To talk so soon of "greatness" in connection with the current crop of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds would normally be singularly audacious. For this is an accolade not lightly awarded by horsemen. One sensational race should never qualify its winner as great.
There has not been one sensational race in 1957. There have been at least half a dozen. The amazing performances of the 3-year-olds in Florida, Louisiana, California, New York and finally in Kentucky have surrounded the 83rd consecutive Kentucky Derby, to be run this week, with an aura of brilliance which even oldtimers find hard to duplicate. All over the country, track records have been equaled or broken by such contenders as Gen. Duke, Iron Liege, Bold Ruler, Federal Hill and Round Table.
At a dinner at Keeneland, where his father was being honored last week, Calumet Farm Trainer Jimmy Jones remarked, "From a spectator's standpoint I don't think there's ever been anything like it ever before. From a horseman's standpoint you just know there's about five or six horses around who are real good." "Yep," interrupted his father (for more on the Jones family and the Calumet success story, see page 62), "and I'd say we're real contenders." It was the most calculated understatement of the racing calendar, even by Jones's standards.
For many people the Kentucky Derby is the true symbol of a lasting racing tradition, in which none has played a more vital role than an incongruous group of individuals consisting of Ben and Jimmy Jones, James Fitzsimmons, Eddie Arcaro and a 22-year-old stallion named Bull Lea. When Ben Jones was saddling the first of his six Derby winners, in 1938, he picked young Eddie Arcaro to ride Lawrin, who was owned by Woolford Farm. Although Lawrin was the fourth betting choice, most of the interest that afternoon was centered on the two favorites, William Woodward's Fighting Fox, trained by an elderly gent named Jim Fitzsimmons, and Calumet Farm's Bull Lea, fresh from a victory in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes. The crowd would have been wiser to have concentrated on the combination of Jones and Arcaro, who brought Lawrin in at $19.20. Fighting Fox finished sixth and Bull Lea eighth (see chart on page 16) in a field of 10.
The next year (while Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was winning the Derby with Woodward's Johnstown) Calumet hired Ben Jones as trainer, and, beginning with Whirlaway's eight-length victory in 1941, the stable's devil-red silks have been first across the Derby finish line five times.
The others in the group have hardly been idle. Arcaro plugged away in 17 Derbies, has won a record five (two more than any other rider in history); Sunny Jim hit for his third winner with Johnstown, missed his greatest chance of all when Nashua was second to Swaps in 1955. And what of Bull Lea? The eighth-place finisher of 1938 has merely emerged as one of the greatest of all stallions, past or present. Two of his sons won Derbies for Calumet, Citation in 1948 and Hill Gail in 1952, and dozens of others have earned distinction for themselves and their sire on tracks from New York to California.
And this week in Louisville, just 19 years after Arcaro and Ben Jones won their first Kentucky Derby while Calumet and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons were shut out, the same cast of characters reassembles at the same old stand for the same business of trying to win the world's most famous horse race. Only today Ben Jones has turned over the training chores to his son Jimmy, and Bull Lea has provided two of his sons, Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, to give Calumet the most powerful Derby hand since Citation and Coaltown finished one-two in 1948. Opposing this charge of Calumet cavalry will be Sunny Jim and Eddie Arcaro, combining as much racing and training knowledge as any two men on this earth, trying to bring in Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps's Bold Ruler. No race of this or any other year could quite duplicate such a traditional array of personalities after racing's most treasured prize.
But for all the Derby pomp and ceremony, and for all the experience accumulated over the years by the rival owners, trainers and jockeys, it will be squarely up to one Thoroughbred this Saturday to win the 83rd Derby on his own merits. To do so he will have to be superbly fit to run a competitive mile and a quarter for the first time in his life.
There seems little doubt that the Calumet entry of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege will be post-time favorites. When you have two horses going for you it's better than one, and when you have a pair like this it's almost as good as a dream come true. Gen. Duke, out of the good stakes mare Wistful, is a typical product of careful Calumet planning. Last year he was raced only twice in Chicago and then saved for a winter campaign in Florida, where he broke even in four encounters with Bold Ruler. In their last meeting, the Florida Derby, he tied the world's record of 1:46 4/5 for a mile and an eighth and gave every indication that the extra furlong he will have to go in Louisville would cause him no particular trouble. He is a brown colt, very well put together, and, as Jimmy Jones puts it, "he gives you a feeling of easy motion when you watch him. Neat, of moderate size, compact, lithe in action and perfect as a tomcat running. I guess you'd have to say he's a damn nice little horse."
His jockey, Willie Hartack, thinks he's more than a damn nice little horse. "When he turns for home he gives you everything he's got—what more can you ask for?"
The two big races in which Gen. Duke and Bold Ruler met (and divided) victories have given both sides an opportunity to find excuses for defeat. In the Flamingo, for example, in which Bold Ruler won over Gen. Duke by a neck, Hartack thinks he would have won had he not run into a little trouble at the half-mile pole. Similarly, Bold Ruler's last encounter with—and loss to—Gen. Duke, in the Florida Derby, prompted Mr. Fitz to suggest that the hard Gulfstream Park strip was not exactly to Bold Ruler's liking. Arcaro is not sure what it was in that one, but says, "I went from having perfect control to where the sucker buckled on me and I couldn't do anything with him. When I had to 'go,' my horse came up empty on me."
Bold Ruler, a son of Nasrullah (sire of Nashua) out of a Discovery mare, is a light-bodied, long and tall dark bay who gives you something of a fit every time he runs because you aren't sure whether or not he's going to go all out in the stretch. "He's not as temperamental as all that," says Mr. Fitz, "but he doesn't like you to fool with his mouth too much. He can be rated perfectly all right and in the Derby Eddie will have to save him some to make sure he has something left for where the money is. We don't want to run out of gas, nor will Arcaro let anyone kill him off in the first mile. The best place for him will be about second or third until it's time to turn it on. I don't want to see him pull back into the pack at any time."
Jimmy Jones has plenty of respect for Bold Ruler. "He is hard to beat because he fights all the way—like a man with a knife in his hand, he's dangerous all the time. I'd say the horse that beats him is going to win." Willie Hartack couldn't agree more. "I know Eddie isn't going to get fooled by any pace and that when we turn for home he'll be the guy I've got to catch. I really think I have the best horse, and with no bad luck—and no mistakes, mind you—I think I'll win it."
One of the normal purposes of running an entry is obviously for one horse to run the opposition ragged so that his come-from-behind teammate can run over tired horses at the finish. "But that isn't the way Calumet has been running Gen. Duke and Iron Liege at us this year," says Arcaro. "Shucks, they've been trying to win with both of them instead of using Iron Liege to kill me off. That Iron Liege (who will be ridden by 1956 Derby Winner Dave Erb] may be better than some people give him credit for being. He's always up there at the finish and he's got a lot of run in him. I don't think for a minute they plan to use him up to kill me off, because they know I'd just rate my horse back and not fall for any sucker tactics."
That Iron Liege is improving all the time is evident, both through his appearance and by studying his work tab. "He's a larger, longer-striding horse than Gen. Duke," says Jimmy Jones. "He's got beautiful, smooth, rhythmic motion, and I'll tip you off on one thing: if the track is off, Iron Liege can handle it as easy as eating ice cream."
Until two weeks ago it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Kentucky Derby would be settled conclusively between the Calumet pair and Bold Ruler. But there have been some rather startling developments lately in both New York and Kentucky which put at least two more names squarely in the middle of the Derby picture. One of these is Gallant Man, the son of Migoli-Majidah, who races in the colors of Ralph Lowe. Two weeks ago in the Wood Memorial Gallant Man forced Bold Ruler to a new track record and missed victory himself by only a nose.
Another name to remember is Travis M. Kerr's Round Table, who only last Thursday romped home in the Blue Grass Stakes, again in track record time. This son of Princequillo out of Knight's Daughter was bred in Kentucky by Bull Hancock and sold earlier this year (for about $150,000) to Kerr, who subsequently only missed by a head and a nose winning the Santa Anita Derby with him. Just before shipping east he won the Bay Meadows Derby with a mile and a sixteenth in an easy 1:41 ⅗ and in the Blue Grass, although he beat nothing, he did it impressively and was full of run at the finish.
Of the other probable starters the fastest is without doubt Clifford Lussky's Federal Hill, whose tremendous early speed is more certain than his stamina. One of the sure come-from-behind Derby horses is T. A. Grissom's Shan Pac, a dark bay son of Shannon II. Racing in poor company most of the season at The Fair Grounds, Shan Pac reeled off a string of six straight wins before a bad ride cost him defeat at the hands of Federal Hill in the Louisiana Derby. His trainer, V. R. (Tennessee) Wright, has maintained all along that this colt should thrive on long distances and plenty of early speed by the leaders.
Derby starters Saturday may be as few as seven or eight, making it the smallest field since Calumet frightened off all but four rivals to face the 1948 entry of Citation and Coaltown. In that one Eddie Arcaro was on Citation and as confident as a man could be. This time he's an enemy of Calumet, but still confident. "I know one thing," says Eddie. "If my horse is right—and I mean 100% right—Gen. Duke won't beat him, and nobody else will either."
Yet the supporters of Gen. Duke insist he is the strongest horse and the only one capable of a deadly finishing rush.
This could, then, be one of the never-to-be-forgotten Derbies. Our notion is that either Gen. Duke, Bold Ruler or Iron Liege certainly should win it. The one who will win it is the one who can best take advantage of breaks, mistakes and racing luck. One mistake will be fatal. One break could be decisive.
NEW TRACK RECORD