The date was May 4, 1957. The Soviet Union was only a
few months away from sending a dog into space, and in the world of thoroughbred
horse racing, one of the most talked about races in history was about to be run
under the famed twin spires. The main players were part of what many still call
the finest foal crop out of any in American racing, and they had finally reached
the largest two moments in their young lives.
Despite the recent injury of one of the best of the
generation, Gen. Duke, the 1957 Kentucky Derby boasted a great field that would
include three future members of the Hall of Fame. The race favorite was Bold Ruler. The Wheatley Stable homebred had already accounted for six stakes wins
and was coming off a nose victory in the Wood Memorial. On that day, he won a
determined battle against an English bred colt that was getting good at the
right time and appreciated the added distance; named Gallant Man. Bet just a
little more than Gallant Man in the Derby was the romping winner of the Blue
Grass Stakes, Round Table.
Somewhat obscured by the shadow cast from the big three
was Calumet Farm’s Iron Liege. This was nothing new for the bay son of Bull Lea
though, as he was clearly the second stringer of the powerful barn’s
contingent. Gen. Duke had won the Florida Derby like a superstar, and when he had
to miss the Derby, many considered Calumet’s chances at another Derby to be
less than good. Nonetheless, Iron Liege was in the race with rider, Bill
Hartack, and let go as the 8-1 fifth choice.
While the two race favorites, as well as, Iron Liege would
stay close early to the speedy Louisiana Derby winner, Federal Hill, Gallant
Man was held well back off the pace by his young rider, Bill Shoemaker. When
the real running began down the long Churchill Downs stretch, it was Iron Liege
who proved strongest of those close to the lead and emerged as the leader at
the eighth pole. By that time though, Gallant Man was in full flight and
gaining fast on the outside. It seemed only a matter of time before the John
Nerud trained colt would reel in his competition on the way to Kentucky Derby
glory … or maybe not.
As the pair passed the sixteenth pole, something
unbelievable occurred. Shoemaker inexplicably stood up in the irons on Gallant
Man, misjudging the pole for the finish line. In the matter of a few strides,
Gallant Man went from an almost sure winner to a horse that needed to regain
his best running. Shoemaker quickly dove back into the saddle and began urging
his mount, but Gallant Man couldn't quite catch Iron Liege, who won by a nose.
Round Table and Bold Ruler finished lengths farther back in third and fourth.
After the Derby, the three stars would go on to great
careers. Bold Ruler won the Preakness two weeks later and was named Horse of the
Year of 1957. He also became one of America’s greatest sires, led by his great
son, Secretariat. Round Table also enjoyed a remarkable career, winning 43
races, multiple year-end awards, and was named Horse of the Year of 1958. Gallant
Man won the Belmont by eight lengths, as well as, countless other big stakes
and became the third horse of the outstanding crop to enter racing’s Hall of
Iron Liege did finish second in the Preakness, but never
won another big race, and was once again overshadowed by the big three. But he
will always have that last six seconds or so of the most stunning Kentucky
Derby stretch run, along with Gallant Man. On that afternoon in Louisville, the
two set the racing world abuzz with a bizarre mishap and a fantastic finish
that can never be forgotten.