Round Table -- 1958 Horse of the Year
by Kellie Reilly
With the renewal of the prestigious Santa Anita H. (G1) last weekend, we salute Round Table, a legend of our sport who landed that prize in heroic fashion. Like the mythical Arthurian knights to which his name alludes, Round Table traversed the country in search of adventure and glorious deeds. Champion grass horse for three straight years, he was also world-class on the dirt, matching or breaking one world record, three American records and 12 track records on both surfaces while often shouldering massive weights. Yet he was not universally hailed as an all-time great in his own era, partly because of his need for fast tracks and partly because of the caliber of those he defeated. His career thus serves as a salutary reminder that controversy often attends these kinds of judgments, and what may seem a foregone conclusion to posterity was not so clear-cut to observers at the time.
Round Table was the product of a mating of diametric opposites in more ways than one. His sire, *Princequillo, was a late bloomer. After running for a tag early on, he eventually became a stayer of the highest order, landing the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Saratoga Cup in 1943. His dam was *Knight's Daughter, bred by British monarch King George VI. The aptly named daughter of the classy English sprinter Sir Cosmo was precocious enough to land three of four starts at two. Culled from the Royal Stud, Knight's Daughter was acquired by Claiborne Farm, where she met Princequillo. Rarely in the annals of Thoroughbred breeding does such a match of late-maturing stayer and speedy sprinter result in a high-caliber middle-distance type, but Round Table was fortunate to inherit the best of both.
Foaled at Claiborne on April 6, 1954, Round Table was born at the same farm on the same day as another legendary champion, Bold Ruler. This odd quirk of fate presaged their crossing swords on the racetrack, and even more momentous, the commingling of their blood that yielded a Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, who is still leaving his mark on the breed.
Racing for Claiborne as a juvenile in the care of trainer Moody Jolley, the small bay won five of 10 starts. Both of his stakes successes came at Keeneland, the four-furlong Lafayette S. in April and the seven-furlong Breeders' Futurity in October. Negotiations to sell Round Table were reportedly under way in the course of the season, with the asking price first in the vicinity of $40,000, then climbing higher as the colt added more bullet points to his resume.
Oilman Travis Kerr wound up purchasing a majority interest in Round Table in rather colorful circumstances. Kerr's agent was in the paddock at Hialeah on February 9, 1957, just before Round Table was to make his second start at three in an allowance. As the story goes, Claiborne's famed Bull Hancock gave him until post time to agree to terms, and the deal was concluded. Contemporary sources give conflicting accounts of the final price, some as high as $175,000, but noted authority Abram S. Hewitt reported the figure of $145,000. Hancock retained an interest in the colt's breeding rights.
Kerr transferred Round Table to California horseman Bill Molter, who had trained the 1954 Kentucky Derby hero, Determine. In his first two West Coast starts, the Santa Anita Derby and the San Bernardino H., his recruit caught slow and heavy tracks, respectively, and wound up third in the former and fifth in the latter.
Off tracks proved to be his nemesis, and his failure to produce his best on these occasions led some observers to doubt his greatness. In this respect, he vaguely resembled Lancelot of the Arthurian legends -- the best of the knights as a battler, but blemished by a failing that rendered him unable to enjoy a pure vision of the Holy Grail. Unlike Lancelot, however, Round Table's flaw was certainly not moral, as he was as genuine as they come, and it may be explained by his action. Hancock was quoted as saying that he ran "right off his hocks," propelling him mightily on fast or hard tracks, but impeding his fluency of motion on deep tracks or off going, most noticeably on the dirt.
Back on a fast track, he wired the field in the Bay Meadows Derby, and in a tour de force, pillar-to-post performance in Keeneland's Blue Grass S., powered home by six lengths in track-record time. His Blue Grass mark of 1:47 2/5 stood for nearly 40 years, until Skip Away shaved one tick off the clock in 1996.
Round Table next lined up in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, infamous for jockey Willie Shoemaker's misjudging the wire aboard *Gallant Man and costing his mount the victory. The Kerr colorbearer got up for third behind the lucky winner Iron Liege, defeating Bold Ruler in fourth. Rider Ralph Neves said that Round Table "bobbled every three or four steps (as) the track kept cupping out on him," but that he "made a strong move" once finding room in the stretch.
