Riding the Belair Bullet

1398463924000--DERBY-1935-OMAHA-IA secret, three-day bachelor party that includes a trip to Kentucky to watch the Derby is just what John Welles and Claude Willoughby have in mind for their best friend, Sam Feldman. They believe they’ve given the bride-to-be and Sam’s mother the slip, but the ladies are on to them.

Claude, whose father used to breed races horses in Kentucky, undoubtedly suggested their entertainment. Even though the three friends don’t gamble, they are excited about the opportunity to attend the running of the Kentucky Derby. Unbeknownst to the trio, they picked a good year to go. In 1935, the thoroughbred racehorse, Omaha, owned and bred by William Woodward Sr., owner of Belair Mansion and Belair Stud Farm, was on his way to winning the Triple Crown starting with his performance at the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, horses don’t get to the finish line by themselves. The year Omaha won the Kentucky Derby, jockey William “Willie/Smokey” Saunders was aboard for the ride.

Saunders learned to ride in Alberta, Canada, and Montana. He earned his first win at Tanforan Racetrack in northern California on April 14, 1932, and was tutored in riding by the famous jockey, George “The Iceman” Wolfe of Seabiscuit fame.

The outbreak of World War II, as well as weight problems, interrupted Saunders’ career. He joined the Army, serving in the Pacific theater for four years. During his service, he contracted malaria which led to considerable weight loss, a silver lining to an unpleasant condition for the jockey who returned to racing when the war ended.

Saunders finished his career as a jockey in 1950, and he served as a racing official at various tracks in New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois. He worked as a trainer then as a placing judge. His final honor in the world of horse racing came in 1976 when he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.1398463924006--SCHAEFFER-AND-SAUND

Unfortunately for Saunders, the same year he won the Triple Crown, media attention of the less desirable sort also followed him. In October of 1935, Saunders faced the accusation of accessory to murder of Mrs. Evelyn Sliwinski.

The case cast a bad light on Saunders riding career, and he never rode in another Kentucky Derby. His final days were spent in Florida where he died of cancer at the age of seventy one.

Race to the Finish Line

imagesThe year is 1935, and one of John Welles’ best friends, Sam Feldman, has just been swept off his feet by the beautiful and charming Abigail Cohen.

Gladys Feldman, Sam’s mother, orchestrated the initial meeting between her son and Abigail, called Babby. Gladys’ goal was to curtail her late-blooming son’s wild dating spree and settle him down with a good Jewish girl. Her planned work, and before the end of their first visit, Sam and Babby were in love.

Fast forward a few months to Sam’s bachelor party. John, along with his other best friend, Claude Willoughby, takes Sam on a three day bachelor’s weekend prior to his marriage to Babby. The trio sneaks off to Kentucky to watch the Derby and revel in the festivities.

The only hitch to their plans is a small white lie told to keep the women in their lives from worrying; they claim they’re going to a pediatric conference. Being the savvy women they are, Mrs. Feldman, Babby, and John’s Aunt Prudence laugh over their boys believing they’ve gotten away with their scheme.

The Kentucky Derby is rich with too much history for one blog post. For this reason, I decided to start with the horse who won the Derby in 1935, Omaha. The chestnut horse with a white blaze stood at an impressive 16.3 hands high. The third horse to ever win the Triple Crown, Omaha was the son of Gallant Fox, the 1930 Triple Crown winner.

I have included footage of Omaha being ridden to victory at the Kentucky Derby by jockey, Willie Saunders, as well as a clip of all three of his Triple Crown wins.

In January of 1936, Omaha made the move to England to continue his racing career with the Ascot Gold Cup the desired goal. While he ran well in several races, he never achieved the coveted trophy.

During retirement, Omaha failed to impress as a stud horse. He was moved a couple of times before landing in Nebraska where he lived for another nine years. Upon his death in 1959, Omaha was buried at the Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska.


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