03/27/2014 4:43PM

A race to remember: The 1957 Florida Derby

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Associated Press
Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Jones stands with Calumet Farm’s Gen. Duke, a son of Bull Lea who won the 1957 Florida Derby during a career cut short by illness.

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ ”
– John Greenleaf Whittier

On March 30, 1957, the sixth running of the Florida Derby brought together two legendary stables, two future Hall of Fame jockeys, and two supremely talented colts for one of the most memorable contests ever staged at Gulfstream Park. In a supreme piece of irony, only the loser was destined for equine immortality.
 
Late October 1956

Associated Press turf writer John Chandler was tracking his beat one morning at newly dormant Belmont Park when he passed by stalls housing the Calumet horses – all two of them. The formidable stable’s remaining stock had been shipped 100 miles down the road to Garden State Park, with only a classy 4-year-old filly named Amoret and a juvenile maiden winner remaining behind.

At the time, the buzz was on in Jersey, where Calumet’s grand 2-year-old colt Barbizon was preparing to drape himself in glory, big bucks, and a likely divisional championship in the Oct. 27 Garden State Stakes, then the world’s richest horse race, with a $300,000 purse. (He did, in fact, achieve all three objectives.)

Meantime, his anonymous cacao brown crop-mate – born on the same day at Calumet (April 15) two years earlier, stood in deep straw, unhappily nursing a pair of sore shins, when the journalist happened by.

Although Chandler predictably gravitated toward the big-time stakes-winning filly, it was the unknown baby whom the groom really wanted to brag on.

After a rote recitation of heretofore unseen and unheard of qualities, he advised Chandler to “remember his name – it’s Gen. Duke. You’ll be hearing a lot about him later.”

Yes, he would. All of racing would.

You’ll remember him

That 1954 foal crop was a miracle on hooves. They were hot, hot, hot ... once-in-a-blue-moon hot; planets-aligned-in-perfect-harmony hot. And nowhere was that figurative heat more intense or concentrated than south Florida during the winter of 1957, when sparks flew and speed records fell like parade-day confetti.

Gallant Man and Round Table showed up early but proved little more than a sideshow. The brightest stars came out as the season progressed – Wheatley Stable’s Bold Ruler; Louisiana Derby winner Federal Hill; Calumet’s big, scopey Iron Liege, on a 90-degree upward class trajectory. Then, there was Mr. “You’ll Remember His Name,” he of the sore autumn shins who, under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Jones, was now on a lightning track to becoming Mr. Somebody.

Any way you looked at him, Gen. Duke had the goods. He was a son of Bull Lea – America’s premier sire who, at 22, continued to crank out important runners like sausages year after year. His dam was racemare extraordinaire Wistful, a half-sister to champion Coaltown and herself a champ who had routinely mauled male rivals through the early 1950s.

Physically, Gen. Duke was like others of the Bull Lea tribe, including Citation and “uncle” Coaltown: rather plain-headed, a monochromatic bay, not big, not small, certainly not flashy. He had the Bull Lea presence – those smoldering eyes, that depth through the chest indicating lung capacity, those sturdy quarters, well-formed though not bound with muscle. That smooth stride.

“He gives you a feeling of easy motion,” Jones told a reporter that winter. “As perfect as a tomcat running.”

Grudge match

Bold Ruler and Gen. Duke hooked up for the first time Jan. 30 in Hialeah’s seven-furlong Bahamas. No contest. Bold Ruler gave up 12 pounds and ran the legs off his less-experienced rival, romping by 4 1/2 lengths under a whipless ride by Eddie Arcaro in a track-record-tying 1:22.

Seventeen days later, both returned for the Everglades Stakes, again with a 12-pound weight spread, but this time over an extra pair of furlongs. On this day, Gen. Duke overtook his free-running rival and won by a head.

The pendulum swung again in the March 2 Flamingo Stakes, wherein Bold Ruler held off Gen. Duke by a diminishing neck at equal weights, requiring a Hialeah nine-furlong record to do so. Clearly, the Calumet colt had come a very long way in a very short time.

Hialeah had hosted the first three battles of this wintertime rivalry, but the grand finale belonged to Gulfstream Park.

March 30 offered up a rare day of racing; 25,000 fans arrived on a sun-drenched, mid-80s afternoon, and, brother, did they witness a show. “The greatest on the American turf,” the track’s announcer humbly intoned over the public-address system.

Who could have argued? Decked-out representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and American Legion marched 48 outsized state flags all about the grounds. Trick riders performed feats of daring between races. Mini-steamboats cruised the infield lake, while water-skiers darted around them and Caesar LaMonaca’s Dixieland swing band serenaded the crowd. CBS broadcast the festivities nationwide.

