Gift Silver: Winner of Kentucky Derby 78 ½

Gift Silver (1949 dk. gr. c. by Drift Silver – Nylon Lady by Blaze Hunter)
Owner/Breeder: Mr. and Mrs. Odie Newell of Ottumwa, IA
Record: (5) 0-0-0 / $0

While in training in Nebraska in 1948, a 2-year-old Blaze Hunter filly named Nylon Lady would jump her stall door one evening. So would the 9-year-old Silver Cord horse named Drift Silver. Both horses were found grazing together the next morning.

Not much was thought of the incident after the fact, and both Nylon Lady and Drift Silver would continue their lives at the track. Nylon Lady had run twice, for a record of (2) 0-0-1 and earnings of $50 when it began to appear she might be in foal.

Shipped back to the Iowa farm of her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Odie Newell, Nylon Lady was indeed in foal, giving birth to a dark gray colt later named Gift Silver on March 10, 1949. Unfortunately, the now 3-year-old Nylon Lady would die shortly after foaling.

“We started hand feeding Gift Silver as soon as he was born,” Mrs. Newell explains. “I spent every night in the stall with him until he was several months old. He never had anything but homogenized milk until he was old enough to eat hay and oats. Every morning at 2 o’clock either my husband or I gave him his bottle.” (Maurice Shevlin / Chicago Daily Tribune, 04/25/1952)

It reportedly cost $42 a week for the homogenized milk to feed young Gift Silver.

From the beginning, Gift Silver’s intended run in the Kentucky Derby was not taken seriously, and many believed the situation to be a publicity driven hoax perpetrated by Churchill Downs press director Brownie Leach.

“In the very next barn is Gift Silver, a colt so fantastic it was feared for a long while that he must be an invention of Brownie Leach, the resourceful and imaginative publicity purveyor for the Downs. But Gift Silver actually exists and this is an eye-witness report verifying the fact. Like Hill Gail, Gift Silver is due to start in the Run for the Roses on Saturday. There the resemblance ends.”  (Arthur Daley / The New York Times, 05/01/1952)

Mr. Newell was an engineer, a thirty-two year veteran of the Milwaukee railroad, while Mrs. Newell was a registered nurse. They had contracted Jack Perez, employed in the diesel engine shop of a Louisville railroad, to serve as Gift Silver’s trainer. His son, 17-year-old Warren, was to be the horse’s jockey. Warren Perez had been licensed as a jockey for about a year, but his experience was reported to be limited mostly to workouts.

While Gift Silver was unraced, Mr. Newell was confident – and in fact was taking a two-week vacation from the railroad to prepare Gift Silver for the Derby. His confidence was boosted by the fact that back in Iowa, he had reportedly clocked Gift Silver in phenomenal time for a mile-and-a-half in the snow.

“The Newells and Perez are not at all scared of Hill Gail. “He was beaten before, wasn’t he?” said Perez in a whistling-through-the-graveyard tone, “Sir Barton was a maiden, wasn’t he, Mister?” I don’t say we have a champion but we’re gonna try him. That’s horse racing and you can quote me on that, Mister.” (Arthur Daley / The New York Times, 05/01/1952)

Gift Silver
Shown with owner Odie Newell, Gift Silver was referred to as “a scrawny, unprepossessing gray colt.”
Photo: Life Magazine (Vol. 32, No. 20), 05/19/1952

In addition to being unraced, Gift Silver was lacking in even the most basic foundation needed for a racehorse. Namely, he had yet to learn to break from the starting gate.

“Just a few days ago he made his debut out of a starting gate for a workout. The starters had quite a time teaching him the rudiments. They’re still having trouble, but Newell declares “the little stinker” is as bright as a silver dollar and he’ll have the hang of it in plenty of time.” (Maurice Shevlin / Chicago Daily Tribune, 04/25/1952)

“The colt was a complete novice on the track. This did not escape the observation of trainers of other Derby probable starters and some even threatened to withdraw their horses if Gift Silver started.” (Walter Haight / The Washington Post, 06/02/1968)

If all went to plan, Gift Silver was not to start in the Kentucky Derby as an unraced maiden. The Newell-Perez team had hoped to run him in the Derby Trial on April 25; though he would be scratched from the race with no explanation.

“I’m sorry he didn’t start,” drawled Ben Jones with a grin. “We coulda used the extra $100 his entry fee woulda put in the pot.” (The New York Times, 05/01/1952)

While Gift Silver had been scratched from the Derby Trial, he remained on schedule to Run for the Roses on May 3. However, during a workout several days prior to the Derby, Gift Silver would break awkwardly from the starting gate, bolt, head for the rail, and run into the filly Essie M. Essie M.’s rider, foreseeing what was about to happen, was able to leap off prior to the collision.

Jockey Warren Perez, who was aboard Gift Silver at the time, said his bolt and subsequent collision was unrelated to his immaturity and inexperience. “That’s nuthin’,” explained Perez. “His saddle slipped and it threw him off stride. It happens 10,000 times at a race track.” (Arthur Daley / The New York Times, 05/02/1952)

While Essie M. and her rider were uninjured, Gift Silver sustained a cut on his leg, which the stewards would leverage into scratching the horse from the Kentucky Derby. Prior to Gift Silver’s scratch, they had already barred young Perez the chance to ride the colt in the Derby, citing his lack of race riding experience.

“Mrs. Newell, who broke into tears after the accident, joined her husband in saying after the withdrawal: “This is not the end. We’ll be back to race in a Derby some day.” (Walter Haight  / The Washington Post, 06/02/1968)

Gift Silver
Photos: Life Magazine (Vol. 32, No. 20), 05/19/1952

That ill-fated morning work prior to the Derby wasn’t the last Churchill Downs would see of Gift Silver after all.

Gift Silver headline

“Gift Silver, the glamorous Iowa colt which was withdrawn from the 78th Kentucky Derby because of an injury, had his own private Derby at Churchill Downs today. Like Hill Gail, the Derby winner, Gift Silver’s run was televised over a nation-wide hookup.

Racing atmosphere of the Derby was simulated on the program. The Downs’ bugle sounded and Track Announcer Gene Schmitt’s voice rang out: “And now coming down the rail is Gift Silver.” Jockey Gene Herd, in silks, was astride the 78th-and-a-half Derby winner. The colt ran the mile and a quarter in a gallop, seemingly proud as he crossed the finish line all by his lonesome.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 05/05/1952)

“But Gift Silver had his day in the sun before departing the Kentucky scene. A week after the Derby, he was proudly displayed by his owners as he galloped around the track between races – still the champion in their eyes.” (Walter Haight / The Washington Post, 06/02/1968)

The Newells attempted to sell Gift Silver in Kentucky before returning to Iowa, to no avail. Despite all early efforts, Gift Silver never made the races as a 3-year-old. He would race five times as a 4-year-old, never finishing in the money.

Gift Silver’s sire Drift Silver is confirmed to have raced through at least the age of eleven, compiling a record of (97) 17-13-19 and earnings of $14,567. He would ultimately sire seven other foals in addition to Gift Silver. In three foals to race, his most successful offspring was the mare Little Belisto (1954 o/o Be Listo by Listo), who would earn $15,585 in 133 races over ten years of racing.

Gift Silver - photo of Drift Silver (Life Magazine 1952.05.19)

Gift Silver return to Iowa (Life Magazine 1952.05.19) Photos: Life Magazine (Vol. 32, No. 20), 05/19/1952


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