The mark of the champion is the ability to combine obviously superior performance under the most demanding conditions with an ever-so-rare quality of personality that endears one man, or one animal, in 10,000 to those who have the privilege of watching him in action.
Sword Dancer is such a rare creature—one in 10,000, maybe one in 100,000. When this beautiful 3-year-old chestnut with the gleaming white forefeet won last week's two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by an utterly convincing seven lengths over Round Table to nail down the title of Horse of the Year—a title which he had already claimed convincingly with his victory in the Woodward Stakes (SI, Oct. 5)—he elevated himself in both performance and popularity to the same lofty pedestal from which, in years gone by, other American champions, like Whirlaway and Citation and Nashua, have looked proudly down on row after row of thoroughly beaten rivals.
Sword Dancer won the decisive Gold Cup with far greater ease and eclat than he displayed in his desperate do-or-die effort in taking the measure of Hillsdale and Round Table in the Woodward. Then he had to come between horses and the rail and survive a grueling drive down the stretch; this time he charged from third to first in one crushing spurt around the far turn and swept away from the field to win easily by a regal seven lengths. He won the way champions are supposed to. His tentative hold on the title of Horse of the Year was being challenged by the greatest money-winning horse of all time. For weeks before Gold Cup day the question was argued: could the 3-year-old Sword Dancer beat the 5-year-old Round Table again? Would the longer, two-mile distance help or hurt the younger horse?
Sword Dancer, with Jockey Eddie Arcaro up, stepped briskly into the Aqueduct paddock absolutely as fit as could be, to the pleased satisfaction of his owner, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, and his trainer, the popular young Elliott Burch (who nonetheless was tense with anticipation). Then Sword Dancer and Arcaro went the rest of the way on their own.
In the lingo of the racetracker, they win it big. In fact, they murdered Round Table and Tudor Era and the five other older runners. The last half mile of the contest turned into a rout instead of a horse race.
The battle plan devised by Burch and Arcaro was to lay off the pace for at least the first mile of this long grind. There seemed little doubt that Bill Hartack would take Tudor Era to the front at the start. "Tudor Era has speed," said Arcaro, "and everyone knows he can go a mile and a half any time. Give this sort of a horse his own way under a front-running jock like Hartack and he could be dangerous."
Hartack, as expected, broke on top and within a half mile was four lengths to the good of Round Table, while behind The Table were the long-shot Anisado and Sword Dancer. The four other starters—Inside Tract, Dotted Line, Amanullah and Promised Land—started behind the first quartet, and finished behind them.
As the field passed the stands the first time it was still Tudor Era in the lead. Arcaro had Sword Dancer running "real relaxed." Paul Bailey—a last-second choice to ride Round Table—later protested that his horse was laboring every step of the way as though he didn't like the going much. Like it or not, this day was never destined to be Round Table's. And Arcaro made doubly sure. "I made up my mind," said the Master later, "to make Round Table get to running leaving the three-quarter pole."
When Eddie clucked to his easygoing chestnut on the backstretch the second time around, Sword Dancer moved smoothly but with devastating effectiveness. Round Table was going after Tudor Era, but Arcaro went after both of them. Going into the far turn he swept past Round Table, and Hartack on Tudor Era knew what was coming next. In a flash Sword Dancer ranged alongside Tudor Era and then whizzed by him. "When I hooked the leader," said Arcaro, "he came up empty and I knew then I was home free."
Home free he was, too, for as Hartack looked apprehensively behind him to see what in the world had happened to Round Table (who did get up to take second place from him by a length and a quarter) Sword Dancer was pulling away almost effortlessly toward the finish line and a pot of $70,790. As he drew closer to the wire he was greeted by the sort of thunderous applause that New York's knowing audience reserves only for the great—and at race tracks usually only for the great who happen to be ridden by Eddie Arcaro.
This Gold Cup victory, which happened to be Arcaro's eighth, was something special. When Mrs. Sloane hustled down to the winner's circle to greet her winning team, she turned to Trainer Burch and exclaimed of Sword Dancer, "He's a dear little fellow."
"He certainly is," replied Burch, still shaking like a guy stuck in a Vic Tanny vibrator, "but I'm awfully glad he's retired for the year." Mrs. Sloane reached out to pump Arcaro's mud-crusted hand and asked, "What do you think of him now?"
"What do I think of him?" said Eddie. "He isn't a good horse; he's a great one. He does things that only champions do—like rate when you want him to, and move when you have to. If you were all scared that Hartack was going to steal it on Tudor Era, you shouldn't have been. Nobody steals a two-mile race like this against a horse like Sword Dancer. The only way you win a Gold Cup is to deserve it. And nobody deserved it more today."
The most intriguing aspect of the 41st Jockey Club Gold Cup—aside from the disappointing performance of Round Table, who gave Sword Dancer no trouble at all—was the pre-race question of which jockey was going to ride The Table in a race which Owner Travis M. Kerr admittedly felt was just about the most important in his horse's fabulous career. The confusion was not only awkward but unnecessary.
It all started when Kerr and Trainer Willie Molter felt they had a pretty sure rider in Willie Shoemaker, who had been Round Table's regular jockey. But Shoemaker, as everyone else around the race track seems to have known, had given a promise to C. V. Whitney to ride Tompion in the Garden State in New Jersey on the same day as the Gold Cup. For some reason—which even Kerr cannot explain—the Round Table camp felt so sure that Shoemaker would be aboard their horse and not Tompion that until the eleventh hour they had failed to find a substitute. And while Shoemaker and his agent Harry Silbert were indeed anxious to ride Round Table (the agents don't actually ride, but their language makes you think they do), they had a ready answer a month ago for anybody interested in their October 31 plans.
"We gave first call to Mr. Whitney in the Cowdin, the Champagne and the Garden State," said Silbert. "It's true that we'd like to ride Round Table, but right is right, and if Mr. Whitney wants to hold us to our promise we'll be at Garden State on the day." Mr. Whitney, naturally, did still want Willie Shoemaker.
The significance of this widely distributed message never flashed through to Travis Kerr until the last moment, and then there was frantic struggling to find another jock. The rumors were all over: Henry Moreno, Willie Harmatz, and finally Bill Hartack. On the morning of the Gold Cup Kerr himself tried to talk Hartack into accepting the mount—even though Hartack was almost sure to ride Tudor Era. Hartack said no. "We had a misunderstanding in the summer of 1958 in Chicago," Bill explained later, "and even if I could get it I don't want his money that bad. I've lost respect for Mr. Kerr, and frankly I wouldn't ride that man's horse if he gave me the whole pot."
Paul Bailey finally wound up with the ride on Round Table, and he did as well with it as Shoemaker, Hartack, Harmatz or Moreno would have—or even a combination of all four of them. A light drizzle for four hours before post time had not altered the track from fast, and both Kerr and Molter said they knew the track would not affect Round Table. Later, however, Bailey said he thought it probably had.
The real answer is that neither the jockey mixup nor the racing surface defeated Round Table. In the morning line of last Saturday's newspapers Round Table's jockey was listed as "No Boy." Well, with nothing on him that afternoon but an empty saddle he would have still been beaten—for the pure and simple reason that he was going against a real champion. Sword Dancer is one of the very, very best.
COLOR OF THE WEEK: HORSE OF THE YEAR
Bounding ahead on a drizzly, dark day at Aqueduct race track, Brookmeade Stable's Sword Dancer, under Jockey Eddie Arcaro, begins to pull away down the stretch on his way to a decisive seven-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Tudor Era, who led most of the way, is beaten. His jockey, Bill Hartack, looks back to see if he can hold off the oncoming Round Table and save second place.