"You only dream the thing that happened here this afternoon," Grantland Rice wrote from the Saratoga press box on Aug. 16, 1930.
Even after half a century, the events of that rainy afternoon have an unreal, mythic quality about them.Unlike modern sports events that are routinely described as historic and forgotten a year later, the victory of the 100-to-1 shot Jim Dandy in the Travers Stakes is still remembered as the greatest upset in American racing.
A crowd of more than 30,000 had converged on Saratoga that day to see an epic two-horse duel: Gallant Fox vs. Whichone. Gallant Fox had won the Triple Crown and was coming into the Travers with a seven-race winning streak. Whichone had beaten Gallant Fox as a 2-year-old, lost to him in the Belmont Stakes, and had now won three stakes brilliantly at the Saratoga meeting.
Nobody paid attention to the other two entrants in the Travers field, any more than people paid attention to the supporting cast in the 1978 Affirmed-Alydar battles. And there were good reasons for ignoring Jim Dandy.
The colt had had only moderate success as a 2-year-old, although he did win one stake at Saratoga in the mud. As a 3-year-old, he went to Mexico and lost all nine of his races, but that string of failures did not deter trainer John McKee from loading him on a train, taking his East and telling friends that Jim Dandy was going to win the Travers Stakes.
One drizzly morning at Saratoga, McKee was walking down the street when a motorist offered him a ride. The driver was a jockey, Red Baker, and on a visit here this week. Baker still vividly remembered that encounter.
"When I gave John a ride he said to me, 'I'm not feeling very well. Would you look after this horse for me?" Thus did Baker become acquainted with Jim Dandy and get the riding assignment on him. He quickly learned the most important fact about the colt: "He had awful bad feet. He might have been a good horse if he didn't have to run on hard tracks." So Baker was heartened when rain fell for several days before the Travers and turned the Saratoga track into the sort of deep, muddy surface that Jim Dandy would like.
Still, he was a realist, and even the passage of 50 years has not distorted Baker's perception of the odds against him. "This was like a second-rate fighter going against a champion," he said. "I knew Jim Dandy would be improved in the Travers but I wouldn't say he could beat Gallant Fox. How could you bet a horse like that against Gallant Fox?"
The bookmakers established Gallant Fox as the 1-to-2 favortie, with Whichone 8 to 5. Jim Dandy was 100 to 1, and even at that price no rational man could bet him, except as a lark.
Sam Rosoff, a Russian immigrant who was one of the builders of the New York subway, approached a bookmaker named Max Kalek before the Travers to take a $100 flyer on Jim Dandy. The bookmaker teased him: Sam, why don't you bet something.
Goaded, Rosoff said he would bet more if he were given higher odds. Kalek agreed. He accepted a $500 wager at 500-to-1 odds, a potential loss of $250,000 in the first year of the Depression. Kalek laughed about it. "Meet me at Newman's tonight with some of your friends," he told Rosoff. "I'll pay for the dinner and you can even have champagne."
Kalek felt no qualms during the early stages of the Travers. The race started to go according to its script as a scintillating, two-horse battle.
Gallant Fox, ridden by the great Earl Sande, went to the lead, but Whichone challenged him on the outside as they reached the first turn. The two great colts raced head-and-head down the backstretch, and all eyes were on them. But behind the leaders, Red Baker was feeling the strenth of the horse under him. "I was just laying third," he said, "but by the time we got to the three-eights pole, I knew I was going to win it."
Gallant Fox and Whichone swung toward the middle of the track as they entered the stretch, staying off the deep, muddy going on the rail, and Baker steered Jim Dandy inside them. Almost before the crowd had a chance to react, Jim Dandy blew past the two leaders and ran away from them. He won as if he had been the odds-on favorite, beating Gallant Fox by six or eight lengths -- depending on whose account you read.
"People couldn't believe what had happened," Baker said, but with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight the outcome of the Travers is more understandable. Jim Dandy did improve considerably in the mud; he would score five of his seven career victories on off tracks. Whichone hurt himself during the race and never ran again.
Gallant Fox was never an exceptional mudder, and he came into the mile-and-one-quarter event after a five-week layoff. He had worked a very hard 10 furlongs only four days before the Travers, and by modern standards that would seem to be counterproductive.
The Travers result spread a little bit of joy in addition to the shock it created. Rosoff collected five $50,000 checks from his bookmaker and told a friend, "The money don't mean a damn thing to me, but to beat that sonofabitch, that made me happy."
For Red Baker, the triumph provided a distinction for life. He quit riding a year later, trained horses until 1973, and now lives in retirement in Laurel, Md., but he will always be remembered as the man who rode Jim Dandy. The New York Racing Association invited him here this week to observe the anniversary of the upset.
The only principal in the 1930 Travers who came to an unhappy end was Jim Dandy himself. McKee kept running him on the hard tracks he didn't like, and he kept losing. Instead of being retired to a comfortable life at stud, as a modern horse of such distinction would be, Jim Dandy was gelded and raced until he was 12 years old.
The horse who had made racing history ended his career in obscurity, suffering his 56th consecutive defeat in a cheap race at a cheap tract in Arizona.