Secretariat

Woodward Stakes Returns to its Roots

With the Woodward Stakes oddly competing with the Kentucky Derby this year, let’s not forget the major move by NYRA in changing the distance of this historic race back to a mile and a quarter and bringing back the glory days of the race that used to crown champions. Read about the early days of the Woodward and its amazing path to the Hall of Fame…

Woodward Stakes Returns to its Roots

By Steve Haskin

 

The New York Racing Association made a change in its stakes schedule this year that either escaped many people or was not considered significant enough to get excited about. But in reality it was one of the most significant and historic moves they have made in years.

That change was moving the distance of the Woodward Stakes from a mile and an eighth, which had been its distance for 30 consecutive years and 37 of the past 39 years, to a mile and a quarter, which was the distance when the race was inaugurated in 1954.

Forget the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup. The mile and a quarter Woodward, which will be run on Kentucky Derby Day, Sept. 5, as weird as that sounds, has crowned more all-time great champions than any of the aforementioned races.

To demonstrate the importance of the mile and a quarter Woodward, from 1959 to 1969, eight of the 10 runnings of the Woodward were won by horses who are in the Hall of Fame. And in one of the two years it wasn’t, Kelso was beaten by the narrowest of noses by Gun Bow. Prior to 1959 (in 1956 and ’57), three horses who competed in the Woodward, but were upset (Nashua, Gallant Man and Bold Ruler), are in the Hall of Fame.

In 1972, the distance was changed to a mile and a half, then to a mile and an eighth in 1976. Two years later it was finally changed back to a mile and a quarter, and the next three winners – Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid – are all in the Hall of Fame. From 1981 to 1987 it was again changed to a mile and an eighth, and then NYRA went back to a mile and a quarter for only two years in 1988 and 1989 when it was won by Alysheba and Easy Goer, both in the Hall of Fame.

So, in a span of 16 years the mile and a quarter Woodward was won by horses who are in the Hall of Fame 13 times. In one of the years it wasn’t, California invader Cougar II finished first by five lengths and was taken down in one of the most controversial disqualifications ever in New York. Also, in a span of 19 years, 14 horses who competed in the mile and a quarter Woodward would be named Horse of the Year that year. Those that weren’t named Horse of the Year that year include Sword Dancer (1960), Damascus (1968), Spectacular Bid (1979), and Easy Goer (1989), who are all in the Hall of Fame. The horses they lost out to were Kelso, Dr. Fager, Affirmed, and Sunday Silence – all in the Hall of Fame.

Now, after 30 years of being run at a mile and an eighth, during which only seven winners went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, two in the past 15 years (Rachel Alexandra and Curlin), the Woodward has been restored to its original distance of a mile and a quarter.

Although the Woodward will never return to its glory days when Hall of Famers Sword Dancer, Kelso, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Arts and Letters accounted for eight Woodward victories in 11 years, and Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid won three straight in the late 1970s, it is good to have back where it belongs at a mile and a quarter.

The incredible run began in 1959 when the 3-year-old Sword Dancer faced older horses Round Table and Hillsdale in a showdown for Horse of the Year that was called the “Race of the Decade.”

Here we were, only 12 days after the reopening of the new modern state of the art Aqueduct Racetrack with one of the great three-horse matchups in years, right up there with Bold Ruler, Gallant, Man, and Round Table in the 1957 Trenton Handicap.
But this time we had an epic showdown between the best horse in the East, the best horse in the Midwest, and the best horse in the West. And here they were, all converging on Aqueduct to meet for Horse of the Year honors at a mile and a quarter and weight-for-age conditions.

Representing the East was the nation’s leading 3-year-old Sword Dancer, who was beaten a nose in the Kentucky Derby in a controversial finish, finished second in the Preakness, and then defeated older horses in the Met Mile, missing the track record by two-fifths of a second. Two weeks later he captured the Belmont Stakes, then defeated older horses again in the Monmouth Handicap before finishing second against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, giving 12 actual pounds to winner and breaking poorly at the start, dropping far back and rallying strongly to be beaten three-quarters of a length. He then wheeled right back and won the Travers Stakes.

Representing the Midwest was the already great Round Table, who revolutionized the sport by becoming the first superstar on both dirt and grass. Round Table came into the Woodward having equaled or broken 16 track records on dirt and grass and had won seven of his last eight starts, carrying from 130 to 136 pounds in all of them, and culminating with a victory in the United Nations Handicap under 136 pounds.

Representing California was the powerhouse Hillsdale, who came into the Woodward having won 10 of his 12 starts at 4 and 10 in a row, including the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 1/5, the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap, defeating Round Table in 1:21 4/5, the Californian Stakes, American Handicap under 130 pounds, Santa Anita Maturity (later changed to the Charles H. Strub Stakes), Los Angeles Handicap, and Argonaut Stakes. He then came to New York with visions of Horse of the Year and defeated the top-class Bald Eagle in the Aqueduct Handicap under 132 pounds. His only two defeats came early in the year when he was second in the Santa Anita Handicap and San Antonio Stakes.

