BY SEAN CLANCY
Baffert could join Breslin’s ‘Sunny Jim’ in Triple Crown lore
Bob Baffert stands on the cusp of history. If Justify wins the Belmont Stakes, the Hall of Fame trainer will become the second person to train two Triple Crown winners. The first was James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. And, no matter if Baffert wins this one or 10 more, there will never be another Sunny Jim. A New Yorker to the core, Fitzsimmons won races and made friends with equal alacrity.
Known by two nicknames – “Sunny Jim” and “Mr. Fitz” – Fitzsimmons was born in Sheepshead Bay in 1874 and died in 1966. The Hall of Famer trained some of Thoroughbred racing’s all-time greats, including Gallant Fox, Granville, Omaha, Johnstown, Nashua and Bold Ruler.
He won the Belmont Stakes six times. The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association annually presents the “Mr. Fitz Award” to someone who typifies “the spirit of racing.”
The trainer was best known for his two Triple Crown winners – Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935). Owned by Belair Stud, they were two of racing’s all-time best. Gallant Fox won 11 of 17 starts including 10 of his final 11. As a 3-year-old, he captured the Wood Memorial, Preakness, Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Dwyer, Arlington Classic, Saratoga Cup, Lawrence Realization and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Gallant Fox’s son Omaha also turned in a 3-year-old campaign for the ages – winning the Triple Crown, plus the Dwyer and Arlington Classic. The next year he made four starts on turf in England – winning twice and finishing second in the Ascot Gold Cup and Princess of Wales’s Stakes.
Famed New York Daily News and Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about Fitzsimmons, “Sunny Jim. The Life of America’s most Beloved Horseman, James Fitzsimmons” published in 1962 by Doubleday and Company. If you can find a copy, buy it.
He had lived a full life, and now it was becoming serene. He was at the barn each morning with the hay and ammonia smell opening his eyes and flaring his nostrils as it always had, and then he would train his horses, have something to eat, take a nap and wake up for the afternoon’s racing. There was almost no change. You could spend a day with him, then come back six months later and it still would be the same. He would be walking around the stable area, bent almost in half over an aluminum crutch under his right arm. Arthritis has his back bowed and hardened so that he looks like a man carrying a beer keg on his back. He would keep looking up to see ahead of him and he would snap orders to stablehands taking care of the 45 valuable thoroughbreds under his command. Then in the afternoon he would sit at his favorite spot along the rail and watch his horses run and win or lose he would not get excited. He was in the big money; as big as there is in sports. It was a life he had earned by spending years scratching for meal money.
You are never supposed to find anyone who is famous living around the corner from a place like Harry’s, for Harry’s is a bar and grill on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Ozone Park section of New York City. Ozone Park is a place where working people live and Harry’s is a bar with twelve stools, a TV, and a picture window which looks out onto a bus stop. It does not seem to be anything special at all, but it is important because it is the place where you stop in and get cigarettes and a couple of drinks before going around to 91-94 Chicot Court, which is where you can find Mr. Fitz whenever he isn’t working at the track.
They were times where you could bet horses big. And there were men whose names never appear in the record books, but who bet enough to break Russia.
“That’s what got him into trouble,” Mr. Fitz said (of Gallant Fox). “He lost interest when he passed a horse. Lost the Tremont to Whichone because of that. He passed Whichone in the stretch, then just about stopped dead. He was looking around and Whichone come right back and passed him and by the time the Fox got going again it was too late. There was some talk that he was lookin’ up at an airplane or something. I don’t know about that. All I know is that he lost. But it goes to show you this is no easy business. These aren’t mechanical rabbits. They’re nice animals, all right. Pretty. But they take an awful lot of care and they can get in trouble a lot of ways. You can go to bed at night with a horse worth a million dollars in the barn and when you come around to look at him in the morning he might not be worth a quarter. Gets sick or something and he’s not worth anything. It happens all the time. And when you get them to a race they’re liable to do anything. Even Gallant Fox lost one on me. Goes to show you.”
At two, Omaha was nothing to get excited about. He won only once in nine starts. But horses change from year to year and on the first Saturday in May of 1935 Mr. Fitz was standing in the paddock at Churchill Downs again and a blond-haired kid named Smokey Saunders came down from the jocks’ room, swung up on Omaha and went out to the track for the Kentucky Derby. As the horses headed for the post, a slim, dark-haired newcomer, Eddie Arcaro, was trying to settle his first Derby mount, the filly Nellie Flagg, who was having the kind of trouble fillies have in the springtime. The track was mud, but it didn’t bother Omaha. He was fifth at the half to something called Plate Eyes, then he took over from Whiskolo at the three-quarter pole. At the head of the stretch, Saunders took one look straight ahead – “The finish looked so far away I nearly fell off” – then put his head down and didn’t lift it until he was a winner. Roman Solder was second. Two weeks later, in the Preakness, Firethorn ran second to Omaha and then in June, in the Belmont Stakes, Firethorn chased him again and got nothing. It was Mr. Fitz’s second Triple Crown winner. You tend to dismiss a thing like this when you are dealing with him because he doesn’t think it important at all.
He was dressed in his best Kentucky Derby splendor; an old gray hat; a covert topcoat decorated with a little fraying around the pockets; slightly baggy pants; and high-top black shoes. He was a little out of the ordinary in the paddock, where mink, expensive tweeds and large diamonds were the order. But everybody made a point of saying hello to him and touching his hand as he moved along and when they would say, “How you, MistFitz?” he would smile, “Oh, I’m fine. I hope the horse’s fit as I am.” The horse was Bold Ruler.
Mr. Fitz’s main business, however, is being himself and this is unique business you are never going to find listed anywhere. You can’t set a price on things like warmth and honesty. All the money ever made could not get for any man the reaction people always have when they first meet Mr. Fitz.