The middle of the worst rainstorm to hit the eastern seaboard since the hurricane floods of 1955 may seem like an ill-timed moment in which to contest the richest horse race in the world. Yet, under the deplorable conditions pictured above, they ran off the sixth Garden State Stakes in New Jersey last Saturday. A former jockey explained at the prerace luncheon, "Unless you have ever ridden a horse in a race in the slop you have absolutely no conception of how perfectly horrible it can be. The horse can't see, the jockey can't see, and every time he sheds a pair of goggles he gets nothing but sand right smack in his eyes. Nobody could blame the horse for quitting or the jockey for becoming hopelessly confused. If they can both come through it's quite a combination."
Christopher Chenery's First Landing and his jockey, Eddie Arcaro, were quite a combination.
The two best horses, on prerace form, were First Landing and Fred Turner Jr.'s Tomy Lee (SI, Oct. 27). Even under ideal conditions either of them would have had to take full advantage of racing luck to win over any field of top caliber. Under adverse conditions it would mean that the best horse and his rider would have to couple racing luck with superior performance. Both First Landing and Tomy Lee—together with their jockeys, Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker—did exactly that, but First Landing, who has tasted defeat only once in his life, showed a head advantage at the finish line. His brilliant combination of gameness, courage and sheer ability has brought him the 2-year-old championship and has elevated him to equal rank with the very best young runners of the past few decades—if not to the threshold of greatness itself. And Tomy Lee must be very nearly as good.
First Landing took the worst of it for nearly every foot of the mile and a sixteenth. Even after the basic battle plan went awry at the start, First Landing refused to quit and Arcaro refused to become confused. When they finally squirted under the wire barely a head in front of Tomy Lee it represented (at least in my opinion) the year's outstanding example of two individual champions pooling their talents in a breathtaking display of magnificent class.
The trainers of the other 12 colts in The Garden State had basically the same thing on their minds as First Landing's trainer, J. Homer (Casey) Hayes, when he hopefully exclaimed in the saddling shed, "Everyone will be going for position into the first turn, and I'd say the guys who get it will have a lot to say about the final result." His main rival, Trainer Frank Childs, said—not half as hopefully—of Tomy Lee, "My colt has never even seen this sort of track. He worked in off going twice at Belmont, but it was nothing like this. I'd still say that if we can get around the first turn in shape we should be able to handle this."
Well, as it turned out, neither First Landing nor Tomy Lee looked like winners going into—or coming out of—the crucial first turn. Tomy Lee, with a habit of going wide anyway, broke from the 11th stall and took the turn in the middle of the race track, losing yards of ground in the process. And Arcaro, getting into First Landing with his whip at the start, was clearly outrun into the turn by the likes of Namon, Sherry Prince, Intentionally and others. "I hit him good," Eddie remarked later, "but when I saw we weren't going to be in that first bunch I dropped him behind horses on the inside to save ground. Wham! As soon as I did that all that damn gunk began hitting us and my horse propped; he wasn't going to take that stuff for long. So as soon as we got around the turn [First Landing was only in eighth place then] I took him to the outside and we started to move. I must have drove him three-quarters of a mile, and it takes a hell of a horse to stand that sort of a drive."
Tomy Lee, meanwhile, had ranged up on the backstretch to take the lead from the tiring Namon, and Shoe opened up a four-length lead with him as First Landing, picking up one horse after another in his steady drive, started his most serious challenge. The rest of the mud-splattered field were engaged in a struggle of their own and, as Tomy Lee turned for home nearly two lengths in front, it was clear that if First Landing wasn't going to catch him nobody else was either. The pair of them hooked up in the stretch and battled home together, with First Landing gaining foot by foot as Shoe and Arcaro pumped furiously in a supreme effort. For a moment it appeared that Shoe's mastery alone would lift Tomy Lee across the line in front, but in the last few desperate strides it was Arcaro and First Landing who thrust ahead to climax as thrilling a race as any of the 34,127 rain-soaked spectators had probably ever seen. In the process of their victory both colt and rider had acquired a blanket of mud to go along with the richest purse ($175,965) in the world. In addition to using up three pairs of goggles during his 1:46 2/5 jaunt, Arcaro discovered upon weighing out that he and his equipment had gained an incredible five pounds of slop. Grinning, Eddie picked sand out of his eyes and ears and said, "I feel like I just had a cold mud bath."
What now for First Landing? Off shortly to Florida for a well-deserved rest, Chris Chenery's champion (who, with total earnings of $396,460, now becomes the richest 2-year-old ever) will await the 1959 classics. Tomy Lee goes back to California to await possible revenge in the Kentucky Derby. By then some other colts may be ready to take better aim at them (among them, Brookmeade's Sword Dancer, a well-trained surprise third in The Garden State, and King Ranch's Black Hills). But one thing, as Eddie Arcaro notes, is for sure: "When First Landing runs that's where I'm going to be. Hell, if I wanted to switch horses where would I go to find a better one?"
Where, in fact, would anybody find a better one right now?