Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 67 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 67 Days to Go!

Hill Gail, the winner of the 1952 Kentucky Derby, was the 5th of Calumet Farm’s 8 winners, passing A. J. Alexander as the leading breeder. The dark bay colt was by Calumet’s stallion, Bull Lea, out of the Blenheim II mare, Jane Gail.  Blenheim II was Whirlaway’s sire, while Bull Lea was the sire of Citation. At 2, the rookie would receive his training from Calumet’s 5-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Ben Jones. The feisty and headstrong colt would show some brilliance on the track, between bouts of drifting and trying to run back to the barn.

Hill Gail would come in second in the Washington Park Futurity, and then set a six furlong track record in the 1951 Arlington Futurity, one of the biggest races for 2YO’s at the time. He would also defeat the famous Tom Fool in October at Belmont Park. As a 3 Year-old, Hill Gail would win five stakes; he equaled the six furlong track record at Keeneland in winning the Phoenix Handicap, won the San Vicente and Santa Anita Derby in California, and set another track record for the mile when he won the Derby Trial four days before the Kentucky Derby. With an illness keeping Tom Fool from contesting the Derby, Hill Gail would go off as the favorite in a field of sixteen.

The day of the Kentucky Derby dawned bright with the sun lasting throughout the day. 110,000 attendees thronged into Churchill Downs, filling it to the rafters it seemed. The 78th running was broadcast nationally for the first time with 50 million viewers watching from their homes. Those on track broke the world record for betting on a single event, when $1,565,901 was wagered on the race. Entering the paddock, Hill Gail was anything but well-behaved. He was unfocused and flighty, unable to stand still. Finally Ben Jones popped the bad-actor in the nose, which seemed to do the trick. Now a perfect gentleman, Hill Gail was the best of the bunch.

The starters made their way to the gates in good order, while the start was delayed a bit due to Shag Tails breaking through the gate several times. The son of Bull Lea was headstrong in the early going, so jockey Eddie Arcaro decided to let him go and not spend his energy by fighting. Once they entered the turn though, Hill Gail started to drift. Arcaro tapped the colt with the crop, causing him to regain his focus. As the pair reached the backstretch, they were on the rail and trailing, yet as soon as Arcaro clucked to his mount, Hill Gail took off, easily taking the lead. Into the stretch, Arcaro opened up a little more on the spunky colt, who had started to drift when there was no one up front with him. Straightened out, the duo would go on to win easily by two lengths over a fast track in a time of 2:01 3/5. The time was the second fastest recorded, only a 1/5 off the record that Whirlaway had set in 1941. He came out of the race with osselets, which kept him from competing in the Preakness and Belmont. The Kentucky Derby would be his last race at three. Although he did come back to race, he was never quite his former self. He did have glimpses though; as he would go on to set another track record at Arlington, when he ran 6 furlongs in 1:08 4/5. Hill Gail would become Ben Jones record 6th and final Derby winner, as well as Arcaro’s record 5th and final. When asked after the Derby to compare Hill Gail to Citation, the horse that Arcaro compared to driving a Cadillac, he responded by saying that you couldn’t compare the two. He said, “You can’t compare any horse to Citation. He (Hill Gail) couldn’t even warm Citation up.”

In 1954, when he was retired, Hill Gail was sold to the Brownstown Stud in Ireland for $150,000. As a stallion there he would sire a winner of the 2000 Guineas, a horse named Martial. He would pass away in Ireland in 1968, where he was also buried. Calumet Farms has a plaque in remembrance of him.

(Ad Print courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum archives.)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum