Somehow—almost incredibly—the Kentucky Derby always manages to generate blazing and controversial excitement. Year in and year out the race sustains its uncanny ability to stimulate sporting frenzy. And the 85th Derby, contested at creaking old Churchill Downs last week, fell perfectly into this traditional pattern; the moment Tomy Lee burst across the finish line a scant nose in front of Sword Dancer the 1959 classic had taken its rightful place among the most sensational Derbies ever run.
The elements of suspense, nervous tension and eleventh-hour confusion were all there: 1) Willie Shoemaker justified his last-minute decision to ride Tomy Lee over Sword Dancer by turning in one of the most brilliant rides on this or any other track, and the manner in which he did it must certainly now make every racegoer from Jamaica to Tanforan more convinced than ever that this nerveless little man with the gifted hands deserves to climb another rung on that exclusive ladder reserved for truly great riders. 2) The second foul claim in Derby history—there was one in the wild days of 1880, and in 1933 Brokers Tip's Derby was so rough that the stewards initiated an "inquiry"—produced enough excitement to offset the disappointing performances by such prerace favorites as First Landing, Easy Spur and Our Dad. 3) The great showing of the four-horse California contingent, who, although not boasting a true California-bred among them, nonetheless put the West Coast racers across the line in first, fourth, fifth and sixth positions in a field of 17 which included the best performers gathered in Louisville from all winter combat fronts.
To say that Tomy Lee's victory was entirely due to Shoemaker's reinsmanship would be an injustice not only to the colt himself but also to everyone connected with him. Good race horses fit into a more or less general category known as "game." There are also race horses who are game beyond the call of duty, and Tomy Lee is surely one of these. For he was a sure loser heading down the homestretch, beaten by the onrushing Sword Dancer by a margin which at one time was a full half length. But then, after setting or helping to set nearly all the early pace of the race, Tomy Lee came on again. He engaged in a bumping duel with Sword Dancer for close to an eighth of a mile, a duel which produced not so much a series of individual collisions as a sort of continuous rubbing at extremely close quarters, and survived this encounter to go on and eke out his courageous triumph in the very last few yards.
It was a marvelous exhibition on the part of a horse who has never been completely sound in his underpinnings, and Tomy Lee's showing reflects happily on the patient training methods of Frank Childs, the 71-year-old horseman who trains Tomy Lee for Texas oilman and rancher Fred Turner Jr. Childs has never pushed Tomy Lee too fast. In fact, he has brought him along so skillfully that Tomy Lee, in 13 starts, has never finished worse than second (although a disqualification in last fall's Champagne moved him back to third).
As Childs, a soft-spoken, gray-haired man, went quietly about his Derby preparations with Tomy Lee at Churchill Downs last week, he was hardly the center of attraction. That honor was divided all over the crowded barn area among the also-rans and nonstarters. Up at one end, for example, was popular, loquacious Jimmy Jones. Jimmy had On-and-On, the hope of Calumet Farm. On Wednesday he announced with all the solemnity of an about-to-retire board chairman that On-and-On was definitely out of the Derby. On Thursday he put the colt back in the race. Then on Saturday he scratched him once and for all. Having already pre-empted more newspaper space than any of the real starters, Jimmy Jones made his position officially clear: "If the horse were mine I'd start him. But Mrs. Markey doesn't feel much like finishing up the track some place, so she'd as soon not run." With this on-again off-again business out of the way, Jones put On-and-On in another race on Saturday against ordinary colts, and though he managed to win a purse of $2,600, it appeared quite plain that Mrs. Markey knew exactly what she was about.
Down the line were Trainer Casey Hayes with First Landing and Reggie Cornell with Royal Orbit. Not far away were Bob Wheeler with the filly Silver Spoon, Charles Peoples with Troilus and Elliott Burch with Sword Dancer. All of them held court graciously in the morning for the hordes of newsmen and photographers. And some of them stall-walked like expectant fathers through most of the nights. In direct contrast to easygoing Frank Childs, who after over 50 years around horses was certainly not going to allow Tomy Lee's appearance in the Derby to lose him any sleep, was young Elliott Burch. A personable 35-year-old Yale man and a sports-writer for The Racing Form before going to work under his famous father, Preston Burch, at Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane's Brookmeade Stable, Elliott and his chestnut charge, Sword Dancer, were a center of attraction all week long. When he wasn't posing for pictures or answering questions, Elliott could be found pacing the floor of room 194 at the Standiford Motel, where he paused barely long enough to give part-time attention to a difficult jigsaw puzzle that he and his pretty wife Phyllis had set up in the room to take their minds off the running puzzle that was getting closer every day. But puzzle or no puzzle, Elliott Burch found himself forever wandering back to his favorite subject: Sword Dancer. He would say to anyone who asked—and lots of people did—"Sword Dancer may be little, but I'll tell you one thing: he's all heart."
Other Derby participants had ideas not only about Sword Dancer but about the rivals he would have to beat. Sitting around their motel bar, for example, Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro passed a few quiet hours before the arrival of their buddy Toots Shor by voicing different opinions. "The way you've got to drive First Landing to make him do practically anything nowadays," said Eddie, "makes me wonder if he's ever going to be a good horse." "He's still got to be the horse to beat," said Burch.
"The horse to beat," added Shoemaker, "is Sword Dancer. And the horse with the best chance of beating him is the one I'm on: Tomy Lee."
And there was healthy respect for the lone filly, too. "I watched her in California all winter," said Our Dad's trainer, Hirsch Jacobs, "and she is mighty good." Silver Spoon's owner-trainer team of C. V. Whitney and Bob Wheeler were optimistic but not overly so. "She'll disgrace nobody, that I can promise," said Wheeler. And she didn't, either.
Because of the claim of foul by Bill Boland against Shoemaker, resulting from their scrape down the stretch, the 85th Derby has in some quarters been falsely pictured as being one of the roughest ever. Actually, it was no rougher than most—and a good deal cleaner than many in which no thought of fouls entered anybody's mind. If there was any real misfortune during the running it occurred at the start, nearly two minutes before the cameras focused on the bump-and-grind act involving Tomy Lee and Sword Dancer. As the field of 17 broke from the gate at the head of the stretch, Open View, breaking from post position 13, cut over against Die Hard to his inside. John Bruce, the next horse in from them, ran smack into this traffic jam, and in the first split second of the race he went nearly to his knees. There and then ended any chance that Die Hard or John Bruce might have had.