On his back, the little man in the white silks with light yellow sleeves sat still, his hands on the reins establishing communication with his mount to a degree that few, if any, of his rivals in North America's jockey colony could approach. At this point, the colt was doing the talking, the rider receiving the message. And the vibes were good.
The colt was running well within himself. He was on the lead, where he wanted to be. It was a long way home, but the rider was where he wanted to be, too -- the imagined race that he had run in his mind hundreds of times becoming a reality. Now, if only the challenges that were certain to come would wait awhile -- just another three or four hundred yards, just around the bend that was fast approaching. If only that could happen, the little man felt that his colt might have enough in reserve to repel whatever might come to him.
The rider's few seconds of reverie, where his only concentration was focused on being in absolute rhythm with his mount, were suddenly interrupted. To his right, gaining slightly with each stride, came the blaze-faced chestnut with the white blinkers, recognizable immediately.
"Too soon," the little man thought, as his mount began angling into the banked turn. "Too soon for both of us."
1959 had been a peculiar year for its crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds. The previous season's 2-year-old champion had carved out an enviable record, one that confirmed him as champion of his division without debate. C. T. Chenery's First Landing appeared to be the real thing.
A WINNER OF 10 of his 11 starts at 2, Chenery's home-bred colt secured his claim to seasonal laurels in the mud of Garden State Park when he caught the pretender from the West Coast at the eighth pole, battled stride for stride for 220 yards, and nodded him on the line. The other horse was Tomy Lee, an oddly-named English-bred colt which had so dominated his peers in California that there was nothing for him to do but come east and settle the issue head-to-head. And that's what it was settled by in the Garden State Stakes -- a head.
The two best juvenile colts of the season had done their part by providing a memorable contest in the Garden State. And two of the three top riders in the country had also been involved: the aging Eddie Arcaro on First Landing and the rising star, Willie Shoemaker, on Tomy Lee. Two lengths behind the embattled pair came Sword Dancer. There would be a lot of racing between the Garden State Stakes and the next year's Kentucky Derby, but six months and a week later, these three would also finish in the top three at Churchill Downs.
Shoemaker had ridden Tomy Lee ever since the Garden State, but two days after the Blue Grass, had the opportunity to ride Sword Dancer for the first time in Churchill Downs' seven furlong Stepping Stone Purse.
Also entered in the Stepping Stone was Easy Spur and the Santa Anita Derby winner, the undefeated filly Silver Spoon, making it a most contentious race. The outcome was that Sword Dancer and Shoemaker lead all the way to beat the fast-closing Easy Spur by a length with Silver Spoon another length and a half back in third -- her spotless record now blemished.
Shoemaker was placed squarely in a dilemma by these developments, having ridden Tomy Lee in his last five starts, and now being offered the mount on Sword Dancer for the Derby. Deep down, the Shoe favored Sword Dancer, feeling the Brookmeade Stable colt was coming up to the Derby perfectly. At that point, though, owner Fred Turner and trainer Frank Childs reminded Shoemaker that he had given them a commitment to ride Tomy Lee in the Run for the Roses and that they were not of a mind to release him.
Shoemaker did the honorable thing under the circumstances, but some of his reluctance showed when he concluded the announcement that he would be on Tomy Lee by opining, "Sword Dancer is the horse to beat, but my horse, Tomy Lee, has the best chance of beating him."
All this confusion led longtime Aiken resident Whitney Tower to call his article in Sports Illustrated previewing the race "The Slot Machine Derby" because so many of the 17 entered had a realistic chance to win.
AS TOMY LEE began the turn for home, Shoemaker had no doubt that it was Sword Dancer coming up to challenge, his nose now even with the leader's saddle girth. The Shoe continued to sit chilly, hoping Sword Dancer and his replacement rider, Bill Boland, would not fly right on by. Out of the corner of his eye, Shoemaker could see that Boland was not urging his mount forward. Sword Dancer was moving on his own.
At the three-eighths pole -- in the middle of the turn -- Shoemaker could wait no longer. Sword Dancer was a neck in front. Tomy Lee responded to his rider's encouragement, but Sword Dancer began to slip away. Now the chestnut led by a half length. Passing the five-sixteenths pole, Shoemaker's prediction had seemingly come true -- Sword Dancer was taking command.
"Go ahead, you can win it now," Shoemaker shouted to Boland, in a benediction of sorts.
The advantage of being on the inside added up to a few yards and, just past the quarter pole, Shoemaker's colt had gained back some of the deficit. Sword Dancer was only a head in front now and Boland swung his whip, asking for everything his colt had left. Sword Dancer surged forward, but Tomy Lee matched his move.
NEAR THE THREE-SIXTEENTHS pole, Tomy Lee began to drift out as he had habitually done throughout his career, brushing his rival, but Shoemaker pulled him toward the rail with authority. No more contact was made until Boland, who had hand-ridden his colt for a furlong, went back to work with his whip. Sword Dancer came in and brushed with Tomy Lee and, from that point to the wire, there was contact all the way. Shoemaker had been using his whip right-handed, trying to keep his mount running straight, but now, without elbow room, he switched the stick and used it liberally.
By this time, Tomy Lee had run beyond his pedigree. His sire, Tudor Minstrel, had failed when asked to run beyond a mile in top company.
From the eighth pole to 10 yards from the wire, Sword Dancer maintained his slight margin, but Shoemaker and Tomy Lee, in continuous rhythm, pulled even in the last strides and the bay colt stuck his nose in front as they hit the finish line. A foul claim by Boland was disallowed.
Understandably, Tomy Lee received much credit for his success, Tower calling him, "Game Beyond the Call of Duty." Without the colt's gameness the victory couldn't have been achieved. But it is highly unlikely that a jockey has ever been more responsible for the draping of roses around the neck of his mount in the Kentucky Derby than Willie Shoemaker 50 years ago. After the Derby, Tomy Lee never again won a stakes race. Sword Dancer went on to be the Horse of the Year in 1959.
Shoemaker, bringing an apparently beaten horse back to get up for the win at the wire at the expense of a better horse, should rank as the Derby's best ride.