Star power was in abundance on Kentucky Derby Day 1957 with the feature involving future Hall of Fame inductees Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, and Round Table, all of whom were famously upset by Iron Liege.
Long forgotten was the presence of a future star that day at Churchill Downs, a two-year-old making his second start in the span of six days. A modestly-bred colt literally from the other (wrong) side of the river, he would finish 10th as a 73-1 longshot in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race. He was subsequently dropped into a $7,500 maiden claimer 12 days later, which he won.
Thus began the tale of Hillsdale, Indiana’s most accomplished Thoroughbred son and a horse to remember as the Hoosier State celebrates its biggest racing day of the season Saturday with the $500,000 Indiana Derby (G3) at Indiana Grand.
Foaled at Murlogg Farm, near Evansville, Hillsdale was sired by Take Away, a winner 32 times in 132 starts but whose only stakes-placing occurred in the 1942 Bashford Manor at Churchill. There was more to like about the pedigree of his one-for-16 dam Johann, a daughter of dual classic winner Johnstown who was a half-sister to 1945 champion three-year-old colt Fighting Step.
Initially raced by Helen Kellogg, Hillsdale was trained by Odie Clelland, who would take the colt to race in New England at the conclusion of the Churchill meet. He completed his two-year-old season there with six wins from 14 starts, including a victory in the Granite State Stakes at Rockingham Park.
Far from an intriguing classic prospect on paper given his form on a relatively minor circuit, Clelland nonetheless liked the colt and had aspirations for him. However, a dislike of mud derailed hopes of Hillsdale participating in the classics.
“I tried to get him ready for the Louisiana Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Blue Grass and the Kentucky Derby but I was plagued by mud all the way,” Clelland told Daily Racing Form‘s Charles Hatton. “Otherwise, you would have heard of Hillsdale as a top horse much sooner.”
Evidence of Hillsdale’s quality emerged in April 1958. In a seven-furlong allowance prep for the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Despite his preparation being shortened due to the wet spring, Hillsdale finished a half-length behind Tim Tam, the eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and a neck adrift of Nadir, who was named co-champion juvenile the previous year.
“That was when I realized he was something rather special,” Clelland said.
By then Hillsdale had been privately purchased for $25,000 by Clarence “Smitty” Smith, the head of an engineering firm in Detroit who had dabbled in horse ownership for a decade with little luck.
“Don’t ever own a cheap horse, because it’s the most expensive thing you’ll ever own,” Smith remarked to Sports Illustrated‘s Whitney Tower.
Hillsdale was subsequently shipped to California and put in the care of former jockey Marty Fallon, a protégé of Clelland’s who had been the colt’s first exercise rider at Murlogg Farm. While not the leading three-year-old at Hollywood Park that summer, Hillsdale did capture the Will Rogers Stakes and El Dorado Handicap, and also placed in the Westerner Stakes (now Hollywood Derby).
Sixth in the American Derby and second on the turf in the Atlantic City Handicap in his next two outings, Hillsdale soon embarked on a remarkable string of performances spanning the better part of a year. In his next 15 stakes appearances, the Indiana-bred would win 12 and finish second in the other three.
Hillsdale concluded his three-year-old campaign winning the Michigan Derby at Hazel Park before Smith’s hometown crowd, the Boardwalk Handicap at Atlantic City, and the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita. The win streak extended into 1959, with Hillsdale fending off the legendary Round Table by a head in the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap while in receipt of 17 pounds.
Victories in the San Fernando and Santa Anita Maturity (later named the Charles H. Strub) followed, thus the over-achieving Hillsdale became the second horse ever to win the now-defunct Strub Series. The first had been Round Table himself.
After narrow losses to the filly Bug Brush in the San Antonio Handicap and to Terrang in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hillsdale proved invincible at the Hollywood Park meet, taking the Los Angeles Handicap, Californian, Argonaut Handicap, American Handicap, and Hollywood Gold Cup. The win streak reached seven races after an overnight handicap win at Belmont followed by a game decision over future champion Bald Eagle in the Aqueduct Handicap on opening day of the newly rebuilt plant in Queens.
With only four horses starting from an original field of eight, the $109,800 Woodward Stakes at Aqueduct over 1 1/4 miles, the showdown for Horse of the Year honors, evolved into a rider’s race. Joining Hillsdale were odds-on favorite and reigning titlist Round Table, and the nation’s leading three-year-old Sword Dancer.
Hillsdale inherited a lead no one else wanted, setting a pace of :24 2/5, :49 1/5, 1:14 1/5, and 1:40 with Round Table applying steady pressure. Sword Dancer, under Eddie Arcaro, bided his time in third while saving ground.
Leading by a head over Round Table at the quarter pole, Hillsdale was swung wide entering the stretch by long-time pilot Tommy Barrow, a move the jockey would soon regret. Thinking the tactics would force Arcaro to make a wide bid aboard Sword Dancer, little did Barrow know that longshot Inside Tract had already blocked Sword Dancer’s path to the outside. Arcaro had no other choice but to send Sword Dancer up the path Hillsdale had vacated, and in the subsequent stretch-long duel Sword Dancer proved best by a head. Round Table retreated to third in the final furlong.
“I didn’t know Arcaro was coming through inside of me until I saw Sword Dancer’s head and then it was too late,” Barrow said. “Then he had a little too much horse for me to catch him.”
To add insult to injury, Hillsdale’s defeat of Round Table at equal weights in the Woodward was not enough to depose that rival as champion older male in the year-end Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. (Daily Racing Form awarded its “Best Handicap Horse” title, which was open to three-year-olds, to Sword Dancer).
Hillsdale never ran again, retiring with a record of 41-23-6-4, $646,936. He stood at the famed Claiborne Farm until the mid-1960s but was a disappointment as a stallion, siring just eight stakes winners.
His most noted offspring were fillies. Bravery II was one of Ireland’s top two-year-olds in 1965 for legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien when she won the Anglesey Stakes. She later placed in the Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket and Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Stateside, Hillsdale’s best daughter was Hi Q., who captured the 1971 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, a strip dominated one summer long ago by an American kid that grew up in the heartland.