I would’ve loved to have been a railbird at the 1930 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. Sure, it would’ve been a dream come true to see legends such as Man o’ War, Whirlaway and Native Dancer in the flesh, but in terms of Saratoga racing lore, nothing would’ve compared to witnessing the remarkable and unexpected feat Jim Dandy pulled off on that August afternoon some nine decades ago. This one was a whopper.
That year’s Travers saw a sea of racing fans at Saratoga Race Course. The New York Herald-Tribune reported a record crowd of 50,000, although other sources were more conservative. They came from far and wide to see Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox take on Whichone, whom he’d beaten in that year’s Belmont Stakes. A product of William Woodward’s Belair Stud, Gallant Fox was favored at 1-2 odds, with Whichone at 7-5. The two others in the field were afterthoughts. Sun Falcon was dismissed at odds of 40-1, while Jim Dandy was considered hopeless at 100-1. There was national radio coverage, one of the earliest live broadcasts of a horse race, and New York Governor (and future US President) Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the crowd, as well as retired heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney.
Heavy rain the night before turned the track into a quagmire. The rain continued into Travers morning and more showers followed in the afternoon. To help accommodate the massive crowd, Saratoga Race Course’s infield, which hadn’t been accessible to the general public for years, was opened following the running of the Beverwyck Steeplechase.
At the outset of the featured race, all the horses broke well, with Gallant Fox taking an early lead on the outside. Whichone stayed close and provided constant pressure. The race soon became the showdown everyone anticipated, as Gallant Fox and Whichone battled on the front end with the longshots falling well behind. Gallant Fox led at the mile marker, but the deep mud was taking its toll. Turning for home, Whichone forced the exhausted Triple Crown winner wide. The timing was right for Jim Dandy to move on the leaders. With the favorites struggling, the horse seized the opportunity with an all-out charge along the rail. While Gallant Fox and Whichone appeared anchored in the mud, Jim Dandy skipped through the slop and began to draw off in astonishing fashion for an eight-length victory. “The cheering died,” reported The New York Times. “Then it resumed, for no one believed Jim Dandy could stay in front. But Jim Dandy kept going farther and farther away and won in a gallop, with jockey Frank Baker looking back to see what was happening.”
All these years later, it’s impossible to make sense of the results. Jim Dandy was winless in ten starts the year prior to the Travers. He finished a dismal eighth of nine in a minor race at Saratoga only eight days earlier, and his seasonal earnings at the time amounted to just $125.
But perhaps Jim Dandy shouldn’t have been completely dismissed, considering the conditions. The prior year, he won the Grand Union Hotel Stakes at Saratoga at odds of 50-1. The track that day featured similar conditions to his Travers victory. He was said to have “eggshell hooves,” which bothered him on fast tracks. The soggy mud, however, seemed to have acted as a restorative elixir for this greatest of longshots.
Jim Dandy raced until the age of 12. He was retired in 1939 after 141 starts. He won only seven of them and finished last in more than half of them. In 1964, the New York Racing Association introduced the Jim Dandy Stakes to pay homage to the mud-loving miracle Travers winner. A little piece of advice: never count out the longshots. I sure don’t.