If you’re familiar with Sword Dancer through the stakes named in his honor at Saratoga, then you may not know the real story behind the horse.
The Longines Sword Dancer Stakes, run in late August, is a $1,000,00 Grade 1 event that’s an altogether fitting tribute to the great champion of the 1950s.
Except that it’s on grass, which might spawn the mistaken belief that Sword Dancer was an exceptional turf horse.
Though he ran on turf, Sword Dancer was a champion on dirt who won races like the Belmont Stakes, Travers, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Metropolitan Handicap and was involved in one of the most hotly contested editions of the Kentucky Derby in the race’s long and storied history.
Born in 1956, Sword Dancer raced for the Brookmeade Stable of Dodge automobile heiress Isabel Dodge Sloane and was trained by future Hall of Famer J. Elliott Burch. The smallish son of Sunglow was anything but exceptional at 2, winning just three of 14 starts.
But at 3, he thrived on the added distance in major races. He won the Stepping Stone Purse a week before the Kentucky Derby under jockey Bill Shoemaker, but Shoemaker was committed to ride Calumet Farm’s Tomy Lee in the Run for Roses and Bill Boland was given the ride aboard Sword Dancer – setting the stage for the drama to come on a blistering hot, 90-degree May afternoon at Churchill Downs.
Sword Dancer was set off at 8-1 in the Derby and tracked in fourth in the early stages as Tomy Lee dueled for the lead with mutuel field runner Troilus.
Approaching the quarter pole, Boland and Sword Dancer made their move and surged to a half-length lead turning for home. But just when it appeared Sword Dancer was headed to victory, Tomy Lee battled back inside of him.
The two horses then staged a furious and memorable battle to the wire. The two exchanged bumps as Boland and Shoemaker strained to get every ounce of speed out of their horses. They hit the wire together in a blanket finish but in the final stride Tomy Lee managed to push his nose across the wire by the slimmest of margins. Two years after he misjudged the finish line in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, Shoemaker found atonement on Tomy Lee following a desperate, no-holds-barred stretch drive.
Boland claimed foul, but after 17 minutes of deliberation it was disallowed.
1959 Kentucky Derby
When Tomy Lee did not run in the Preakness, Shoemaker was once again put aboard Sword Dancer and they finished second in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
A win in the Metropolitan Handicap sharpened Sword Dancer’s speed and then at a mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes – the same distance as the Spa’s Sword Dancer Stakes – everything fell into place as he captured the Test of the Champion by a little less than a length.
Returned to the races at four in 1960, Sword Dancer was unable to sustain the brilliance he displayed a year earlier. He won only four of 12 starts, though he managed to win the Suburban in track record time and the Woodward for a second straight year.
He was retired after suffering an ankle injury in the Man o’ War and was a success at stud, siring Hall of Fame runner Damascus as well as Lady Pitt, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1966.
In 1977, he was given racing’s highest honor when he was voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
A spot in the Hall of Fame. Wins in the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Two wins in the Woodward.
Not bad at all for a horse some might consider a turf star.
Fun Facts About Sword Dancer