The Heart that Wears the Crown: Gallant Fox

March 5th, 2023

A decade after Sir Barton won the three celebrated stakes races that we have come to know as the Triple Crown, another horse added his name to this short list of immortals. Gallant Fox’s victories in the Kentucky Derby (G1), the Preakness Stakes (G1), and the Belmont Stakes (G1) were the first to come with the name “Triple Crown,” as those intervening years saw the three races enter the sport’s consciousness with that sobriquet attached.

The Fox left his mark on the sport through his great victories, but he was more than just an athlete who set records: he was a horse who lived, who was loved, and who showed a great fondness for the world around him. Here was a champion who interacted with the humans and horses of his environment in ways that were uniquely his own.

Gallant Fox wins the 1930 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs)

Curious Mind

One hallmark of the second Triple Crown winner was his innate curiosity about the world. Both his trainer and owner shared stories about the horse’s interest in the sights and sounds around him. Gallant Fox came to “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons’ barn as a yearling, so the legendary trainer got to know him from his earliest days as a racehorse.

In a November 1930 article, he shared a story about the Fox and an umbrella. In those first days after the Belair colt had arrived at Aqueduct, Fitzsimmons came over to the barn while it was raining and put the opened umbrella down on the ground when it stopped. “A lot of yearlings would have shied away from it,” the trainer remembered, “but when Gallant Fox got a flash of it out of the corner of his eye, he just naturally had to find out all about it.” The young horse calmly probed the umbrella with his nose, and, once his curiosity was satisfied, walked away from it without another thought.

This curiosity gave Fitzsimmons a few fits early in the Fox’s racing career. In his first two starts, the Fox was more interested in the other horses than the track in front of him. Who were these horses standing at the line with him? As they were sent away, the Fox watched and finally, after a beat, he started running, his jockey finally rousing him to his task. “But for his curiosity he should have won both races,” his Hall of Fame trainer remembered.

That inquisitiveness came with another endearing facet to his personality: a placid nature. The Fox seemed to enjoy the people around him. After his Belmont S. triumph, sportswriter W.C. Vreeland paid a visit to the Fitzsimmons barn and the newly crowned Triple Crown winner. He stood talking with assistant trainer George Tappen as the Fox munched his oats, but soon the horse stuck his head out of his stall, oats falling from his muzzle, as if to say, “Are you talking about me?”

Later, when Vreeland entered the horse’s stall one day at Saratoga, the Fox stood still as the man inspected him. “He paid no more attention to me, save rubbing his nose against my shoulder, than if I were a log of wood,” the writer shared. A brilliant racehorse and top-tier athlete, the Fox was balanced in more than physique. He had a great mind to boot.

Gallant Fox 1930 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs)

Deep Intellect

That great mind also challenged his trainer throughout the Fox’s career on the racetrack. Gallant Fox was not going to win by 31 lengths as Secretariat did four decades later; rather, the second Triple Crown winner tended to slow down once he got to the lead.

In the United States Hotel Stakes, the two-year-old Fox took the lead on the turn and entered the stretch with a two-length lead. Alone on the front, the colt seemed to slow down, like he was waiting on horses, which allowed a fast-closing Caruso to pass the Fox in the race’s closing strides. That inclination to wait for horses prompted William Woodward to seek the right jockey for the colt’s three-year-old season, someone who could outsmart the Fox and overcome that habit. Earl Sande was the perfect jockey to keep the second Triple Crown winner on his task.  

This preference for running in company forced Fitzsimmons to find a creative solution for morning workouts. Usually, he would have a workout partner out with the stakes horses, sending the partner ahead to prompt the stakes horse to chase him and ramp up to the pace necessary for the workout. The Fox, though, would not take the bait: “He’d canter along like he was wondering why the other horse didn’t stop and wait for him to catch up,” Fitzsimmons remembered. Instead, they had to use two horses to work Gallant Fox, one to race him through the first part of the workout and a second to take him through the second. Occasionally, he would have to use three horses just to get the exercise the Fox needed!

Once the preparations were done and the task of racing was at hand, the Fox was a hard horse to beat. He had both stamina and speed and the intelligence to know how to use them. He also enjoyed being at the racetrack, especially the crowd that turned out to see him. In William Woodward’s 1931 memoir about Gallant Fox’s career, he included a picture of the post parade for the Travers, a shot of the Fox’s head turned toward the throng of people on hand for the day’s racing. The second Triple Crown winner did that before each race as if to say, “Are you all here for me?” That habit was indicative of the mind of the horse that elicited comparisons to Man o’ War throughout that storied season.

After two seasons, a Triple Crown, and a world record for earnings, Gallant Fox said goodbye to the racetrack and entered stud at Claiborne Farm, his owner hopeful that his champion would pass on his speed and stamina to future generations. First, though, the Fox had to adjust to life on the farm.

Fast Learner

His racing career done, Gallant Fox went home to his birthplace at Claiborne Farm for his stud career. He rode the train from New York to Paris, Kentucky, accompanied by veterinarian Dr. Edward Caslick, groom Bart Sweeney, and Tappen. He went from train to van with no trouble, arriving at the bucolic farm on a gorgeous autumn day. William Woodward stood nearby as Gallant Fox entered his paddock at Claiborne, his first taste of his new life. He ran around the paddock at top speed several times, jogged at the fence on the last pass, changed direction, and then slipped and fell, cutting his leg. After getting back to his feet, the Fox slowed enough to allow the humans around him to catch him and tend to the superficial injury.

“The fall did him good, for the next time he was turned out,” Woodward shared, “he behaved himself admirably.”

The record books count Gallant Fox as the second Triple Crown winner and a Hall of Famer, one of the greats that came from a wondrous decade in the sport of horse racing. The words of his owner and trainer share who the real Gallant Fox was, preserving the heart that won a crown and an essential place in the minds of those who witnessed his exploits. As sensational as the Fox was on the racetrack, learning more about the horse that he was makes his accomplishments even more extraordinary.