Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 62 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 62 Days to Go!
Iron Liege, a tough luck colt that was considered the 3rd best of Calumet’s 1954 crop, would go on to become Calumet’s 6th Kentucky Derby winner. The bay colt by Calumet’s Bull Lea was out of the War Admiral mare, Iron Maiden. He was originally named Iron Lea, but owner Mrs. Markey changed his name to Iron Liege. In addition to being known as the winner of one of the oddest and controversial runnings of the Derby, Iron Liege was also the subject of one of the more interesting happenings in
the sport. Sports Illustrated, which was new, decided to do an article on the chances of a thoroughbred foal making it to the Kentucky Derby. Believing that Calumet Farm was their best chance at getting a good story on a foal, SI sent the famous nature photographer Ylla to the farm to hopefully capture a newborn’s photo. In what would be an astronomical chance, the mare Iron Maiden was the first to go into labor, and her Bull Lea colt would be the subject of the story. Photographing the colt from only 3
minutes old throughout the Kentucky Derby, Iron Liege had his life chronicled in pictures. Unfortunately, Ylla would never get to see the colt again or her photos in print with the article titled “The Baby Started at 9,066-1”, as she tragically died while photographing a bull race through the paddy fields in India.
While preparing for his freshman campaign, Iron Liege would develop a cough in the winter that slowed his training with Ben Jones’ son Jimmy. The slow start to his conditioning led to a delayed start, with his first race taking place on August 21st at Arlington Park where he would break slow and finish 6th. Then, on September 5th, Iron Liege would get the piloting services of Eddie Arcaro, winning a 6 furlong maiden at Belmont Park. Nine days later the pair would finish 3rd in an allowance, before teaming up again on September 22 to win a 6 furlong allowance. Sadly, the colt would stick his leg through a canvas rack that was in his stall, which cut him deeply, luckily missing the tendon. He did recover to run again at 2, although he wouldn’t win any of his remaining four races.

Through the later part of 1956 and into 195, the stable’s star would be another Bull Lea colt named General Duke, who was considered by Jones to be the farm’s best colt since Citation. Iron Liege would be the farm’s third stringer behind General Duke and Barbizon, running in their shadows. Despite being the third choice, Iron Liege would win and finish second in his first two starts in January. In Iron Liege’s third start, he would actually defeat his stablemate General Duke in an allowance, before having the tables turned and finishing third behind General Duke and Bold Ruler in the Everglades. The Everglades would be the start of a rivalry between General Duke and Bold Ruler. In the trios next start together, the 9 furlong Flamingo Stakes, Bold Ruler and Eddie Arcaro would have to break the track record to defeat General Duke, setting the new record to 1:47 in the neck victory, with Iron Liege coming in third. Iron Liege would then manage to come in second behind his stablemate in the Fountain of Youth. The three competitors would all meet again in the Florida Derby, a race that was won by General Duke in the World Record time of 1:46 4/5 for 9 furlongs. Bold Ruler, in finishing
second, just edged out Iron Liege by a neck. General Duke however managed to hurt his hoof in the race with the connections believing it to just be a stone bruise. From Florida, the Calumet contingent shipped to Kentucky, while Bold Ruler would go to New York to face Gallant Man in the Wood Memorial, just nosing out that rival to win in track record time.

In Kentucky, Iron Liege would win a 7 furlong allowance at Keeneland in preparing for the Kentucky Derby, tying the track record that had been set by Your Host. Another horse on the Derby trail that was making noise in addition to General Duke, Bold Ruler, and Gallant Man, was the speedy Round Table, who broke the track record at Keeneland in winning the Bluegrass in 1:47 2/5. The field was shaping up to be one of the greatest in the history of the race.

Five days prior to the Kentucky Derby, the pair of Calumet runners was entered into the Derby Trial, in which General Duke finished poorly to come in second to Federal Hill, as Iron Liege finished next to last. Most people knew that the Calumet horses would oftentimes finish slow in their preps before a big race, however this time Jones was worried. He had no explanation for Iron Liege, and General Duke’s hoof seemed to be getting worse, as it wasn’t responding to the normal treatment. It wasn’t until 9am on Derby morning that Jones reluctantly scratched General Duke from the race, leaving only Iron Liege to carry the Calumet colors in the race. Jones also decided to put the General’s regular rider, Bill Hartack, on the colt, replacing his jockey Dave Erb.
In the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, another of the bizarre events surrounding the race would play out. Ralph Lowe, who was the owner of one of the top 3YO’s, Gallant Man, would have a dream. His colt had been being ridden by John Choquette; however Lowe wanted Bill Shoemaker aboard his colt for the big race. Lowe and trainer John Nerud were feeling anxious about making the switch, yet they never had to actually do it. A week before the Derby, Lowe would have a dream that Choquette was riding Gallant Man in the Derby when he misjudged the finish line and pulled up, losing
the race. As their luck, or bad luck, would have it, Choquette was suspended before they had to make the change, allowing Gallant Man’s connections to get Shoemaker aboard. Nerud and Lowe were relieved when Shoemaker said yes, thinking that everything would be fine, as they had a different rider. The Friday night before the Derby, Lowe was having dinner with Nerud, Shoemaker, and the Shoe’s agent, Harry Silbert. Still fretting about the dream, Nerud told Lowe to quit worrying, as he had the
great Shoemaker aboard his colt, so he could sleep well. Before leaving, Shoemaker would try to ease Lowe’s anxiety, telling him, “Oh, don’t worry about that Mr. Lowe. That’s never going to happen to me. I’ve been riding too long to let that happen.”
The 83rd Kentucky Derby was bleak and cold, with the temperature staying around 47 degrees. In spite of the dreary day, the crowds still turned out to witness the field of nine horses make history. In the paddock, the Calumet crew was subdued, not sure what to make of Iron Liege’s chances. Thankfully, Jones had been watching tape of the colt’s previous races, discovering something that he thought might help his chances. Most horses do their best running if they are on the outside of others, while most horses are more timid if they are on the inside. However, Jones found that Iron Liege’s best races
were when he ran on the inside, as if it gave him confidence. He passed the information
on to Hartack, unsure if it would help.

