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The mark of the champion is the ability to combine obviously superior performance under the most demanding conditions with an ever-so-rare quality of personality that endears one man, or one animal, in 10,000 to those who have the privilege of watching him in action.
Sword Dancer is such a rare creature—one in 10,000, maybe one in 100,000. When this beautiful 3-year-old chestnut with the gleaming white forefeet won last week's two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by an utterly convincing seven lengths over Round Table to nail down the title of Horse of the Year—a title which he had already claimed convincingly with his victory in the Woodward Stakes (SI, Oct. 5)—he elevated himself in both performance and popularity to the same lofty pedestal from which, in years gone by, other American champions, like Whirlaway and Citation and Nashua, have looked proudly down on row after row of thoroughly beaten rivals.
Sword Dancer won the decisive Gold Cup with far greater ease and eclat than he displayed in his desperate do-or-die effort in taking the measure of Hillsdale and Round Table in the Woodward. Then he had to come between horses and the rail and survive a grueling drive down the stretch; this time he charged from third to first in one crushing spurt around the far turn and swept away from the field to win easily by a regal seven lengths. He won the way champions are supposed to. His tentative hold on the title of Horse of the Year was being challenged by the greatest money-winning horse of all time. For weeks before Gold Cup day the question was argued: could the 3-year-old Sword Dancer beat the 5-year-old Round Table again? Would the longer, two-mile distance help or hurt the younger horse?
Sword Dancer, with Jockey Eddie Arcaro up, stepped briskly into the Aqueduct paddock absolutely as fit as could be, to the pleased satisfaction of his owner, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, and his trainer, the popular young Elliott Burch (who nonetheless was tense with anticipation). Then Sword Dancer and Arcaro went the rest of the way on their own.
In the lingo of the racetracker, they win it big. In fact, they murdered Round Table and Tudor Era and the five other older runners. The last half mile of the contest turned into a rout instead of a horse race.
The battle plan devised by Burch and Arcaro was to lay off the pace for at least the first mile of this long grind. There seemed little doubt that Bill Hartack would take Tudor Era to the front at the start. " Tudor Era has speed," said Arcaro, "and everyone knows he can go a mile and a half any time. Give this sort of a horse his own way under a front-running jock like Hartack and he could be dangerous."
Hartack, as expected, broke on top and within a half mile was four lengths to the good of Round Table, while behind The Table were the long-shot Anisado and Sword Dancer. The four other starters—Inside Tract, Dotted Line, Amanullah and Promised Land—started behind the first quartet, and finished behind them.
As the field passed the stands the first time it was still Tudor Era in the lead. Arcaro had Sword Dancer running "real relaxed." Paul Bailey—a last-second choice to ride Round Table—later protested that his horse was laboring every step of the way as though he didn't like the going much. Like it or not, this day was never destined to be Round Table's. And Arcaro made doubly sure. "I made up my mind," said the Master later, "to make Round Table get to running leaving the three-quarter pole."
When Eddie clucked to his easygoing chestnut on the backstretch the second time around, Sword Dancer moved smoothly but with devastating effectiveness. Round Table was going after Tudor Era, but Arcaro went after both of them. Going into the far turn he swept past Round Table, and Hartack on Tudor Era knew what was coming next. In a flash Sword Dancer ranged alongside Tudor Era and then whizzed by him. "When I hooked the leader," said Arcaro, "he came up empty and I knew then I was home free."
Home free he was, too, for as Hartack looked apprehensively behind him to see what in the world had happened to Round Table (who did get up to take second place from him by a length and a quarter) Sword Dancer was pulling away almost effortlessly toward the finish line and a pot of $70,790. As he drew closer to the wire he was greeted by the sort of thunderous applause that New York's knowing audience reserves only for the great—and at race tracks usually only for the great who happen to be ridden by Eddie Arcaro.