In all, these three exceptional horses came into the Woodward having won 25 of their 35 starts in 1959, while finishing in the money in 33 of their 35 starts.

Their only two out of the money performances were Sword Dancer’s 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes when he finished fifth, and Round Table being virtually eased in a handicap stakes at Santa Anita when he tore open his left front heel while carrying 134 pounds, 25 pounds more than the winner.

History will show it was little Sword Dancer, with Eddie Arcaro flailing away with a roundhouse left-handed whip, who squeezed his way inside Hillsdale, barely visible to the crowd, and just got up in the final strides to win by a head, nailing down the Horse of the Year title.

The following year, Sword Dancer won the Woodward again, but lost the Horse of the Year title to Kelso, which began the historic five-year reign of the immortal gelding, who captured the next three Woodwards before suffering a heartbreaking nose defeat to the brilliant Gun Bow in 1964. That race, however did not cost Kelso his fifth straight Horse of the Year title, as he faced Gun Bow in a rematch in the Washington D.C. International, in which Kelso, at age 7, not only easily defeated his arch rival he set a new world record.

By now, the Woodward and Horse of the Year had become synonymous, and it continued following Kelso’s retirement with successive victories by Horses of the Year Roman Brother in 1965, Buckpasser in 1966, and Sword Dancer’s son Damascus in 1967.

Although Sword Dancer had won the “Race of the Decade,” his son outdid him by winning the “Race of the Century,” which attracted arguably the greatest three horses ever to compete in a single race – Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser; names that resounded throughout the racing world.

A showdown in the Woodward Stakes is what racing fans clamored for all year, and it was like a jolt of electricity when it became obvious it was going to happen.

As the big day grew near, the race began to take on epic proportions. Gene Ward, racing columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote: “It’s a rare occasion when the two best colts of any given season are hooked up in a glamour gallop. But the true dream race arrives when there are three of them, as close talent-wise as your next breath, all in action together.”
As big a race as the ’67 Woodward was, no one at the time realized the true magnitude of the event. You had three Horses of the Year and three Hall of Famers who, between them, would capture an amazing 12 championships, equal or break 11 track records, set two world records, and win carrying 130 pounds or more 12 times. Six of those records have never been broken. When Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/4-mile track record at Aqueduct, he broke Dr. Fager’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/8-mile track record at Arlington Park, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. And when Damascus equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga in the Travers, romping by 22 lengths in the slop, he equaled Buckpasser’s previous record.

In 81 combined starts, they won 64 races, 54 of them stakes, and finished out of the money only three times – Dr. Fager on a disqualification after finishing first by 6 1/2 lengths in one of the most controversial stewards decisions of all time, Damascus after being eased in his final start with a bowed tendon, and Buckpasser in his first career start, in which he finished fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs. So, for all intents and purposes they never finished out of the money in 81 starts.

The race also had plenty of controversy when the trainers of Damascus and Buckpasser, Frank Whiteley and Eddie Neloy, entered “rabbits,” or pacesetters, to get Dr. Fager’s blood boiling and prevent him from getting an easy lead. It worked out perfectly for Whiteley, as Hedevar, a former world-record holder at a mile, pushed Dr. Fager through suicidal fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5. When Damascus unleashed his patented explosive move he left Buckpasser in his wake and roared by Dr. Fager, drawing off to a 10-length victory, turning the Race of the Century into a procession, while securing Horse of the Year honors.

Damascus, shockingly, was beaten a nose by Mr. Right in the following year’s Woodward, and Whiteley was so infuriated with Baeza’s ride, which he felt was deliberate, considering Baeza’s loyalty to Dr. Fager, he shouted his displeasure at the rider upon his return. Whiteley never spoke to Baeza again.

But the Woodward was right back in the spotlight the following year when Rokeby Stable’s brilliant 3-year-old Arts and Letters, who had followed his narrow defeats to Majestic Prince in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by rattling of impressive scores in the Met Mile, Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy, and Travers, faced the best older horse, Nodouble, for Horse of the Year honors. Arts and Letters was just too strong for his older rival and outran him in the stretch to win by two lengths. With the new Belmont Park opening that year, the Woodward bid farewell to Aqueduct and was moved to “Big Sandy.”

In 1970, Preakness winner Personality became yet another 3-year-old to win the Woodward, which earned him the Horse of the Year title from the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. And then in 1971 came the controversial disqualification of Cougar II. The following year, the distance of the race was changed to a mile and a half and the opening, historic chapter of the Woodward Stakes was over.

No one knows how this year’s mile and a quarter Woodward will play out, but one thing is for sure. Whoever wins will be following in the footsteps of some of the greatest legends the sport has ever known.