The Triple Crown is one of the most elusive achievements in all of sports. In the long history of racing, just a dozen horses have found the right blend of speed, stamina, durability, and luck required to sweep the three-race series comprised of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
Many other horses have won the first two legs, only to fall short in the Belmont Stakes, and often those horses are remembered more for the race they didn’t win than the ones they did.
But perhaps the cruelest fate of all belongs to the few horses who won both the Derby and Preakness, only to have injury derail their Belmont dreams and deny them any shot at immortality, leaving everyone to wonder what might have been.
Such was the fate of Bold Venture, though his bad luck just before the Belmont — while unfortunate —was perhaps more than offset by the extraordinary good luck that had brought him to the verge of sweeping the Triple Crown. As a 2-year-old in 1935, he had encountered more than his fair share of trouble during an abbreviated season, yet emerged from it all relatively unscathed. As told by Ed Bowen in his book “Masters of the Turf: Ten Trainers Who Dominated Horse Racing's Golden Age”: “prior to a prep for the Arlington Futurity, Bold Venture stumbled and fell during the prerace rituals and was bruised and badly shaken. Then he dumped his rider and ran away in the mud on the day of the Arlington Futurity itself, and after being caught trailed in last. En route back East, Bold Venture narrowly escaped death when the train car he was riding in caught fire.”
After surviving these experiences, Bold Venture came down with an illness and his racing plans for the remainder of the year were canceled, which may have been a blessing in disguise. Bold Venture was not considered to be the soundest of horses, and in preparation for the 1936 Kentucky Derby, trainer Max Hirsch gave the colt a single easy prep race to get him ready, foregoing a planned run in the Wood Memorial Stakes in favor of an allowance race, which Bold Venture won with ease.
Bold Venture’s good luck reached its pinnacle in the Kentucky Derby, where he was sent off as an unheralded longshot at 20.50-1. Brevity, winner of the Florida Derby in world-record time, was the heavy favorite to win. Indian Broom, who had bettered Brevity’s world record while winning the Marchbank Handicap, and Granville, who would wind up as Horse of the Year in 1936, were also well-regarded in the wagering.
But when the gates opened, all pre-race expectations were dashed. In a very poor start that compromised many horses, Granville lost his rider, Brevity reportedly went to his knees, and Indian Broom found himself stuck in traffic.
From this disastrous start, Bold Venture emerged relatively untroubled and made an early move to take the lead on the backstretch. He maintained his lead into the stretch and, under a perfect ride from apprentice jockey Ira Hanford, Bold Venture dug deep when challenged by the late-running Brevity. The Daily Racing Form of May 4, 1936 wrote, “inch by inch the favorite gained on Bold Venture, and it appeared he surely would make good for his countless supporters, but [Bold Venture], fighting on with rare courage, held his advantage to the end, although it was but a foot or two at the finish.”
But while luck may have played a role in Bold Venture’s narrow Derby victory — and the post-race consensus was that Bold Venture had indeed been very lucky to defeat Brevity — the same could not be said of Bold Venture’s Preakness win. In preparation for the race, Max Hirsch put Bold Venture through a training regimen that would be unheard of today; Tim Capps, describing the details in the book “Greatest Kentucky Derby Upsets,” wrote that Hirsch “worked the colt as if he were preparing to face Man o’ War: May 4 — six furlongs in 1:13 4/5; May 9 — a half-mile in :48 3/5; May 11 — nine furlongs in 1:53 2/5; May 12 — a half-mile in :49, May 13 — six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 (a half in :46 1/5). Bold Venture galloped a mile in 1:45 2/5 after arriving at Pimlico on Thursday.”
The training seemed to pay off. In the Preakness, a troubled start left Bold Venture at the back of the pack early on while Granville — off to a much better start than in the Derby — set the pace and looked good on the lead. Bold Venture was still in sixth place with less than a quarter-mile to run, but the colt rallied powerfully in the stretch, edging past Granville to win by a nose in a thrilling finish.
Unfortunately, after turning in three workouts while preparing for the Belmont Stakes, Bold Venture suffered a bowed tendon in his right foreleg that eventually led to his retirement. In his absence, Granville won the Belmont by a nose.
No one knows for sure if Bold Venture could have beaten Granville in the Belmont Stakes, adding his name to the illustrious, though brief, list of Triple Crown winners. But Bold Venture would leave his mark on the series in a different way; as a stallion, he sired the 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault, as well as the 1950 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Middleground.
This weekend, Woodbine racetrack in Canada will host a series of six graded stakes races that includes the $125,000, Grade 3 Bold Venture Stakes. Let’s recall the history behind the names of a few other upcoming races …
Grade 1 Natalma Stakes at Woodbine
Natalma wasn’t the type of racehorse that you’d call a superstar. In fact, you could argue that she wasn’t even a noteworthy racehorse, for although she did win three of her seven starts, she never won a stakes race and didn’t run beyond her 3-year-old year. But what Natalma lacked in speed on the track she made up for with a strong pedigree, and her first foal — 1964 Kentucky Derby winner and legendary sire Northern Dancer — would forever secure Natalma a place in history as one of racing’s greatest broodmares.
Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes at Woodbine
Natalma’s famous son will also be honored with a Grade 1 race at Woodbine this weekend. Northern Dancer may have been small — he stood slightly more than 15 hands, or a bit more than five-feet tall at the withers — but he had a big heart and proved it with his performances on the track.
After rising from somewhat humble beginnings to win the Kentucky Derby in a then-record time and the Preakness Stakes by 2 ¼ lengths, Northern Dancer was named a champion in both the U.S. and Canada.
As a stallion, Northern Dancer’s legacy would be even greater. Eventually known as a “sire of sires” —a stallion whose sons also achieve great success at stud — Northern Dancer sired 32 horses that were either champion racehorses or leading sires, including the English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II.
Catlaunch Stakes at Thistledown
Some horses earn a million dollars in a single race. The remarkable Catlaunch became a millionaire the hard way, competing in small stakes races at Ohio tracks like Thistledown, Beulah Park, and River Downs for 11 years.
From 2003 through 2013 (when he was 12 years old!), Catlaunch ran in 108 races, winning 40 and placing in 37 more while becoming a fan favorite in his home state. He finally passed $1 million in earnings when he won the 2011 George Lewis Memorial Stakes at the age of 10; he would race on for two more years and won a stakes race at age 12 before retiring to Old Friends in Kentucky.