Down the long new Aqueduct stretch they streaked in a blistering :24 2/5 final quarter. Hillsdale was on the outside, his 3-year-old challenger, Sword Dancer, close on the rail, and the one was as magnificent in defeat as the other was brilliant in victory. The sight of the two of them straining, digging and fighting that last quarter of a mile was a spectacle no one in the crowd of 53,290 will ever forget.
And when Brookmeade Stable's Sword Dancer finally won the mile-and-a-quarter weight-for-age Woodward Stakes by a scant head, the huge throng rose in a roaring tribute to the valiant colt, to Jockey Eddie Arcaro, to Trainer Elliott Burch and to Owner Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane. They stood in salute, too, to everyone who had contributed to make this heralded race of the year possible. It was an occasion when eastern and western racing met in a spirit of sportsmanship, and although the easterner, Sword Dancer, won, there was an overwhelming feeling that seldom has racing ever experienced a more glorious moment. For this was a real championship.
The story of the Woodward is essentially one of basic tactics and racing generalship. It clearly brings to mind something Arcaro once wrote in these pages (The Art of Race Riding, SI, June 17, 1957, et seq.): "The fastest horse, perfectly true, should win. But his speed alone won't get him the money. His speed—together with his jock's judgment—can.... I believe that 80% of the time the outcome of a race depends on the individual thinking on the part of the jockey on the best horse."
The best horse in the Woodward may have been Sword Dancer; or it may have been Hillsdale. The difference between Arcaro's ride on the former and young Tommy Barrow's on the latter could have spelled the difference between winning or losing.
Everyone figured, and rightly so, that none of the quartet would want to set out a fast pace. "I didn't want the pace," said Willie Shoemaker, who rode Round Table. "Being outside of Hillsdale I figured I'd lay just off him and force him on the lead."
"I didn't much want the lead, either," said Barrow, "but I got stuck with it. I didn't mind too much, though, because we all rated back and were going nice and easy."
"Nice and easy," laughed Arcaro. "We all knew this was going to be a plain gallop for the first three quarters and that the only running would come in the last quarter. When I started doping this race out I told Burch that maybe the way to win was to make a front-running race of it."
"I didn't agree with Eddie on this strategy," added Burch, "and after consulting with my father, Preston, we decided against it. The plan to run on the front end would have been suicide. First one of those other two would have made a run at us, then the other, and by the time we turned for home we'd have had nothing left."
THE FINAL STRATEGY
"What Elliott also told me—and thank goodness he did—" interrupted Arcaro, "was that if you take back on him nice and gentle-like, Sword Dancer will rate real good. If you can rate him back in the third slot, Burch told me, Hillsdale and Round Table can have a race of their own up front, and your horse, who has one real powerful run in him, will be fresh when you reach the stretch."
Hillsdale, with Round Table at his flank, galloped leisurely off after the start, while Arcaro dropped in on the rail behind them to save ground. Back of him was Inside Tract, all alone and, for the first six furlongs, the object of considerable sympathy.
But suddenly, as the field neared the quarter pole and the crowd turned its frantic yell into deafening full volume, the race took on a different look. Shoemaker started challenging Hillsdale, and at the same moment Arcaro let out a notch on Sword Dancer. He looked to the front of him and was ready to take to the outside for his stretch run. He had no way of knowing that what the crowd was yelling most hysterically about was poor forgotten Inside Tract, who, under Ray Broussard, had let loose a jetlike run and in a flash had come up on Arcaro's outside, blocking any move he might have wanted to make to the outside and putting him, for a moment, in a blind switch from which there was no immediate escape.
At that second, however—and it is a second that Tommy Barrow will never forget—Hillsdale was taking the final turn. He took it just too wide, for with the speed of a cobra striking for its life Arcaro shot Sword Dancer through the opening on the rail. He jumped Hillsdale's heels to make it, and just did.
THE REAL BATTLE
Now came the race. Four of them were in a tight pack for a fleeting instant before Inside Tract fell back. Next it was Round Table's turn to falter, down around the eighth pole, and then there were two, riding knee-to-knee in a savage and brutal duel. Inside the sixteenth pole Arcaro switched his whip to his left hand and cracked it with authority. Sword Dancer did what he knows how to do: he responded with the gut-busting courage that marks a champion and, digging in once more, he poked his chestnut head in front.
No excuse was found for Hillsdale, and he need seek none, although it is true that Barrow admitted he never knew Arcaro was cutting to his inside until he saw Sword Dancer's head beside him, and then it was too late. As for Round Table, Shoemaker said he liked the track fine but just had no finishing kick at all. "Could be," suggested Willie, "that his race the previous week, when he carried 136 pounds, took too much out of him."
Be that as it may, Sword Dancer and Brookmeade Stable won their championship the hard way last week, and it was a deserving one at that. As for Arcaro, he's been a champion all along anyway. Remember when he once said, "I really believe I have my best judgment when the money is hanging up there"? Anyone who wasn't convinced then should have been at Aqueduct for the 1959 Woodward Stakes.