Round Table: Champion on the Turf

Round Table, pictured winning the 1958 Arlington Handicap with Bill Shoemaker aboard, was a champion on both dirt and turf.
Round Table, pictured winning the 1958 Arlington Handicap with Bill Shoemaker aboard, was a champion on both dirt and turf. (BloodHorse photo)

When Wise Dan swept three categories - Horse of the Year, older male, and turf male - at the Eclipse Awards in 2012 and 2013, it brought back sunny memories of Round Table, who collected Horse of the Year honors, a champion male turf horse award, and male handicap honors in 1958.

Round Table

Born: April 6, 1954

Birthplace: Claiborne Farm, Lexington, Ky.

Died: June 13, 1987 

Sire: Princequillo

Dam: Knight’s Daughter

Career record: 66 starts, 43 wins, 8 seconds, 5 thirds

Career earnings: $1,344,352

Round Table was an everyman's horse. In an era when larger-than-life racehorses such as Native Dancer, Swaps, and Nashua became national heroes, the smallish, unassuming Round Table steadily racked up victories. In a career spanning four years (1956-1959) he was recognized as one of the greatest turf runners in the history of the sport.

The bay colt liked to run close to the pace and set the pace when he had to, putting away his contenders as they came to him and winning by as much as he could. Round Table traveled coast to coast, carried more and more weight, stayed the distance or sprinted past swift rivals. He battled one of the best crops of 3-year-olds in history - Calumet’s Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, Wheatley Stable’s Bold Ruler, and Ralph Lowe’s Gallant Man.

At 15.2 hands, Round Table was the little engine that could.

An extremely sound, tough horse with a kind temperament, Round Table was a terror on the turf scoring in 14 of 16 starts. The great turf writer Joe Hirsch wrote: “Now, at 5, as he keeps winning the big ones with his weight up in the relentlessly professional thoroughness of the New York Yankees in Ruth’s day and DiMaggio’s, the applause grows louder with each passing hour until it is a crescendo of appreciation and admiration for one of the greatest performers in the history of U.S. racing.”

Foaled at Claiborne Farm on April 6, 1954, Round Table was born a half-hour prior to the birth of another legendary champion, Bold Ruler, that same night at the legendary Paris, Ky., farm. This odd quirk of fate played out in spirited battles at the racetrack, the duo earned more than $2.5 million between them. Even more significant, the commingling of their blood produced Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, whose sons and grandsons are still leaving his mark on the breed.

A durable son of Princequillo, out of Knight's Daughter (by Sir Cosmo), Round Table raced for Claiborne as a juvenile under the tutelage of trainer Moody Jolley winning five of 10 starts. Both of his stakes successes came at Keeneland, the four-furlong Lafayette Stakes in April and the seven-furlong Breeders' Futurity in October.

Round Table wins at Keeneland.
Round Table wins at Keeneland. (Courtesy Claiborne Farm)

With the death of Claiborne founder A.B. Hancock Sr., Round Table was put on the block to help pay estate taxes, in essence saving the farm. Oklahoma Oilman Travis Kerr wound up purchasing a majority interest in the colt. As the story goes, Kerr's agent was in the paddock at Hialeah on Feb. 9, 1957, just before Round Table was to make his second start at 3 in an allowance race. Claiborne's famed Bull Hancock gave Kerr until post time to agree to his terms. Kerr did. The final price was reported at $175,000 and the sale agreement included Round Table standing at stud at Claiborne when his racing career was over with Claiborne receiving 20 percent of his breeding income.

At age 3, Kerr transferred Round Table to California trainer Bill "Willie" Molter who had trained 1954 Kentucky Derby hero Determine. A native of Fredericksburg, Texas, Molter began his career in horse racing as a jockey at racetracks across the Texas border in Mexico. He described his new colt like this: “a short-coupled but well-quartered behind, has a small, but good-looking head and a longer-than-average stride.”

The trainer moved Round Table to California, where he ran third in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten only a head by winner Sir William and a nose by runner up Swirling Abbey. Round Table won the Bay Meadows Derby from Swirling Abbey by 4 ½ lengths. The authoritative win punched the colt’s ticket Kentucky that spring as Round Table romped by six lengths beating One-Eyed King in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Gen. Duke would have been the 1957 Kentucky Derby favorite if he hadn’t scratched the morning of the race. Bold Ruler took that role with Round Table the second choice and Gallant Man a close third in the betting. Yet the 1957 Derby is best remembered not for who won – because it was none of these – but for an incident involving Gallant Man and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker.

