Sword Dancer, 1959

Charles Hatton on 1959 Horse of the Year Sword Dancer from the 1960 American Racing Manual.


There is an ancient adage that “A good big horse can beat a good little horse.” But there are exceptions to this, as to all other rules, and Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane’s 1959 Horse of the Year–the three-year-old Sword Dancer–is in many ways exceptional. He comes in that valorous category of whom it may be said that the tape, standard and scales tend to understate the full measure of their stature as racehorses. They are a distinguished company, including War Admiral, Black Gold, Seabiscuit, France’s Ksar, England’s Hyperion and Sword Dancer’s rival, Round Table. “Good little horses” all.

There are several distinctly different physical types of the thoroughbred species. One’s preference is a matter of purely personal taste, remembering always that there are many more bad than good examples of each type, whether it is the rumpy sprinter, the equipoised middle distance runner, or those cast in the heroic classic mould. Most racing men prefer the obvious classicists, when these may be found, and their reasons are no shibboleth. But they will settle happily for a well-made, sound representative of any type, since necessity impels them to take a pragmatic rather than an idealistic view.

“The judge of horses must always have a beau ideal in mind,” one is advised. This must be rather limiting for those who are moved by “nothing but the best” and adopt Man o’ War, for example, as their beau ideal. They can only conclude he was inimitable and nature broke the mould. He was a thunderous and fulfilling figure, physically as well as figuratively. To the connoisseur he embodied a truth. And of course other thoroughbreds can only suffer by comparison. But it is questionable whether such comparisons are entirely fair, as Bob Kleberg and other breeders who have endeavored unsuccessfully to evolve and fix a “Man o’ War type” will agree. Just as the drama critic does not expect those thespians who follow Helen Hayes or Sir Laurence Olivier on stage to make a greater hit, the judge of the thoroughbred must leaven austere idealism with appreciation for the variants of the theme. Otherwise he has no criterion.

If Nature has not scattered the true classic type abroad on the turf in the profusion breeders could wish, she has at least given the smaller, scale model types certain compensatory advantages. To instance some of these built-in qualities, the compact horses are usually less prone to becoming track sore and often they are cleverer and more durable than their taller and more elegant contemporaries. Further, the “good little horse” frequently comes to hand and matures more rapidly. Some of recent years, like Seabiscuit and Round Table, have been as tough as pack mules and plucky as they come.

Champion Stands at 15.3

Whether or not the connoisseurs see Sword Dancer as an anatomical prodigy, his still is the anatomy of a champion. As such it well warrants all racing men’s attention. As a matter of fact, there are casual observers who will question that Sword Dancer belongs in the category of little horses who made Big Names. These speak of all good horses as “big horses.” And of course there is the familiar phenomenon of how, like Jack’s Beanstalk, horses grow in the eyes of subjective thinkers when viewed in the flattering frame of reference provided by the winner’s circle. Actually, Sword Dancer stood 15.3 at the withers on Sept. 23, 1959, when he was measured with scrupulous accuracy by Dr. M. A. Gilman at Aqueduct. It seems probable that the doughty Virginian will develop into a medium-sized and well-balanced individual, a sort of carbon copy of his sire Sunglow, who was a larger horse in training, however.

In other essentials of conformation, Dr. Gilman found that Sword Dancer girths 70 inches, measures 37 inches fom the elbow to the ground, 44 inches from the shoulder to the hip, 24 1/2 inches across the hips, with 7 3/4 inches of bone.

The measurements quoted were taken on the eve of the Woodward Stakes, which Sword Dancer won, with Eddie Arcaro making laissez faire of the rules, in a desperate stretch struggle with the older Hillsdale and Round Table. But the tape has never been the specific of a horse’s intrinsic class of course. This elusive quality’s essence is largely mental, which is in the final analysis what we mean by “heart” and an uncomplicated temperament.

Has Outstanding Individual Traits

Now for the champion’s individuality. It has been well said that there are few intellectual operations which are more incapable of being comprehensive than the analysis of why something is lovely or unlovely. Those who attempt pen portraits hope to express everything in words, whereas the things one admires are not completely expressible in words. Any written exposition is an attempt to clothe an intangible in tangible form, to compress something immeasurable and not altogether describable into a mould. But it may flash a beam of illumination on Sword Dancer as he appears to one observer to say he is a bright chestnut, light and airy of frame, his demeanor eager and full of joie de vivre. His vivacity, particularly in the walking ring for the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, delighted blase habitues of the paddocks. His spirit on these occasions was explicable in part by the fact that he was brought up to these races vividly “sharp.” He had presented a somewhat different picture before the Preakness, which followed close on the heels of his bruising race in the Derby, in which Tomy Lee came again to beat him in a breathless and breathlessly exciting contest that left both of these rather delicate animals something the worse for wear. He was in no mood for playful posturing and “hamming” then.

