Mr. Woodward at the Spa

Though the Woodward has been run at Saratoga only since 2006, Mr. William Woodward was no stranger to the old Spa.

Owner and breeder extraordinaire from his Maryland farm, Woodward was a New Yorker: he was born in New York City in 1876, and he died there in 1953. His horses won five Belmont Stakes.

His eponymous race got its start at Belmont Park and was eight times run at Aqueduct. It’s now a Saratoga fixture, and it was at Saratoga that he saw some of his greatest triumphs, including a win in the 1940 Travers that inspired paroxysms of praise from turf writer John Hervey.

In Legacies of the Turf, racing historian Edward L. Bowen quotes from one of Woodward’s memoirs:

I think [wrote Woodward] my love of Thoroughbred horses and racing came to me first about 1887, when I was 11 years old. In those days, my father used to take me every Decoration Day, May 30, to Jerome Park, which was about nine miles from our house in 51st Street, New York City. …The first race that I really remember was the Belmont Stakes of 1888…I remember the colors and the whole scene. It was run in glorious sunshine.

But it would be decades before Woodward would be fully immersed in racing; in 1910, he inherited the historic Belair Stud in Maryland from his uncle, and he would develop it into one of this country’s premier racing and breeding operations.

Among the horses Woodward bred at Belair were Gallant Fox, 1930 Triple Crown winner, and Gallant Fox’s son Omaha, the only Triple Crown-winning son of a Triple Crown winner. Woodward bred Vagrancy, winner of the Alabama, the Test, the Coaching Club America Oaks, the Gazelle, the Beldame, and the Ladies Handicap; he bred four other Alabama winners.  In all, Woodward bred 92 winners of U.S. stakes races.

Two of those stakes wins came in the Travers:  in 1936 with Granville and in 1940 with Fenelon. It is the latter’s victory that inspired Hervey.

George Widener’s Your Chance was the favorite in the Travers that year. Samuel Riddle’s The Finest set the pace, with Fenelon sitting patiently back, allowing The Finest to take the lead.

Hervey will take it from here:

[Fenelon], however, continued to indulge The Finest with [the lead] all around the upper turn and almost until they rounded into the stretch, when he assumed command, but by a head only…

With the two [Fenelon and Your Chance] yoked in a furious struggle through the final furlong, the stand rose at them, the backers of the two contenders encouraging them with shouts and cries….So they swayed like two gladiators locked in mortal combat, giving their last atom of speed and power and gameness in the attempt to conquer.

Only the camera could decide which ad won. The plate, when developed, showed the nose of Fenelon extended a few inches before that of Your Chance…

Another of the many favorites for the famous stake had, in conformance with its traditions, gone down to defeat—but gloriously as ever did a beaten horse.

Such an ordeal leaves a colt empty of everything but the will to win that is the birthright of the Thoroughbred, and Fenelon was given two weeks to rest out of it and get ready for the Saratoga Cup…

After that effort, two weeks off. Lightweight.

The year before, Time had done a cover story on Woodward, extolling the virtues of Saratoga and setting the profile of Woodward at the yearling sales, calling him “the decade’s most successful breeder.”  The author quipped, “As it does with no other United States racehorse man, raising comes before racing with William Woodward.”

Funny thing to say about the man who raced two Triple Crown and three Kentucky Derby winners.

According to Time, Woodward so loved his horses that he commissioned paintings of the good ones, then made prints to give as Christmas presents. And despite his vast wealth, accumulated through his career in banking, he was said to be unostentatious.

…there is no swish to WW. He owns no marble palace, no yacht, no private railroad car. He has four homes…but none of them is pretentious.

That is, perhaps, a matter of opinion. Last fall I visited Belair Stud, or what’s left of it, including the mansion in which Woodward lived. Pretentious? Perhaps not. Some swish? Perhaps.

Little remains of the storied farm that dates to the 18th century. Visitors can walk through the barn, see memorabilia, and lose oneself for hours among photographs and old racing books and magazines in a marvelously dusty little library and museum.

There is much more to Woodward’s story than I tell here. He was president of the Jockey Club for 20 years, and the details of his life as a breeder could fill a book. This is only a tiny piece, even, of his accomplishments at Saratoga.

Racing purists (among whom I occasionally count myself) are not all enthusiastic about the Woodward’s moving from Belmont to Saratoga. I have to think, though, that Mr. Woodward would approve, and find himself right at home.