Skipping the Preakness and Belmont, Molter took his charge back home to California, where Shoemaker eventually became his regular rider. After a sharp second against older horses in the Californian, Round Table went on a tear, stringing together an 11-race win streak that was described as the longest since Citation. His first three stakes in the series came at the expense of his own age group, but the next was a smashing 3 1/4-length score in the Hollywood Gold Cup H. Not only did he become the first three-year-old to take that prize, but he equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record of 1:58 3/5, set by the immortal Swaps, and for a time stood as the fastest 10 furlongs ever recorded by a sophomore.
Esteemed turf writer Charles Hatton, although recognizing the colt's very good qualities, was not exactly bowled over. In the American Racing Manual, he issued a searing indictment of the California form. As he summed it up, "One is constrained to doubt whether Round Table ever met a serious test on the West Coast."
Later that summer, he shifted tack to Chicago and had his first feel for the turf. Round Table quickly approved of the surface switch, trouncing Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege (who was jarred by the very firm course) in the grassy American Derby and then, recovering from a stumble at the break, got the nod in the United Nations H. versus his elders. Those efforts were enough to earn him 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 1/4-mile mark of 2:00 1/5 under a hand ride.
As Round Table was carrying all before him in the West and Midwest, Gallant Man had established himself by a more traditional path in the East, taking the Belmont S., Travers S. and Jockey Club Gold Cup. There was talk of a match race between them, but none was arranged. Instead, their climactic face-off took place in the Trenton H. at Garden State, which also featured Bold Ruler, who after his Derby fourth had notably gone on to win the Preakness S., Jerome H. and Vosburgh H. Shoemaker, who also rode Gallant Man, chose to stick with that colt, citing his gratitude to Gallant Man's connections for not sacking him after his Derby goof. In another unfortunate turn of events for Round Table, the track was variously labeled good or slow, but definitely off. While the Kerr colt was spinning his wheels as a distant third of three, Bold Ruler sealed the Horse of the Year title with a sharp victory.
The Trenton seemed to vindicate Round Table's questioners. In the American Racing Manual, Hatton was merciless in his judgment, dismissing Round Table's enthusiasts as "emotional claquers" and pronouncing that the "result of this race was a true bill" regarding their relative merits, believing him "utterly squandered...with no valid excuses." Hewitt, however, takes issue with this verdict in his essential Sire Lines. In what was likely a pointed reference to Hatton, Hewitt explicitly says that "nobody took that result as a true bill, owing to the condition of the track."
Over the next two seasons, Round Table outstripped his Trenton conquerors, racking up ever more accomplishments to go along with an increasingly extravagant bankroll. By the end of his racing career, the criticism was more muted. Hatton eventually declared, "If he could not outrun Bold Ruler or outstay Gallant Man, as his detractors so often charge, we may at least say that he outlasted them. He emerged with the most honors and money in the endless test of 'the survival of the fittest.'"
Early in his four-year-old campaign of 1958, Round Table set or equaled five records in a row. He matched the 1 1/8-mile world record when capturing the San Antonio H in 1:46 4/5 while toting 130 pounds. Again shouldering 130 in the Santa Anita H., he pounded the classy Terrang into submission, giving him 11 pounds, in a new track record of 1:59 4/5. Hunting for glory in a new clime, the Kerr colt invaded Florida. In his 1 1/16-mile tune-up at Gulfstream, he established a new mark of 1:41 3/5, then followed up in the Gulfstream Park H. by tying Coaltown's 1 1/4-mile record of 1:59 4/5, treating his 130-pound impost like a feather. Round Table's next quest was to pass the $1 million milestone in earnings, which he did in his next outing in the Caliente H.. At the historic Tijuana oval, he celebrated his millionaire status in style, romping by 9 1/4 lengths and setting another track record of 1:41 1/5 for the 1 1/16-mile event. He became only the third horse to join the $1 million club, following Citation and Nashua.
Trainer Molter cast aside his understated reputation in praising his star: "He's the greatest horse I've ever seen. Round Table is game, he's tough, he can 'take it,' he's easy to manage, he's sound and a good 'doer.'"
