After the finish of the 1929 Kentucky Derby, a stunned and rain soaked Col. E.R. Bradley told reporters the race had crowned the worst Derby winner in 20 years. Bradley's highly accomplished Blue Larkspur had fallen to a horse so little and unfortunate-looking, his trainer had warned his jockey about the dangers of judging a book by its cover.
Clyde Van Dusen, conditioned by a trainer of the same name, was not what people typically thought of when they conjured images of sleek Thoroughbreds. The son of Man o' War and Uncle's Lassie was a tiny chestnut of rather unfortunate proportions, prompting one writer to describe him as “a mere pony of a horse with a weedy frame.” He had come into the race with a respectable resume, having won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Orphanage Stakes, Valley Stakes, and Idle Hour Stakes– all at two, when he started 17 times. He'd finished behind Blue Larkspur, who won four of his seven races at two and was generally thought to be better-bred.
One thing he did have going for him though, was a quick-minded trainer and farrier. Rain had come down in sheets over the Churchill Downs track, turning the track into a sea of mud. The human Clyde Van Dusen had the forethought to have mud caulks, little removable studs or cleats, added to Clyde's shoes in anticipation of the deep going. Over in Blue Larkspur's barn however, there was chaos. Trainer Derby Dick Thompson had been struck down with appendicitis and no one thought about changing the horse's shoes.
Clyde Van Dusen (the human) was a former jockey who became a trainer for Herbert P. Gardner and later Charles Fisher's Dixiana Farm and Louis B. Mayer. Van Dusen would become one of the more dominant trainers of the 1930s and take the Santa Anita training title in 1941, but in 1929 he had yet to reach that level of fame. The horse Gardner named for him certainly didn't look like he was on the verge of becoming famous.
“Clyde is a little horse and that is why Mr. Gardner named him after me,” the human Van Dusen joked.
The equine Clyde was a homebred for Gardner, raised on Few Acres Farm, on Todd's Road just outside Lexington, Ky., and his trainer knew him well. He also knew the horse was better than he looked on first impressions, so he went up to the jockeys' quarters to have a chat with rider J. Linus “Pony” McAtee before saddling the horse. McAtee was a last-minute rider substitute and had never seen his Derby mount before.
“I was kinda scared when I first saw Clyde because he is so little, but now I can say he is one of the finest and gamest horses of them all,” McAtee said after the race.
Clyde Van Dusen, McAtee and his weather-ready shoes went to the post alongside 20 others (down from the 26 horses originally entered), in what would be the last edition of the Derby without a starting gate. McAtee got him away from the start quickly and never looked back. While other horses struggled in the mud, McAtee stayed clean with just a single spot of mud on his face while talking to reporters after the contest.
As if it weren't insulting enough to Bradley that he lost the roses over a set of mud caulks, he'd also lost to a gelding. Because of Clyde's neutered status in fact, he was banned from competing in the 1929 Belmont, where Blue Larkspur regained his winning form handily despite a wet surface there. In those days, Thoroughbred owners were more often also breeders who did not want their future studs to lose value being shown up by a horse who had no future in the breeding shed. In fact, geldings wouldn't be permitted to start in the Belmont until 1957.
For his part, Clyde Van Dusen was never quite the same after the Derby, though one horseman close to him attributed this to a swift kick from a pony horse. He won one race in 1930, sat out the next two seasons and returned in 1933, struggling to win a claiming race. His trainer decided it was time to retire his Derby winner, and Clyde Van Dusen returned to his home at Few Acres Farm. There, he lived alongside Pony Bill, the lead pony who took him to the track (though no word whether this was the same pony who gave him that nagging injury).
After Pony Bill died of old age around 1941, Clyde Van Dusen returned to the racetrack as his trainer's personal mount, taking horses to the track in the mornings. He died in 1948 at the age of 23.
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