There would be no show betting on the featured $123,600 Florida Derby. Only five had entered, including 3-5 Bold Ruler and the Calumet team of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, a 9-5 overlay. The other two were overmatched; Federal Hill had peaked fast and early, while Shan Pac was, well, Shan Pac.

Gen. Duke was improving by the minute, as was Iron Liege, but Jimmy Jones would make no predictions. Certainly, he would not disrespect Bold Ruler, whom he likened to “a man with a knife in his hand – dangerous all the time.”

Bill “Don’t Call Me Willie” Hartack was more openly confident regarding his mount.

“When he [Gen. Duke] turns for home, he gives you everything he’s got. What more could you want?” he snapped at a reporter who dared ask.

Florida Derby

Gen. Duke had been named for Confederate Gen. Basil Duke, second in command to John Hunt Morgan. Though also brave and battle-tested, Duke’s equine namesake was nobody but nobody’s “second in command,” a fact he made crystal clear at approximately 4:49 p.m.

Springing fourth of five from the gate, Gen. Duke settled in his customary stalking position while Federal Hill – a world-record-setting sprinter already that season – winged it in front, with Bold Ruler at his tail. Same at the half-mile and again after three-quarters. Into the final turn, Hartack hinted that now might be the time to pick it up, but Gen. Duke disagreed, continuing along at his stolid pace with no apparent plan.

That changed in a trice at the head of the stretch. As Federal Hill began beating a hasty retreat and Bold Ruler produced more knives, Hartack beseeched his colt again, this time getting the answer he wanted. Gen. Duke accelerated like an Aston Martin and blew past Bold Ruler so fast he must have looked like a brown blur to Arcaro, as the rider slashed fruitlessly away on the now-straining Wheatley Stable colt. Gen. Duke won by 1 1/2 lengths and stopped the timer in 1:46 4/5, the fastest nine furlongs ever run by a 3-year-old and tying the world standard held by older superstars Swaps and Noor.

Remarkably, 57 years later, that clocking remains the swiftest Florida Derby on record. Tracks run fast, and tracks run slow. Gulfstream that afternoon was an autobahn. Sports Illustrated’s Morris McLemore described the strip as “faster than a sailor’s eye ... a day when sore claimers looked like they were running downhill.” But that’s not to take anything from Gen. Duke. He was purely magnificent.

A subsequent Turf and Sport Digest cover showed an exuberant young jock in devil’s red and blue silks, leaning forward to stroke his gleaming mount in front of a giant horseshoe-shaped wreath of lavender orchids. The bay is standing there, veins popping, sweat streaming, chomping his bit impatiently, looking forward with extreme intensity ... toward a future that didn’t exist.

Injury

Gen. Duke apparently damaged a foot at some point during the Florida Derby. The injury, initially described as a bruise, would blossom, grow, and fester over time. but in the days following his smashing triumph, things seemed well enough with the rapidly rising star.

He became a sizzling Derby favorite and toast of the town. Hyperbolic talk flowed like fine wine. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Earl Ruby predicted that not only would he win the Derby, he’d set a record in the process. Miami Daily News writer Joe Tanenbaum took it further in forecasting a Triple Crown sweep, while Joe Hirsch of The Morning Telegraph proclaimed the Duke might well be a great one.

But leading up to the classic, soreness in the colt’s left fore became increasingly evident, and Jones began to fret. What exactly was it? A simple bruise? A blind quarter crack? A hidden piece of gravel? X-rays revealed nothing. Famed Derby veterinarian Alex Harthill was brought in and tried it all – poultices, medicinal soaks, special shoes, cushioning pads. Nothing worked.

When Gen. Duke finished second to Federal Hill in the Derby Trial, more head-scratching ensued. Soon, the big race itself had been reluctantly taken off the table. (Iron Liege proved a capable Derby backup under Hartack.) When he returned sore following a Pimlico breeze two weeks later, taps began playing softly in the background. From thence, it became a delicate back-and-forth minuet between apparent soundness and sudden lameness.

Despite it all, hope continued to spring eternal for Jones, who simply could not give up on this colt, who had meant so much to him, who had been bred for the biggest of races, whom Jones himself had once referred to as Calumet’s “great white hope,” and whom he had come to believe in his heart could have been one of the great ones, alongside Citation and Whirlaway, had fate only been kinder.

