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It is doubtful if ever in its historic past Thoroughbred racing has given us a tingling double feature attraction to compare with the show put on during a beautiful brisk blue afternoon at stately old Belmont Park last Saturday. Unfortunately, however, when fewer than 37,000 turned up to witness what they could of the comparatively new Woodward Stakes, and of the 68th running of the Futurity, traditional fall classic for 2-year-olds, the complaint was again voiced that only the privileged few with good reserved seats get any satisfaction out of watching the races at a mile-and-a-half track at which the average visitor can see virtually nothing of the mysterious manipulations up the Widener chute (where they run off the six-and-a-half-furlong Futurity) and relatively little of any mile-and-a-quarter race—such as the Woodward—which has its starting point very nearly in another township of Nassau County.
On the other hand, 36,000 is a healthy crowd for any sports event. Racing in New York is not a losing business, quite the contrary. The men who run this nonprofit operation seem to suffer from some form of schizophrenia; on the one hand, most of them want to preserve the old values of racing which do not necessarily at all times suit the greatest convenience of the greatest number, while at the same time they feel impelled to do everything to attract even greater numbers of people to fill racing's already generously loaded coffers. This is an old-fashioned pursuit known as wanting to have your cake and eat it.
Nonetheless, last Saturday's racing was the best of the year anywhere. The horses had to share top billing with the three greatest active jockeys in America, Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker and Willie Hartack. This trio does not habitually operate on the same battleground, so that when all three are pitted in a match of skills and judgment it is a treat as rare as coming suddenly on a golfing trio made up of Hogan, Snead and Middlecoff.
While Arcaro and Shoemaker have added to their luster—largely because of major successes in New York and California—Willie Hartack has been bounding along at such a terrific pace for the past few seasons that he's already eclipsed all existing single-season earning records and in a steady if not always spectacular procession of victories is fast closing in on Arcaro's treasured record of 40 stakes wins in a year. Somewhere in the shuffling of figures most of us before last Saturday had not bothered to take stock of what has actually happened this year when Hartack has clashed head on with The Master and The Shoe. The facts were quite astonishing: in nine stakes races in which the trio rode Hartack was the winner of six, Shoemaker accounted for one, Arcaro was shut out and all three were beaten in the other two.
Last week Hartack did it again, combining superb riding and judgment to bring Mrs. Jan Burke's Dedicate, the season's No. 1 hard-luck horse, home in front of the odds-on favorite, Gallant Man, and his archrival Bold Ruler in the weight-for-age Woodward. The Woodward will go down as one of the great races of 1957, for it brought together at the classic Derby distance two of the three best 3-year-olds still in training (the third, Round Table, skipped the Woodward to train up for the $100,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup on October 12) plus the 5-year-old Dedicate, a truly courageous never-say-die type of runner whose ill luck in the big summer handicaps (including one disqualification after easily winning the $100,000 Atlantic City Handicap in track record time) would have dulled the competitive instincts of many an equally gifted runner. The Woodward's fourth entry, Reneged, was a dangerous front runner who, if left alone was capable of winning himself.
To the majority of the handicappers (as well as to those in the betting lines) the race shaped up as a personal duel between Gallant Man and Bold Ruler for top honors in their own generation as well as for a firm hold on the title of Horse of the Year.
Johnny Nerud, the dapper sportcapped trainer of Gallant Man, was frightened of only one horse. "I honestly believe," he said before post time, "that up to a mile and a quarter Bold Ruler is the best horse in the country. Beyond a mile and a quarter my horse is the best. But at a mile and a quarter it's a tossup." Bold Ruler's board of strategy had a split verdict. Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons said confidently, "Gallant Man is a nice little colt—a typical distance horse from a mile and a quarter on. But I think we'll win this one." Then he added the only note of caution of the day. "But remember that Dedicate isn't exactly a buggy horse. He's got some pretty good run in him." Willie Shoemaker was positive he was on the best horse. Arcaro hesitated on only one point: "The only question in my mind is can Bold Ruler go that far. The way he finished his last mile [in 1:35] makes me think he just has to be able to get the extra distance."
Dedicate's trainer, shrewd old Carey Winfrey (who is also Owner Jan Burke's stepfather), was saying nothing. He was just planning. And so was Willie (The Genius) Hartack. The plan, in effect, was simple, and it worked to perfection. "In the first place," said Willie, "I knew Reneged would set the pace and Bold Ruler would be up there pretty near him—but I also knew that neither of them would go no mile and a quarter. At least, I was pretty sure they wouldn't. We also figured the others would expect Dedicate to be up close to the pace, leaving Gallant Man to be by himself well off it for at least the first three-quarters of a mile. So we decided to pull a switch. Instead of moving along with Dedicate for the first part of it, I'd lay back—not with Gallant Man, but behind him, where I can see just what he's doing. So when he makes his move I'll move with him. Another important thing: I know that when Shoemaker makes his move he likes to go to the outside around the leaders. I've got to take a chance in this one, so I've got to hope I can get through on the inside on the last turn. If I can I'll have saved ground while Shoemaker goes around; I'll have more run left for the finish—and, besides, two other horses already won on the rail today, so that's the place for me."
And the race was run exactly as Willie Hartack had doped it. He never allowed Dedicate to get more than a length off Gallant Man as both of them lay back during the early running. Turning for home, Arcaro sent Bold Ruler by Reneged and opened a length lead at the head of the stretch. But now Shoe moved, taking Gallant Man around the leaders and, in a flash, Hartack drove Dedicate through on the rail. For barely an instant all four in this brilliant field were head and head. At the eighth pole Arcaro's lead was lost forever and Gallant Man went to the front. Another sixteenth of a mile and then Dedicate took over the lead, pounding powerfully along the rail to win by a length and a half from Gallant Man, with Bold Ruler another two lengths back and barely a head in front of Reneged.
Said a disappointed Shoemaker upon dismounting, "I don't know what happened, because we had no excuse in the world."