The race unfolded as thought, with the speedster Federal Hill breaking on top, keeping a narrow lead through running a mile in 1:36 4/5. Eddie Arcaro aboard Bold Ruler found himself in a bad position as his mount wanted to run, with Arcaro not being able to do much about it. He tried taking the colt back, except Bold Ruler would have none of it, starting to bear out. Unfortunately for them, at this point, Iron Liege came up on his outside which kept Bold Ruler from being able to run around the horses in front of him, pinning him in. Locked in and unable to fight his way clear, when it came time to call upon Bold Ruler, he had nothing left as he had spent himself in wrestling with Arcaro. Gallant Man with Shoemaker aboard ran toward the back of the pack until they reached the 5/8 pole when he began to move forward, passing horses. Hartack on Iron Liege saved ground throughout the race, finally able to make the rail, after being steadied and checked at the 3/8 pole. At the top of the stretch, Federal Hill and Iron Liege were battling head-to-head, with Bold Ruler and Round Table trying to make a move, while Gallant Man was flying on the outside. At the eighth pole, Iron Liege took the lead, having a half-length advantage over Federal Hill, as Gallant Man inched forward, finally drawing even with Iron Liege on the inside. The two battled together down the stretch…when the unthinkable happened. As they reached the 1/16th pole, Shoemaker stood up in the irons, thinking they had reached the finish line. Immediately realizing his mistake, he sat back down, furiously riding his colt to end up a nose short of catching the game Iron Liege.

Trainer Jimmy Jones had won his first Kentucky Derby, with Calumet collecting its 6th gold Derby trophy, that much was known. What wasn’t however was what really happened. Shoemaker first lied to the stewards who had seen his gaff; few others had. Eventually he told the truth, that he misjudged the finish line; the stewards gave him a 15-day suspension. The debate went on as to whether he actually cost Gallant Man the race. Most think that it did, although it really depends on the horse. Very few actually quit their drive when the rider stands up, continuing to run through the wire. With that being said, Shoemaker stood up and went back to the saddle so quickly, that it seems unlikely that the colt would’ve been thrown off enough in the split second to have had the incident cost him the race. It’s something that will always be debated. Lowe didn’t blame Shoemaker for the loss, still giving the jockey $5000 and a new Chrysler. When the jockey told Nerud what happened, he responded by telling him that there would be another race.
In the Preakness, Gallant Man was held out to train up to the Belmont. Shoemaker would come off of his suspension to ride the colt to a Peter Pan victory as a prep for the Belmont, which the pair would win over Bold Ruler in track record time that stood until Bold Ruler’s son, Secretariat, would break the world record in his demolition of the race.

Iron Liege made his way to the Preakness, though he finished 2nd to Bold Ruler. He didn’t run in the Belmont, but he would go on to win three other stakes to conclude his 3YO season. He would continue to race through his 4YO season, with his best finish a victory in the McLennan Handicap at Hialeah. He would be retired to stud in 1958, when he was purchased for $200,000 by Marcel Boussac, who had purchased Whirlaway from Calumet to stand at his farm in France. Iron Liege would stand in France for nine years, after which he was sold for $150,000 to stand his remaining years in Japan at Shizunai Stud. In Japan, he would sire Strong Eight, a Grade I winner.

Iron Liege would be the only horse to defeat Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Gallant Man in the same race. The top four runners of the 1957 Kentucky Derby would all make a name for themselves. Bold Ruler, the best known, was an 8 time leading U.S. sire, after winning 23 races. Round Table won 43 races and $1,749,869, with his progeny winning over $12 million. Gallant Man won 14 races and was a successful sire. The progeny of the top four won over 180 stakes races.

(Photo of Eddie Arcaro shaking Bill Hartack’s hand after the victory courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum archives)
Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum