Revisiting Jim French...Again

It has become a rite of spring in this column that every three years I reprint, re-live, and re-energize the amazing story of Jim French. To those who have read it once or even twice, you are excused, unless you wish to refresh your memory and read it again (I have to admit I never get tired of it). Actually, there is some additional information in here on Jim regarding his little-known stud career in Japan.

To those of you who have not read it and are unaware of Jim French’s remarkable story of endurance, I believe you will find it fascinating and enlightening, especially at a time when the Derby trail has already lost the newly retired Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to injury, and has seen setbacks to the 2-year-old champion, who has missed several works and his 3-year-old debut, and the highly regarded Remsen Stakes winner, who missed training and likely will not make his scheduled 3-year-old debut and could be re-routed to New York. And now comes word that Holy Bull winner Cairo Prince likely will skip the Fountain of Youth and wait for the Florida Derby, which will give him only two starts before the Derby and only one race in 14 weeks leading up to the Derby.

With so many of today’s top Derby contenders having only two or three Derby preps, this is the perfect time to revisit the plucky little Jim French.

So, before we become immersed in the major Kentucky Derby preps, here, after three years of dormancy, is the column on a horse the younger generation can not even remotely relate to, but one who should serve as a constant reminder of what amazing feats the Thoroughbred of yesterday was capable of.

Here then again is “The Strange Saga of Jim French”

The story of Jim French, one of the most indestructible, indefatigable horses of the modern era, has faded into history, taking with it the colt's remarkable feats of durability on the racetrack and the notorious final chapter of his career, in which the Travers favorite was impounded by the Saratoga County sheriff's office and not permitted to run.

But let's start at the beginning. Jim French was a plucky little brown colt who brought his trainer John Campo into the national spotlight for the first time. Campo's training of Jim French would have brought about an outpouring of criticism from today's Internet racing fans. But the son of Graustark not only stood up to Campo's unprecedented schedule, he actually seemed to thrive on it.

Campo, who would go on to become one of the top trainers in the country, later would say when asked why he ran Jim French so often, "I didn't know any better then. I had only been training for a few years and if I had known better I wouldn't have run him so many times. He wasn't a big horse, and small horses do hold up better than big horses."

Hold up is an understatement. As excessive as his methods were, Campo's ability to keep Jim French in top racing condition for so long actually was a remarkable achievement. By the time Jim French arrived in Florida in December 1970 to begin preparing for the Triple Crown races, he had already crammed 11 races into a four-month period, racing four times in November alone, including a victory in the Remsen Stakes.

--On Dec. 26, he engaged in a thrilling stretch duel with Sir Dagonet to win the 1 1/16-mile Miami Beach Handicap at Tropical Park.

--Two weeks later, he just got up to win the 1 1/16-mile Dade Metropolitan Handicap at Tropical by a nose, carrying top weight of 125 pounds and conceding 10 pounds to the runner-up.

--Eleven days later, now at Hialeah, he dropped back to six furlongs and finished a fast-closing fourth in the Hibiscus Stakes, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by the brilliant Executioner.

--He was back two weeks later, coming from 10th at the top of the stretch to win the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes by a head, with the regally bred His Majesty third.

--Two weeks later, he was beaten a head by His Majesty in the 1 1/8-mile Everglades Stakes, but was disqualified to fifth for bearing in down the stretch.

--Like clockwork, he was back in the gate two weeks later, coming from 19 lengths back to finish third behind Executioner in the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes.

--Instead of waiting for the Florida Derby, Jim French not only ran 17 days later, he shipped up to New York, where he finished third to the early Kentucky Derby favorite Hoist the Flag in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, run in a scorching 1:21.

--Just one week later, he was back in Florida, where he closed fast to finish third to Eastern Fleet in the Florida Derby, run in 1:47 2/5, just a fifth off the stakes record.

--Not content to wait for one final Derby prep, Campo put Jim French on a plane to California and ran him one week later in the Santa Anita Derby, which he won by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:48 1/5.

--Two weeks later, he was back in New York, where he finished a solid fourth to stablemate Good Behaving in the Wood Memorial.