Around this time, Bob Horwood wrote a piece in the Thoroughbred Record with the revealing title, "The Only Rival He Has Left Is the Clock, And Even That Can't Beat Him." He compared Round Table to the great Standardbred champions of the past who toured the country staging exhibitions against the clock. Describing the colt, who stood just 15.3 hands in his prime, as "a superb racing machine, beautifully balanced, solidly constructed, perfectly mannered, and amenable to his rider's every suggestion," Horwood went so far as to say that "no Thoroughbred now in training can possibly hope to beat him when he carries 130 pounds."
During the rest of the season, Round Table could not quite live up to that prediction, looking more mortal and less invincible, but he was still voted Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse and champion grass horse. He famously suffered three losses at the hands of Clem, one of them in the Woodward S. in the slop. In his first career defeat on the turf in the United Nations H., Round Table failed to give Clem 17 pounds, but he did compel Clem to set a new course record to hold him off by a half-length. Round Table ended his campaign by taking his second straight Hawthorne Gold Cup, breaking his own track record in 1:59 4/5. In the process, he surpassed Nashua as the world's leading money winner.
At five, he repeated as champion grass horse, and in one poll only, as champion handicap horse. Under 132 pounds, he destroyed the San Marcos H. field by five lengths in 1:58 2/5, an American record for 1 1/4 miles on the lawn. He also set new American marks for 1 1/8 miles on turf (1:47 1/5 at Washington Park) and 1 3/16 miles on turf (1:53 2/5 at Arlington Park), both while shouldering 132 pounds, and lumbered 136 pounds to victory in the United Nations H. His last victory came on the main track, in the 1 5/8-mile Manhattan H. at Aqueduct. Giving future champion Bald Eagle 10 pounds, Round Table handed him a one-length defeat in a new track record time of 2:42 3/5.
After finding the three-year-old Sword Dancer too much to handle when finishing a distant runner-up in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Round Table was retired. His career record stood at an amazing 43 victories, eight seconds and five thirds in 66 lifetime starts, and he ranked as the all-time earnings leader with a gaudy $1,749,869. He was enshrined in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1972.
As a stallion standing at Claiborne Farm, Round Table enjoyed tremendous success, rating the leading sire in 1972. His colossal influence, both in North America and abroad, has continued unabated since his death in 1987. Chiefly through his staying son Poker, the broodmare sire of Seattle Slew (who hails from the male line of his old rival Bold Ruler), Round Table remains a force in American classic pedigrees. Interestingly, Seattle Slew's grandson Pulpit (A.P. Indy) is inbred to Round Table and his full sister Monarchy, a duplication which may shed light on his capacity for siring excellent turf horses. Round Table is also buried deep within the pedigree of Point Given, who is emerging as a potential classic sire with his first crop of promising sophomores.
Not only a source of stamina, Round Table has also transmitted his fantastic speed. Through his English and Irish champion juvenile son Apalachee, he appears in the pedigree of champion sprinter Artax, and by way of another son, Illustrious, he figures in the ancestry of the supremely fast champion Dayjur.
Round Table's reach has been literally global. In Europe, he appears as the broodmare sire of French Derby (Fr-G1) hero and influential stallion Caerleon. In addition, Round Table's multiple Group 1-winning son Artaius is the sire of the top mare Flame of Tara (Ire), dam of three-time classic heroine Salsabil (Ire) (Sadler's Wells) and successful sire Marju. In South Africa, Round Table is the paternal grandsire of Wolf Power (SAf), one of that country's greatest champions and in the limelight now as the broodmare sire of Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful Steppenwolfer (Aptitude). In Australia and New Zealand, Round Table figures as the broodmare sire of the renowned stallion *Sir Tristram, himself the sire of the phenomenally successful sire Zabeel.
In the twilight of his life in 1984, Round Table came full circle, so to speak, when Queen Elizabeth II reportedly adjusted her schedule to pay her respects to the grand old knight. Her father, George VI, had bred his dam. Would it be presumptuous to imagine that Her Majesty may have pondered a "What if," perhaps regretting that Knight's Daughter left the royal paddocks? Would the Queen have fulfilled her dream of breeding and racing an Epsom Derby winner had the mare been kept? It's one of those unanswerable questions, but this much is clear: Had Knight's Daughter stayed in England, there would have been no visit to Princequillo's court, and no Round Table. The Thoroughbred world would have missed one of its most dynamic swashbucklers.
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