Horsemen noted that even when Swrod Dancer was “on top of himself,” as the English say, during the Aqueduct meet, he had a sort of controlled restlessness. He is an intelligent individual, dutiful and cooperative, almost as if he tries to anticipate and execute any task that is wanted of him. And in the heat of battle he has never to our knowledge flown the white feather, though he wears blinkers. Seen in repose and regarded only physically he is a realization of his pedigree in the sense that he is a chestnut with much white, like his sire, and is rather clipper rigged and attenuated, like his maternal grandsire By Jimminy, who wore a breastplate in training.

Sword Dancer’s head and the set of his ears come to a rather plain frontispiece, relieved by a spectacular blaze and a luminous, sociable eye. His head is well set on a neck neither weak nor crested and the throatlatch affords ample respiratory freedom.

Withers Are Pronounced and Short

Our subject’s withers are rather pronounced and short, in juxtaposition to a short and fairly straight back, which rises slightly at the ilium, or coupling, and followed by a rather sloping croup with a pelvis of moderate length. Though 70 inches is no remarkable girth, Sword Dancer’s rib cage leaves nothing to be desired. The ribs are well sprung and there is not too much length from the back rib to the femur. Thus he is not noticeably long nor weak of flank for all his aspect of raciness and delicacy.

The angle of Sword Dancer’s scapula is moderate and he is rather narrow than wide in the front fork. The humerus’ angle is a trifle upright corresponding of course to that of the scapula. At the same time, he has quite enough liberty of action, though his front stroke is shorter than some of his rivals. The radius and cannon are of a length in the approved proportions, the hind cannon perhaps a trifle long, surmounted by rather bunchy hocks. The pasterns have the correct slope and the length to relieve the ‘eavy, ‘eavy ‘ammer on the ‘ard ‘ighway, serving as shock absorbers. He has three white feet.

Sword Dancer’s muscular investiture is basically that of a stayer. His shoulders are anything but loaded. He has a swell of obvious strength at the stifle and elbow, while the forearm and gaskin are well developed. He appears fairly flat over the knees and if his hocks are a little coarse, all his legs are set on well under him, so that he is well coordinated and “in cadence,” as the French say. Perhaps because of his sincerity and moderate stature, Sword Dancer sometimes has seemed about to over-reach and tire himself in duels with larger animals, and his stride normally is choppier than long in front. But as Mr. Galsworthy put it, “He gets there just the same,” and in any going it seems.

Two Ends and a Good Middle

The tout ensemble of Sword Dancer’s physical format is homogeneous. He pleases the eye if he does not fill the eye. He has “two good ends and a good middle,” and, moreover, is balanced like a see-saw. The picture he makes in the paddock or on the quarter stretch is attractive.

On the record, there were days when he could not beat all the three-year-olds, notably Spur Away, Tomy Lee and Royal Orbit. But he outlasted them. Perhaps because of his frailty, if such it could be called. For he was not subjected to a bruising campaign. He was given a respite after being temporarily “wrung out” in the Derby and Preakness and by racing him comparatively fresh for the remainder of the season he was kept going long after some of his huskier contemporaries were forced to the sidelines. By forfeiting an engagement in an occasional $100,000 stakes to afford him a breather he was enabled to win rather more than his share of them. That he was raced with success against older horses is a commentary on the low estate to which the handicap ranks had fallen, or so it is construed by many horsemen. At the same time, it takes a colt of genuine class to set up a record comparable to Sword Dancer’s. He asserted his supremacy to almost 30,000 horses in training to prove the season’s laureate.

It is doubtful if anybody will care to deny that Sunglow, a good handicapper, outbred himself in siring Mrs. Dodge Sloane’s delightful chestnut. He was of a quality more discernible than obvious. Perhaps the Widener was the highlight of his career. Sunglow is by Sun Again, many of whose progeny have found, like himself, that their potential is compromised by bad knees. The handsome Sun Again in his turn was by Sun Teddy, an American-bred son of Teddy, out of the good producer Hug Again, the latter by Stimulus, progenitor of much speed and knee trouble. This is the Bend Or male line.

Highland Fling [dam of Sword Dancer] was sold out of Brookmeade in the Keeneland fall auction before Sword Dancer gave promise. Her sire, By Jimminy, won an American Derby, when it was still at the American classic route of ten furlongs. By Jimminy was by Sickle’s brother Pharamond II, a son of Phalaris and Hyperion’s dam Selene, “the mother of the Gracchi.” The female family is that of Level Best’s dam, Speed Boat, who was out of the feather-footed Friar’s Carse. The family has a high incidence of respiratory trouble, traceable to Problem, a mare George Strate purchased against the epigrammatical John Madden’s advice. Sword Dancer’s pedigree is an amalgam of the most successful domesticated, French and English lines. We wish we might tell you it is the happy result of some long range and mystic breeding program. It is no less efficacious for being expedient.

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One Response to Sword Dancer, 1959

  1. Pingback: Friar’s Carse Female Line | Boojum's Bonanza

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