­­­Sources quoted and consulted

American Race Horses, 1940. John Hervey, Sagamore Press.

Legacies of the Turf (Vol. I), Edward L. Bowen. Eclipse Press, 2003.

Sport: Scarlet Spots.” Time, August  7, 1939.

Additional reading

My Gallant Fox profile from the 2010 Belmont Stakes program.

Kevin Martin’s post at Colin’s Ghost about our visit to Belair last fall

The Belair Stable Museum.

15 thoughts on “Mr. Woodward at the Spa

  1. And speaking of the Woodward, check out this video of the four meetings between Damascus and Dr. Fager, who were two members of probably the greatest foal crop of all time, the three year olds of 1967 (both of whom would be Horses of the Year in 1967 and ’68 respectively along with Fort Marcy, a three time turf champion who would be HOY as well two years later in 1970 at age six):

    The second race in the video is the 1967 Woodward at Aqueduct, billed as “Race of the Century” and still considered by some to be the biggest non-Triple Crown race of the past 50 years.

  2. And I forgot:

    That 1967 Woodward is still and likely forever will be the only time that three eventual horses of the year met in the same race, as Buckpasser (who was the defending Horse of the Year going into that race) tried to challenge Damascus and Dr. Fager, but was clearly off his best form in what would turn out to be the final race of his career.

  3. re the comments above about Damascus, readers may not know that Damascus’ owner, Edith Bancroft, was Woodward’s daughter and used the same silks of Bel Air. Frank Whiteley trained for Mrs Bancroft, and later her two sons raced as Pen-Y-Bryn Farm with Whiteley, who trained their champion sprinter Honorable Miss, a daughter of Danascus. Later Whiteley’s son David also trained for the brothers.

  4. Thanks, everyone, for the comments and additions. There are many interesting pieces of the Woodward story that it was tough making choices about what to leave out, including his breeding and racing legacies.

    Thanks for contributing!

  5. Sid:

    I certainly didn’t know that Mrs. Bancroft was Mr. Woodward’s daughter, as would practically no one who grew up in later years. The legacy of the Woodward family lived on for many years after.

    And as far as the Woodward now being at Saratoga, it was actually for quite a number of years in the 1980s (1981-’87 I believe) run on the same weekend it currently is (Saturday of Labor Day weekend) at 1 1/8 Miles, but on what was then opening weekend of the fall meet at Belmont Park.

    That leads to another question: Is it time to return to ending the Saratoga meet the week before Labor Day and return to Belmont Park starting with the Friday leading into Labor Day weekend or keeping it as it is? One problem that crops up every year with the Saratoga meet ending on Labor Day weekend is I believe many of the summer rentals at Saratoga actually end with the Travers due to college students returning in the week leading up to Labor Day weekend (Steve Crist is never at Saratoga during the last week of the meet I believe because of this), and I believe hotel space is at a bigger premium than it would be otherwise due to the fact many families come in to help their kids with move-ins (an annual ritual where I am in the week leading up to Labor Day) coupled with lack of hotel space the closer to NYC you get due to the US Open Tennis Championships whose first week coincides with the Saratoga meet. Moving the meet up one week (with the Travers, Spinaway and Hopeful all headlining the final weekend at Saratoga in that scenario and the Woodward returned to being the opening Saturday feature of Belmont’s fall meet and perhaps the Man o’War returned to the fall meet and headlining the Labor Day program) might not be the worst thing, especially since many more tourists from the south would be inclined to come to Saratoga early in the meet with an earlier start (it needs to be remembered much of the south begins their new school year the first week in August, some as early as August 1 I believe), as well as in the midwest (which also begins much of the school year in advance of Labor Day, including I believe Chicago). This argument clearly can cut both ways.

  6. Marshall, it certainly is a tangled web, but one you remember well, I’m sure. I believe David trained the gray Zen, one of the last good sons of Damascus, for Pen-Y-Bryn. Mr D of Arlington later stood him in Illinois, where he became the dominant sire in the state.

    Walt, I’d love to see the Woodward back at Belmont, where such greats as Forego won it over one turn, but the Spa is a money maker for NYRA and the meet has been extended over the years to squeeze the dollars.

  7. You really struck a nerve with this story. Below is a link to some Woodward family history. And, Marshall is right; it is a tangled web.

