04/27/2013 4:49PM

Fifty years ago, Chateaugay became Darby Dan's first classic winner

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Keeneland Library/Meaders
Darby Dan founder John Galbreath with Chateaugay after the horse won the 1963 Kentucky Derby.

It took Darby Dan homebred Chateaugay 2:01 4/5 to complete the 1963 Kentucky Derby and give John Galbreath his first classic victory. But Galbreath’s trip to Churchill Downs had started in earnest back in 1957, when he gradually convinced Rex Ellsworth to sell him Swaps, a half-interest at a time over the course of a year, for a total of $2 million.

Swaps had won the 1955 Derby, an obviously compelling point that gained even more force as one looked back along the colt’s female line, which had an unusually good habit of producing Derby winners. His second dam, the War Admiral mare Iron Maiden, was the mother of 1957 Derby winner Iron Liege, and her second dam had produced the gelding Clyde Van Dusen, who took the 1929 edition.

Hoping to breed and race a Derby winner himself, Galbreath thought this made Swaps a good investment as a stallion, and it didn’t take him very long to be proven right.

When Galbreath bred Swaps to the very good Polynesian mare Banquet Bell in 1959, he had good reason to like the mating. It had already produced Primonetta, a yearling filly he thought showed great promise. She did indeed; the year before her younger full brother Chateaugay won the Derby, Primonetta became a champion distaffer. Later, in 1978, she was named Broodmare of the Year.

Chateaugay came into the Derby off a narrow Blue Grass Stakes win nine days earlier, but most considered his credentials paler than those of undefeated Florida Derby winner Candy Spots and the former champion juvenile and Flamingo Stakes winner Never Bend. Rounding out the top three was another Swaps son, No Robbery, also undefeated and the winner of the Wood Memorial.

Chateaugay was stabled in Barn 42 – on the barn’s “unfashionable side,” as Sports Illustrated’s Whitney Tower put it. “Not many people went to call on him, for not many people really believed he had a good shot at the big money,” Tower wrote. One horse they thought was very likely to get that money was Candy Spots, trained by the man who had trained Swaps, Mesh Tenney. The public duly sent Candy Spots off as the heavy favorite under Bill Shoemaker, while Chateaugay was 9-1.

Never Bend and No Robbery took up the early running in that order, with Candy Spots stalking behind them, and for much of the race, it appeared “the big three” would form the winning trifecta. Things fell apart first, and worst, for Shoemaker. Candy Spots appeared rank early, prompting Shoemaker to steady him at the five-sixteenths pole when he got too close to No Robbery, and then, rather than pull to the outside for his stretch run, Shoemaker got Candy Spots bottled up on the inside. Stifled there behind the leaders, he finally pulled outside again, but it was too late.

Chateaugay, having settled in sixth early under Braulio Baeza, now roared up from behind and picked off a tired No Robbery, then battled past Never Bend. Chateaugay won by 1 1/4 lengths, and Never Bend held off Candy Spots by a neck; No Robbery ended up fifth.

Chateaugay took precisely the same time to win the Derby as his sire did when he upset the race back in 1955, and Swaps’s old trainer couldn’t help but be pleased even after Candy Spots’s bad race. “If we couldn’t win, I’m sure glad to see you win,” Tenney reportedly told Galbreath. “In fact, we always get a kick out of seeing any son of Swaps win, and yours is a good one.”

Arriving to meet Churchill President Wathen Knebelkamp for the winner’s champagne toast, Galbreath revealed that he’d had an unusual good-luck charm in his pocket during the race: a necklace of gold braid festooned with wishbones that his cook at Darby Dan had pieced together before the Galbreaths had left the Lexington, Ky., farm.

Galbreath didn’t don the necklace until the race was over, but maybe it had done the trick anyway; Galbreath told reporters that Chateaugay had sported one of the chicken wishbones in the left side of his bridle as he went into the Derby starting gate.

Back at Darby Dan, Chateaugay’s victory prompted someone to revive an old tradition that had dated back to the days when the Lexington property had been part of Col. E.R. Bradley’s Idle Hour Stock Farm. Whenever the farm had a Derby winner – and Bradley had four – they rang a bell that sounded across the farm. Before Chateaugay, it had been 30 years since the bell had rung, and that was for Bradley’s 1933 victor, Brokers Tip.

Chateaugay’s Kentucky Derby win was just the start of a string of Darby Dan classic successes. The Swaps colt went on to win the 1963 Belmont, and Galbreath picked up a second Kentucky Derby trophy when Proud Clarion won in 1967. He won two legs of the Triple Crown again in 1974, when Little Current (Banquet Bell’s grandson) won the Preakness and Belmont.

And, in 1972, he became the first person to own and breed both a Kentucky Derby winner and an Epsom Derby winner when his great colt Roberto – named after his Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Fame player Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash later that year – defeated Rheingold in England’s “Blue Riband of the Turf.”