Federal Hill proved the early speed in the race, holding the lead into the top of the stretch, before giving way to Iron Liege. Gallant Man rolled past the Calumet entry, but in one of the most famous blunders in sports history, rider Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish, throwing his mount off stride just enough to be nosed out by Iron Liege. Round Table closed bravely, beating Bold Ruler to finish third.

“He bobbled every three or four steps as the track kept cupping out on him," said jockey Ralph Neves, “but he made a strong move once finding room in the stretch.”

Bypassing the Preakness and Belmont, Molter took Round Table back home to California, where Shoemaker eventually became his regular rider. After a sharp second against older horses in the Californian, Round Table strung together an 11-race win streak that was described as the longest since Citation.

His first three stakes in the series were versus 3-year-olds. Next time out he uncorked a dominating 3 ¼-length score in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap. Not only did Round Table become the first 3-year-old to take that prize but he equaled the 1 ¼-mile track record of 1:58 3/5, set by the fabled Swaps. The time also stood as the fastest 10 furlongs ever recorded by a 3-year-old.

Round Table
Round Table (BloodHorse photo)

Later that summer, Round Table shifted tack to Chicago, where he quickly took to turf racing, whipping Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege in the American Derby and then, recovering from a stumble at the break, prevailing by a head nod in the United Nations Handicap against older horses.

Those performances earned Round Table the honors as that year's champion grass horse. Returning to the main track in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, he easily put older horses to the sword while setting a new 1 ¼-mile record of 2:00 1/5 under a hand ride.

Round Table dominated American Thoroughbred racing in 1958. He was named Horse of the Year after winning the San Fernando, San Antonio, Santa Anita, Caliente, Argonaut, Laurence Armour, and Arlington Handicaps, among others. When the season ended, Round Table had been the sport's leading money winner for two consecutive years.

One of two turf losses of Round Table’s career was in the $100,000 United Nations Handicap on Sept. 14, 1958. Clem, named for longtime racing announcer Clem McCarthy, held off Round Table by a half-length while smashing the Atlantic City course record before a crowd of 26,444. The time for the mile and three-sixteenths on the grass course was a blistering 1:54 3/5. Round Table closed out his 4-year-old campaign with a win the Hawthorne Gold Cup, surpassing Nashua on the all-time earnings list.

"He's the greatest horse I've ever seen,” trainer Molter declared. “Round Table is game, he's tough, he can take it, he's easy to manage, he's sound and a good doer."

In 1959, he won 9 of his 14 races, including the United Nations while carrying 136 pounds and his third champion grass horse title. Round Table's lifetime earnings were $1,749,869.


Round Table won 43 of his 66 starts when he retired in 1959 and was the world's top money-winning horse at $1,749,869. He was named Horse of the Year in 1958, champion grass horse in 1957, 1958 and 1959, champion handicap horse in 1958 and 1959, and he was the leading earner in 1957 and 1958.

Round Table was inducted in to the Hall of Fame in 1972. He was ranked 17th on Blood-Horse’s "Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century" in 1999. Standing stud at Claiborne Farm from 1959 to 1978, he is considered one of the most important sires of the 20th century. Of the 401 foals he sired, 83 were stakes winners, an impressive 20.5 percent. Round Table was the first million-dollar winner to sire a million-dollar winner in Royal Glint and included among his 83 stakes winners were Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee He's A Smoothie, Apalachee, Advocator, King's Bishop, King Pellinore, and Poker, who was the damsire of two Hall of Fame inductees, Seattle Slew and Silver Charm.

Round Table died at Claiborne Farm, where he was born 33 years before. Buried in an oak casket, Round Table and Bold Ruler rest near one another, beneath limestone markers at the Paris, Ky., farm.

Fun Facts

  • Round Table set course records on the turf and on the dirt at 1 1/16, 1 1/8, 1 1/4, and 1 5/8 miles.
  • Round Table and Bold Ruler were foaled at Claiborne Farm, on the same night, and both won Horse of the Year honors in their respective careers. They returned to Claiborne to stand at stud where they had stalls across the aisle from each other.
  • Round Table set or equaled 14 track records during his career, including one world record and two U.S. records. He set course records on the turf and on the dirt at 1 1/16, 1 1/8, 1 ¼, and 1 5/8 miles. He was named champion grass horse from 1957-59, and champion handicap male and Horse of the Year in 1958.
  • Round Table was the third American Thoroughbred to earn more than a million dollars, after Citation and Nashua.
  • Among his descendants are Horse of the Year winners A.P. Indy and Mineshaft.

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