For days before it was finally run off at Jamaica's egg-shaped track last Saturday, the 31st running of the mile-and-a-furlong Wood Memorial had all the marks of being one of the finest contests in America's proud turf history. Possibly no race for 3-year-olds coming so early in the season has ever presented itself with a more natural and inspiring rivalry. And, just as possibly, never has a trackside crowd of 41,000 and a television audience of some 10 million been given a more tingling handful of seconds than the stretch run in which Nashua beat Summer Tan in a final lunge.
They are old rivals, these two. A year ago Nashua won his personal duel with Summer Tan three times, lost it once. This season, while Summer Tan was recovering from a near-fatal illness which followed his victory in the rich Garden State, Nashua was busily enriching his bankroll by winning both the Flamingo and Florida Derby. He was also winning legions of new supporters, some of whom were dead certain nothing—not even Summer Tan-could prevent him from becoming history's ninth triple-crown winner.
But Summer Tan had not been forgotten. In his first start of the year three weeks ago he won from a mediocre field by 14 lengths. Five days before the Wood he vanned from Belmont Park's Barn No. 9 over to Jamaica and worked out in a sensational 1:37 mile. The same afternoon Nashua vanned over from his barn at Aqueduct and worked a mile in 1:38 3/5. These performances made up the minds of a lot of railbirds: Summer Tan was entirely recovered, he was ready and he was capable of beating the hero of 1954.
At Belmont Park during the last few days before the race Summer Tan's trainer, Sherrill Ward, pacing his office in a horseman's version of a sou'wester, was not visibly showing the air of confidence that whirled around his stable area. "I don't mind admitting," he said, "that his 1:37 workout was too fast. Nashua's workout was a good one, too, and maybe some people are forgetting that my horse is a free and willing worker, whereas Nashua's best traits come out in a race. He's a rugged competitor. If he's in front it's a lot easier to get within a length of him than it is to get a length ahead of him. And if he's behind, you know perfectly well he's going to try mighty hard to get to you. I don't like to sound pessimistic, but I guess there's nothing cocksure about me, either."
At Aqueduct the picture was more familiar: 80-year-old Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons sat through the mid-morning hours in his picture-lined office making plans for his big string and talking, whenever asked, about Nashua and the approaching Wood. "I want him to get in a nice position so as to be ready to move. He'll have to be up there and not do too much fussin' around. We know Summer Tan is good, but look what happened last year. He ran with contending horses, killed them off and stood Summer Tan off three out of four times at the finish. That's what I think will happen again."
This time, as almost everyone must have known, the $111,700 Wood had but two contending horses. The rest of the five-horse field was made up of Simmy, Cup Man and Door Prize, who finished in that order in a sort of separate contest for $10,000 third place money and $5,000 for fourth.
On race day the rival trainers wished each other luck, gave their jockeys a final briefing. About Summer Tan's race tactics Ward said: "We'll leave it pretty much up to the horse and Eric Guerin. I'm not too much on orders." Said Mr. Fitz about Ted Atkinson, taking over from Eddie Arcaro: "Teddy's a quick thinker who will take advantage of any situation that comes up. I'm confident. But if Nashua isn't good enough, that's just too bad. None of us will make any excuses."
As it turned out Nashua needed no excuses, no alibis. His regular rider, Eddie Arcaro, sat atop the roof to watch the historic race, and gives the following account of why Nashua is the standout racer in his division.
STRATEGY SESSION, 15 minutes before race, finds 80-year-old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (who has won seven Woods) giving last briefing to Nashua's jockey, Ted Atkinson (about to win his first). Hands in pockets, James Fitzsimmons Jr. also bends an attentive ear, while young Owner William Woodward (left) and pretty wife Ann, already feeling post-time tension, stand guard.