The Lady Is a Champ
Isabel Dodge Sloane (Keeneland Library-Cook)
“Whether in victory or defeat, she … held to the sporting ideals which characterize racing at its best.” – Thoroughbred Club of America Distinction award to Isabel Dodge Sloane
“I am getting tired of congratulating you,” said Mr. Joseph E. Widener, president of Belmont Park, as he worked his way through the throng of delighted socialites clustered around a box belonging to one charming divorcee. “I’m getting tired of holding your hand.”
The lady smiled up at the gentleman, the trophy for the famous old Toboggan Handicap was added to her growing collection for the second year in a row, and as the Daily Racing Form would trumpet the next morning (Thursday, May 17 edition), Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane continued her remarkable racing successes.
In 1934, fresh off a Kentucky Derby victory with the plucky runner Cavalcade, the 38-year-old Sloane was breaking the boys’ club. Decades before Penny Chenery earned her reputation in the 1970s as a female pioneer with Riva Ridge and then Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Sloane became the first woman in history to head the owners’ list by earnings.
The previous season, her Brookmeade Stable’s Inlander was the leading money-winning 3-year-old with victories in the 1933 Travers and Arlington Classic, and Sloane finished third on the owners’ list by earnings. Her accomplishments were so unusual that Sports Illustrated later termed her a “racing novelty” in 1951 (when, ironically, running a picture of the lady in a collage under the heading “Some of the Men and Their Moments.”).
Far from novel, Sloane began to dabble in ownership in 1924 when she purchased a steeplechaser named Skyscraper II at the suggestion of a friend. The horse promptly won that year’s Manly Memorial Steeplechase at Pimlico Race Course, and Sloane was hooked. She became an avid student of pedigree and conformation and played an active role in the selection and training of her runners.
A stylish woman with piercing blue eyes and a determined set to her chin, Sloane sported the athletic figure of a tennis player and participated in other outdoors events such as golf, salmon fishing, and grouse shooting.
Her youth was not without tragedy: When she was 6, her mother died of tuberculosis, and her father, Dodge Brothers Motor Company co-founder John F. Dodge, contracted Spanish flu and pneumonia in 1920 and succumbed when she was 24. Her life, though, became extremely comfortable when she inherited part of her father’s fortune from the automobile industry, and she emerged from an education at Detroit’s exclusive Liggett School for Girls as a member of America’s social elite.
Her inheritance, an estimated $7 million that grew substantially five years later when the Dodge Company was acquired by a bank syndicate for a cash payment of $146 million, funded her initial forays into the racing world, and once her 1921 marriage to Manhattan stockbroker George Sloane ended in 1929, she turned her full attention to the sport.
Sloane purchased 850 acres in Upperville, Va., and began to develop Brookmeade Farm, an operation that would result in several successful homebreds. While one Herald-Leader reporter remarked that she had “an energetic passion for gracious living” as she entertained “one house party after another, most of them made up of tireless bridge players, in Palm Beach, Long Island, and Saratoga,” it was noted that the lady remained “down-to-earth in manner despite her wealth and social position.”
“Anyone at a loss for something to do in the afternoon,” a Sports Illustrated reporter once remarked of Sloane, “had only to follow his hostess in one direction: to the races. There, since she acquired her first horse in 1924, Isabel Sloane sat through as many bad seasons as good ones, always rooting ardently for her silks of white and royal blue crossed sashes and never complaining when she lost.”
Known as a discriminating and occasionally lavish buyer at yearling auctions; in 1926 she purchased a colt named Brooms and won the Hopeful Stakes with him the next season. In 1932 she sent out her first homebred stakes winner, Flag Pole, who won the Swift Stakes as a 3-year-old. In 1933 she owned Inlander. But Cavalcade would take her to the game’s next level.
The colt was a plain brown son of Lancegaye, an English runner who finished second in the 1926 Epsom Derby and won the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. Small but well-conformed, he was out of the mare Hastily, whom F. Wallis Armstrong, owner of Meadowview Farm, in New Jersey, had purchased for 1,100 guineas from Aston Park Stud during the 1930 Newmarket December sale in England. Hastily produced her colt at Meadowview the following spring, and he was consigned to the 1932 Saratoga yearling sale where trainer Bob Smith signed the ticket for $1,200.
According to Blood-Horse accounts, one day after buying Cavalcade, Smith — who Sloane hired on his reputation for spotting talented Thoroughbreds — met Armstrong. He told him he’d purchased the best yearling produced by Meadowview that season.
“Like fun you did,” the breeder replied. Two years later, when Cavalcade won the 1 1/16-mile Chesapeake Stakes on April 28 in record time as a prep for the Kentucky Derby (he also had taken a mile and 70-yard allowance event by two lengths three days prior), Mr. Armstrong hunted Smith down to remark, “You were right in saying that Cavalcade was the best of my yearlings of his year.”
