There was a very special atmosphere of excitement, puzzlement and even a high-powered injection of pathos to last week's 83rd running of the Kentucky Derby. The drama began—unbeknownst to anyone—one late March afternoon at Florida's Gulfstream Park when Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke may have stepped, by chance, on a little stone as he ripped around that speed track in a world-record performance, and it came to its tingling climax amid the roars of nearly 100,000 spectators at Churchill Downs when Gen. Duke's winter shadow, the beautiful bay, Iron Liege, perfected the role of substitute for the stable's star and won one of the most dramatic Derbies of them all.
The puzzlement and pathos were never absent during the five-week interval between the stone-stepping incident and the brilliant finish in which Gen. Duke's regular rider and No. 1 admirer, Willie Hartack, outrode and outlasted Willie Shoemaker on Gallant Man to win the big one by the threadbare margin of one little nose. This Derby had it all: melodrama before, during and after the race.
And nobody was more aware of it at any time than Calumet owner Mrs. Gene Markey, who, eight days before the race, at a time when knowledgeable turfmen were awarding the Derby to her on past performance alone, told her farm manager, Paul Ebelhardt: "This is going to be a tough Derby, Paul—real tough. Tougher than a lot of people think."
Five days later at Churchill Downs, in the one-mile Derby Trial, Mrs. Markey and Ebelhardt had still further reason to believe the Derby was going to be tough: the sprinting demon Federal Hill romped off with the race, but Gen. Duke, even in finishing second, hardly inspired confidence among Calumet supporters. And worse yet, Iron Liege wound up next to last with no possible excuse. To anyone familiar with the Trainer Joneses' remarkable habit of losing the minor races but winning the big ones, this pre-Derby chain of events was old hat. Except that even the Joneses wore more worried looks than ever before, and you just couldn't believe they were merely playing an old familiar game.
After the Trial they gave out the big news that many already suspected: Gen. Duke had indeed gone wrong. He was suffering from a slight internal stone bruise in an area about halfway up the wall of the hoof in his left forefoot (see diagram page 17). The bruise, said a deeply depressed Jimmy, might heal itself by Derby Day, but it looked doubtful. As this startling news boosted the hopes of rival owners and trainers, it also presented Jones with a difficult decision which he alone would have to make. Should he run his big horse anyway, thereby taking a serious chance of incurring a further and more damaging injury—or should he scratch? Jones met the problem head-on: "A horse has but one day in his life to run in the Kentucky Derby and I sure hate to see a good one like Gen. Duke have to miss it. But a man has to think of the future in this game and Gen. Duke will have lots of other chances even if he doesn't get to go in the race we want most." Jones also took time during his days of trial to consider the plight of the $2 bettor, thousands of whom—unless notified as to the exact status of Gen. Duke early on Derby Day morning—would begin pouring money into the till on Calumet's entry of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege with the full conviction that the Duke was considered well enough to run in the race and well enough to win it.
Jimmy wrestled with the problem through Derby eve, and then, after breezing the colt a quarter of a mile the day of the race, came the decision: the Duke won't run. The verdict was announced 16 minutes before the betting opened, on a raw and windy morning at 9:30.
Throughout the trying days of Gen. Duke's celebrated foot trouble the rest of the Derby camps bristled with optimism. And even at Calumet nobody was ready to give up on Iron Liege, who went through his workouts so encouragingly that the only way to explain away his miserable showing in the Trial was to use the horseman's prerogative in such circumstances and simply get out of it by saying, "His race was too bad to be true. Throw it out altogether. He's got to be better than that."
At Bold Ruler's barn Wheatley Stable's foreman Bart Sweeney was taking no chances. He politely alibied his way out of having the Flamingo and Wood winner bed down in Stall No. 10, hurriedly led Bold Ruler to neighboring Stall No. 9. The alibi: No. 10 didn't look as comfortable as No. 9. The real reason, explained Bart, "We had Nashua in No. 10, and he lost his Derby."
Elsewhere, too, the tension mounted. So did the hopes. When Gallant Man's regular jockey, Johnny Choquette, was given a 10-day suspension, Trainer Johnny Nerud signed up the great Willie Shoemaker, a Derby winner aboard Swaps and a confident young man acknowledged to be one of the most accomplished riders in the business. A lot of smart money said Shoemaker, in the clutch, could mean the difference between victory and defeat for Gallant Man. Federal Hill's backers believed the theory that at long last this speed ball would go out and steal the race by killing off the opposition early, and lasting—somehow—the full mile and a quarter. Said his trainer, Milton Rieser, with less enthusiasm, "If any other horse tries to run with Federal Hill neither will win it. And I don't know if he'll go the distance. We'll see."
