The year was 1959. The most popular song was Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin and Gigi was the motion picture of the year. The Boston Celtics won another NBA title and Syracuse went undefeated in college football. Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states and Fidel Castro took over in Cuba. The U. S. federal budget was $92.1 billion and a first class stamp cost 4 cents. On the first Saturday in May, the annual rite of Spring took place in Louisville, Kentucky.
Although the 1959 Kentucky Derby is not often mentioned as one of the greatest Run for the Roses of all time, I believe that it was. In fact, it reminds me of the 1989 Preakness duel between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, where the two battled down the stretch (Horse Racing Business of May 16, 2009, will feature this race).
Fifty years ago, Tomy Lee and Sword Dancer created plenty of drama in the 85th Kentucky Derby. I was a teenager and had a childhood friend whose parents graciously invited me to sit with them in their 3rd floor Clubhouse box near the Churchill Downs finish line. I’ve never had such a clear view of the action except on television.
Louisville was extremely warm for so early in May with the temperature soaring to 94 degrees Fahrenheit, which is still the highest reading ever recorded for a Kentucky Derby. The Churchill Downs oval was lightning fast.
The prerace activity was electric, as it always is on Derby day, but I remember the Clubhouse crowd really buzzed with the arrival of the truly stunning redheaded actress Susan Hayward, who had won the Academy Award in 1958 for Best Actress in the movie “I Want to Live.” Her real name was Edythe Marrenner, from Brooklyn, New York, but she changed it to Susan Hayward to remind people of Rita Hayworth.
Sixteen colts and one filly ran in the Kentucky Derby that year. The sentimental favorite was the champion filly Silver Spoon, who was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and ridden by Ray York.
First Landing, the 2-year-old champion of 1958, was owned by the Meadows Stable of Christopher Chenery (who later bred the magnificent Secretariat) and ridden by perhaps the most skilled American jockey of all time, Eddie Arcaro.
Sword Dancer was owned by the Brookmeade Stable of Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, piloted by Bill Boland, and conditioned by Yale-educated Elliott Burch, who would one day be voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, where he joined his father and grandfather.
Tomy Lee was an English-bred colt that was owned by a 62-year-old Texas oil wildcatter by the name of Fred Turner Jr., and his wife (the Turner’s daughter, Dorothy Scharbauer, would own 1987 Kentucky Derby victor Alysheba). Tomy Lee was trained by Frank Childs and ridden by Bill Shoemaker. Turner paid $6,762 for Tomy Lee as a traveling companion for another colt that he bought for $25,000. Tomy Lee was a big 16.0 hands colt of bay color with white stockings on his front legs and white ankles on his back legs. He was such a dark bay that he could be mistaken for black, and the colt was sleek and well proportioned.
Shoemaker was still looking to compensate for his ride in the 1957 Kentucky Derby in which he momentarily tried to pull up his mount Gallant Man at the 1/16th pole, mistaking it for the finish line, while on the lead. This gave Bill Hartack the opportunity he needed to rally Iron Liege to victory. The stewards suspended Shoemaker for his error.
Tomy Lee raced eight times as a 2-year-old, winning six but losing both of his tries against First Landing, though in each of the losing efforts he was making up ground at the end. Turner vowed that Tomy lee would “run First Landing down” the next time he got the chance. As a 3-year-old, Tomy Lee missed two months of training with leg ailments, but still won four of seven races prior to the Kentucky Derby, including the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Virginia-bred Sword Dancer was a 15.3 hand chestnut. As a 2-year-old, Sword Dancer took eight races to break his maiden and he ended the year with only three wins in fourteen starts. His sole stakes victory was in the Mayflower Stakes at Suffolk Downs. Brookmeade tried to sell Sword Dancer as a 3-year-old but turned down the best offer of $175,000. This was fortunate for Brookmeade, as the colt steadily improved and won the Stepping Stone Stakes at Churchill Downs the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby with Shoemaker as his jockey. Shoemaker was contractually obligated to ride Tomy Lee in the Kentucky Derby, and hence Brookmeade retained Bill Boland for Sword Dancer.
At post time, First landing went off as the favorite with Tomy Lee at almost 4-1.
Tomy Lee ran second in the early part of the race and then seized the lead on the backstretch. At the mile mark, Sword Dancer passed Tomy Lee whereupon Shoemaker-assuming his colt was done for-shouted to Boland, “I hope you win it.” Tomy Lee however came back at Sword Dancer with a vengeance in mid-stretch and the two bumped one another and went in unison down the stretch in a furious drive with Tomy Lee on the inside rail and Sword Dancer to his outside. Even today, I can still recall the chestnut Sword Dancer gleaming in the Kentucky sunlight and the almost black Tomy Lee covered with a white foam of sweat on his neck as Boland and Shoemaker rode for all they were worth with the huge crowd in a frenzy. Tomy Lee edged Sword Dancer at the wire and became the second foreign bred to win the Kentucky Derby. First Landing was third and Silver Spoon was fifth.
Boland claimed foul against Shoemaker for bumping in the stretch. Seventeen minutes later, the stewards disallowed the claim. The bumping may actually have forced Tomy Lee to change leads, which accounted for his newfound energy in deep stretch.
Sword Dancer went on to win the Belmont Stakes and to become a great racehorse, eventually ending up in the Hall of Fame.
First Landing sired Riva Ridge, the winner of the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
The filly Silver Spoon is in the Hall of Fame, as are Boland and Shoemaker.
Tomy Lee had a moderate racing record after the Kentucky Derby. He had fertility problems at stud and was returned to racing for several more years. Tomy Lee died in 1971 in Lexington, Kentucky.
On a steaming hot May day in Kentucky, Tomy Lee turned in one of the most courageous comebacks ever seen on the racetrack. A half century later, the image of the stretch duel is vivid in my mind.
Click here to see the chart of the 1959 Kentucky Derby.
Click here to see a video of the race.
My bets for Kentucky Derby 135 will box four colts in exactas and trifectas: Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, Friesan Fire, and West Side Bernie.
Good luck to everyone on wagering and here’s wishing all of the horses and jockeys a safe trip. Happy Kentucky Derby day!
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