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To talk so soon of "greatness" in connection with the current crop of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds would normally be singularly audacious. For this is an accolade not lightly awarded by horsemen. One sensational race should never qualify its winner as great.
There has not been one sensational race in 1957. There have been at least half a dozen. The amazing performances of the 3-year-olds in Florida, Louisiana, California, New York and finally in Kentucky have surrounded the 83rd consecutive Kentucky Derby, to be run this week, with an aura of brilliance which even oldtimers find hard to duplicate. All over the country, track records have been equaled or broken by such contenders as Gen. Duke, Iron Liege, Bold Ruler, Federal Hill and Round Table.
At a dinner at Keeneland, where his father was being honored last week, Calumet Farm Trainer Jimmy Jones remarked, "From a spectator's standpoint I don't think there's ever been anything like it ever before. From a horseman's standpoint you just know there's about five or six horses around who are real good." "Yep," interrupted his father (for more on the Jones family and the Calumet success story, see page 62), "and I'd say we're real contenders." It was the most calculated understatement of the racing calendar, even by Jones's standards.
For many people the Kentucky Derby is the true symbol of a lasting racing tradition, in which none has played a more vital role than an incongruous group of individuals consisting of Ben and Jimmy Jones, James Fitzsimmons, Eddie Arcaro and a 22-year-old stallion named Bull Lea. When Ben Jones was saddling the first of his six Derby winners, in 1938, he picked young Eddie Arcaro to ride Lawrin, who was owned by Woolford Farm. Although Lawrin was the fourth betting choice, most of the interest that afternoon was centered on the two favorites, William Woodward's Fighting Fox, trained by an elderly gent named Jim Fitzsimmons, and Calumet Farm's Bull Lea, fresh from a victory in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes. The crowd would have been wiser to have concentrated on the combination of Jones and Arcaro, who brought Lawrin in at $19.20. Fighting Fox finished sixth and Bull Lea eighth (see chart on page 16) in a field of 10.
The next year (while Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was winning the Derby with Woodward's Johnstown) Calumet hired Ben Jones as trainer, and, beginning with Whirlaway's eight-length victory in 1941, the stable's devil-red silks have been first across the Derby finish line five times.
The others in the group have hardly been idle. Arcaro plugged away in 17 Derbies, has won a record five (two more than any other rider in history); Sunny Jim hit for his third winner with Johnstown, missed his greatest chance of all when Nashua was second to Swaps in 1955. And what of Bull Lea? The eighth-place finisher of 1938 has merely emerged as one of the greatest of all stallions, past or present. Two of his sons won Derbies for Calumet, Citation in 1948 and Hill Gail in 1952, and dozens of others have earned distinction for themselves and their sire on tracks from New York to California.
And this week in Louisville, just 19 years after Arcaro and Ben Jones won their first Kentucky Derby while Calumet and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons were shut out, the same cast of characters reassembles at the same old stand for the same business of trying to win the world's most famous horse race. Only today Ben Jones has turned over the training chores to his son Jimmy, and Bull Lea has provided two of his sons, Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, to give Calumet the most powerful Derby hand since Citation and Coaltown finished one-two in 1948. Opposing this charge of Calumet cavalry will be Sunny Jim and Eddie Arcaro, combining as much racing and training knowledge as any two men on this earth, trying to bring in Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps's Bold Ruler. No race of this or any other year could quite duplicate such a traditional array of personalities after racing's most treasured prize.
But for all the Derby pomp and ceremony, and for all the experience accumulated over the years by the rival owners, trainers and jockeys, it will be squarely up to one Thoroughbred this Saturday to win the 83rd Derby on his own merits. To do so he will have to be superbly fit to run a competitive mile and a quarter for the first time in his life.
There seems little doubt that the Calumet entry of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege will be post-time favorites. When you have two horses going for you it's better than one, and when you have a pair like this it's almost as good as a dream come true. Gen. Duke, out of the good stakes mare Wistful, is a typical product of careful Calumet planning. Last year he was raced only twice in Chicago and then saved for a winter campaign in Florida, where he broke even in four encounters with Bold Ruler. In their last meeting, the Florida Derby, he tied the world's record of 1:46 4/5 for a mile and an eighth and gave every indication that the extra furlong he will have to go in Louisville would cause him no particular trouble. He is a brown colt, very well put together, and, as Jimmy Jones puts it, "he gives you a feeling of easy motion when you watch him. Neat, of moderate size, compact, lithe in action and perfect as a tomcat running. I guess you'd have to say he's a damn nice little horse."
His jockey, Willie Hartack, thinks he's more than a damn nice little horse. "When he turns for home he gives you everything he's got—what more can you ask for?"