Seventy-five years later, Challedon’s Preakness still a winner.
A gritty, hard-working, proud horse for a gritty, hard-working, proud town, Challedon swept into Baltimore in the spring of 1939 and already had a loyal local following. When the Maryland-sired, -bred, -owned and -trained colt captured the Preakness Stakes, he became a legend.
In the 75 years since Challedon’s victory, the memories have faded but the legend remains. The Preakness propelled the promising youngster into the national spotlight, and over two racing seasons no other horse in the country was more highly regarded.
He was the first to be honored twice as the nation’s Horse of the Year and by the time he retired, he carried a reputation as one of racing’s all-time greats. And throughout his career he made his home state proud, most fervently and indelibly on the second Saturday in May 1939.
“So long as their grandchildren will listen, Maryland horsemen will tell them of the day when they stood in the rain, with bared heads, on a May evening in 1939 and sang the words of their state’s song;
‘Thy Gleaming Sword shall never rust!
Challedon! My Challedon!’
“And the grandchildren will tell the tale themselves, if they are real Maryland horsemen, for that Saturday was a great day of triumph. Maryland-bred, Maryland-owned, Maryland-trained Challedon, a big bay with a fleck of white on his forehead, had won the Preakness and revenged himself–and Maryland–for his defeat in the Kentucky Derby,” reflected Robert F. Kelley in The Jockey Club’s historic reference Racing in America 1937-1959.
Challedon was a product of the breeding operation of William L. Brann and Robert S. Castle. The former advertising executives were, in the words of Brann, “two tired and retired business men who turned to racing and breeding for recreation.”
They established a nursery near Fred-erick, Md., in the late 1920s and named it Branncastle Farm. Their most important and successful decision was purchasing and importing their future stallion, English-bred *Challenger II.
The son of Swynford would never have been available had he been able to fulfill the plans of his previous owner, Lord Dewar (of the Scotch). Undefeated as a 2-year-old, the colt had been highly touted for the 1930 Epsom Derby, but when Lord Dewar died a few months before the race, a bizarre English racing rule at the time voided all race nominations for the deceased’s runners. Thus *Challenger II missed out on classic destiny and made a cross-Atlantic trip as a racing and stallion prospect.
Before he could arrive in the States, however, his racing career was thwarted once again when he sustained injuries while on trainer Fred Darling’s Beckhampton training gallops, getting caught up in a barbed wire fence–leaving *Challenger II with a severely lacerated right hock. An attempt was made to get him back to the races, but he never remained sound enough to return to his previous form and soon was shuffled off to stud at Branncastle.
Although regally bred with a reputation as a high-class runner, *Challenger II received little early interest from local breeders. In his first four crops he sired 51 foals, the majority bred by Brann and Castle. When Challedon was born at Branncastle in 1936 (a member of his sire’s fourth crop), Brann was running the entire operation, having bought out the ailing Castle, and the farm was soon renamed Glade Valley. *Challenger II was the nation’s leading sire in 1939 and eventually sired 316 foals, of which 34 were stakes winners.
The Challedon Team
Former jockey Louis Schaefer began training for Brann by the summer of 1937, when Challedon was a yearling. A decade earlier, Schaefer had been the regular rider of the likes of Sun Beau and Display, and had guided Dr. Freeland to victory in the 1929 Preakness. With Challedon’s victory, Schaefer became the first person to ride and train a winner of the classic (John Longden is the only other, riding Count Fleet in 1943 and saddling Majestic Prince in 1969).
Challedon came along slowly as a 2-year-old, and Schaefer selected for his first start a 51?2-furlong maiden special at Delaware Park in July. Green and totally overlooked in the betting, the colt closed fast to wind up third, but was 6 lengths behind the winner.
Two months later, the late bloomer reappeared, and won. He was then teamed up with jockey George Seabo and together they won three consecutive stakes: the Maryland Futurity for Maryland-breds, and rich New England and Pimlico Futurities. Considered by many as the best juvenile in competition that fall, Brann’s colt was the second-richest 2-year-old runner of the year (behind champion El Chico), appeared on the short list of winter book favorites for the Kentucky Derby, and prompted esteemed turf writer John “Salvator” Hervey to comment in American Race Horses 1938: “He should be one of 1939’s great 3-year-olds.”
Barely 30 years old and relatively unknown as a trainer, Schaefer based his winter operation at the old Bennings racetrack near Washington, D.C., about an hour’s drive from Glade Valley. Among Challedon’s visitors over the winter was Humphrey S. Finney, who reported for The Maryland Horse that he found Maryland’s classics hopeful thriving. “When inspected recently by the writer the colt appeared to have grown and developed in the right way, and has all appearances of showing as well this year as he did last,” noted Finney.
The training regimen would be totally unconventional today, but was quite the norm for the time. Challedon didn’t make his first start of the year until Havre de Grace’s Chesapeake Stakes in late April, and finished third behind more seasoned runners Gilded Knight and Impound. Two weeks later he lined up for the Kentucky Derby.
