Tall Tales of the Track: Splish, Splash

October 13th, 2023

On Derby Day 2018, Justify won the first leg of his Triple Crown going gate to wire in the 144th Kentucky Derby. That day was also notable for the incessant rainfall that punctuated the first Saturday in May, a record 2.31 inches of rain falling on the crowd of more than 150,000 at Churchill Downs. It was a rare day when the weather was just as much of a story as the race itself, echoing back to another Derby Day dominated by a downpour.

Over a century earlier, horses splashed through a memorable edition of the Crescent City Derby as an improbable deluge sailed into history as a bigger story than the race itself. 

A Girl Named Witfull

Located near Lexington, Kentucky, John E. Madden’s Hamburg Place entered the new century as a leading breeder, often turning out upward of 100 foals each season. Madden tended to sell as many as he could as yearlings and keep a handful that he would train himself. Those who remained in his stable to race at two often would change hands toward the end of that season. 

Madden’s reputation was built on not only his ability to develop and then sell horses, but also his aptitude for finding and developing stallions. One of those was a horse named Mirthful.

Mirthful was a stakes winner at three, but injury had ended his career early so Madden took him on as a sire at Hamburg Place. He paired the mare Response, a daughter of the sire Longfellow who had already produced two Kentucky Derby winners, and she foaled a chestnut filly with a slash of white across her face and one white hind sock. Madden named her Witfull. 

The historical record records her alternately as both Witful and Witfull, with the Daily Racing Form reporting in early 1902 that she was among Madden’s stable of two-year-olds that year. She was a winner in her breeder’s silks that season before he sold her to fellow trainer Albert Simons, who had conditioned Madden’s first Kentucky Derby winner, Plaudit. Simons sent his string south to New Orleans for winter racing there. In early February 1903, Sam Hildreth, Hall of Fame trainer of horses like Zev and Grey Lag, purchased the filly for $3,000.

The filly had won the New Year’s Handicap and then Hildreth pointed her to the Crescent City Derby, now known as the Louisiana Derby, in mid-March at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. 

A Day Unlike Any Other

The Crescent City Derby was part of a series of Derbies — like the Tennessee, American, and of course, the Kentucky — aimed at three-year-olds, much like the Derby at Epsom the concept was modeled on. Fortunately for Hildreth, Madden had nominated Witfull for this March contest, so he was able to enter her, one of the 117 nominated for the race. By the morning of March 14, though, the field was down to just six: Rosanco, Birch Broom, Embarrassment, Sheriff Bell, Jove, and Witfull.

The filly was to carry 110 pounds to Sheriff Bell’s 122, a decided advantage in weights, but Hildreth had not yet chosen a jockey. He had Grover Fuller under contract to him as his first jockey, who normally would get the call, but the trainer had already promised the mount to Willie Gannon. When the call to the post for the Derby sounded, it was Gannon boosted into the filly’s saddle.

The Crescent City Derby was the fourth race on the final day of the Fair Grounds’ winter meet. This edition was the eighth running of the nine-furlong stakes, and 1903’s would go down as an especially memorable one, but not because of its winner. Instead, the weather would become the story. Rain had been steadily falling for three days, but March 14 was supposed to be fair, though the track would remain heavy after absorbing all of that water. Instead, the skies opened up before noon and came down in torrents for hours. Incredibly, the day’s six races went on as usual despite the deteriorating conditions.

By the time the horses came out for the Crescent City Derby, the steady downpour made it hard to distinguish the colors each jockey wore. A crowd of 3,500 to 4,000 had braved the wet onslaught to be on hand for the day’s feature. Before them lay a racetrack that looked like “a perfect lake” as the Brooklyn Citizen described it. The Chicago Tribune went further in its depiction: 

“There was a lake which extended from the grand stand to the head of the stretch and covered half of the track to the depth of several feet. Natives say there was never a rain in this part of the country like that which fell today. […] Only the crowd which had started from town early saw the 3-year-old classic run..”

At the barrier, the six horses stood in line, flanked by assistant starters who stood nearly up to their knees in water; so bad was the visibility that even starter C.J. Fitzgerald had to stand on the ground next to the track rather than up in his usual perch. 

The overflow had reached the middle of the track as the late afternoon wore on with no end in sight. With water standing on the racetrack itself, how would the horses themselves fare? The soaked spectators on hand were about to find out.

A Splashing Victory 

Despite the terrible conditions, Fitzgerald got the field off without delay. Birch Broom and Jove were fastest away while jockey Willie Gannon kept Witfull back in fourth, taking the extreme outside path around the racetrack where the ground was the best. Coming out of the backstretch into the turn, Gannon let Witfull have her head, the filly easily moving past the front-runners to take the lead. 

At the top of the stretch, she was four lengths ahead; by the time she hit the wire, the margin was 12 lengths, even though Gannon had wrapped up on Witfull, the filly fighting for her head all the way to the end. Rosanco was second while Birch Broom and Embarrassment followed in third and fourth, both so tired from slogging through the heavy track that they were practically leaning on each other at the finish.

Hildreth collected the purse of $4,640 for his filly’s win, but the story of the day was not Witfull’s easy victory. It was not her entry in the prestigious American Derby and other stakes. Her impressive 12-length win came in second to the ongoing storm, which New Orleans natives said was the worst they had ever seen. The stables on the far side of the track soon became inundated, and the horses sheltered there had to move to the paddock and the betting ring temporarily. The streetcars stopped running early in the afternoon, stranding the Fair Grounds’ spectators until they could travel again.

Though racing in such a deluge would be unlikely in 2023, in 1903 racing went on as usual. The wet conditions made racing a challenge on Crescent City Derby Day, but Witfull proved she was tough enough to power through to win, much like Justify did in 2018. Unfortunately for her, the biggest story that day was not her easy victory, but the historic rain that practically flooded the racetrack.