Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: Close Encounters of Unlucky Kind

May 14th, 2024

The most famous horse of the 20th century, Man o’ War was nearly undefeated in his 21-race career, a substitute starter and an unfortunate start all that stood between him and perfection. Spectacular Bid might have had a Triple Crown were it not for a safety pin. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is nothing more than a bit of bad luck, as jockey Charley Kurtsinger discovered in the 1936 Kentucky Derby

Setting the Stage

By Derby Day 1936, Kurtsinger was no stranger to America’s most famous race. Nicknamed “the Flying Dutchman,” the Bluegrass native had piloted Greentree Stable’s Twenty Grand to a four-length victory in 1931 and then a winning turn in that year’s Belmont Stakes. In 1933, he picked up the mount on Head Play, one of the two horses featured in the “Fighting Finish,” for the Preakness Stakes, completing Kurtsinger’s own personal Triple Crown. The jockey then returned to Churchill Downs for the 1934 Derby, finishing third on Agrarian.

For the 1936 edition, he was set to ride He Did, a son of Preakness winner Victorian who had won the Santa Anita Derby for owner Silas and Suzanne Mason. Trained by former jockey J. Thomas Taylor, the bay colt prepared for the 10-furlong Derby with a trip in the one-mile Derby Trial just two days before the big race. He Did and Kurtsinger took the prep by a neck over Sangreal, but that win was not enough to convince morning-line makers. The Masons’ colt went into the gate as a 34-1 longshot.

The field also featured Belair Stud’s Granville, a son of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox; Bien Joli, owned by Colonel E.R. Bradley, who had already won four Derbies of his own; Morton Schwartz’s homebred Bold Venture, who had not yet won a stakes; and the favorite Brevity, the Champagne S. and Florida Derby winner owned by Joseph Widener. 

Facing a stacked field of stakes winners, He Did and Kurtsinger went to the post confident of victory — provided that their racing luck held out.

Running Through Chaos

On Saturday, May 2, a blue sky and a fast track greeted the 14 horses, who trickled in from the paddock in a post parade without lead ponies. He Did and Kurtsinger stood in post 3, with Granville to his right and Indian Broom to his left. Bold Venture drew post 5 while Brevity was to their outside in post 10. Under the watchful eye of starter William Hamilton, they entered the doorless Bahr gate and waited for the bell.

The start turned into chaos in an instant as horses collided coming out of the gate. Sangreal and Coldstream swerved inward from their outside posts, causing a chain reaction that knocked Brevity to his knees and almost unseated jockey Wayne Wright, who managed to right himself and his mount. Granville and jockey Jimmy Stout got the worst of it as Stout was knocked out of the saddle and fell to the ground; he was able to stand and walk away, but the Belair Stud hopeful’s Derby was over right as it began. Kurtsinger and He Did escaped the melee and grabbed a short advantage for the first half mile.

On the backstretch, Ira Hanford gave Bold Venture some rein and passed He Did to take a one-length lead. Kurtsinger kept He Did on the rail throughout the race, their sights on the leader as they entered the far turn. The pair were poised to challenge Bold Venture in the stretch when something surprising happened.

Newsreels from the era show a different fan experience at the Kentucky Derby in the 1930s. Though a fence separated the crowd from the racetrack’s rail, spectators stood closer to the action than they do now. Watching the 1936 Kentucky Derby, viewers can spot one man who towers above the fence as if he is standing on something that allows him to get closer to the action. Kurtsinger cocked his whip in his left hand as the field approached the top of the stretch, preparing to tap He Did in their bid to retake the lead. Suddenly, the jockey felt a hand on his elbow as a long-armed spectator grabbed his arm.

The tug turned the jockey in the saddle and caused his whip to go flying out of his hand. That split-second encounter knocked He Did off his stride for a beat and cost the pair their chance at victory. “I’ve been in lots of races on many tracks where the crowd was close to the rail,” Kurtsinger said after the race. “But that’s the first time I have ever experienced or heard of outside interference.” 

Bold Venture had a one-length lead in the stretch as Brevity overcame his wide trip to drive furiously down the straight with the frontrunner in his sights. With each stride, the favorite got closer as they approached the wire, Hanford furiously pushing Bold Venture to maintain his advantage. At the finish, Schwartz’s colt was a head to the good, outlasting Brevity’s challenge. 

Kurtsinger, bereft of his whip, handrode He Did to a seventh-place finish, their try at Derby glory thwarted by the mishap. 

Following Up 

Bold Venture would follow up his Derby victory with a win in the Preakness, but an injury before the Belmont S. would prevent him from winning the Triple Crown just a year after Omaha became the third to win the three races. The following year, Charley Kurtsinger would pilot War Admiral to victory in the classic trio, giving the Kentucky native his second victory in each. He might have had a third Run for the Roses on his resume were it not for ill luck and a lost whip.