered in the important Futurity at Belmont Park after being kicked at the starting line. 

Blue Larkspur’s lone prep was the mile and 70-yard Frankfort Purse at the Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington. His main competition was Clyde Van Dusen, a gelding by Man o’ War who was so small that his owner Herbert P. Gardner named the horse after his trainer, a former jockey. The gelding led for the first six furlongs of the Frankfort Purse before jockey Earl Pool shook Blue Larkspur up and drove him hard for the lead. The Bradley horse got the win by a neck, solidifying his status as the Derby favorite. 

Clyde Van Dusen 1929 (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)

Derby Day Debate 

After his April 25 win at Lexington, trainer Herbert J. “Derby Dick” Thompson sent Blue Larkspur to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby on May 17. As Bradley’s long-time trainer, Thompson knew how to prepare a horse for the big race, as he had done twice before with Behave Yourself and Bubbling Over. Also at Churchill Downs was stable foreman Chappie Hastings, who found himself in a bit of a situation the night before the Derby. 

A sudden case of appendicitis sent Thompson to the hospital, leaving Hastings in charge of Blue Larkspur’s preparations for the next day. The Idle Hour farrier had already shod the colt with his regular racing plates in anticipation of a dry Derby Day, but Mother Nature had other plans. It rained some Saturday morning, but Colonel Bradley assured turf writers would not be a problem for his colt; as the day went on, though, the rain became a deluge, leaving Churchill’s dirt track a sea of mud. On the backside, farriers hustled to add mud calks to each Derby starter, much-needed equipment for handling the wet footing. Similar to cleats that human athletes wear, mud calks are horseshoes with small protuberances that enable horses to have traction on a muddy track. 

In the Bradley barn, though, chaos reigned. With Thompson still hospitalized, Hastings was left to prepare Blue Larkspur on his own; he consulted with the farm farrier, who deferred the opportunity to change out the colt’s shoes, saying that Blue Larkspur would not need them. He then went to Bradley to ask if the horse should be reshod for the changed surface, but the owner said that he trusted the farrier’s judgment and left it at that. Still concerned about the wet going, Hastings went to Idle Hour Farm manager Olin Gentry to ask for permission to put mud calks on their Derby horse. Gentry said he had no authority on that front and recommended he seek out Colonel Bradley. 

“I’ve seen Mr. Bradley,” Hastings argued. “He said the horse shoer ought to know what he’s doing.” 

As the rain poured down, a calkless Blue Larkspur joined the twenty other horses at the starting line for the big race. 

Favorite Defeated

Blue Larkspur stood on the extreme outside of the field in post position 21 with Clyde Van Dusen next to him in 20. Starter William Hamilton directed traffic at the line as he shouted instructions to the 21 jockeys in an attempt to get them all in line. The Daily Racing Form noted that Linus McAtee on Clyde Van Dusen slowly inched inward toward the middle of the field as Hamilton and his assistants worked to position the horses. After 13 minutes, he pulled the trigger, and they were off. 

Clyde Van Dusen had no trouble handling the slop while Blue Larkspur ran on the far outside. At the half-mile pole, the gelding still held the advantage while the Bradley horse was back in third. Unable to make up ground on the backside, Blue Larkspur could not get comfortable in the mud, falling back to fifth with a quarter of a mile to go. With Clyde Van Dusen running freely on the lead, the Bradley colt was able to make up some ground in the stretch but could do no better than fourth at the wire. 

Bradley, stung by the loss of several big bets, thought Clyde Van Dusen was the worst Derby winner in some time. Blue Larkspur’s muddy defeat spurred speculation that he could not handle the mud; however, he later won a wet Belmont Stakes and the Arlington Classic over heavy going. Sure enough, the future Hall of Famer had no trouble with the mud – when properly shod. 

Clyde Van Dusen wins the 1929 Kentucky Derby (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)

Clyde Van Dusen wins the 1929 Kentucky Derby (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)