Preparations to get to the Derby, run May 6, were detailed by Hervey in American Race Horses 1939: “After the [Chesapeake Stakes] the colt remained at Havre for nearly a week and during that time was breezed 3 furlongs in :372?5 on April 25, followed by a mile in 1:50 over a muddy track on the 27th, and on the afternoon of the same day was shipped to Louisville, arriving the next one at Churchill Downs.
“There was no intention of giving him a preparatory race before the Derby. His first work there was 5 furlongs in 1:00, with a quarter in :233?5 and a half in :474?5, on Sunday, April 30. On Tuesday, May 2, he was given a distance trial for the Derby of 2:08, with the quarter time :26, :52 1/5, 1:18, 1:48 1/5 and though he did the last quarter in :24 4/5 he finished ‘under stout restraint.’ A half on Friday, the 5th, in :51 3/5 completed his edging-up.”
The Derby was the first meeting between Challedon and Johnstown. Both were out of daughters of *Sir Gallahad III bred by William Woodward, owner of the famed Belair Stud in Maryland. Woodward had sold both mares–La France, the dam of Johnstown, was bought privately by A.B. Hancock (of Claiborne Farm); Challedon’s dam Laura Gal was purchased by Brann at auction for $2,050 during her 2-year-old season. Woodward bought Johnstown privately from Hancock as a yearling.
Johnstown, trained by James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, won the Derby with ease, 8 lengths to the better of Challedon, who got up late to finish second. The Preakness was contested one week later.
Challedon was bedded down at Pimlico by Monday, and during a week of persistent rain showers, he appeared for a public work between races on Thursday, navigating a mile in 1:41 4/5 while hard held. The threat of heavy rain was realized on Saturday, when by mid-morning it came down steadily, turning the track from fast to sloppy.
The rain stopped an hour before the 5:15 post time, but the track was a quagmire–welcomed by Challedon’s connections, as he had shown he could handle an off track, but loathed by the Johnstown camp, as their colt had never raced in heavy going. That didn’t deter bettors, who backed the Derby winner heavily, sending him and stablemate Gilded Knight off at 2-5, while Challedon was the second choice at more than 6-1.
The tables for the 64th running of Preakness turned. To the delight of the locals among the nearly 30,000 on hand, the Marylander relished the opportunity, taking the lead turning for home and holding off Gilded Knight to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Johnstown finished fifth of six, more than 11 lengths back.
The roar of approval was deafening as the Baltimore crowd cheered Challedon home. Joe H. Palmer, writing for The Blood-Horse, reported the scene: “When the Brann horse threw himself into the battle on the upper turn, with the hell-for-leather abandon of a bull pup, he was cheered on by many a voice whose owner had taken 2 to 5 on the Fitzsimmons entry. There was about as healthy a scene of enthusiasm as I have seen recently while the blanket of black-eyed susans was being flung over Challedon [who paid no attention to them at all] and Mr. Brann and Governor O’Conor were presenting each other the Woodlawn Vase and being photographed. If everyone who was pleased with the result had bet on the winner, he would have been about 1 to 10. The horse, however, not the play, was the thing, and when Challedon, unsaddled and blanketed, was led up the stretch a general bedlam went with him.”
It was the first win of the year for Challedon. And he was just getting started.
Horse of the Year Campaign
Challedon had not been made eligible for the Belmont Stakes, which was won in a canter by Johnstown. They met twice more–Johnstown upstaging Challedon in the Dwyer Stakes two weeks after the Belmont, and Challedon returning the favor at Arlington Park in the Classic in July. The Classic concluded the campaign for Johnstown, but it was only the midway point of the season for Challedon.
Described by William H.P. Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America as “a big, robust colt, not really exceptional in size [16 hands, 1 inch] but he appeared larger than he actually was because of a commanding presence. This in some measure probably accounted for his great popularity,” Challedon proved to have an iron constitution.
From the Classic at Arlington to his final start of the year in the Pimlico Special Nov. 1, he made eight starts and traveled (in order) to Narragansett in Rhode Island, Hawthorne (Illinois), Havre de Grace (Maryland), Keeneland (Kentucky), back to Maryland to Laurel and finally Pimlico. He won seven times during the stretch, and was second in the other.
Challedon didn’t just win those races, he powered through them. In the Arlington Classic, he completed the mile and a quarter in 2:02, the sixth fastest time in history for a 3-year-old. He defeated the West Coast’s top runner, the year-older *Kayak II, in the Narragansett Special. Challedon was the first 3-year-old to win the Hawthorne Gold Cup (won in previous years by handicap stars Display, Sun Beau, Equipoise and Discovery). At Keeneland, he set a world record of 1:54 3/5 for 1 3/16 miles.
For the winner-take-all Pimlico Special, worth $10,000 plus a gold trophy valued at $3,500, Challedon once again faced *Kayak II.
In virtually a match race, as only one other runner lined up, the top two shot away from the gate. Guided by Eddie Arcaro, who became Challedon’s fourth rider that year (following Seabo, Harry Richards and George Woolf), the 3-year-old once again held off his older rival, winning by a half length as the favorite.
In 15 starts that year, all stakes, Challedon won nine, and finished worse than third on only one occasion, when fourth in the Massachusetts Handicap in his first start against older runners.
