Story Time: “Fighting Finish”, The 1933 Kentucky Derby

The 59th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 6, 1933 was one of those races that even 80 years later people still talk about. The only photo of the fight itself, taken by Courier Journal photographer Wallace Lowry, is the most requested reprint of any image in the Courier Journal archives. [1]

1933-Derby

There are a few rumors as to how Lowry was able to get this shot. Some say he was asleep on the ground before the race began and woke up just in time to take the shot, others say he was drunk when he rolled on the track, snapped the shot, and quickly got back under the rail. Regardless of how he got it, what would be called the “Fighting Finish” is one of the most famous racing photographs. [1]

But what is going on here? The race came down to two horses, Head Play on the left ridden by 22-year-old Herb Fisher and Broker’s Tip on the right, ridden by 18-year-old Don Meade and owned by Colonel E. R. Bradley. While neither horse was the favorite, Head Play was the more accomplished horse. Broker’s Tip had come in third in the Cincinnati Trophy as a two-year-old, and that was his most impressive finish. Head Play on the other hand won that race, the Hawthorne Juvenile, and the prestigious Derby Trial run a few days before the Kentucky Derby. As they ran down the stretch, Head Play begins to drift into Broker’s Tip, so Meade tries to push Fisher away which leads to Fisher grabbing Broker’s Tip’s saddle cloth, and Meade grabbing Fisher’s shoulder.[2] [3] After the finish, Fisher hits Meade with his whip. Fisher called a foul after the race for interference, as a horse drifting into another was legal, but the stewards disallowed it. [2] [4] Even after the race, the two fought in the jockey’s room which resulted in Meade being suspended for 30 days, and Fisher for 35. [2]

Here is a screen grab of the finish. This is not an official photo, as they didn’t exist then, but even at full speed it is clear that something is, you might say, fishy, with the result besides the brawl itself.

1933 Finish

It does not help that the camera is positioned just before the finish, but from the replay and this unofficial screenshot, it is pretty clear that Head Play was across the line first. With no photo finish cameras and no replay, the stewards declared Broker’s Tip the winner. Herb Fisher broke into tears after hearing the result, and until his dying day insisted that he and Head Play had won. [4]

After the Derby, Head Play would go on to win the Preakness, Suburban Handicap, San Antonio Handicap, and the Bay Meadows Handicap with career earnings of almost $110,000. Broker’s Tip on the other hand, ended his career with the Kentucky Derby as his only win.

Colonel E. R. Bradley of Idle Hour Stock Farm was one of the most important figures in racing in the 1920s and 1930s after purchasing his first major stallion Black Toney from John Keene in 1912. Later in 1930 Bradley purchased one of the most influential mares of all time, La Troienne. Every horse Bradley owned had names starting with the letter “B”. Notable horses he owned were Hall of Famers Blue Larkspur, Bimelech, and a daughter of War Admiral that he bred but sold named Busher. In 1926 he purchased the Fair Grounds Racetrack in New Orleans, Louisiana to restore it and was an investor in Miami’s winter getaway, Hialeah Park. Occasionally he would host race meets at Idle Hour to benefit Kentucky orphans. [5]

He was so prominent on the national level that the May 7, 1934 edition of TIME Magazine featured him on the cover. In 2014, he was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame.

E R Bradley TIME

The chart for the race declares Broker’s Tip as “much the best” even though he only won by a nose. [2] Some people claim that the only reason Bradley’s horse was the winner of that race was due to Colonel Bradley’s prominence in Kentucky racing. With no clear way to decide, the stewards declared Bradley’s horse the winner, in what would be his fourth and final win.

The result of the race has been debated since the horses crossed the finish line in 1933, the two strongest voices being the jockeys, Don Meade and Herb Fisher. Regardless of what people say happened, the result will always be the same: Broker’s Tip is the official winner of the 59th Kentucky Derby, with Head Play a nose behind in second.


Sources used:

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/videos/sports/2014/05/02/8625007/

[2] http://www.horseracingbusiness.com/a-fight-to-the-finish-9804.htm

[3] http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1996-12-23/news/9612220157_1_dennis-meade-horse-trainer-mr-meade

[4] http://www.kyforward.com/robert-treadway-disputed-1933-ky-derby-came-to-a-%E2%80%98fighting-finish%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93-between-jockeys/

[5] https://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/e-r-bradley

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