When John Nerud was training horses, he used to say: "A bad day at the race track is better than a good day anywheres else."
There couldn't have been a worse day for Nerud and Texans Bill Shoemaker and Ralph Lowe than May 4, 1957, when Shoemaker thought the sixteenth pole was the finish line at Churchill Downs.
At 25, Shoemaker was already one of America's pre-eminent jockeys, but in this Kentucky Derby he got Lowe's Gallant Man beaten by standing up in the irons for an instant, thinking the race was over. By the time Shoemaker recovered and resumed riding, Iron Liege regained the lead and defeated Gallant Man by a nose.
Shoemaker already had won a Derby, with Swaps in 1955, and he would go on to win 11 Triple Crown races--four Kentucky Derbys, two Preaknesses and five Belmont Stakes. But it's the old story about human nature: He'll be remembered as much for the gaffe on Gallant Man as he will be for that patient, seeing-eye ride on Ferdinand when he won his last Derby, at 54, in 1986.
Some athletes don't live well with monumental failure. The best way to end a conversation with Gene Mauch is to ask the former manager about how his Philadelphia Phillies blew the 1964 National League pennant. Johnny Pesky, the old Boston Red Sox shortstop, draws the line at reminiscing when the 1946 World Series is broached. On an outfield relay in the eighth inning of the final game, Pesky hesitated for a second--about as long as Shoemaker paused with Gallant Man--and Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals slid home under his throw for the winning run.
Through the years, however, Shoemaker has been upfront about the Gallant Man incident, discussing it with equanimity. In the immediate aftermath of the race, it was his lack of candor, Nerud believes, that resulted in a 15-day suspension by the Churchill Downs stewards. The late Lincoln Plaut, one of the stewards, once said that Shoemaker first told them that Gallant Man had stumbled. Pressed by the stewards, Shoemaker finally said that the mistake was his alone.
With the finish so close, there was little doubt that Gallant Man was the best horse. On the turn for home, when Shoemaker hit Gallant Man with his whip, and the colt accelerated. Nerud turned to Lowe in their box seats and said: "Go down and get the roses--you can take 'em back to Texas with you."
Nerud and Plaut noticed Shoemaker's hesitation, but few in the press box did. Plaut, a former turf reporter, quickly called Don Fair of the Daily Racing Form, so the official chart of the race would reflect what happened.
"The finish line at Churchill is about a sixteenth of a mile closer to the first turn than it is most other places," Shoemaker said. "I hadn't ridden there since the Derby the year before, and I didn't have any other mounts on Derby day, which I realized afterwards was a mistake. It was a big boo-boo, in front of a big crowd and on national television."
Lowe was more angry with the stewards than he was with Shoemaker. In fact, he bought Shoemaker a new Chrysler, hoping it would make him feel better.
Lowe tried to keep Nerud from going down to see Shoemaker after the race, but the trainer went, anyway. "It didn't cost us our lives, and there's no turning the clock back," Nerud told Shoemaker. "I'm not happy about losing, but I'm not going to get sore at you."
The night before the Derby, while Lowe, Shoemaker and Nerud played gin rummy and ordered room service in Louisville's old Brown Hotel, Lowe told them about a dream he had earlier in the week. It was a nightmare, really, with Lowe visualizing Gallant Man on his way to victory and the colt's previous jockey, John Choquette, standing up in the irons. Lowe hadn't wanted Choquette to ride his horse in the Derby, even though he had won three races with him. Nerud remained loyal to Gallant Man's regular rider, until Choquette was suspended by New York stewards the week before the Derby. That's when Shoemaker got the call to ride Gallant Man for the first time.
When Shoemaker heard about the dream, he said: "Mr. Lowe, please don't worry about that. I'm a professional rider. That won't happen to me."
In the paddock a few minutes before the Derby, Lowe told Tom Young, Churchill Downs' track superintendent, about the dream.
At least twice in California, Shoemaker had misjudged the finish line in important races. One occasion was 1956, when Porterhouse beat Swaps in the Californian at Hollywood Park.
Gallant Man didn't go to the Preakness, which was run two weeks later with Bold Ruler winning by two lengths over Iron Liege. That year, 1957, may have produced the best crop of 3-year-olds that ever ran, because besides Bold Ruler--voted horse of the year in one poll--and Gallant Man and Iron Liege, there was also Gen. Duke and Federal Hill.