There aren’t many horse racing trainers who can claim a spot in the Brittanica encyclopedia. James E. “Sunny” Fitzsimmons is one of them. Born in the late 1800’s and living until 1966, Sunny Jim was a witness to some of the most dramatic moments in horse racing. He was also an active participant in many of them. The horses who fell under Fitzsimmons’ care at one time or another include Seabiscuit, Nashua, and a host of other champions.
Humble Beginnings for Sunny Jim
James Fitzsimmons was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1874. His family was not wealthy, and Jim started working early in life. Among his first jobs was that of a stable boy at a local race track. He had the lowest and dirtiest jobs that are found in horse racing. Jobs like cleaning out dirty stalls. The young boy approached his work with enthusiasm and earned the respect of his employers. He also began to develop the love of horse racing that would come to define his legendary career.
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Like many of those who begin their career shoveling horse manure at the track, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was determined to become a jockey. He actually managed to achieve his goal, and the young man rode professionally for almost ten years. He was never as talented as some of the premier riders of his day, however, and his weight was always an issue. He soon had to accept that becoming a professional jockey was not his calling. Instead, he decided to apply his skills to the training of race horses.
Sunny Jim the Horse Trainer
The lessons learned by Jim Fitzsimmons in the environs of the Sheepshead Bay race track were ones that he applied in his own training career. He was not known to be a patient horseman, although none would dispute that he cared for the horses in his stable. Yet, he could be heavy handed when he decided that a horse was lazy and unwilling to train. A famous story says that Fitzsimmons, charged with training a young Seabiscuit, instructed his exercise rider to hit the horse with the whip as many times as he could in the stretch. The horse became soured on racing and was ultimately removed from the Fitzsimmons stable before he would go on to become one of racing’s great champions under Tom Smith.
In his first years as a trainer, Sunny Jim struggled. He had to prove himself with a ragtag group of horses from owners that had not established themselves in the industry. It would be 1923 before things began to turn around. It was then that Sunny Jim was given the training duties at Belair Stud. He would continue in his role for Belair until 1955 when he would be given the training duties for Wheatley Stable. It was in this role that Sunny Jim would train Bold Ruler, the sire of Secretariat.
When looking at the career of Sunny Jim, it is best to take it in with a panoramic view. Viewed separately, his conquests may not seem that great to the majority of people. He was prone to stretches of great success followed by period of a long drought. This isn’t uncommon for horsemen today. Fitzsimmons only won 2,275 races in his long career. Today there are talented horsemen who can achieve that number in a much shorter period of time. But Sunny Jim achieved many of his wins in the biggest events that racing has to offer.
Fitzsimmons trained three winners of the Kentucky Derby. He also conditioned four winners of the Preakness Stakes and six winners of the Belmont Stakes. He was able to win the Triple Crown twice with Gallant Fox and Omaha, and he amassed a total of 13 winners in Triple Crown races. This was a long-standing record for many years until it was broken by D. Wayne Lukas. Some would go so far as to claim that Lukas is the Sunny Jim of his generation, and indeed there are many similarities between the two men.
The Legacy of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons
One could make a strong argument that Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons influenced more horse trainers today than any other horseman. He was the recipient of numerous awards throughout his amazing career, including induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958. The “Mr. Fitz” Award is also given each year to a member of the horse racing community by the National Turf Writer’s Association. By the time he passed away at the age of 91 in 1966, Fitzsimmons had literally grown up watching the progress of almost every Triple Crown winner prior to Secretariat.
His training style and demeanor could sometimes be a direct contrast to his nickname. As the story about Seabiscuit shows, Sunny Jim often had a heavy hand. In today’s world, this approach would be very much frowned upon by the racing community. Some have also said that Fitzsimmons could be very hard to work for. This could be because he emerged in an era when jockeys were little more than indentured servants to trainers. They often rode under contract to a specific stable and were treated poorly. There can be little doubt that Fitzsimmons participated in these things.
The man who broke Sunny Jim’s record for the most Classic wins, D. Wayne Lukas, has been characterized as much the same. Lukas is a former basketball coach who is not prone to tolerate insubordination. When his own son Jeff was run down and permanently injured by a horse named Tabasco Cat in Lukas’ stable, some perceived Lukas as heartless in his reaction to the incident. Both men were entirely devoted to winning, and some will always claim that the passion to win compelled them to take measures that were not always ethical. While Lukas’ son was fighting for his life and trying to recover from his trauma, Lukas continued training Tabasco Cat for the Triple Crown. He won two of the three legs.
Horsemen like Sunny Jim often have a tough exterior which belies the genuine passion that they have for the sport. That passion can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of caring. Whether or not one likes men like Fitzsimmons or Lukas doesn’t negate the successful results they have produced.
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