It has been one of my missions in horse racing to re-tell the story of Jim French every four or five years, because if I don’t it will quickly fade away and not even remain a minor footnote in the history books.
For those who have never read or heard the story, and even those who have, but stashed it away in the deepest recesses of the mind, I will re-tell it, especially during this particular Kentucky Derby trail, with so many leading contenders heading into the Derby with only three or four lifetime starts.
Yes, times have changed dramatically, and it is Jim French who best serves as a bridge from racing as it was to racing as it is. As much as we have gone to the lesser extreme when it comes to experience and seasoning leading up to the First Saturday in May, Jim French, having no say in the matter, took it to the opposite extreme. Even his trainer John Campo, still a fledgling trainer at the time, later expressed his regret in subjecting Jim French to such a rigorous campaign. But this is not about right or wrong or mistakes in judgment, but about a plucky little colt who never wavered, never backed out of a fight, and always gave 100 percent, demonstrating a toughness and fortitude unmatched even for that era, especially at such a high level of competition.
So, with racing fans immersed in the major Kentucky Derby preps, here, after over four 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, tweaked, smoothed out, and partially re-written, 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 that ended so unjustly.
But let's start at the beginning. Jim French was a gritty 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, winning the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Pleasant Colony, 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.
Then the real racing began.
—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, the brilliant 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 or train up to the Derby, 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 rallied to finish a close fourth to stablemate Good Behaving in the Wood Memorial.
Nowadays, if a horse runs four times in four months it’s a lot. 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, back to New York, back to Florida, to California, back to New York, and then the Kentucky 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 some 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 connected to the horse, however, were convinced that he had been ‘gotten to,’ and made their feelings public in an advertisement taken out in a leading racing weekly.
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'’ 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 indestructible, 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.
Almost five 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.
So I will continue to tell his story. Much like Ishmael at the end of Moby Dick, I only am “alone to tell thee.”