So, Jim French entered the grueling Triple Crown series having competed in 10 stakes at five different racetracks in a little over four months, traveling from New York to Florida to New York to Florida to California, and back to New York. Although most horses would have been totally wiped out by now, Jim French went on to finish a fast-closing second to Canonero II in the Kentucky Derby, third in Canonero's track record-breaking Preakness, and a fast-closing second in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made up more than five lengths in the final furlong to be beaten three-quarters of a length.

Instead of being given a well-earned vacation following arguably the most ambitious Triple Crown campaign ever, Jim French amazingly was back in the starting gate two weeks after the Belmont, finishing a fast-closing fourth in the one-mile Pontiac Grand Prix (formerly the Arlington Classic) at Arlington Park. Following his first three-week "vacation" since the previous November, he shipped to California, where he finished second in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby, giving the winner, Bold Reason, 13 pounds. One week later, he was back in New York, winning the 1 1/4-mile Dwyer Handicap, conceding 12-15 pounds to the rest of the field.

In less than seven months, Jim French had run in 16 stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, never finishing worse than fourth (except for his disqualification). During that time he competed at 10 different racetracks, made two round trip cross-country flights at a time when Eastern horses rarely flew to California for one race, and logged almost 20,000 miles of traveling.

Jim French resurfaced four weeks after the Dwyer and ran an uncharacteristic ninth as the 2-1 favorite in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap. It was discovered after the race that the colt had a spur in his right knee that had broken off. Several people around the horse, however, were convinced that he had been 'gotten to,' and made their feelings public.

Campo then sent Jim French to Saratoga for the Travers, and that's when all hell broke loose. Prior to the Travers, it was announced that the colt had been impounded by the Saratoga County sheriff's office. His entry for the Travers was refused by the stewards. State steward Francis P. Dunne called it "the most complex racing situation I've ever encountered."

It had been discovered through a loan made by Jim French's co-owner Frank Caldwell, who had purchased the colt from his breeder Ralph Wilson during his 2-year-old campaign, that there was a hidden ownership issue surrounding the horse.

Caldwell, a Long Island furniture executive, had sold 70% of Jim French to Etta Sarant, and then taken out a loan from the Citizens National Bank and Trust Co. of Lexington, Ky., receiving a $130,000 advance after stating on his affidavit that he was the sole owner of Jim French. Leslie Combs II, a director of the bank, also assured that Jim French would stand at his Spendthrift Farm in Lexington.

It was discovered, however, that Mrs. Sarant, in whose name Jim French raced in the Monmouth Invitational, had no owner's license in New York, and had no interest in applying for one. After the Monmouth Invitational, Jim French was resold to construction executive Fred Cole, but he, too, was suspended by the New York Racing Commission for failure to appear to give testimony in the case. That left Jim French without an owner.

Dunne said at the time, "We have a real can of worms on our hands, and it's beginning to appear that not all of the worms have been pulled out of the can."

He was right. Officers of the Saratoga Country sheriff's office then filed a writ of attachment on behalf of the Citizens Bank. The New York Racing Commission, sensing a possible cover-up, began an investigation into the ownership of Jim French and several other horses owned by Caldwell.

According to the commission's findings, the true owner or part-owner of Jim French and the other horses was R. Robert LiButti, doing business as Robert Presti. The commission also concluded that the horse's ownership had been concealed from racing authorities, and stated that LiButti/Presti had been barred from racing in 1968. He maintained it was only a misunderstanding and that he had been exonerated of any wrongdoing.

LiButti said that undisclosed ownership was a common occurrence in racing, and his ownership of Jim French was not done to defraud the public, claiming that no crime had been committed.

On Oct. 13, 1971, the New York Racing Commission suspended Campo, Ralph Wilson, and trainer George Poole for 30 days for their role in the concealed ownership. Caldwell was ordered to appear before the commission to "show cause why his license should not be revoked."

As for Jim French, he was not allowed to run in the Travers. Because of the complexity of the case, and the danger of his knee eventually splitting due to the spur that had broken off, he was retired and sold (it was never officially reported by whom) to art dealer Daniel Wildenstein for $1 million and retired to Haras de la Verrerie in France, where he proved unsuccessful, siring only five stakes winners. He was then sent to Japan in 1977.

In Japan, Jim French left an indelible mark, siring Bamboo Atlas, winner of the Japanese Derby in record time. As a stallion, Bamboo Atlas passed on Jim French’s blood, siring seven grade I winners, including Japanese St. Leger winner Bamboo Begin.

