Hall of Fame Racehorse Sword Dancer: Dominant on Dirt

Sword Dancer wins the 1959 Belmont Stakes. (Bert and Richard Morgan photo/Blood-Horse Library)

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 Sword Dancer Stakes, run in late August, is a 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 sent 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 finish line. 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.

Sword Dancer with owner Isabel Dodge Sloane after his Belmont win. (Bert and Richard Morgan photo/Blood-Horse Library)
Sword Dancer then closed out 1959 in grand style, registering wins in the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward – beating Hillsdale and 1958 Horse of the Year Round Table - and Monmouth Cup. At year’s end he was rewarded for his exceptional campaign by being named Horse of the Year by all three voting bodies as well as the champion 3-year-old male.

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 Racing 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.

Note: This story was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Sword Dancer was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1977.
  • The 1959 Kentucky Derby also featured Meadow Stable’s First Landing, the champion 2-year-old colt of 1958 and the sire of Kentucky Derby/Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge, and Silver Spoon, the champion 2-year-old filly of 1958.
  • Brookmeade tried to sell Sword Dancer in the spring of his 3-year-old season but no one accepted their asking price of $200,000. 
  • Sword Dancer won 15 of his 39 starts, with seven seconds, and four thirds for earnings of $829,610.

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