Many know the name James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, but few know the story behind the training legend who spent 78 of his 91 years on the racetrack (see pg. 38). Fitzsimmons was a dominant trainer in New York during the middle of the 20th Century, and his barn annually swelled with top runners bred by Belair Stud and the Phipps family. After winning the Triple Crown with Gallant Fox in 1930 and that one’s son Omaha in 1935, Fitzsimmons for 83 years remained the only trainer to accomplish the Triple Crown twice. That he was joined June 9 by Bob Baffert places Sunny Jim back in the copy of Turf writers as they document Justify’s achievements.
As great a trainer as Fitzsimmons was, he was even more celebrated for his kindness, willingness to mentor anyone who approached with a question, and his availability to do interviews and further the reach of Thoroughbred racing to attract as many fans as possible. In his heyday, racing was the top spectator sport in the United States and so didn’t need as big a push as it does today. Nonetheless, Fitzsimmons hosted an endless stream of reporters at his headquarters at Aqueduct, Saratoga, and Hialeah, filling their notebooks with info on current and potential stars under his shedrow.
NBC-TV host Tommy Roberts, who became good friends with Fitzsimmons in the early 1960s, describes the trainer’s embracing of television as a great tool to widen racing’s audience at a time when the industry took a far dimmer attitude toward the new medium.
Fitzsimmons and Baffert are linked in many ways other than their Triple Crown deeds. In their youth, both Fitzsimmons, the son of a vegetable and fruit peddler from Brooklyn, and Baffert, a cowboy from Nogales, Ariz., helped their fathers care for horses. Both took a turn at riding before turning to training careers. Each was (and is) a big believer in testing his charges in morning workouts to make sure they had enough under them when crunch time comes in races. And both realized racing could be helped by them using their fame to get the word out as widely as possible, and have done their best to promote the sport.
Baffert’s rise to prominence in the late 1990s coincided with the release and popularity of the first two “Austin Powers” movies. In 1999 on FOX, which then was televising big races nationally, Baffert dressed up as Dr. Evil and parodied the Mike Myers character before his Real Quiet won the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1). For the past 20 years Baffert has been the face of horse racing whenever it has reached out to the American public at large. He clearly tires of the daily grind of providing the same information over and over when a big horse is training up to a significant race, but he knows the drill and always gives the assembled media enough to get them through another news cycle.
As with everything today compared to 70 or 80 years ago, it is a more complicated media world Baffert must navigate, from throwing out the first pitch at baseball games to doing live remote interviews for national morning TV gabfests, to weekly industry teleconferences, to satisfying national news channels when racing is able to attract attention from them.
In dominating a sport that once was the domain of tight-lipped farm boys, Baffert has, like Sunny Jim, moved racing forward. His handling of American Pharoah three years ago, when he made that Triple Crown champion available to as many visitors and fans as possible, affirms that Baffert is the rightful successor to Sunny Jim, both on and off the racetrack.
Theirs is a most exclusive club, and each deserves laurels for what he has done beyond training great racehorses.