Jim French also was the broodmare sire of Legacy World, who upset America’s Horse of the Year Kotaashan in the Japan Cup, and Jim and Tonic, who like his grandsire was indestructable, winning the group I Hong Kong Cup, Hong Kong Mile, and Dubai Duty Free, group II Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Hong Kong, and three group III stakes in France. In all, he finished in the money in 30 of his 39 career starts, while constantly traveling around the world.

Jim French’s name also showed up in America as the broodmare sire of Breeders' Cup Mile winner and champion grass horse Steinlen.

Jim French lived three lives – the American racehorse, the French sire, and the Japanese sire. He died in 1992 at the age of 24.

The name of Jim French has long since disappeared. The vast majority of today's racing fans have never even heard of him, which is a shame. This was a true Thoroughbred in every sense of the word, who gave 100% every time, despite being subjected to one of the most grueling racing schedules of any horse in the history of the sport.

More than three decades have passed, and now, at a time when it is so difficult to keep horses sound, and when many champions race only four or five times a year, it is important that we remember a horse like Jim French to remind us just how resilient Thoroughbreds can be.

There are no shrines or memorials to this gallant warrior, who deserved to go out fighting and be remembered for his amazing toughness and durability rather than the ignominious series of events that befell him at Saratoga. 


18 Comments

Leave a Comment:

mz

I remember Jim French (in the days that I thought ALL racehorses were raced, how was he unusual?) and I specifically remember reading that he was sent to France to stand at stud. I guess they thought he would breed back to his grandsire, Ribot.  

Even though he "didn't leave a mark" in France, isn't it funny that his female family did?  His half sister, Native Partner is the great grand-dam of Arazi, who lit some fireworks of his own on his first start in NAm from France.

31 Jan 2014 12:22 PM
derbylin

Love your "reruns" Steve. What a tough horse he was.

31 Jan 2014 1:06 PM
steve from st louis

Jim French remains a great story; he probably could have won Shaikh Mohammad's recent point-to-point endurance races. The real story here somewhat swept under the rug was the life and times of John Campo. Talk about a character of the American turf! I'm sure you could add Joe Hirsch's notes to your own and come up with a one-of-a-kind column. He trained both juvenile Eclipse award winners in 1973 along with Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony. I always found him extremely quotable until he lost his stable to a barn fire in the mid 1980's, from which he never recovered. Don't know if his son still works for the NYRA but Campo was a Damon Runyanesque figure of the first degree.  

31 Jan 2014 2:24 PM
Kelso1966

What a wonderful story, seems strange to hear of a horse running that many times- now they run 4 times and are off to stud duty.

31 Jan 2014 3:15 PM
threedog

Another great story! Thanks Steve. It is still common at smaller seasonal tracks to run your horse in a race every two weeks from the begining of the meet to the end of the meet, but then most of the horses would get plenty of time off.

31 Jan 2014 4:11 PM
livewire

Truly incredible story.  The only major Derby preps he missed was the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.  As a horse racing fan from an era when Derby hopefuls ran in not just one but two nine furlong races this was an enjoyable read.  A little crazy perhaps as well.

How ironic that we now read quotes from trainers on their derby horses like "It's hard to run every four weeks and run your best".  

Now a racehorse can't run once a month? Longing for the days when the best in training actually ran a race when campaigns began every two to three weeks instead of spacing like this.

31 Jan 2014 6:31 PM
rowdee

Now THERE was a thoroughbred!  Thank you, Steve, for this 'new to me' story.

31 Jan 2014 8:39 PM
Lexington Bloodstock

Remarkable. While we are inclined to call horses that race that frequently "iron horses," and Jim French WAS indeed just that, it is also frustrating to compare the career race records of horses from the past one hundred years, and note that today's thoroughbred is now deemed "too fragile" to race more than one a month, if that.

The only people who benefit in this misguided newfangled methodology of training horses are the trainers and veterinarians who's exorbitant fees and commissions are sucking the life's blood out of a once great sport.

If they would only choose to train fewer horses and do it like Nature (and very successful old school trainers did for generations) owners might be more inclined to try their hand.

Having said that -- I remember Jim French well, and the excitement he brought to racing that year -- and have often compared him, in my mind, to horses racing today and have to laugh at the newer "generation" of both horses and trainers.

