In racing history the 19th running of the Widener Handicap last Saturday will be known as Nashua's Widener—not merely because Nashua won it, but for the circumstances surrounding his victory, which was gained amidst drama of an intensity seldom seen in any field of sport.
First there was the buildup. Then there was the race. For weeks before his date in the mile-and-a-quarter Widener, Nashua's presence at Hialeah had an electrifying effect. For there, available to be seen and studied by anyone who could get himself to Stall 45, Barn A, was the most publicized horse of our time, a silent handsome animal unaware that he would never again carry the red and white polka-dotted silks of the late William Woodward Jr.'s Belair Stud, and that now he belonged not to one man but to a syndicate of seven men who had bought him for the record price of $1,251,200. Their decision to continue racing him must have pleased Nashua, for the big bay, from the day he stepped off the train from Kentucky in late December, has been "crying to run." When he stepped onto the track in the mornings his exercise boy had trouble holding him. His trainer, Sunny Jim Fitz-simmons, worked him steadily and worked him hard. In fact, just four days before the Widener (and after an off-track at Hialeah had forced the cancellation of a scheduled prep race), Mr. Fitz vanned his powerful colt to nearby Tropical Park and turned him loose at the Widener's mile-and-a-quarter distance. All he did was shatter three track records and tie a fourth—a feat which quickly prompted his critics to cry, "Nashua left his race at Tropical. They worked him too fast." But old Mr. Fitz, bent a little more than he was last year and growing more philosophical with each passing day, had a ready answer for them. "I don't care how fast they go if they're ready to go. Nashua's ready to go, ready to work."
Into Miami all week poured hundreds of transients intent on seeing whether Nashua was ready to furnish his new owners with seven beaming smiles or seven cases of nervous regret. The job ahead was tremendous: to come off a four-month layoff and go a mile and a quarter under 127 pounds (one pound more than he had ever carried before) while giving away from six to 22 pounds to eight rivals.
Some were not ordinary rivals, either. There was Alfred Vanderbilt's Social Outcast, already seventh among the world's leading money winners and a seasoned campaigner who had already raced twice this season. To this 6-year-old, Nashua, at the high weight of 127, would have to give six pounds. There too was Sailor, who had covered a mile and a quarter at Santa Anita three weeks before, and to whom Nashua would be giving eight pounds. The rest of the field didn't look too frightening, although as Nashua's rider, Eddie Arcaro, put it when he hopped off a plane from California the day before the race, "One of them lightweights are apt to knock you off any time."
February 27, 1956
Among the most interested arrivals were the members of the Nashua syndicate. Only four of the seven made it—John W. Hanes, Christopher J. Devine, Walter J. Salmon and the group's front man, Leslie Combs II (absentees: Peter A. B. Widener III, Harry M. Warner and Robert W. McIlvain). And, as was to be expected, Combs was the most nervous of the lot. Said Devine with a chuckle: "No, I'm not nervous. None of us are except Leslie. He got us into this, so we'll let him do the worrying."
The fans turned out on Widener day as never before. More than 42,000 in all—some 5,000 more than had ever seen a race in Florida before. And this was no ordinary race crowd. Thousands had never in their lives come to a race track. They came this day as fans of one horse. An hour before saddling time a throng of 3,000 surrounded the paddock and not one moved—either to bet, to drink or to escape the sun. These were Nashua's real fans.
It was in the saddling shed that Arcaro renewed his acquaintanceship with Nashua for the first time since last October 15, when the two combined their talents to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He gave the colt a quick once-over, then turned to his trainer. "He sure looks set, Mr. Fitz." Sunny Jim smiled and, for the second time of the afternoon, went over the strategy he had mapped out. "I figure those speed horses, Find and Sea O Erin, will set the pace, but I don't want you to go off chasing any of them. Ride your own race and take advantage of the breaks."
Mr. Fitz twisted his head slowly to get a good look at Arcaro walking Nashua slowly around the paddock. As his eyes caught the sight of Leslie Combs's new orange and blue silks atop a horse he calls the greatest he has ever trained, the old man may have been thinking of the past and of what he had said the day before while in a reminiscent mood. Looking, as he was then, in the direction of the tack room where a set of Belair silks lay in permanent retirement, he had said in a very quiet voice, "I was 31 years with those colors and it's going to be different, it can't help but be different. I don't even know who half the new owners are."
Sunny Jim had one more job to do before taking his seat in the stands. It went unnoticed, which is the way he intended it. Walking back to the far end of the saddling shed he shook hands and sat down for a moment with a tall, beautiful woman. It was a moment of happy privacy with an old and good friend, Mrs. John Pratt, one of the late Bill Woodward's four sisters.
The race, which had threatened to be anticlimactic after the steam-rolling buildup, was a nerve-shattering thriller all the way. Arcaro, following orders perfectly, let Find make the pace, but Nashua, as rank as he had been in his morning works, was crying to run, all right, and Eddie had trouble keeping him from going on the lead down the backstretch. Turning for home it was still Find in front by a head or so over Nashua and Sailor. And there, on the outside, really flying, was Social Outcast. The four of them roared down to the wire together, heads bobbing, whips thrashing, while 42,000 screaming voices let go. When Nashua's number flashed on the board the yells were almost as loud. His syndicate shook hands all around and Leslie Combs mopped his brow for the 100th time.
Nashua had, in the space of two minutes and two seconds, become the second horse in history to earn a million dollars. His winning purse this time: $92,600, putting him just $47,745—or one good stakes victory—away from Citation's world record of $1,085,760.
What of Nashua's racing future? "Well," said Leslie Combs, "there's nothing definite yet, but if Swaps comes to Florida [for the Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 17] we will stay. We would like to entertain him."
"Anything's O.K. with me," said Arcaro, back in the jockey's room, as he munched on a birthday cake (he was 40 on Sunday), "but, whew, I don't want to draw 'em any closer than that." He scratched his head and then laughed. "I guess I got me a few more gray hairs this afternoon."
A few hundred yards away the real hero of the day was playing his role to the hilt. A crowd of more than 100 had followed him back to Barn A, and there, in the peace and quiet beneath the tall Australian pines, Nashua had been allowed by Mr. Fitz to take an extra-long walk. As he did, his admirers applauded him and cameras snapped. The hero loved every minute of it.
A GREAT RACING YEAR, WITH THE BEST STILL AHEAD
Nashua's dramatic return to the track last Saturday drew the biggest racing crowd in Florida history. In California the impressive victory of Swaps—running for the first time in half a year—had Californians glistening-eyed. Meanwhile, the horse that all but caught Nashua at the wire Saturday, Alfred G. Vanderbilt's Social Outcast, is being flown to California to test Swaps this Saturday. And before March is out, Swaps and Nashua could well be running against each other in another dazzler in Florida.
These are some of the spectaculars—past and in prospect—of what promises to be racing's biggest winter. So far, the figures speak for themselves. Tropical Park: attendance and pari-mutuel betting up 8% and 13% over last year. Hialeah (so far): attendance and betting up 2% and 5%. Santa Anita: up 5% and 4%. And with the biggest events still to come.