The editor of The Maryland Horse wired the connections immediately following Challedon’s Arlington Classic victory and received a response from Brann about his colt’s ability and future engagements (after England’s Ascot Gold Cup was mentioned). Wrote Brann: “It was very fine to receive your telegram which came to the barn. I read it to Challedon while he was drinking champagne out of his new gold cup. He pricked up his ears very quickly at the mention of the Ascot Cup. I am suspicious that after all, he is a pretty loyal Englishman, and would, as the newpapers put it, ‘Like to go over and attend to that little unfinished business for his Daddy.’
“I shall be very interested to compare this time with that of other 3-year-olds. I know it is the second fastest time for the Classic, but I am wondering how many 3-year-olds ever ran in 2:02. For that matter, I wonder how many older horses ever did.
“You may perhaps think I am a little complimentary to Challedon but I think his run the last half mile in the Massachusetts was rather amazing. Lou says the colt was back 30 lengths, others estimated it as from 20 to 30. He certainly did some running the last 3 furlongs.”
Looking back over the season, Hervey reiterated the general belief “of the great majority of turfmen,” that Challedon “is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever seen in this country. This opinion embraces all horses of our entire turf history, ‘from the earliest times to the present day,’ and barring none, even the mightiest, whose names, in the words of the poet, forever echo ‘down the corridors of time.’?”
The start of Challedon’s 4-year-old season was delayed repeatedly, mainly due to poor weather, which slowed his progress. While rumors flew that he was unsound, he returned in July in a race carded by Suffolk Downs to set him up for the Massachusetts Handicap. He won what was essentially a public workout, and was sent off as the heavy favorite in the Mass Cap, but his rally came up short and he finished third behind Eight Thirty and Hash while carrying top weight of 130 pounds.
Challedon’s connections then chose to make up for lost time. He was shipped across the country to contest the Hollywood Gold Cup, 10 days after the Mass Cap. This time he was assigned 133 pounds, the co-highweight with *Kayak II. The 3,000-mile trip, the quick turnaround and the heavy burden could not slow down the Maryland runner. In a masterpiece, he won by 1 1/4 lengths and set a track record of 2:02 for 1 1/4 miles.
It was back on a train and an engagement in Saratoga’s 1 1/4-mile Whitney Stakes a month later. Challedon won, but by the slimmest of margins in an all-out stretch drive over a horse considered far inferior. The result left observers questioning Challedon’s greatness. Two weeks later, Schaefer resigned as trainer.
Challedon was on target for his next assignment, the Narragansett Special, with Don Cameron taking charge. Carrying 130 pounds, the defending champion finished second to Hash (in receipt of eight pounds).
Such was the admiration for Challedon that many were ready to concede that the cross-country trips were the cause of the lost luster. Wrote Hervey: “As they tried to thresh out his case they said, to themselves if not openly: ‘Challedon, too, though he may be a superhorse, is made of flesh and blood. And there’s a limit. He’s paying now for that Hollywood adventure. It took a superhorse to put over such a feat. But even super-horses, at long last, must pay the price.’ ”
One week later, Challedon returned to familiar soil and easily won the Havre de Grace Handicap under 130 pounds, 20 more than the runner-up. And then he soundly defeated his only rival, Can’t Wait, in a repeat of the Pimlico Special over a sloppy track.
Criticism of his fall campaign, and the late start to his season, were not enough to deny him his second crown as Horse of the Year. He won five of seven, was never worse than third, and was assigned 130 pounds or more in all but weight-for-age events.
Tough to the End
Challedon continued to race through age 6, and in his final year of competition made 13 starts, but was clearly a few notches below his best. When he retired in November 1942, he had won 20 of his 44 starts, recorded 17 stakes wins and seven stakes placings, and earned $334,660, which made him the sixth-richest horse in the world at the time. He was inducted into the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
Marylanders have had a fair share of talented runners to follow over the decades, but Challedon was the first to promote the state’s breeding industry at the highest level on the national stage.
It’s a legacy to be embraced 75 years later.
Challedon’s classic win was an inspiration
You shall not cower in the dust,
Challedon, my Challedon. Your gleaming plates shall never rust,
Challedon, my Challedon. You stood off Johnstown’s vaunted rush, You left Ciencia in the slush, And we all went home plenty flush!
Challedon, my Challedon.
Sung to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland” The Blood-Horse’s Joe H. Palmer credited Edgar G. Horn of Turf and Sport Digest in Baltimore for composing lyrics for a song that made the rounds in the city following Challedon’s Preakness victory, a play on the state song, Maryland, My Maryland. Palmer reported that by midnight it “was spreading through the night clubs and hot spots of Baltimore.” Challedon’s victory was also reported (by other sources) to have inspired Baltimore resident, racing fan and famed poet Ogden Nash to pen “O Challedon, O Challedon.” Unfortunately, a copy of the Nash poem was unable to be located.
But the witty Nash’s love of the Preakness is conveyed through this verse: “The Derby is a handsome race of aristocratic sleekness, Where steeds of birth may prove their worth for running in the Preakness.”