31 Jan 2014 10:19 PM
Old Bald Peg

Haskin,

They don't make them like that anymore.

We're dinosaurs to remember when racehorses RAN.

31 Jan 2014 11:55 PM
Pedigree Ann

'Little Jim' was my first 'Derby horse.' I picked him out in the fall of 1970 after he won the Remsen. It was my first year at university in SoCal and the first time I was able to buy the DRF regularly. And the big weekend races locally were on television! The campus library also had copies of the big east coast papers in the reading room, so I could follow 'Jimbo's' exploits out there. I wore his racing colors (yellow and green) on days when he raced and commandeered the lounge TV to watch him when the big Derby preps were on. I was so sick when he couldn't run in the Travers - I was sure he would win, since he wouldn't have to concede weight to anybody; didn't know about the knee.

And to send him to France, of all places for stud! Jim was a throwback, a genuine, hard-knocking dirt horse of the old style, totally unsuited to France's racing surface, i.e. soft turf. Total waste of his stud potential. Japan's turf courses tended to be firmer, but still, turf racing was not his metier.

A few other notes - His Majesty, Jim's contemporary, was his uncle, a full brother to his sire Graustark. It said so in Sports Illustrated. (Yes, SI covered horse-racing extensively at the time.)

Notice the 10f races 3yos got to run in after the Triple Crown? The Hollywood Derby was extended to 12f turf in the summer of 1974 and the Swaps S at 10f was instituted to keep the tradition going. The Dwyer H. at 10f was at Aquedect, whose configuration made it easy to run; when Belmont was given Aqu's summer meeting in 1975, they shortened it because "people want to see the starts of races and the 10f chute starts behind some trees way over on the far side of the training track." Honestly, that is what they said. So now they start 10f races in that awkward way on the turn.

01 Feb 2014 9:52 AM
Windolin

This is a great story! Thank you for posting it. Please forgive me Steve for not reading your post on SNA. I read all of your postings, but just cannot bring myself to read the one about SNA. It was a heartbreaking loss. There were so many losses in 2013, not only in the Thoroughbred industry, but personally by friends and myself and 2014 really had not started off very well either for some.

01 Feb 2014 11:49 AM
Daniel Jividen

Modern trainers lack the boldness of the old time trainers.  They seem to never learn that horses are as strong as horses.  Horses will stand a lot of training if they are properly started,  legged up,  and fed - and if the vets (with their overly extensive pharmacopeias) are kept away from them.  Campo was a quintessential New York guy - brash, bold, 100% extroverted.  He couldn't have coped in the new New York where the new mayor wants to protect horses from pulling carriages in Central Park.

01 Feb 2014 6:12 PM
JayJay

Not sure when this was published but this is the first time I've read it and I'm like "What??"   Now I have to research and see his full past performances.  Amazing how he was able to run that many races back to back to back to back and not only he was very competitive but never got injured.  I'm curious how he got his name...

02 Feb 2014 1:15 AM
Love 'em all

I'd like to think 'the Jim French racehorse' was named for the Jim French cowboy, who ran around with Billy the Kid.

And like the horse, the cowboy's fate is also a mystery.

en.wikipedia.org/.../Jim_French_(cowboy)

02 Feb 2014 9:25 AM
txhorsefan

Thanks for revisiting this amazing horse.  His story is so interesting not only for his heroic racing campaigns but the allegations and intriguing ownership issues as well.  Can you just imagine all the internet hooha going around if a horse was trained and raced like that today?!  Your blogs are always the best, Steve - thank you!

02 Feb 2014 9:52 AM
Arch the phoneman

What a great story Steve. I've never heard it before. Thank you for rerunning it.

02 Feb 2014 7:07 PM
Cynthia Holt

In lieu of the shrines and memorials which will never be, your words will stand as an ongoing tribute to the indefatigable Jim French.  I never tire of reading his story, and will look forward to re-visiting it in 2017.  It is especially gratifying to note that the great Tom Fool, about whom I wish more were written, is his maternal grandsire.  

04 Feb 2014 11:37 AM
Old Timer

Even though I have read this column before, I totally enjoyed it the second time around as well. I saw and attended his Derby as well as the Dwyer in New York. I know that it is cliche, but "they don't make them like that any more."

04 Feb 2014 8:41 PM

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