Updated on 09/16/2011 7:48AM

Remembering Burch's winter of content


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - In the fall of 1957, Hall of Fame horseman Preston Burch suffered a heart attack and his son Elliott, his assistant, was named to take over the large stable, which was headed by the Brookmeade Farm stable of Isabel Dodge Sloane.

Young Burch brought the stable to Florida and had a fantastic winter. He won the opening-day stakes at Hialeah with Encore, saddled the winners of a number of other features, and capped the victory march by upsetting the rich and prestigous Widener Handicap with Oligarchy. Benefitting from a 17-pound pull in the weights, Oligarchy beat Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege under a strong ride by Sam Boulmetis.

"It was a winter I'll never forget," Burch recalled from his home near the ocean in Newport, R.I. "We couldn't do anything wrong. And winning the Widener was a special kick because it wasn't expected. Oligarchy had the basics. He had speed and could stay. He was something of a late development, and because he hadn't done much to that point, he got into the Widener light at 108 pounds. It helped."

Burch, who'll be 78 next month, retired in 1985 after C.V. Whitney's dispersal, and moved to Newport, where he has many friends. Like his father and his grandfather, William P. Burch, he was elected to the Hall of Fame after an exceptional career in training.

He developed three colts who earned Horse of the Year honors - Sword Dancer, Fort Marcy, and Arts and Letters - and also trained such good ones as Quadrangle, Key to the Mint, Summer Guest, Bowl of Flowers, On the Aisle, Hush Dear, State Dinner, Silver Buck, and many more.

Sword Dancer, coming along as he did in Burch's first season as head trainer for Brookmeade, has always been a special favorite. The dashing chestnut colt by Sunglow made his debut 44 years ago in late February, going three furlongs at Hialeah. Incredibly, he didn't break his maiden until his eighth start, going six furlongs at Saratoga in late August.

He made 14 starts as a 2-year-old, won a small stakes at Suffolk Downs, and finished third in The Garden State, America's richest race, behind First Landing and Tomy Lee. He looked a promising 3-year-old when he finished second in the Florida Derby to Easy Spur, and then beat that colt and the filly Silver Spoon, the Santa Anita Derby winner, in a prep race at Churchill Downs the week before the Kentucky Derby.

On a brutally hot (94 degrees) afternoon in early May, Sword Dancer and Tomy Lee were the principals in one of the most eventful classics ever run.

They bumped in the upper stretch and then bumped and brushed several more times in a thrilling duel to the wire, won by Tomy Lee, his margin a nose. A claim of foul by Bill Boland, rider of Sword Dancer, was not allowed.

The dauntless Sword Dancer finished second in the Preakness to Royal Orbit and then tuned up for the Belmont by beating older horses in the Metropolitan Mile.

With Shoemaker up, Sword Dancer won the Belmont Stakes and continued on boldly through the remainder of the campaign, winning the Monmouth Handicap, the Travers at Saratoga, and the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Aqueduct, Belmont Park having been closed while the stands were rebuilt. His achievements added up impressively and earned him Horse of the Year honors. Elliott Burch, gaining credentials of his own, was also hailed as a laureate.