Quote of the Month

"Immortality has been realized once the roar of the crowd has been united."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Calling Omaha

As the Denver Broncos settle in at the line of scrimmage for their first offensive play of   Super Bowl XLVIII, one word will assuredly be bellowed by quarterback Peyton Manning over and over and over again. “Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!” The word itself has quite literally become a battle cry for the entire Rocky Mountain Region, a stirring call to arms for one group of modern day gladiators, and a declaration of war as understood by yet another.

Manning Calls For An Audible (AP Photo)
Debate has ensued since the time Manning first barked out his team’s code word for an audible. Native Nebraskans will swear that he is paying homage to the place that gave birth to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. After all, the Gateway to the West is a city that prides itself on both hard work and progress. Veterans will adamantly disagree, insisting instead that the word is a tribute to D-Day and to the Allied forces that stormed the coast of Normandy at Omaha Beach in 1944. The invasion was made in an effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi Occupation during World War II. On that day, men fought for country but bled for each other. It was the Greatest Generation in their most formidable hour, involved in an undertaking that would eventually help alter the course of history as we know it today.

Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944 (National Archives)
Associations are made so that people can identify more closely with matters of significant importance. Just as Nebraskans are entitled to their feelings of kinship with Manning’s play call, so too are the military veterans. The reasons behind these bonds may differ, but the word by which they are united is meaningful and special to each of them.

In the world of horse racing, this word can evoke but one image, and that image is of the 1935 Triple Crown Winner whose lifetime was colored by uncommon brilliance.

Omaha was bred at Belair Stud in Maryland, a horse racing stable and breeding farm that dates back further than most people have cared to trace their own lineage. It was erected during Colonial times, but the farm did not gain great prominence until it was purchased by New York City banker James T. Woodward in 1898. Woodward and his family constructed glorious new stables just after the turn of the twentieth century, and upon his passing, the property and all of its enterprise was turned over to his nephew, William Woodward, Sr.

Under William Woodward, the farm produced some of the most magnificent thoroughbreds the United States had ever seen. Woodward built his broodmare line with French imports, but the results of this breeding operation became pure American masterpieces.

Omaha was foaled at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky on March 24, 1932. He was a chestnut horse with a white blaze, and as a yearling he was described by some as clumsy and awkward. Omaha was the son of 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox out of the mare Flambino. Woodward had grand hopes for this son of racing royalty. In fact, he was so inspired early on by the colt’s arrival that he gave serious consideration to shipping him over to England to train for the Epsom Derby. Fortunately, he delayed this move until 1936.

James Edward Fitzsimmons, better known as Sunny Jim, was hired on as the Belair Stud trainer by William Woodward in 1923. Sunny Jim had trained Gallant Fox throughout his Triple Crown campaign, so taking on the duties for Omaha seemed only fitting.

Omaha did not have an auspicious start to his two-year-old season. He lost his very first race in a photo finish, but managed to break his maiden five days later on June 23, 1934. Seven more times he would start that calendar year, and seven more times he would lose. He ran fourth in the Hotel Stakes, and fourth again in the Saratoga Special Stakes. He did piece together strong performances in the Sanford, Hopeful, and Champagne Stakes, but ran a disappointing fourth in the Futurity at Belmont Park. He would close out his year with a solid second in the Junior Champion Stakes over one mile, yet the promise his owner and trainer had seen from the beginning was not translating into victories on the race track.

Omaha With Willie "Smokey" Saunders
1935 blew in like a windstorm of unfettered dreams, and Omaha continued to receive top billing from the Belair Stud and William Woodward. Sunny Jim was pleased to see that his prized colt had filled out with a good deal of muscle, and Jockey Willie “Smokey” Saunders received word that he would be given the mounts on Omaha for his three-year-old season. All the pieces of the puzzle appeared to be in place.

Omaha’s first race of the year was a smashing allowance victory at Aqueduct Race Track. He was next entered into the Wood Memorial Stakes, where he ran just third, but was said to be closing “like a runaway train” by an on-site reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. Despite having won only two races, Omaha would go to post as the second choice in the 1935 Kentucky Derby. The favorite was Calumet Farm’s Nellie Flag, the well-meant daughter to Man o’ War’s champion son American Flag, ridden by jockey Eddie Arcaro. 

The course at Churchill Downs was listed as good, but the weather was troubled at best.  The eighteen horses entered lined up for a standing start that day. When the gun sounded, Omaha broke in good order, and as the field moved along the backstretch, he systematically began to pick off horses as they made their way up to the quarter pole. By the time the group came off the turn, Omaha and Willie “Smokey” Saunders seized the lead and would never look back. A hard-charging Roman Soldier finished second, but Nellie Flag could do no better than fourth. Omaha had decisively earned his roses.

Omaha Following His Preakness Victory
Omaha went on to capture the Preakness at Pimlico by seven lengths over Firethorn, yet a loss in the Withers to Rosemont created doubt as the Belmont Stakes rapidly approached. The track at Belmont was sloppy and just five runners were entered. They moved in a tight pack for the first third of the race, but as they neared the midway point, Firethorn began to separate himself from the rest of the field. This led to one of the most celebrated stretch drives in the history of the Triple Crown. Firethorn continued to pull away, but incredibly, Omaha was now pulling on Firethorn. He drew alongside the front-runner with less than one furlong to go, and like a star in the dark of the night, he shot by Firethorn to take the Belmont and complete the Triple Crown.

Omaha’s brilliance did not end in the mud at Belmont. He dominated the Dwyer Stakes and outlasted his competition in the Arlington Classic. In 1936, William Woodward made good on his pledge and sent him over to England to compete in a series of renowned turf races. This included appearances in such races as the Queen’s Plate, the Ascot Gold Cup, and the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket. Omaha performed admirably, but it will forever be his Triple Crown success for which he is best remembered.

Omaha’s career at stud was less than a stellar one. He sired very few noteworthy offspring during his time back at Claiborne Farm. Ultimately, he was shipped off to the Jockey Club’s Breeding Bureau in upstate New York. He remained there for the next seven years, until he was moved once again, this time to a farm forty-five miles south of Omaha in Nebraska. It was there that the 1935 Triple Crown champion would live out the rest of his life. He could occasionally be seen at the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track, or posing for pictures on the farm with families and young children. Lives can be lost to tragedy, but some are merely claimed by time. Omaha died in 1959 at the age of twenty-seven. 

On Super Bowl Sunday, Peyton Manning will lead the Denver Broncos onto the field. His offense will stride to the line of scrimmage, and he will belt out an audible for the whole of a nation to hear. Some people might think of a city, while others may reflect on a war, but everyone should remember a champion as he calls out for Omaha.   

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Author

My photo
The author is a horse racing enthusiast determined to offer a unique vision of the sport's most paramount stories.