    BTW, the Woodward was, for year’s, America’s championship race. It was the premier weight-for-age race that was run at the end of the season and brought the handicap horses and 3YOs together. It was the B. Cup Classic before there was a B. Cup Classic. One of the biggest upsets of all time was when New York-bred MR. RIGHT beat Belair Stud’s DAMASCUS in 1968.

  8. Sid,

    You are correct in remembering David’s Zen, as I recall.


    And you bring up that thorny road show known as the Breeders’ Cup. But, that’s racing’s golden calf, possibly more appropriate to some other, less wholesome venue.

  9. I love seeing all these comments! Thanks, everyone. It’s great to see that others are also interested in these buried little bits of racing history. Perhaps Mr. Woodward deserves a Part II one of these days.

  10. Teresa:

    You definitely need to do a Part II on Mr. Woodward.


    The ’68 Woodward (first back at Belmont after the rebuilding) did produce a huge upset in what would be considered an anti-climatic race compared to a year earlier (the fabled 1967 running), especially with Nerud passing on trying Damascus again in the ’68 running. Mr. Right has to be considered one of the biggest upsets ever in a major stakes race given how little New York Breds were thought of in 1968.

    As far as Saratoga, my plan would be to both start AND finish the meet one week earlier than at present. The fact is, Saratoga has become a major tourist attraction, and starting earlier would allow more from the south to make the trip to the Spa during early in the season before school starts for many. That would be the main reason to start the meet earlier.

  11. Oops:

    I meant to address Dick on the 1968 Woodward, also failing to mention Dr. Fager passing on that race.

    And my comments to Sid on Saratoga should have read:

    “As far as Saratoga, my plan would be to both start AND finish the meet one week earlier than at present. The fact is, Saratoga has become a major tourist attraction, and starting earlier would allow for more from the south to make the trip to the Spa early in the season before school starts for many. That would be the main reason to start the meet earlier as well as finish it the Monday before Labor Day as it used to, with the Woodward returning to being the opening Saturday feature at Belmont.”

    As I’m writing is, if the meet stays as it is now, as stated before I would make it a seven-week, 35-day meet running Thursday through Monday in the following manner:

    Thursday and Friday: Eight races (nine on opening week), 3:00 PM first post throughout the meet.

    Saturday, Sunday and Monday: 12:30 PM first post, 13 races on Saturdays, 12 on Sundays, eight or nine on Mondays, with the jump race opening Monday programs except closing day. The lone exceptions to this schedule would be Travers Day (11:00 AM first post with the New York Turf Writers Cup opening a 15-race program) and closing day (13 races with first post at 11:30 AM or Noon).

    This would have most weeks 49 races per week (plus the jump race), with the bulk concentrated on Saturday and Sundays when the most people are at Saratoga and simulcast locations.

    I know the local merchants might not like it, but with only eight races on Thursday and Friday, even with a 3:00 PM first post, the last race would be going off around 6:45-6:50 PM most Thursdays and Friday, or around the same time the last race would go off as it did this past Saturday when we had a 12-race card (last race on Saturday went off at 6:54 PM), and only about 40-45 minutes later than when a weekday card is 10 races. The 3:00 PM post also likely means many restaurants can have a noon lunch seating before the races that would make up for losing some early dinner reservations.

    I would also look to have end the Belmont spring meet on the Wednesday after the All-Star game so there are eight days off before the Saratoga meet, and then not start the Belmont fall meet until the second Saturday after Labor Day so there are 11 days off after Saratoga. Having a down week before and after Saratoga would help considerably in making trainers focus on Saratoga, and in turn make for a better quality product during the meet in my opinion.

  12. Dear Teresa,

    Please do consider a Part II for Mr. Woodward. There is much to be remembered, much to be questioned and much to be honored. If you can find the time for the necessary research, I think you will enjoy the excursion — and so will we.

  13. As an author currently at work on a full-length history of Belair Stud, I really enjoyed this piece. Good work! I am thrilled to see that people have such an interest in the Woodwards and Belair Stud.

    By the way, the “TruTV” article linked above contains several errors, so folks may want to avoid that one…I am sure most folks here realize, just in reading the first paragraph, that Nasrullah was not owned by Belair and Nashua did not lose just one race.

    But that has nothing to do with your great article!

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