The Race That Made Aqueduct

The mid-to-late fifties was a time of peace and tranquility in America; a time when baseball, boxing, and horse racing dominated the sports world. The Dodgers and Giants were gone from New York, Elvis was stationed in Germany, and a new mellow sound of rock and roll was emerging with most of the hit songs being written by Jewish kids from Brooklyn.

In the world of Thoroughbred racing, we were concluding the first decade since the 1920s without a Triple Crown winner. Oh, there were stars alright, such as the first equine TV star Native Dancer, the undefeated 4-year-old Tom Fool, the brief, but memorable rivalry between Swaps and Nashua and their much-hyped match race, the exceptional 1957 crop of Round Table, Bold Ruler, and Gallant Man, the courageous Tim Tam, who might have ended the Triple Crown drought had he not suffered a fractured leg during the Belmont Stakes, yet still finished second, and, of course, the one and only Silky Sullivan, a true media star and one of the most exciting horses ever to hit the Derby trail.

So, here we were in 1959. Lurking in the corridors waiting to pound his name into racing lore was a nondescript 2-year-old named Kelso, racing in Atlantic City, who would dominate nearly half the decade of the '60s like no other before him.

In New York, people driving on the Belt Parkway would look to their left as they crossed over from Brooklyn into Queens to see a new-look structure rising over the rooftops. It was Aqueduct Racetrack, with its fresh modern design and its own subway station.

Four years earlier, the Greater New York Racing Association took control of New York's four major tracks-Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Saratoga, and Jamaica Race Course. The last named was immediately shut down and sold for redevelopment as a housing project. In 1956, they closed down the old Aqueduct and all but rebuilt it, spending $33 million dollars in renovations that were designed by architect Arthur Froehlich of Beverly Hills. The result was "The Racetrack of the Future," which opened Sept. 14, 1959.

No racetrack was ever greeted right off the bat with a more star-studded and widely publicized event than the Woodward Stakes, a race that had been inaugurated five years earlier in 1954 at the old Aqueduct. The race was won by some talented horses, but it wasn't until 1957 that it crowned a champion when the 5-year-old Dedicate defeated star 3-year-olds Gallant Man and Bold Ruler. The year before, the great Nashua was upset in the Woodward by Mister Gus at odds of 1-5. The race was run those years at Belmont Park while Aqueduct was being renovated.

Now here we were in 1959, only 12 days after the reopening of Aqueduct, and the new track was already showcasing the event everyone was calling "The Race of the Decade."

For the first time in memory, we had an epic showdown between the best horse in the East, the best horse in the Midwest, and the best horse in the West. And here they were, all converging on Aqueduct to meet for Horse of the Year honors at a mile and a quarter and weight-for-age conditions.

Representing the East was the nation's leading 3-year-old Sword Dancer, who was beaten a nose in the Kentucky Derby in a controversial finish, finished second in the Preakness, and then defeated older horses in the Met Mile, missing the track record by two-fifths of a second. Two weeks later he captured the Belmont Stakes, then defeated older horses again in the Monmouth Handicap before finishing second against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, giving 12 actual pounds to the winner and breaking poorly at the start, dropping far back and rallying strongly to be beaten three-quarters of a length. He then wheeled right back and won the Travers Stakes.

Representing the Midwest was the already great Round Table, who revolutionized the sport by becoming the first superstar on both dirt and grass. Round Table came into the Woodward having equaled or broken 16 track records on dirt and grass and had won seven of his last eight starts, carrying from 130 to 136 pounds in all of them, and culminating with a victory in the United Nations Handicap under 136 pounds.

Representing California was the powerhouse Hillsdale, who came into the Woodward having won 10 of his 12 starts at 4, and 10 in a row, including the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 1/5, the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap, defeating Round Table in 1:21 4/5, the Californian Stakes, American Handicap under 130 pounds, Santa Anita Maturity (later changed to the Charles H. Strub Stakes), Los Angeles Handicap, and Argonaut Stakes. He then came to New York with visions of Horse of the Year and defeated the top-class Bald Eagle in the Aqueduct Handicap under 132 pounds. His only two defeats came early in the year when he was second in the Santa Anita Handicap and San Antonio Stakes.

In all, these three exceptional horses came into the Woodward having won 25 of their 35 starts in 1959, while finishing in the money in 33 of their 35 starts. Their only two out of the money performances were Sword Dancer's 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes when he finished fifth, and Round Table being virtually eased in a handicap stakes at Santa Anita when he tore open his left front heel while carrying 134 pounds, 25 pounds more than the winner.

