It was the opening day of Hialeah's 40-day meeting, and 25,033 people had come out in perfect weather to shove $1,856,462 through the mutuel wickets, to watch a colony of flamingos in lazy flight above the infield lakes and to listen to the University of Miami band as it oompah-pahed on the bright green turf course in front of the infield tote board.
Down on the asphalt lawn in front of the grandstand an elderly groom began a reverent, unprepared monologue of his own as Sword Dancer, Horse of the Year of 1959, moved toward the winner's circle to receive a plaque commemorating his excellences of last year. "Mr. Swooord Danca!" the groom began, "Mr. Swooord Danca! Winna of Woodward and Belmont; Travers and Gold Cup. Twice the defeater of ole moneybags, Round Table. Mr. Swooord Danca! The hoss what breaks other hosses' hearts."
This Saturday the 4-year-old Sword Dancer makes his first major start of the year in the $100,000 mile-and-one-quarter Widener Handicap at Hialeah, one of the most important races of the winter season. When he and his rider, Eddie Arcaro, are locked in the starting gate the attention of over 30,000 at the track and millions of others who will watch the race on television will be focused directly upon them. The more knowledgeable racing fans will have three points in mind, to wit:
1) Until now, only Challedon and Whirlaway have been Horse of the Year in both their 3-year-old and 4-year-old seasons. Off his handicap record last year (he was both 3-year-old champion and handicap champion, and only one other horse, Citation, ever held that double distinction), Sword Dancer is considered to have an excellent chance to become Horse of the Year again in 1960. The Widener is the perfect race in which to begin his bid.
2) In the previous 22 runnings of the Widener only one 4-year-old has ever carried as much weight (129 pounds) as Sword Dancer is being asked to carry in this one. (The other was War Admiral, who won in 1938 under 130.)
3) Just three weeks ago Sword Dancer ran a prep for the Widener and finished a disappointing fourth to a moderate field, causing some to wonder if he had lost 1959's competitive zip.
In the old days, of course, a horse was a horse; today a horse seems to be judged on what numbers he is able to project onto the tote board or just how high he is able to pile his bankroll. A few animals transcend these areas of judgment and their names find their way onto the tongues of people not normally associated with or deeply interested in horse racing. Man o' War, Native Dancer, Tom Fool, Citation, Whirlaway and War Admiral all did this by meeting and defeating the best of their contemporaries under different weights and at different distances. There are many who see a similar potential in Sword Dancer. At the end of last season Sword Dancer was the best-known horse in America. His earnings were $597,535, 17th on the alltime money-winning list. Beginning with the Widener, he will have every opportunity to bring forth his potential and, if he is able to keep winning in the months ahead, acquire the eminence of a household word.
THOSE BEHIND HIM
Behind Sword Dancer are three very important people: Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, the owner of Brookmeade Stable, Preston M. Burch, the 75-year-old general manager of Brookmeade and his son, 35-year-old John Elliott Burch, Sword Dancer's trainer (see cover).
Mrs. Sloane has long been one of the most famous women in American racing, which she entered in the early 1920s. In 1934 she became the first woman ever to top the owners' money-winning list. The stable again led all owners in 1950.
Preston M. Burch now spends most of his time at the Brookmeade farm in Upperville, Virginia. He was one of the founders and a seven-term president of the American Trainers' Association, and he is the only man ever to train one Kentucky Derby winner to defeat two other Derby winners. In 1918 George Smith, winner of the Derby in 1916, beat Omar Khayyam, the 1917 winner, and Exterminator, the 1918 winner, in the Bowie Handicap. Preston Burch is also the author of the book Training Thoroughbred Horses. In his introduction to it he wrote, "I have always considered my father [William Preston Burch] a great horseman and a great trainer of horses, and I have tried in a small way to emulate him. He is said to have had more friends on the race track than any man who ever trained horses. Racing has been my whole life, and like my father I love my horses...."
Young Elliott Burch has said similar things about his own father many times at many tracks. Elliott takes the same meticulous care of his horses. He keeps information on individual horses written down in notebooks just as his father did. "Sometimes," Elliott said recently, "something that worked on another horse a while ago may work on the one you're concerned about at present." Few men have found success in racing as swiftly as Elliott Burch. He took over the Brookmeade Stable after his father suffered a heart attack in 1957. The following January at Hialeah, Burch sent Encore out for the Royal Poinciana Handicap on opening day, and Encore won. A month later he entered Oligarchy in the Widener. It was the first time that he had ever saddled a horse in a $100,000 race, but he won it. At the end of 1958 Brookmeade was 15th on the money-winning list with earnings of $360,067.
Last year Brookmeade catapulted to third place in the money-winning standings with earnings of $660,054, finishing behind Harry F. Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable ($742,081) and the stable of C. V. Whitney ($684,313). This year with Sword Dancer, Big Effort and Oligarchy, together with a hopeful 3-year-old named Plutocracy and some well-bred 2-year-olds, Brookmeade could finish on top.
