October 31, 2009

The Foals of ‘54 - It was a Very Good Year

One night at Claiborne Farm something miraculous occurred. Two of the most influential thoroughbreds in American history were born in the same birthing barn at the historic farm just moments apart. These two horses, so near each other at birth, would go on to become the kingpins of the greatest crop of horses we have ever seen.

Bold Ruler was an outstanding racehorse and an even greater sire. On the track, many race goers felt that he should have been the juvenile champ in addition to his 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year titles in 1957 and his Sprinter Championship of 1958. Bold Ruler won 23 out of 33 lifetime races, despite the fierce competition he would face throughout his career. Gallant Man would become his greatest rival from his peers, and together they should have swept the Triple Crown series of 1957. Bold Ruler counts the Preakness among his numerous stakes victories. The son of Nasrullah danced every dance, often with extreme weights placed upon his back, and usually came out on top despite being hampered by physical problems throughout his lifetime. In the breeding shed, he also danced every dance to the tune of leading the American Sire's List eight times in the sixties running into the seventies. His influence was so great on American breeding that seven of the ten Kentucky Derby winners of the 1970's traced directly to Bold Ruler in their male lines. He sired numerous champions including Gamely and Wajima, and of course, the incomparable, Secretariat.

His late night pal from Claiborne, Round Table was a true iron horse. Round Table would survive to the grand old age of 33. Along the way, he would sire more than 80 stakes winners as one of the preeminent studs at the powerful Claiborne Farm. As influential as his bloodlines proved to be, It was on the track where Round Table was most impressive. In only four seasons of racing, Round Table would run 66 times. In 43 of those races he would be the victor. He won the Eclipse Award for Turf Champion in three consecutive years and was named Horse of the Year in 1958. Like Bold Ruler he carried staggering weights to victory often, including 136 pounds in a win in the prestigious United Nations Handicap. Round Table is to this day still considered the gold standard to which grass horses are compared. He started on the turf 16 times, winning 14. He carried 130 or more in nine of those starts, set three American records (all with 132 pounds) and equaled a track record in another. Amazingly, Round Table was as good on the dirt as he was on the lawn. Round Table won 29 races on dirt and won at distances from half a mile to a mile and five-eighths, setting more track records than he did on the turf and did so from one end of the country to the other.

Can you imagine a horse that won as much as Gallant Man taking a backseat to anyone? That is what happened to this remarkable horse. Gallant Man won the Belmont Stakes, and surely would have won the 1957 Kentucky Derby had it not been for the infamous mistake of jockey Willie Shoemaker who briefly stood up at the 16th pole. He also won the Travers, Met Mile, Hollywood Gold Cup, Peter Pan, Sunset Handicap, Nassau County Handicap, and the Hibiscus at 6 furlongs and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 2 miles, proving his great versatility. Despite beating Bold Ruler several times in their many encounters, he could not quite reach the zenith that the other two horses reached. Because of Bold Ruler and Round Table, Gallant Man was never awarded a racing honor or a championship of any kind. After retiring Gallant Man did receive the accolades he so richly deserved though, as he was elected to the Hall of Fame and ranks #36 in Blood-Horse magazine’s List of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century, in which, Round Table ranks #17 and Bold Ruler ranks #19.

Gen. Duke was so good during his short career that despite the big 3 beginning to peak for the Kentucky Derby, it was widely acknowledged that it would be the good General who would be favored in the 1957 edition of the Run for the Roses. Unfortunately, Gen. Duke’s career was cut short with an injury that would not allow him to race in the Derby or ever again. On an even sadder note, he was put down the following year after contracting Wobbles. Before the others would converge at the Derby, Gen. Duke would race in ten impressive races as a 3-year-old. He is best remembered for his duals with the horse that would become the Kentucky Derby favorite, Bold Ruler, in which they split four decisions in Florida. In their third encounter Bold Ruler beat the General by a neck setting a track record in the Flamingo. Gen. Duke would soon turn the tables in a big way, defeating Bold Ruler by 1 ½ lengths and tying Swaps’ world record of 1:46 and 4 for the 9 furlongs. An amazing feat for such a young horse, but right in line for this group of supreme 3-year-olds.

Lost in the greatness of Bold Ruler, Round Table, Gallant Man and Gen. Duke were such stalwarts as the Calumet pair of Iron Liege, the Kentucky Derby winner of 1957 and Barbizon, the 2-year-old champion of 1956. Both colts were owned by Calumet, who clearly believed that Gen. Duke was the star of the barn. Or how about the speedy Federal Hill who was good enough to beat Gen. Duke in the Derby Trial and set a track record in his Louisiana Derby win. These fine horses were overshadowed to be certain, but they were excellent additions to the amazing foal crop of 1954.

Sure there were other crops that were outstanding, such as 1964 (Dr. Fager, Damascus, In Reality & Fort Marcy), 1970 (Secretariat, Forego, Sham & Our Native), 1975 (Affirmed, Alydar, Believe It, Sensitive Prince, Dave’s Friend & Nasty and Bold), 1984 (Alysheba, Bet Twice, Java Gold, Lost Code, Cryptoclearance & Gulch), 1994 (Silver Charm, Free House, Touch Gold, Awesome Again, Pulpit & Captain Bodgit), but none were quite like the foal crop of 1954. Scores of exciting races were run, unbelievable winning records were compiled, track records dropped like flies, and Eclipse Awards were handed out like Chinese food flyers. Bold Ruler, Round Table, Gallant Man, Gen. Duke, Iron Liege, Barbizon, Federal Hill…your storyteller gracefully exits as Sinatra croons… It was a Very Good Year.


Unknown said...

this has me thinking about my trip to KY this summer, and how i got chills when i stood in the grave yard of all the champions at Claiborne Farms... i literally almost cried, standing there. AWESOME blog, Brian!! :)

NetworkEmpowerment said...

What an impressive crop that truly was. It is sad, what happened to Gen. Duke and one may only wonder what might have happened if he'd lived. The only crop of three year olds I can think of, modern day, that comes anywhere close is the crop of 07, where we saw one of the most amazing Triple Crowns with Curlin, SS, and the gutsy yet forgotten Hard Spun. Maybe someday we'll find another crop equal to that of the three year olds of 57'

Luvbarbaro said...

I feel the same Heather, it was very difficult looking at Eight Belles memorial at CD. I did put some roses down for her.

It's very late, sorry I'm posting so late again, but after all, it was Halloween today. BOO!! :>)

Before I fall asleep on my keyboard, I do see Brian mentioning my favorite horse Curlin. It was really unfortunate he didn't win the triple crown during his 3 yr old season. I think he definitely could have, but not racing as a 2 yr old held him back. I LOVE his wife to be of course too -- Rachel! :>)

I'm really looking forward to The Breeder's Cup!! Best of luck to Summer Bird, Gio Ponti & Music Note!!