The first mile of the race was run just about the way the experts figured it: Federal Hill out in front, ticking off the first quarter in a blistering :23 3/5, the half in :47, three-quarters in 1:11 2/5 and the mile in a highly respectable 1:36 4/5 over a track which, although labeled "fast," was cuppy indeed. Never more than a length and a half behind him during this early running was Iron Liege, under a tight Hartack hold, and then came Bold Ruler, just about where Eddie Arcaro wanted him, and, as he later said, "With plenty of horse under me I felt we were doing O.K." Gallant Man, meanwhile, had been back in seventh place for three quarters, but Shoe got into him then and they were fifth with a quarter of a mile to go and really starting to roll. It was starting into the far turn and going into the stretch turn that things started happening. Arcaro had been doing a fairly successful job of rating Bold Ruler, even though the colt tried to run out a bit on the first turn, but now, with the serious business of the day at hand, he ran into real trouble. "I started to make a move on the leaders," said Eddie, "but suddenly he bobbled a few times with me and I realized he was dead by the time we hit the quarter pole. He didn't even run a good mile. Usually when I get him to make his move he'll go bang right by anything in front of him. But when I couldn't go up and get by anybody at the head of the stretch I knew I was through."
It was just about at the head of the stretch—with a quarter of a mile to go—when Hartack and Iron Liege took over the lead from the tiring Federal Hill, but Shoemaker and Gallant Man were moving along now in third place while Round Table was battling Bold Ruler for fourth. Suddenly, with only a furlong to go, it was a two-horse race: Iron Liege on the inside, with Hartack whipping left-handed and driving to the line, and Gallant Man gaining on him foot by foot. They stormed down this way to the 16th pole, moving almost as one. Gallant Man never seemed actually to be in front but they were head and head when, to the utter amazement of everyone watching him, Shoemaker rose in his irons and for barely a split second acted for all the world as though the race was over. For him, it turned out, it was. For, by the time he realized he had misjudged the finish line and had got back into his drive again, both colts were across the line—Iron Liege a nose in front in the closest Derby finish in years. As he stood in his irons for the second time Shoe yelled over to Hartack, "I think you got it." Hartack, not half as sure, galloped on so far that he didn't come back to the stands until the photo had confirmed Shoemaker's opinion. And all Shoemaker could add to the confusion surrounding his unexplainable action—for which he was immediately summoned before the stewards—was, "It was just one of those awful things you have nightmares about."
Alibis flew thick and fast after the race—with Shoemaker's error being seized upon as the most spectacular, especially by those who had to get stories out in a hurry. Gallant Man's trainer, Johnny Nerud, blamed the track rather than the jockey: "...that could happen to any rider.... They got no business having all those poles the same color." He was saying it was easy to confuse the pole indicating the last sixteenth of a mile before the finish with the pole indicating the finish itself (but the Churchill Downs stewards took a dim view of Shoemaker's mistake, and suspended him for 15 days). However, a horse race is always full of incidents, though they don't all involve a jockey's judgment or happen in full view of the stands. Had Iron Liege not been shut off by the fading Federal Hill nearly half a mile from home, says Jimmy Jones, he would have won "by maybe a length and a half." Had Bold Ruler not felt fractious before the race and not gone wide on the first turn, he might have won. Had Gen. Duke not been scratched, he might well have won easily. But might-have-beens are only of academic interest in a horse race. The 83rd Derby, as usual, was won by the horse and rider which proved themselves the best and bravest on that afternoon.
Back in the steamy jocks' room after the race there was a scene of utter bedlam as Hartack talked about his race and his horse to a pushing mob of reporters. On the opposite side of the room Arcaro was discussing his race, and at the far end, sitting quietly and smiling ever so faintly, was another young man who knows something about winning a Kentucky Derby. His name: Dave Erb, winner last year aboard Needles and the rider who has been aboard Iron Liege in his last seven starts this year. The eighth was to have been this Derby, but Jones ordered the switch to Hartack immediately upon deciding to take Gen. Duke out of the race. The other key figure in the drama—Willie Shoemaker—had quickly dressed and slipped away and off to California (where another admitted blunder cost him a defeat on Swaps to Porterhouse in last summer's $100,000 Californian at Hollywood Park) just as fast as he could.
Hartack, his face wreathed in one happy smile after another, talked with the confidence that only comes to a Derby winner. "I'll admit," he said, "I wasn't sure Iron Liege could do it after seeing some of his races this spring. I really thought I'd need Gen. Duke to win it, and I guess if they raced it again I'd still have to take Gen. Duke. Today Iron Liege, though, ran gamer than I've ever seen him. When Gallant Man ran to me in the stretch, Iron Liege just gave another spurt, put out his neck and just kept digging on. I'm glad he made a liar out of me."
