Once in a while a race comes along that rises above the ranks of those rich, run-of-the-mill Saturday stakes into an exalted niche clearly labeled: championship. This week's Woodward at the new Aqueduct track in New York is such a contest.
Not since November 1957, when the Trenton Handicap at Garden State brought about, finally, a three-horse showdown among Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table, has any track in the country managed to stage such a star-studded attraction.
The Woodward is not a handicap. It is run over a distance of a mile and a quarter at weight-for-age, which simply means that every 3-year-old will carry 120 pounds and every horse 4 or over will carry 126. The goal of a weight-for-age race in the fall is to bring the very best of each division together—not to race the arbitrary weights imposed by the racing secretary but strictly each other.
Toward this goal the 1959 Woodward should succeed admirably, for, barring mishaps, the field that goes postward this Saturday should include 1) Sword Dancer, the 3-year-old champion, 2) Hillsdale, the leading 4-year-old and 3) Round Table, now a 5-year-old, who, fresh from a sensational 136-pound weight-carrying victory in last week's United Nations Handicap, has increased his world record total earnings to $1,679,539. In addition, Bald Eagle may enter the Woodward along with two or three others, such as Inside Tract, Cross Channel or Babu.
For reasons obviously inherent in any championship race the Woodward should be a dramatic struggle. But this race, like the 1957 Trenton, has something more.
For example, let's take Sword Dancer. Undisputed king of the 3-year-olds, this little but beautifully made chestnut has taken on older horses three times—and twice beaten them under handicap conditions. But, ask the doubters, has he ever faced anything like Round Table? The answer is "No." Then, too, Sword Dancer is once again getting a new jockey—but hardly an apprentice, mind you. After carrying Boulmetis, Boland, Shoemaker and Ycaza this year, the Brookmeade colt draws Eddie Arcaro for the big one. This is hardly a disadvantage, but nonetheless it does raise the question of why Shoemaker, who has alternated between Sword Dancer and Round Table, chose the latter.
Speaking for Shoe, Agent Harry Silbert puts it plainly: "At weight-for-age, a top older horse should beat a top 3-year-old. If these two were in a handicap Round Table might be carrying 132 to 118 on Sword Dancer. But at 126 to 120 I think Round Table has the best of it, and that's why Shoe will be on him."
For his part, Arcaro agrees with the majority of racetrackers who claim that a 3-year-old's only chance against good older horses in a race of this sort is for the 3-year-old in question to possess truly great ability. "If he's really tops," says Eddie, "he has a chance."
Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe points out that weight differences should not be confused with over-all ability. "If you figure," says Kilroe, "that two pounds is equal to a length going a mile and a quarter, you can get an idea of this race by imagining that Round Table, Hillsdale and Bald Eagle will all, in effect, be spotting Sword Dancer three lengths. Then ask yourself if any of them, carrying six more pounds, are good enough to make it up."
Hillsdale has benefited from sound management all year. Owner Clarence W. Smith and Trainer Marty Fallon set dead aim early last winter on winning Horse of the Year honors for this lean and leggy colt, and after virtually cleaning the slate in California they gave Hillsdale a long and well-earned rest. Sensational in his New York debut at Belmont, Hillsdale followed it up by giving Bald Eagle 10 pounds and winning the one-mile Aqueduct Handicap in an exceptionally good 1:36 2/5. "We're here," says his jovial owner, "because this is where the championship is going to be won. This colt will do anything in the world we've asked him to do, and now we're ready to show everyone he's as good as Marty and I know he is."
And what about Round Table? Downgraded by disbelieving Easterners after a poor showing in last year's Woodward, run on an off track, he remains one of the amazingly durable horses of all time. After observing his victory last Saturday at Atlantic City, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S William Leggett wrote:
"Round Table is a little horse that is oh so big; a homely horse that is beautiful; a dark horse that glows. Many who thought he was good at 2, better at 3 and the best at 4 should see him at 5. He has won seven of his last eight races, carrying 130 pounds or more in each of them. He now seems to swing effortlessly from crescendo to crescendo, from grass course to dirt, from one end of the nation to the other, without distress from the weights or the rattle of his opponents' hoofs.
"His United Nations win saw him break quickly from the gate and settle in stride behind Lil' Fella, with Tudor Era right alongside, almost prompting him on. For a mile he seemed to be hopping along the top of the hedges, but at the head of the stretch he uncoiled his big run and won ridden out.
"Willie Molter, Round Table's trainer, said later: 'He's like an iron horse in many ways. He never seems to have a pimple on him, and he never turns an oat away. About the only fault he has is that he doesn't like muddy tracks, and if it should come up sloppy or muddy for the Woodward we wouldn't start him. There is always a lot of talk about Horse of the Year, but golly, I think this horse is the Horse of the Year right now.'
"Travis M. Kerr, who owns Round Table along with his wife and daughter Nancy, added, 'He's a great little horse. He's traveled all over, he's carried weight, he's won at all distances, he's run on dirt and grass. And if he likes the Aqueduct track, Hillsdale and Sword Dancer will know they've been to the races.' "
So there you have the lineup and enough puzzling questions to satisfy every ambitious horseplayer. The puzzle will fit together this Saturday. Slop or mud, however, would almost surely eliminate Round Table, and possibly Hillsdale too. The off track might be an asset to Bald Eagle, and it probably wouldn't bother Sword Dancer one way or the other. All four horses usually come from just off the pace but, with the exception of Bald Eagle, can and have taken the lead anywhere.
No matter who wins this latest—and most spectacular—Woodward, Aqueduct racegoers (and a television audience in the millions) will be in for a treat. For in watching Round Table they will see the lone surviving star of the fine generation of horses foaled in the spring of 1954. That crop included Gallant Man, Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke, Iron Liege, Clem, Promised Land, Cohoes and many other good ones. Only Round Table is still going strong. Strong enough, it says here, to win the Woodward and the championship he deserves.
TOTING TOP WEIGHT OF CAREER, 136 POUNDS, ROUND TABLE WINS U.N. HANDICAP