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
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
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.