Arcaro, who admits he thought Gallant Man more of a threat than Iron Liege, could offer no real excuse for Bold Ruler's disappointing behavior (he eventually finished fourth, well beaten for show money by Round Table). "He certainly didn't run his race today, though. Why, hell, he's licked Iron Liege every other time they've met, but today he didn't even have enough run in him to move up and lap Federal Hill."
"I'll go along with that," said a jubilant Jimmy Jones as he washed down some of the victory-party dinner with a man-sized gulp of champagne. "It's true that Iron Liege has trained up to this race very well, and I throw out his last race completely. But I also know—and so should everyone else—that Bold Ruler is a better horse than he showed in this race today."
Jones, whose box seat was right across from the 16th pole, said he didn't notice Shoemaker's blunder and that if it wasn't all that apparent it could hardly have cost Gallant Man the victory. The only real trouble Iron Liege got into, he added, was "when Federal Hill shut us off at the three-eighths pole." If Arcaro had been able to get up and lap Federal Hill at that point they would have had Hartack in a blind switch.
As the victory party drew to a close, Jimmy Jones spotted Farm Manager Paul Ebelhardt on his way out. "Well, you did it, Jimmy," said Paul. "It was terrific."
"Shucks," replied Jones, "you did it too, Paul. Thanks for Iron Liege. You just go back to the farm and see if you can dig up some more of those Iron Lieges for me to train. I can use all the Iron Lieges you can give me."
Iron Liege, in whom this magazine has a very special interest (see Feb. 25 issue) is now scheduled to go to Pimlico, along with Gen. Duke, for the Preakness on May 18. The Duke, barring further complications, should be ready for that one, and the same exciting cast of characters could be back again—Gallant Man included. It will give Gallant Man, certainly, a chance to show if he really is this good, and it will also give Willie Hartack an unenviable opportunity to decide whether or not he really does think Gen. Duke is the best 3-year-old in the Calumet barn. There's another one around, too, you know. His name is Barbizon, who could be the best of the lot. "But we'll probably save him for the Belmont," said Jones.
"Yeah, just imagine that," said a man sipping some of the Joneses' champagne. "These guys win the Kentucky Derby with their third-string 3-year-old. What'll they think of to do next?"
"I'll tell you what I'll think of to do next," joked Jones. "I think I'll tell that boy to bring us another quart of that champagne."
The short but successful story of Iron Liege runs parallel to that of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At 12:50 a.m. on March 11, 1954 a photographer on special assignment from the planned but as yet unborn and unnamed magazine was taking pictures of the foaling of Iron Liege at Calumet. Periodically other photographers were assigned to document the colt's upbringing, and the unique step-by-step life story from foaling barn to Derby hopeful was printed in the Feb. 25, 1957 issue. Whatever turns the career of Iron Liege has still to take, last week it reached the most glorious climax a Thoroughbred can know: a desperate, courageous, photofinish victory in the Kentucky Derby (above).
THE DAYS HE WAITED FOR FAME AND THE FIRST BRUSH WITH GLORY
The memorable series of photos above, taken by Ylla in 1954, shows this year's Kentucky Derby winner a few seconds after foaling as he cuddles close to his mother (1) in the foaling barn at lovely Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Moments later the colt makes a shaky, unsuccessful attempt to stand (2). Now on all fours (3), the baby is at Iron Maiden's side, completely unaware that he is the object of photographic interest. Alone and upright (4), Iron Liege perkily watches activity about him. One year later, in the fields only 80 miles away from Churchill Downs (5), colt shows friskiness as he romps with playmate in fields of bluegrass. One of 14 children sired by the famous Bull Lea, the colt was to grow to startle a nation by his will to win.
Iron Liege's first training included early-morning workouts at Calumet Farm (6), sessions in schooling gate at Hialeah in the winter of 1956 (7). He stood patiently as Trainer Jones adjusted his saddle (8) for a disappointing first start in Chicago on August 21, 1956. The 1957 Derby Winner met the "Master" of modern Derby riders, Eddie Arcaro, at Belmont Park (9). This year Iron Liege ran third in the rich Flamingo Stakes (10) and record-breaking Florida Derby (11), was tabbed by experts as a highly consistent colt. Iron Liege has a love for peppermint, and his regular groom, Walter Griffin, bought the horse candy canes at Christmas time. Early in January Griffin said, "I never had a Derby horse; maybe this year I will."