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You’ve seen dozens of photographs from Kentucky Derbies, and you see the patterns. You’ve got photos of winning horses draped in roses, you’ve got photos of horses charging down the homestretch, you’ve got group portraits of the jockeys, you’ve got the dignitaries presenting the trophies.
And then there’s that photograph, arguably the most famous horse racing photograph ever taken, showing jockeys Don Meade and Herb Fisher, arms entangled, using their whips on each other, rather than their mounts, charging toward the finish line in the 1933 Kentucky Derby, a race whose winner was disputed by the two jockeys ‘til their dying days.
Meade’s horse, Broker’s Tip, as ironic a name today as it was after the stock market crash of 1929, was declared the winner over Fisher’s horse, Head Play, a ruling disputed for the next 60 years by Fisher. But it is the photograph we remember.
By 1933, the Kentucky Derby had largely become the spectacle it is today. As I explored in earlier columns, the first Derby had few of the elements we associate with the race: It was not run at a mile and a quarter, was not run on the first Saturday in May, had no roses, didn’t feature the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and was not part of a Triple Crown. And the track wasn’t even named Churchill Downs.
The elements fell into place one by one. By the end of the 1880s, the Louisville Jockey Club Track was known informally as Churchill Downs, and by the 1930s, had formally adopted that name. In 1896, winner Ben Brush was presented a floral arrangement of white and pink roses. Ridden by the great black jockey Willie Simms, the only black jockey to win all three triple crown races, though on different mounts, Ben Brush was also the first horse to win the Derby at its current length of a mile and a quarter, reduced from its original length of a mile and a half in 1896. The red rose became the official symbol of the race in 1904, and the floral blanket as used today was introduced in 1932. In 1924, Col. Winn introduced the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as part of the ceremony.
Prior to the 1930s, the Derby and Preakness were often run on the same day, or only one week apart; therefore, few horses raced in both. However, in 1930, Gallant Fox had electrified the racing world by winning the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, by then the three premier races in the nation, back to back. By 1931 the racing establishment had set the current Triple Crown schedule in stone, so that the Derby always precedes the Preakness by two weeks, which is followed by the Belmont in three weeks.
By 1933, racing needed all the help it could get. The stock market crash of 1929 had settled into the beginning stages of the Great Depression, and by 1933, racing was as broke as every other business. Col. Matt Winn, who had become the Derby’s chief promoter, hoped that luring Hollywood celebrities to the 1933 Derby would help promote the event, and racing. He didn’t know that the movie stars would be upstaged by a fight between the jockeys.
Going into the race, the sporting press didn’t have much good to say about the Derby field that year. No horse stood out, but most of the press reports surrounded a potential duel between Ladysman, who was linked with a runner named Pomponius in the entry of C.R. Coe, and Head Play, sired by Man O War’s brother, Mad Play, and owned by Mrs. S. B. Mason. Broker’s Tip, owned by the famous Col. E. R. Bradley, whose Idle Hour Stock Farm was one of the top racing stables of the era, was given little chance, if only because he had not won a single race in his six starts.
“Beginning with Bad News in 1902 the superstitious Bradley gave all his horses names that began with the letter B. In 1921 he won his first Derby with Behave Yourself, then repeated with Bubbling Over in 1926 and Burgoo King in 1932. He was Kentucky’s most successful and powerful breeder of that era, as well as a dashing, daring character who didn’t think twice about betting $20,000 on a horse he liked,” Sports Illustrated writer Billy Reed wrote in 1993.
Racing was much more of a rough and tumble sport in the ‘30s than it is today, but no one was ready to see 18-year-old jockey Don Meade and 22-year-old Herb Fisher, with their arms entangled, using their whips on each other rather than their mounts, as they thundered down the final stretch.
Each man went to his grave believing that he had legitimately won the race. In the era before automatic cameras, the only still photograph of the struggle was taken by Louisville Courier-Journal photographer Wallace Lowry, who was lying down under the rail, and had only one chance with his single shot Speed Graphic. And it became the luckiest shot in horse racing photography, arguably the most famous racing photo ever taken.
But that photograph answers neither question which has survived the race: Who won, and who began the fight? Because there was no camera to show the final result, the naming of the winner was left to the four stewards, who watched the race through binoculars from their perch atop the grandstand. Fisher later claimed that three of the four stewards told him that they initially ruled that his horse, Head Play, had won the race, but were overruled by Chief Steward Charles Price. There is no known documentation for this claim.
“Bradley was the king of Kentucky in those days,” Fisher told Reed in an earlier 1983 interview for the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Gave away hundreds of thousands to charity. No way [the stewards] weren’t going to give it to him. If that had been me on his horse, I’d have won it.”
You can still watch the newsreel film of the race on Youtube, and some have suggested, based on this film, that Fisher first grabbed Meade, and that Meade merely defended himself. The film is not taken from the perspective of the finish line, and it is impossible to determine from it who won the race.
Whatever happened on the track didn’t stay there: As soon as the weighing in was over, Fisher claimed that Meade had fouled him, and when the two riders returned to the jockeys’ room, they got into a fistfight, broken up by reporters and other jockeys. Fisher reportedly cried when the stewards announced the result, and rejected his claim of foul.
But even that might have blown over, if it hadn’t been for that photograph.
As Reed wrote, “Although not much was made of the fight at the time, the incident was embellished over the years until it became an integral part of Derby lore. Both Fisher and Meade blamed Lowry’s photograph for preserving the moment. ‘Had it not been for that picture,’ Meade says, ‘the whole thing would have been forgotten.’”
But the race was not forgotten, by either jockey, or by racing fans. It reportedly took Meade and Fisher 30 years to shake hands and make up. In his 1993 Sports Illustrated article, Reed, who had interviewed both men in their retirement in Florida, juxtaposed each’s recollection of the race, and their struggle.
Meade was magnanimous in victory: “He grabbed ahold of me, and we grabbed, grabbed, grabbed all through the stretch. It was the survival of the fittest. I’m not blaming him for what he did, because in those days that’s what you did. It was an accepted thing.”
Some observers have suggested that Fisher began the altercation by unfairly trying to pin Broker’s Tip against the rail. His comments to Reed don’t necessarily deny that: “I just wanted to tighten up on him. I squeezed him against the fence, and he grabbed ahold of the saddlecloth. I didn’t know he had ahold of me until a sixteenth of a mile from the finish.”
While it is impossible to know who won the race, one of Meade’s comments is instructive: “He hit me with the whip after the finish, but not before. His reins were dangling perhaps the last sixteenth of a mile. If he’d just ridden his horse, he’d have won by two or three lengths.”
This comports with the view of other observers, who suggested that Head Play had essentially crossed the finish line riderless: Fisher had lost the reins, and thus control of his horse, during the battle with Meade. But that’s just speculation, just the memories of old men, long after the fact. The only thing we know for sure about that stretch run is what one photograph shows: a battle as much between riders as horses, indistinct and blurred by time.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.