Sword Dancer, whose father, Sunglow, won the Widener in 1951, appears to be a horse who improves with age. He first came to the races on February 28, 1958 at Hialeah, where he finished fourth in a field of 14 at a distance of three furlongs. Six months and six races later he was still a maiden, but as the distances stretched out so did his legs, and in August at Saratoga he won at six furlongs. In September he was shipped to Atlantic City for his first stake, the World's Playground, and at odds of 82 to 1 he closed through the stretch to finish fourth behind Demobilize and Intentionally, two of the top sprinting 2-year-olds of their generation. Sword Dancer came out twice at the fall meeting at Belmont, winning once and finishing third once. The win, however, encouraged Burch to try him in stakes company again, and Sword Dancer was shipped to Suffolk Downs for the Mayflower Stakes. This was the colt's first try at a distance over seven furlongs, and he liked the mile and 70 yards. Eleventh at the half mile, Sword Dancer quickly gathered his field and popped into the lead at the top of the stretch, drawing out to win by four and a half lengths at odds of 13 to 1.
A race like this would inspire anyone, so Burch and Mrs. Sloane decided to start him in the Garden State and posted a $10,000 supplemental fee. The colt finished third behind First Landing and Tomy Lee. Sword Dancer had one more start as a 2-year-old, finishing fourth in the Remsen at Jamaica. His record for the year was only moderate: 14 starts, three wins, two seconds, three thirds. His earnings: $60,531. There was within him, however, a glowing promise.
As a 3-year-old in 1959 Sword Dancer had one bad race, and he got it out of his system in his very first start. Blocked and bothered in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park early in March, he finished fifth behind Easy Spur. In his next 12 races Sword Dancer finished first or second every time, winning eight and finishing second four times. His most discussed race was the Kentucky Derby when he and Tomy Lee came jostling through the homestretch at Churchill Downs. Sword Dancer, ridden by Bill Boland, was on the outside. Tomy Lee, with Willie Shoemaker, was on the rail. From the top of the stretch it seemed that Sword Dancer would shake Tomy Lee off, but he never did and when the two went under the wire Tomy Lee won by a nose, with Boland immediately claiming foul.
"No one would really want to win a Kentucky Derby on a claim of foul," Elliott Burch said while the inquiry light was still on the board. "But my horse ran a damn fine race. He was only beaten this much." Burch held his right thumb and index finger about an inch apart.
Recently, reflecting upon the Derby loss, Burch said, "I went and watched the film patrol of that race right after it was over. I don't know how many times I watched it that afternoon. I watched it until they wouldn't let me watch it any more. There is no doubt in my mind that we were bumped and that we bumped a little bit ourselves, too. But you can't scream and holler because you've lost a horse race. Naturally, you don't feel good about it. Right after the race many of my wife's friends and mine started holding a wake for us. They were sorry that we had lost. Actually, we were pleased that the horse ran so well."
SPORTSMAN IN DEFEAT
Later that evening Burch and his wife Phyllis went to dinner with four friends. "I was there," one of those present said recently. "Here was a man with a perfect opportunity to blast Boland for the ride he had given the horse, or to blast Shoemaker for bumping his horse, or to say that the stewards had made the wrong decision. But he didn't. He kept that defeat to himself, and there aren't many people around who would be able to do it in the way he did it."
Two weeks later Sword Dancer ran second to Royal Orbit in the Preakness at Pimlico, and then he beat a field of older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont just 13 days before the important Belmont Stakes. In the Belmont, Sword Dancer was the master of that muddy mile and a half and caught the front-running Bagdad just inside the sixteenth pole to draw clear at the finish.
At Saratoga in August, Sword Dancer won the Travers. "The Travers to me," says Burch, "was Sword Dancer's finest race. Many people think that his performance in the Woodward [which he won later] was better, but I still prefer the Travers. He was running behind a slow pace and he had to come off that pace to beat one of the most improving 3-year-olds in the country, E. Barry Ryan's Middle Brother, to whom he was giving 14 pounds. He did it on willingness and desire. He had to want to win that race and he did."
The next race for Sword Dancer was the finest race run in the U.S. in 1959, the Woodward at Aqueduct. The title of Horse of the Year would go to Hillsdale, Round Table or Sword Dancer, whichever one won. In a furious stretch battle, Eddie Arcaro pushed Sword Dancer in on the rail, and Sword Dancer inched past Hillsdale to win by a head. Although most of the crowd of 53,290 had bet against him, they gave him a remarkable ovation. Sword Dancer's last race of the year was in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which he won by seven lengths, again defeating Round Table.
In one year, his second full year as a trainer, Elliott Burch had endured a cruel defeat as well as more success than most trainers experience in a full career. He has what every owner would like to find in a trainer—intelligence, integrity, intuition. He is probably the only trainer in horse racing who reads one or two books a week, four magazines, plays bridge and still has time for his three children. He went to Yale and the University of Kentucky, although the smell of liniment and the sound of a bugle rising on the afternoon air kept him from finishing either. This week in the Widener his horse steps out against Bald Eagle, weighted at 123 pounds, and Calumet Farm's in-and-out On-and-On (119), and while some people feel that Sword Dancer is not yet back to his best form, the majority will be betting that he is.