When 38,000 feverishly excited racing fans strained their eyes toward the far reaches of Belmont Park's final turn, where the muddy human bundle pictured on the right lay motionless, half buried in a sea of slime, they knew they were witnessing one of those moments in sport loaded with potential tragedy.
At the instant this grim photograph was taken, during the 91st running of the Belmont Stakes last Saturday, the majority of the crowd was focusing attention on Sword Dancer's brilliant win over the Californian Bagdad. Seconds before that triumph was achieved, and just as Sword Dancer, Bagdad and King Ranch's Black Hills were developing a driving duel characteristic of this championship race, the impersonal voice of the public address announcer had blared out, "Black Hills is down." All the crowd knew for a certainty was that Black Hills was being ridden by Eddie Arcaro—universally recognized as one of the best jockeys of any day.
What none of them (or any of the millions who caught a glimpse of the spill on nationwide television) knew was whether Eddie Arcaro was dead or alive at this climactic moment of a hitherto colorful Belmont Day. Shudders raced up 38,000 spines, as onrushing thunderclouds enveloped the scene in dark, wind-blown wildness.
Eddie Arcaro was not dead, nor was he dying, but he had escaped with his life by mere inches; minutes later (although the ambulance seemed to take an eternity to rescue him) he was off to the hospital, suffering not from fractures or broken bones, but from concussion, neck sprain and multiple contusions of the chest. (An alert Pinkerton track guard had been the first to reach Arcaro and he wisely did little more than avert a possible case of choking by lifting that distinguished Neapolitan nose up out of the mud.)
June 21, 1959
Thus, for the second successive year the Belmont Stakes, that single race in America which leading Thoroughbred owners and breeders are most anxious to win, was visited by shattering tragedy. A year ago Belmont Day marked the end of the short but dazzling career of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Tim Tarn, who broke a bone in one foot and never stepped on a track again. What happened last week was almost as rare as an upset victory in the Belmont itself.
Black Hills, the hope of Robert Kleberg's King Ranch and considered by Trainer Max Hirsch as one of his best prospects in years, had run along in sixth and fifth place during the early part of the race—ahead of Sword Dancer and Royal Orbit—while Manassa Mauler and Bagdad cut out the pace for the first mile of this mile-and-a-half grind. Then, nearing the far turn, all the favorites started to move. Sword Dancer shot up on the outside, passed Manassa Mauler and took dead aim on Bagdad. Arcaro went to it with Black Hills, and in a full drive as he neared the 5/16 pole he went by Manassa Mauler. Suddenly the King Ranch colt lowered his head. He had been trying to lug in and Arcaro was fighting to keep him on course. Two strides after he put his head down he literally flew apart, one leg shattered to smithereens. Like a dive bomber out of control he went nose first into the mud, and Arcaro flew over his head. The colt just missed crushing Eddie, and then the long shot Lake Erie piled into the slippery mess, fortunately doing no serious damage to his jockey, Walter Blum. The wounded and dying (Black Hills was humanely destroyed a few moments later) were left in the quagmire as Sword Dancer fought on after Bagdad, nailing him courageously at the sixteenth pole and then inching ahead to win by nearly a length.
The victory celebration was hardly what it might have been. Although everyone congratulated Sword Dancer's winning team of Owner Isabel Dodge Sloane, Trainer Elliott Burch and Jockey Willie Shoemaker for being associated with the most consistent and probably the best 3-year-old in training today, minds were on Black Hills and Arcaro.
As he flew home to California later that evening Willie Shoemaker had the satisfaction of knowing that his friend Eddie Arcaro was well out of danger. He also had the satisfaction of knowing that he and his agent Harry Silbert are the best pickers of mounts in history. In fact, Shoemaker is dangerous to bet against in the big races: of his 60 $100,000 races during the last two and a half seasons, Willie has been cut in for a piece of the purse 46 times. And he's won 25.
Elsewhere on Belmont Day (wires James Murray), at Hollywood Park the remarkable filly, Silver Spoon, threw fresh confusion into the 3-year-old picture when she trounced Sword Dancer's Kentucky Derby conqueror, Tomy Lee, in the $50,000 Cinema Handicap.
To be sure, Silver Spoon benefited from an exceptionally heady race by Jockey Bill Boland, while Tomy Lee ran such a willful race he not only knocked himself out of it but managed to bully the only other threat in the race, Ole Fols, out of any chance. Moaned Tomy Lee's jockey, Don Pierce, afterwards: "I couldn't ride him any step of the way. I had no chance to ride." Ole Fols's jockey, Ismael Valenzuela, just gnashed his teeth. "That horse [Tomy Lee]! He gave us no chance."
On the other hand, Silver Spoon's Jockey Boland explained with a grin: "I took her back because I know Tomy Lee runs out." As a result, Tomy Lee barreled into Ole Fols on the first turn of the mile-and-an-eighth run and spent most of the rest of the race trying to get Jockey Pierce to quit bothering him. He was a bigger menace than a drunk in a crowded bar. He finished sixth. Silver Spoon, as mannerly as a Sunday school teacher, scorched between horses in the backstretch and easily put away the remainder of the so-so opposition.
Her win, of course, immediately set off her California fans, who feel she had been ridden into too much trouble in the Kentucky Derby to be able to show her stuff. Owner C. V. Whitney unloaded a little fuel in the flame of controversy after the race: "I ran her in the Kentucky Derby because I believed she could beat them, but she had tough luck back there. I wanted to run her in this race against the winner of the Kentucky Derby because of my confidence in her."
Because of Tomy Lee's headstrong behavior, the Cinema can hardly be called conclusive. The Hollywood Derby, on June 27, should settle more than the $100,000 prize posted. Sword Dancer is due for a rest, but Bagdad is expected to provide tough opposition. Tomy Lee may be shown some manners by a more experienced jockey (Shoemaker has kept him pointed straighter than anyone, but the Tomy Lee stable was upset at his preferring Sword Dancer in the Belmont. After Saturday, it may be the better part of pique to let bygones be bygones).
In any event, the Hollywood Derby still looms as almost a fourth leg of the 1959 classics. And the little lass with the Whitney blue ribbon in her hair can hardly wait.