The 1934 season was a perfect one for Sloane, as her runners accounted for many of the important 3-year-old races of the year, including the Kentucky Derby. Her colors had already been borne to victory in the Florida Derby by Time Clock and she would go on to win the Preakness with High Quest. A Blood-Horse account of pre-Derby activities recalls the dramatic excitement with which the lady owner followed the accomplishments of her runners in the days before instant communication was available. She had traveled to Jamaica to watch High Quest take the Wood Memorial and was looking for news of Cavalcade’s outcome in the Chesapeake at the now-defunct Havre De Grace racetrack in Maryland:
“Mrs. Sloane drove to the stable at Belmont Park and asked the boys if they had yet heard the outcome of the Chesapeake. It was suggested that Mrs. Sloane call up her home in the city, which she did. The butler answered and said, “There is a call here now for you from Detroit.” The connection was put on Mrs. Sloane’s wire. It was her sister congratulating her on the victory of Cavalcade. A Detroit paper had telephoned the news to the sister’s home and she wanted to be early with her congratulations. From Havre de Grace to Detroit, to New York, to Belmont Park, came to the owner the first word of victory.”
Going into the Kentucky Derby, Smith had been greatly concerned because his colt had not stood the trip from Maryland to Louisville well. He sent Cavalcade for a mile and a quarter gallop on the Thursday before the race and was reassured; his horse seemed to have recovered.
Veteran jockey Mack Garner was in the saddle, and perhaps his quotes to writer Quentin Reynolds had something to do with the public making Cavalcade the heavy favorite: “Hell, unless he breaks his leg, my horse will be the only one in the race!” Garner said.
Cavalcade was away slowly at the start — pictures clearly show him leaning against the side of the gate — but that was the extent of his racing difficulty in the Derby.
He moved up through the field until they were turning into the stretch, easily passed Hopeful Stakes winner Discovery, and drew away to win by 2 1/2 lengths. His place as a sterling Thoroughbred had been cemented in history.
In the Preakness, Cavalcade was beaten by High Quest, the very colt Sloane had watched win the Wood Memorial, but only by a nose. He skipped the Belmont Stakes and went on to win the American Derby, the Detroit Derby, and the Arlington Classic. He ended his 1934 racing season with six wins and a second in seven starts and was named 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year. He started twice each year in 1935 and 1936 without a win and was retired to stud where he died just four years later at the age of 9. Of his offspring, the most notable was Dinner Party, who won 37 steeplechase events.
Sloane’s triumphs on the turf were far from over with her 1934 season, although that year will always be remembered as her finest. She led all owners by purses won in 1950, as well, and in 1959 campaigned the great Sword Dancer to his Horse of the Year title. In 1960-61 she owned two-time champion filly Bowl of Flowers, and at the time of her death on March 9, 1962 at the age of 64, her stable runners had accounted for 76 stakes victories. In fact, on March 7, two days before her death, the Brookmeade-bred Eidolon won the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park under the colors of another owner. He was the 63rd stakes winner bred by the lady who had beaten all the good old boys with candor and grace.
“Of many fine things we will remember about Mrs. Sloane, the two best are her iron loyalty to Brookmeade employees and her firm adherence to the best sporting principles,” Sports Illustrated eulogized.
Personal information on Sloane is limited and hard to find. Unlike Chenery, she seemed to keep a relatively low public profile and even at the time of her death no information was publicly released about the cause. Records found do not show whether she faced adversity or antagonism from the men she so unusually dominated, but we do know that her love for the sport was heartfelt and strong.
“Racing and breeding horses are to me many things,” she told the members of the Thoroughbred Club of America on October 18, 1951. “They are my hobby, my business, my pleasure and almost my entire life.”
While Brookmeade’s runners were dispersed and the farm sold after Sloane’s passing, her half-sister Frances developed a love of horses that led her to acquire Castleton Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1945. After she married New York City advertising executive Fredrick Van Lennep in 1949, Frances oversaw the renovation of the farm to breed and raise both saddlebred show horses and standardbred harness racers.
Under Mrs. Van Lennep, Castleton’s show horse Wing Commander became a six-time World Grand Champion and with her husband, she enjoyed enormous success in harness racing that included a number of Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug victories with horses such as Harness Horse of the Year winners Victory Song (1947), Emily’s Pride (1948) and Speedy Scot (1963).
Mrs. Van Lennep continued to support harness racing and was considered one of the foremost women pioneers in the sport until she died in 1971 at age 56.
After her death, Van Lennep’s husband remained busy in Lexington as one of the two biggest stockholders in both the historic Red Mile track and the Tattersalls sales company. To this date, champion horses are bred at Castleton, which is now owned by the family of Irish businessman Dr. Tony Ryan and known as Castleton-Lyons Farm.
Isabel Dodge Sloane’s Calvacade wins the 1934 Kentucky Derby: