When Justify completed his historic sweep of the Triple Crown on June 9, his veteran Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith received well-deserved praise for his part in guiding the colt to glory, becoming the oldest jockey in history to win the Triple Crown in the process.
But Smith is hardly the first veteran jockey to reap the rewards of a Triple Crown. In fact, there was once a jockey — the undisputed best in the country — who had earned such a high level of respect that he was called back from retirement to ride a Triple Crown winner. His name? Earl Sande.
Much like Smith today, Sande favored a quality-over-quantity approach to his riding career, and when horsemen of the 1920s and early 1930s needed a rider for a top-class horse, Sande was their go-to choice. Case in point: When the immortal Man o’ War was in need of a rider for the Miller Stakes at Saratoga, Sande was called to action, and at a time when he’d been riding professionally for just two years.
Born in South Dakota in 1898, but later a resident of Idaho, Sande kept himself busy from an early age. O’Neil Sevier, writing in the Oct. 6, 1918 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, described Sande as a “rather leggy kind from Idaho, who used to trap jackrabbits and sell their pelts for a living.” Riding horses came naturally for Sande, and it didn’t matter what kind; he was riding races at an amateur level in his pre-teen years and also spent time as a bronco buster.
Sande’s work ethic and experience served him well; when he started riding professionally in January 1918, he made a meteoric rise through the sport of horse racing. Less than a year after Sande made his professional debut, Sevier wrote that “the horsemen in Maryland are agreed to a man that young Earl Sande is the champion jockey of the year, if not the smartest lad that has appeared in the saddle since Tod Sloan’s or Redfern’s time. The development of Sande has been truly remarkable. … There is no jockey in Maryland this fall that is likely to menace Sande’s leadership and none of the boys who will come this way after the wind-up of racing about New York are apt to bother him.”
The young rider’s success didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1919 Sande became one of the contract riders for the powerful stable of John Kenneth Levison Ross (more commonly known as Commander J. K. L. Ross). That partnership supplied Sande with a steady string of top-class mounts, including the talented sprinter Billy Kelly, the classy filly Milkmaid, and even the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, though Sande was not in the saddle for Sir Barton’s signature victories.
Sande’s competitive drive did briefly get the better of him when riding Milkmaid in the 1919 Kentucky Oaks, when he attempted to grab the bridle of the eventual winner, Lillian Shaw, during the heat of an exciting stretch battle. He was suspended for 60 racing days as a result, but the incident certainly didn’t slow the momentum of his career. By September, he was back in the headlines after riding six winners in a single day at Havre de Grace in Maryland, tying the American record, and by the end of the meet he was the leading rider at the track by a wide margin.
Sande continued to ride with success in 1920, the year that he stepped in to guide Man o’ War in the Miller Stakes, though the Ross/Sande partnership unfortunately dissolved in October 1920 after Ross chose to have a different jockey ride Sir Barton in a much-publicized match race against Man o’ War. Thus, the jockey who had ridden both of the star colts found himself without a ride in the great race and, after splitting with Ross, Sande offered his services to Rancocas Stable, a partnership that would prove just as fruitful — maybe more so — than Sande’s association with Ross.
The star of Rancocas Stable at the time was the great Grey Lag, and with Sande in the saddle the colt embarked on a memorable 1921 season that saw him win the Belmont Stakes, Dwyer Stakes, Devonshire Park International, and a handful of other stakes races en route to recognition as Horse of the Year. Thanks in no small part to Grey Lag, Sande led the nation’s jockeys by purse earnings that year, winning with 112 of his 340 mounts while recording earnings of $263,043.
An even better Rancocas runner was Zev, who gave Sande a breakthrough win in the Kentucky Derby (as well as a second Belmont Stakes win) during a 1923 season that saw the colt win 12 of his 14 starts while helping to propel Sande to record-shattering season earnings of $569,394.
Chance Shot, Crusader, Flying Ebony, Mad Play, Sarazen — Sande rode them all to major stakes wins during the next few years, and Flying Ebony gave him another Kentucky Derby victory in 1925, responding to Sande’s urging to prevail after a long stretch battle. The win was particularly sweet since Sande’s survival had been in doubt following a bad racing accident the previous summer at Saratoga, in which he “had sacrificed himself in order to keep [fellow jockey Bennie] Bruening from falling to a similar fate,” according to reporter French Lane in the May 15, 1925 edition of the Chicago Tribune. Fittingly, Bruening would help Sande secure the mount on Flying Ebony for the Derby.
Sande led all jockeys by purse earnings one more time in 1927, the year he guided Chance Shot to victory in the Belmont Stakes, but a controversial suspension near the end of the season slowed his momentum, and the following year Sande — now fighting to maintain his riding weight — retired from the saddle and turned to training his own stable of horses. But as told by Joe Hirsch in “The First Century: Daily Racing Form Chronicles 100 Years of Thoroughbred Racing”: “[Sande’s] venture as an owner-trainer … was disastrous. Although he saddled Nassak to win Bowie’s Prince Georges Handicap, the stable’s earnings for the season from eight victories was only $12,000. At the close of the 1929 campaign, most of the horses were sold to satisfy creditors.”
That’s when Sande was summoned to ride arguably the greatest horse of his career.
A young colt named Gallant Fox, racing for the powerful team of Belair Stud and trainer James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, had shown plenty of promise in 1929 while winning two stakes races and placing in the prestigious Futurity Stakes. A big season was expected in 1930, and Gallant Fox was in need of an experienced jockey — the best — to help him live up to his potential.
Sande accepted the challenge on the condition that he would receive 10 percent of Gallant Fox’s purse earnings, a caveat that proved quite fruitful for the veteran jockey. Under Sande’s guidance, Gallant Fox embarked on a 3-year-old season that drew comparisons to that of Man o’ War, winning nine of his 10 starts while easily prevailing in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown. Sande’s cut of the purse money? A hefty $30,827.50.
Over the next few years, Sande rode on and off while making an effort to shift back into retirement. He then gave training another try, and this time around, his venture was an unquestionable success — thanks in large part to Stagehand, who defeated Seabiscuit in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap, Sande was the leading trainer of 1938 with earnings of $226,495. He even started four horses in the Kentucky Derby, including the 1939 third-place finisher Heather Broom.
At the age of 55, Sande made one more brief return to the saddle, riding in 10 races; Joe Hirsch wrote that “the highlight of this last romantic gasp was his photo-finish victory over Eddie Arcaro at Jamaica on Oct. 14, with thousands of fans voicing their approval via sustained cheers.”
From a sporting perspective, that was Sande’s last hurrah. He passed away 15 years later, away from the spotlight and no longer active in racing, but his legacy lived on. Newspapers from coast to coast carried the story of his passing, but perhaps no one captured Sande’s essence as well as John S. Radosta. In the Aug. 21, 1968 edition of Rochester, N.Y.’s Democrat and Chronicle, Radosta wrote:
“When he was at his best, Sande’s envious competitors would say, ‘Sande got the horses,’ meaning that, as a result, his chances of winning were better. That was true, but it was his ability that got him the best mounts. He seldom failed to win with a good horse, and many times he won with a mediocre one. … He once said he could never remember a time when he did not love horses.”
What more could you ask for from a star jockey?
Note: This story was originally published in July 2018 and has been updated.
- Earl Sande left the sport with a record of 968 wins from 3,673 rides; his mounts earned $2,944,083 in purse money.
- In addition to his talents as a jockey and trainer, Sande was a skilled singer, and Joe Hirsch wrote that during one of Sande’s earliest retirements, the star jockey “landed some movie roles and did some singing at New York’s Stork Club as well as some broadcasting.”
- In 1955, Sande was among the inaugural inductees into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.