LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A half century later, it is still the greatest Kentucky Derby ever run. Half of the horses, jockeys and trainers in the 1957 Derby ended up in the Racing Hall of Fame. And that isn't remotely the most interesting thing that came out of that race.
There were only nine horses (what became of that?) in the starting gate at Churchill Downs that first Saturday in May. But what a group it was. Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table would be on any list of the top 50 horses of the 20th century. Gen. Duke might have been the best of the bunch. And none of them even won the race.
Eddie Arcaro rode Bold Ruler, who went favored at 6-5. The colt was trained by 82-year-old "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, the same man who won the 1930 Triple Crown with Omaha and the 1935 Triple Crown with Omaha's son, Gallant Fox, the same Fitzsimmons who gave up on a perpetual loser named Seabiscuit right after those Triple Crowns.
Round Table was the second choice, Gallant Man the third. The speedball Federal Hill was 7-1 fourth choice. Four others were between 42-1 and 73-1 and they finished as their odds suggested they would, sixth through ninth.
Gen. Duke, owned by the legendary Calumet Farm, would have been one of the favorites. After all, Calumet had already won the Derby over and over and had won the Triple Crown with Whirlaway and Citation. Calumet was the Yankees of horse racing.
Four days before the Derby, Gen. Duke and his stablemate, Iron Liege, ran in the Derby Trial won by Federal Hill. Gen. Duke was second and Iron Liege fifth. The race was, in every sense, a trial. The result would not have much meaning. Gen. Duke, however, suffered an injury to his left front foot. On the morning of the Derby, Gen. Duke was scratched.
Calumet would try to win another Derby with Iron Liege, a horse that nobody took that seriously and would be sent off at 8-1. Bill Hartack, who was to ride Gen. Duke, ended up on Iron Liege.
Federal Hill took the early lead. Iron Liege and Bold Ruler were chasing. Round Table was just behind with Gallant Man, as was his custom, far back. Federal Hill could not sustain the pace. Bold Ruler could not keep up. Iron Liege hit the front in the stretch with Gallant Man flying at him in the final 200 yards. With barely 100 yards left, as the top pair hit the sixteenth pole, Gallant Man, with the great Bill Shoemaker, appeared to have all the momentum and took the lead.
But Shoemaker thought the sixteenth pole was the finish line and, for an instant, stood up, and cost his horse critical momentum. Hartack put Iron Liege back in front and kept him there to win by a nose. Round Table was third and Bold Ruler fourth.
Gallant Man's owner, Ralph Lowe, had dreamt that Shoemaker stood up before the wire a few nights before the race. He told the Shoe about his dream. And then Shoe did the dream.
Bold Ruler won the Preakness with Iron Liege second. Gallant Man passed the Preakness and crushed the field in the Belmont Stakes.
Round Table went back to California, finished second in his next race, won his next 11 starts and finished his amazing career with 43 wins in 66 starts. As good as he was on dirt, he might have been even better on grass. When Round Table was retired in 1959, the horse had earned a then-record $1.7 million.
Gallant Man won 14 of 26 races, including the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Metropolitan Mile.
Bold Ruler won 23 of 33. He was speed that could keep going, a 1950s version of Smarty Jones. More important, he was a great sire. His greatest son, Secretariat, won the greatest Triple Crown in 1973.
By the end of 1957, those three had become dominant, but had not settled anything. So the three of them came to old Garden State Park on Nov. 9 to run in the Trenton Handicap. It was just those three in the gate. There was no need for others.
With his speed, Bold Ruler took the track, quickly opened up an 8-length lead and coasted home to win by 2 1/4 lengths over slight favorite Gallant Man, with Round Table, his 11-race winning streak over, another 8 1/2 lengths back in third. Bold Ruler was voted Horse of the Year.
Gen. Duke never raced after the Derby Trial. Iron Liege was a nice horse, winning 11 of 33 starts. He was not a great horse. But on May 4, 1957, the backup beat Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler. The next year, they put a big red disc over the finish line. And 50 years later, Iron Liege still won the 1957 Kentucky Derby. *