10/17/2007 11:00PM

The original Battle of New Jersey

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Every 50 years or so, whether racing is ready or not, the Horse of the Year title is decided over a mile and a quarter of New Jersey soil.

The crown will be on the line at Monmouth Park next Saturday, Oct. 27, in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Lawyer Ron will face Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, and Tiago, and to the winner goes the whole enchilada.

Fifty years ago, track president Gene Mori and the good people at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill needed to put up only $75,000 to attract the three best horses in North America - Round Table, Gallant Man, and Bold Ruler - for their very own Horse of the Year showdown in the 10-furlong Trenton Handicap.

The Big Three had met only once before, in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, a race that was either won by Iron Liege because of a brilliant ride by Bill Hartack, or lost by Gallant Man because Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line. Round Table finished third that day and Bold Ruler was fourth.

In the six months between the Mayo4 Derby and the Nov. 9 Trenton, Gallant Man won the Peter Pan, the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, the Nassau County, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Bold Ruler took the Preakness, the Jerome, the Vosburgh, and the Queen's County, while Round Table emerged from the Derby to win five stakes at Hollywood Park (including the Gold Cup), as well as the American Derby, the United Nations, and the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

(We will now pause briefly to contemplate once again how far the breed has fallen. The five prime 3-year-olds in this year's Classic all contested the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Since then, the five have combined for 19 starts. Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, and Round Table had 28 starts over a comparable period of time.)

In the early autumn of '57, the common wisdom held that either Gallant Man, owned by Ralph Lowe, or Round Table, owned by Travis Kerr, should be Horse of the Year, given the fact that Bold Ruler could not seem to get a 1 1/4 miles. A match race proposal from Caliente was on the table, pitting Round Table and Gallant Man, as were invitations for both colts to run in the Washington, D.C. International at 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Bold Ruler's name was hardly mentioned in the mix until, one week before the Trenton, he won the Benjamin Franklin Handicap under 136 pounds at Garden State.

Round Table also won a Garden State prep, assuring his participation in the Trenton. This, in turn, put Gallant Man in the picture, which meant that Bill Shoemaker, who rode them both, had to make a choice. When Shoemaker opted for Gallant Man, Bill Harmatz got the call on Round Table.

"A lot of jocks resented Shoe for getting all the good horses," Harmatz said. "But I'll take his seconds any time."

Harmatz had ridden the Kerr colt to an easy score in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, a month before the Trenton. He was entirely familiar with Round Table's easy cruising speed and reliable late kick, just as he knew his only true weakness.

"I was eating dinner at the Black Horse Pike the night before the race," Harmatz said. "It started pouring, and man I was sick. Round Table couldn't handle a cuppy or a deep racetrack at all."

Joe Hirsch, retired executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form, was the paper's man on the beat in New Jersey in 1957. His one-word description of the track for the Trenton was "terrible." That did not, however, stop the Trenton from being a titanic event.

"It was a big crowd, and lots of anticipation," Hirsch said. "There were even a couple of other horses entered, but Gene Mori saw to it that they withdrew from the race, leaving it to those three. It was a good move."

So close were the three in the eyes of the public that place betting was accepted. Gallant Man was favored at $1.40 on the dollar, with Bold Ruler at $1.60, and Round Table at $1.70.

Gallant Man's price may have risen, however, had the public been able to peek behind the curtain. According to John Nerud, who trained Gallant Man, there was a more important mission on that day than winning the Trenton.

"Ralph Lowe didn't like Travis Kerr at all," Nerud said. "He told me, 'I don't know what's going to happen today, but I don't want Round Table to beat my horse.' So, for me to be sure and beat Round Table, I couldn't go pressing Bold Ruler early. What are you going to do when you work for the guy?"

The race unfolded as written. Bold Ruler and Eddie Arcaro were off to the races from the start, opening eight, 10 lengths at will. Harmatz tried to keep Bold Ruler in sight, while Shoemaker in turn gauged Round Table's progress before finally lighting Gallant Man's fire. As Round Table retreated through the stretch, tired of spinning his wheels, Gallant Man closed hard on Bold Ruler, but ran out of ground.

The winning margin was 2 1/4 lengths, Bold Ruler was Horse of the Year, and Lowe's horse beat Kerr's horse, for what that was worth.

"To him," Nerud said, "it meant more than Horse of the Year."