Fate, however, was not kind, and in 1958, it forced Jones’s hand. Gen. Duke had returned to training in Florida that January – bigger, seemingly stronger, grander in every regard. The trainer’s hopes were high, but like a receding tide, they began to slowly ebb away.

By springtime, Jones knew he was dealing with something more insidious than a bruised hoof. His would-be champion, once so full of vim and vigor, was not right. Maybe he would stumble just slightly coming out of his stall, or sway unsteadily standing in a brisk wind, or cool out like a man slightly tipsy from a drink or two at a local pub. It was subtle, whatever it was, but it was happening.

When the diagnosis finally came, the trainer held it close. No press releases went out, no pronouncements were made. A van simply showed up one morning, and a bay colt was carefully loaded aboard, after which, the truck slipped quietly away, its compass pointed toward Kentucky. Gen. Duke was going home to a life that would not be marked in years or even months. He was going home to die.

Final chapter

On July 28, 1958, the onetime Kentucky Derby favorite was “destroyed,” as the press then referred to euthanasia, due to a progressive and incurable neurological disease known as “wobbler syndrome.” At the age of four years, three months, and a week, he was laid to rest in Calumet Farm’s celebrated equine cemetery.

There was so much Gen. Duke did not live to do. He never made it into the Racing Hall of Fame, never earned a championship title, never sired a foal. He merely flashed across the sporting sky like Halley’s brilliant comet, reaching the apex of his arc late on the afternoon of March 30, 1957, when he turned Gulfstream Park into his own private Bonneville salt flats. In that wondrous hour, on that magnificent day, Gen. Duke ranked high in the pantheon of all-time greats.

And who is to say that he is not there still?

Almost 60 years after Gen. Duke’s premature death, wobbler syndrome remains a devastating diagnosis, though scientific inroads are being made toward understanding, diagnosing, and treating it. Drs. Jennifer Janes and James MacLeod of the Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington, Ky., are among those at the forefront of modern-day research, which is being conducted on several levels, including what role genetics plays in susceptibility to and progression of the syndrome once it sets in. According to MacLeod, identifying “at-risk” horses before neurological deficits develop could ultimately allow for “better understanding of how the disease develops and hopefully how best to proceed from there.” They also are striving to improve and refine diagnosis of wobbler syndrome through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Findings of current research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal.

Hail No More than 1 year ago
When I was in "Heaven" for three + weeks in 1998, I had visited every farm, and I mean everyone, even volunteered at the Horse Park.. I remember paying my respects to ALL at the Calumets Hallowed ground cemetery. I recall the General, because he was so young and I knew of his Fla Derby, but not even the stallion manager at the time could tell us the exact nature of his demise. After all this time, now I know. Thanks for making history come alive through your wonderful writing.
davidqsutton More than 1 year ago
It was the great Round Table's rivalry with Hillsdale that drew my attention to horse racing. January 1959, long shot Hillsdale took advantage of a 17 pound weight advantage to defeat Round Table in the San Carlos Handicap. No flash in the pan, Hillsdale continued his 1959 four year campaign to win 10 important stakes in 13 starts, including reeling off seven in a row. He captured the Hollywood Gold Cup and beat Bald Eagle in winning the Aqueduct Handicap. In the Woodward Stakes, Hillsdale defeated Round Table again, but alas, finished second to future Hall of Famer Sword Dancer. Thanks for a great article, Mary Simon. Brings back great memories.
raymond More than 1 year ago
The General, what a thrilling athlete. Sure miss his type.
Fern Blair More than 1 year ago
Thank you so much for this story - I recall the name General Duke but didn't know what happened to him. There certainly were some exceptional young horses in that year of 1957 - one of my all time favorites - Bold Ruler. May they all rest in peace. And what a sad story for Gen. Duke -
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
A really nice article by Ms. Simon. As one who saw Gen. Duke, Bold Ruler, Iron Liege,Barbizon,Round Table and Gallant Man in the flesh, I can say in my opinion, 1957 had the best and most talented class of three year olds. They were no cream puffs. Round Table although not winning of the Triple Crown races was a warrior who would go on to be best turf horse and older champion male later in his career under high weights. Bold Ruler ( Secretariat's pop) won at 1 1/4 under 134 lbs. Gallant Man, set a then track record in winning the Belmont Stakes and had a superb four year old campaign winning the Hollywood Gold Cup under 134lbs among others. It's always difficult comparing horses of different eras, but I cannot remember any group of three year olds in recent times who have accomplished as much as the foaling year of 1954. That was the year the "Gods of Racing" were shining on our sport.
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Another interesting piece of racing history beautifully described by Ms. Simon.
Mary Simon More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Mr. Wiener. :)