Bill Shoemaker, who had ridden Sword Dancer in six of his starts that year, including victories in the Met Mile, Belmont, and Monmouth Handicap, as expected took the mount on Round Table, who he had ridden 31 times in his career. That provided the opportunity for Eddie Arcaro to snatch up the mount on Sword Dancer.

So the stage was set for The Race of the Decade at New York's spanking new modernistic Aqueduct Racetrack. An enthusiastic crowd of 53,290 poured through the gates to see these three great horses battle for Horse of the Year honors. And when it was over, Whitney Tower wrote in Sports Illustrated, "There was an overwhelming feeling that seldom has racing ever experienced a more glorious moment. For this was a real championship."

Only four horses went to the gate, so riding tactics would be all the more important, as Shoemaker, Arcaro, and Tommy Barrow on Hillsdale would have to feel each other out to see who would go to the lead. Arcaro felt the pace would be slow, so he told trainer Elliott Burch he felt the best way to win was to go to the front. Burch disagreed, and after consulting with his father, the legendary Preston Burch, he told Arcaro that would be suicide, as he felt Sword Dancer would have to turn back the challenges of one, then the other, and that would prove too taxing in the end. So, because Sword Dancer was so rateable, the strategy was to sit just off the pace, preferably in third, and make one run, hoping Round Table and Hillsdale would engage in a battle of their own in front of him.

Neither Shoemaker nor Barrow wanted the lead either. But the pace was so slow, Hillsdale found himself in front with Round Table sitting right off his flank. Arcaro, breaking from post 4, dropped Sword Dancer to the rail to save as much ground as possible. The only other horse in the field, Inside Tract, dropped back to fourth, leaving the big three to battle it out.

They loped along through a dawdling half in :49 1/5 and three-quarters in 1:14 1/5. It was all going to come down to a furious final quarter to see which horse had the best closing kick. As they neared the quarter pole, the crowd let out a roar anticipating the oncoming battle.

Shoemaker moved Round Table up to challenge Hillsdale, while Arcaro nudged Sword Dancer into contention right behind them. If Arcaro had any plans to swing Sword Dancer to the outside, which seemed like the logical move, here came Inside Tract to block his way and hem him in along the rail directly behind Hillsdale and Round Table with no place to go.

Surprisingly, Round Table's bid was brief and he was unable to match strides with Hillsdale, dropping back. By then, Arcaro was committed to the rail, and when Barrow moved out just a hair, he shot little Sword Dancer through. For a brief instant, you couldn't even see Sword Dancer inside the much larger Hillsdale. Then, as they neared wire, with Arcaro going to a round house left-handed whipping, there appeared Sword Dancer's white blinkers peeking through on the rail. Barrow admitted afterward he wasn't aware that Sword Dancer was trying to get through on his inside, and when he finally did, it was too late.

The pair came to wire together after a swift final quarter in :24 2/5, with Sword Dancer just sticking his head in front. It was 1¾ lengths back to Round Table in third, with Inside Tract another five lengths back in fourth. You could certainly forgive Round Table for tiring slightly after having carried 136 pounds to victory only one week before.

So, America had its Horse of the Year, which Sword Dancer solidified a month later when he trounced Round Table by seven lengths in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Both Sword Dancer and Round Table went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, while Hillsdale has been waiting his turn for several years now in the voting by the Historical Review Committee.

With the epic Woodward battle, Aqueduct had become the championship meeting as the decade of the fifties ended. The country would go through an historic change from the halcyon days of Kelso in the first part of the sixties to the tumultuous times of the second half of the decade. But still Aqueduct continued as the Mecca of horse racing, hosting the Belmont Stakes from 1963 to '67 while Belmont Park was being rebuilt and being graced by the presence of the immortal Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Arts and Letters to close out the sixties.

As for Sword Dancer, he would win the Woodward again in 1960, as well as the Suburban and Excelsior Handicaps, and finished second to champion T.V. Lark in the United Nations Handicap on grass. He left his mark in the breeding shed by siring Damascus, who would win the 1967 Woodward over Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in a race that was dubbed "Race of the Century," going his sire one better. Sword Dancer lived out his days at Darby Dan Farm until his death at age 28.

Round Table retired to Claiborne Farm after the ‘59 Gold Cup and would go on to become one of racing's most influential sires. He lived until the ripe old age of 33.

Hillsdale sired several decent stakes winners, but none came even remotely close to achieving the success of their sire.

Not many racing fans today remember or are aware of the 1959 Woodward Stakes, but it was an historic event that provided the Sport of Kings with one of its greatest showdowns and one of the great stretch duels of all time.

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