Cup of Coffee: Sunny Jim

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Happy Birthday James Edward “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. The Hall of Fame trainer was born on July 23, 1874. We missed it by a day (if reader Dan Haney would have just texted Tuesday instead of Wednesday…) but, technically, I’m typing this on his birthday.

Born in Brooklyn, Fitzsimmons trained 12 champions, won 13 Triple Crown races and trained two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha. Saratoga? Fitzsimmons won the Saratoga Cup 10 times, the Alabama eight times and any race he set out to win.

Of course, there is one place to go for a history lesson.

“I loved Fitzsimmons, he was a great man,” Allen Jerkens said. “He was the first guy who knew you had to kowtow to the owners, he’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to ask Mr. Woodward, if we should put the blinkers on him…’ He covered all the bases.”

They said Fitzsimmons didn’t pay well, Jerkens scoffed.

“First thing I noticed, when they had a horse come back from running, they would have six guys ready to wash him. He was the first to give days off,” Jerkens said. “When we raced at Jamaica, they’d walk them a little while; if they won, they’d stay a little longer, but if they didn’t win, they’d get a swallow of water, couple of turns and get on the van.”

Fitzsimmons and Jerkens – one a legendary trainer, one a fledgling trainer – talked about horses, about business, about life. Fitzsimmons always offered nuggets of advice, hand-grips in a slippery business.

“How you doing, sonny?” Fitzsimmons asked.

“Not very good, Mr. Fitz.”

“You doing the best you can?”


“That’s all you can do,” Fitzsimmons said. “Don’t knock yourself, because there’s plenty of people out there who will do it for you.”

Fitzsimmons was cordial to jockeys, propping them up even when they made mistakes.

“Well, you rode him better than I would have,” Fitzsimmons would say to jockeys after a loss. A natural mentor, he knew a jockey needed to be confident in the trainer’s confidence to succeed. If there’s doubt, don’t ever let them see the doubt, the better the instincts, the better the jockey. Instinct is confidence’s first born.

Unquestionably one of racing’s legendary trainers, Fitzsimmons has been described by Jerkens as “the Todd Pletcher of his day.” Fitzsimmons had few peers.

“When I come around,” Jerkens said. “It seemed like everybody that did good, they said trained too hard, Fitzsimmons, Max Hirsch, I started saying to myself, ‘how come they have all the good horses?’ Those big outfits, they would keep a horse who was a good workhorse, just to keep them to work against the good horse. Some of those guys would use two of them, one would break off and the other would pick them up at the half-mile pole.”

People said Woodward told Fitzsimmons to train the horses hard. Like all trainers, Fitzsimmons worried. “Some of them will fall by the wayside doing that,” the trainer told his boss. “We might overdo it with these horses trying to get to all the distance races.” Woodward answered confidently, “No one will know it but you and I.”

Confidence instilled.

Horses from the Fitzsimmons and Jerkens stables did not clash frequently on the racetrack, but their paths crossed during those early years.

With good a horse in every stall, Fitzsimmons gave Jerkens a horse. On the racetrack, they call it taking a horse on a deal. When you’re young and struggling, you take horses on deals, especially from a guy like Fitzsimmons, forging a relationship – a pipeline – like that could change the game. Unwritten but understood, a deal usually means, ‘Take this horse, if you do any good with him, give me some money later.’ Jerkens took the horse for $5,000 (to be paid later), ran him and lost him for $4,000 at Tropical Park. If he won, there would have been money for Jerkens. He got beat, so there was only money for Fitzsimmons.

“Well, sonny, you did pretty good,” the Hall of Famer told Jerkens. “If I take all this money, you won’t have any.”

Fitzsimmons gave $2,500 to Jerkens.

“Money from heaven,” Jerkens called it.

Jerkens took that money and parlayed it. Every trainer has horses that were the catalysts for more horses, the ones who became building blocks for careers. Thanks to Fitzsimmons, the horse on the deal was one.

“A friend of mine came down and said if you see a cheap horse, claim him, we claimed one for $2,500, we won two and lost him for $6,000. You get your own, that makes you learn. In fact, Preston Burch said, ‘Nothing teaches you more than having your own money in them,’ ” Jerkens said. “Man was that ever important. Right after my father died and my wife was having our first child, and she was in New York and I went down to Florida, he won at Hialeah. Then he won again in New York. We claimed him for $2,500 and we lost him for $6,000. Breathing room.”

Jerkens used that breathing room to gain a few more clients, gather a few more horses. The road began to take shape.

“Then I got lucky, people sent me some horses, you have to have a little luck,” said Jerkens, who never forgot where at least some of the luck started. “Fitzsimmons was a great trainer. A great man.”