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There was a very special atmosphere of excitement, puzzlement and even a high-powered injection of pathos to last week's 83rd running of the Kentucky Derby. The drama began—unbeknownst to anyone—one late March afternoon at Florida's Gulfstream Park when Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke may have stepped, by chance, on a little stone as he ripped around that speed track in a world-record performance, and it came to its tingling climax amid the roars of nearly 100,000 spectators at Churchill Downs when Gen. Duke's winter shadow, the beautiful bay, Iron Liege, perfected the role of substitute for the stable's star and won one of the most dramatic Derbies of them all.
The puzzlement and pathos were never absent during the five-week interval between the stone-stepping incident and the brilliant finish in which Gen. Duke's regular rider and No. 1 admirer, Willie Hartack, outrode and outlasted Willie Shoemaker on Gallant Man to win the big one by the threadbare margin of one little nose. This Derby had it all: melodrama before, during and after the race.
And nobody was more aware of it at any time than Calumet owner Mrs. Gene Markey, who, eight days before the race, at a time when knowledgeable turfmen were awarding the Derby to her on past performance alone, told her farm manager, Paul Ebelhardt: "This is going to be a tough Derby, Paul—real tough. Tougher than a lot of people think."
Five days later at Churchill Downs, in the one-mile Derby Trial, Mrs. Markey and Ebelhardt had still further reason to believe the Derby was going to be tough: the sprinting demon Federal Hill romped off with the race, but Gen. Duke, even in finishing second, hardly inspired confidence among Calumet supporters. And worse yet, Iron Liege wound up next to last with no possible excuse. To anyone familiar with the Trainer Joneses' remarkable habit of losing the minor races but winning the big ones, this pre-Derby chain of events was old hat. Except that even the Joneses wore more worried looks than ever before, and you just couldn't believe they were merely playing an old familiar game.
After the Trial they gave out the big news that many already suspected: Gen. Duke had indeed gone wrong. He was suffering from a slight internal stone bruise in an area about halfway up the wall of the hoof in his left forefoot (see diagram page 17). The bruise, said a deeply depressed Jimmy, might heal itself by Derby Day, but it looked doubtful. As this startling news boosted the hopes of rival owners and trainers, it also presented Jones with a difficult decision which he alone would have to make. Should he run his big horse anyway, thereby taking a serious chance of incurring a further and more damaging injury—or should he scratch? Jones met the problem head-on: "A horse has but one day in his life to run in the Kentucky Derby and I sure hate to see a good one like Gen. Duke have to miss it. But a man has to think of the future in this game and Gen. Duke will have lots of other chances even if he doesn't get to go in the race we want most." Jones also took time during his days of trial to consider the plight of the $2 bettor, thousands of whom—unless notified as to the exact status of Gen. Duke early on Derby Day morning—would begin pouring money into the till on Calumet's entry of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege with the full conviction that the Duke was considered well enough to run in the race and well enough to win it.
Jimmy wrestled with the problem through Derby eve, and then, after breezing the colt a quarter of a mile the day of the race, came the decision: the Duke won't run. The verdict was announced 16 minutes before the betting opened, on a raw and windy morning at 9:30.
Throughout the trying days of Gen. Duke's celebrated foot trouble the rest of the Derby camps bristled with optimism. And even at Calumet nobody was ready to give up on Iron Liege, who went through his workouts so encouragingly that the only way to explain away his miserable showing in the Trial was to use the horseman's prerogative in such circumstances and simply get out of it by saying, "His race was too bad to be true. Throw it out altogether. He's got to be better than that."
At Bold Ruler's barn Wheatley Stable's foreman Bart Sweeney was taking no chances. He politely alibied his way out of having the Flamingo and Wood winner bed down in Stall No. 10, hurriedly led Bold Ruler to neighboring Stall No. 9. The alibi: No. 10 didn't look as comfortable as No. 9. The real reason, explained Bart, "We had Nashua in No. 10, and he lost his Derby."
Elsewhere, too, the tension mounted. So did the hopes. When Gallant Man's regular jockey, Johnny Choquette, was given a 10-day suspension, Trainer Johnny Nerud signed up the great Willie Shoemaker, a Derby winner aboard Swaps and a confident young man acknowledged to be one of the most accomplished riders in the business. A lot of smart money said Shoemaker, in the clutch, could mean the difference between victory and defeat for Gallant Man. Federal Hill's backers believed the theory that at long last this speed ball would go out and steal the race by killing off the opposition early, and lasting—somehow—the full mile and a quarter. Said his trainer, Milton Rieser, with less enthusiasm, "If any other horse tries to run with Federal Hill neither will win it. And I don't know if he'll go the distance. We'll see."
The first mile of the race was run just about the way the experts figured it: Federal Hill out in front, ticking off the first quarter in a blistering :23 3/5, the half in :47, three-quarters in 1:11 2/5 and the mile in a highly respectable 1:36 4/5 over a track which, although labeled "fast," was cuppy indeed. Never more than a length and a half behind him during this early running was Iron Liege, under a tight Hartack hold, and then came Bold Ruler, just about where Eddie Arcaro wanted him, and, as he later said, "With plenty of horse under me I felt we were doing O.K." Gallant Man, meanwhile, had been back in seventh place for three quarters, but Shoe got into him then and they were fifth with a quarter of a mile to go and really starting to roll. It was starting into the far turn and going into the stretch turn that things started happening. Arcaro had been doing a fairly successful job of rating Bold Ruler, even though the colt tried to run out a bit on the first turn, but now, with the serious business of the day at hand, he ran into real trouble. "I started to make a move on the leaders," said Eddie, "but suddenly he bobbled a few times with me and I realized he was dead by the time we hit the quarter pole. He didn't even run a good mile. Usually when I get him to make his move he'll go bang right by anything in front of him. But when I couldn't go up and get by anybody at the head of the stretch I knew I was through."