Gen. Duke wins Florida Derby, 1957

Mar 27th 2009 03:00 am |

The three-year-old class of 1957 is the gold standard by which all classes before and after should be compared.

Whitney Tower wrote prior to the ’57 Derby: “To talk so soon of greatness in connection with the current crop of 3-year-olds Thoroughbreds would normally be singularly audacious…One sensational race should never qualify its winner as great. There has not been one sensational race in 1957. There have been at least a half dozen.”

Image: Gen. Duke in the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle after matching the world record for a mile and an eighth in the 1957 Florida Derby (Turf and Sport Digest)

Prior to the Derby, the elites of the ’57 class matched or broke track records at Hialeah, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, Jamaica, and Keeneland.

Bold Ruler, Round Table, Federal Hill, and Gallant Man all ran superlative races leading up to Derby day but the greatest of these performances was turned in by Calumet Farms’ Gen. Duke, a colt sired by Bull Lea and trained by Ben Jones, conditioner to the Calumet A-List.

Gen. Duke’s run in beating the Wheatley Stable’s Bold Ruler in the Florida Derby transcended all others.

In a preview of the Florida Derby on May 30th 1957, Shirley Povich wrote:

“Bold Ruler and Gen. Duke, the top three year olds of Florida racing, renew their tight dueling Saturday at Gulfstream Park this time with strong Kentucky Derby implications…

“…Out of the race is certain to emerge next month’s Kentucky Derby favorite…

“…The main bout is between Bold Ruler and Gen. Duke, the pair that raced to a neck decision at even weights four weeks ago in the Flamingo Stakes won by Bold Ruler. It was the son of Nasrullah reversing a decision he lost to Gen. Duke previously in the Everglades Stakes when he gave away 12 pounds.”

The much anticipated match-up did not disappoint. Gen. Duke not only beat his rival but he did so in world record time. Again, Shirley Povich reporting for the Washington Post:

“Gen. Duke and Willie Hartack, with Bold Ruler and Eddie Arcaro to catch, answered their backers at Gulfstream Park today with a stretch stampede that took them to victory in the $123,600 Florida Derby.

“They caught the 3 to 5 favorite between the final eighth and sixteenth poles and poured in the fastest mile and an eighth in 3-year-old history to win by a decisive length and a half. The race was carried in Washington D.C. on WTOP-TV…

“…It was Bold Ruler yielding to Gen. Duke in an immense horse race that saw four steeds swinging into the homestretch virtually abreast with only the longshot, Shan Pac, out of it, and Federal Hill threatening to hold his early lead before fading to fifth.

“Then came the battle of bloodlines with the son of Bull Lea licking the son of Nasrullah with the same kind of medicine Bold Ruler had applied in beating Gen. Duke in the Flamingo Stakes four weeks before. In that one, Bold Ruler turned in the fastest mile and an eighth ever raced by a three year old. Today, Gen. Duke bettered it.

“The clocking in 1:46 4/5 not only shaved Bold Ruler’s record for 3-year-olds by a fifth-second, but tied the world record for the distance, a mark shared by no less than the illustrious Swaps.

“The crowd of 25,000 sent Bold Ruler off at 3 to 5 and the Gen. Duke-Iron Leige entry at 9 to 5…

“…Gen. Duke’s triumph, his second in four brushes with Bold Ruler, altered completely the Kentucky Derby picture which was running strongly in favor of the Ruler until today’s result. Now the Calumet ace is a certain favorite to win the roses at Chuchill Downs in May at an eighth of a mile farther.”

Gen. Duke finished second in an allowance to Iron Liege a few weeks later and took another second in the Derby Trial to the speedy Federal Hill. He was coupled with stablemate Iron Liege and posted as the 5-2 morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Reporters for Sports Illustrated unanimously picked him as the winner. Some of their comments about Gen. Duke:

Joe Hirsch: “Could be a great colt.”

Joe Tanenbaum (Miami Daily News): “A cinch for the Triple Crown.”

Earl Ruby (Louisville Courier-Journal): “And maybe a new record.”

Bob Hebert (Los Angeles Mirror-News): “Best Calumet 3YO Since Citation

But Gen. Duke never had the chance to live up to those high expectations. During his final prep race, he suffered what was thought to be a foot bruise. Ben Jones tested his colt in a workout on the morning of the Derby and decided to scratch him 15 minutes prior to the open of the betting windows.

While Jones thought he was still good enough to beat many in the field, he decided to scratch, stating that “…he would not have run a championship race. It would not have been fair to the public to run him.” The colt with so much promise was – in the beautifully somber words of racing writer Walter Haight – “out of the Kentucky Derby for all time.”

Even without Gen. Duke, Calumet still won the ’57 Derby with Iron Liege after Bill Shoemaker infamously misjudged the finish line on Gallant Man.

Ben Jones shipped his Derby winner and Gen. Duke to Pimlico with the hopes of running them both in the Preakness. But Gen. Duke would never race again.

High hopes for his return became less optimistic throughout the Triple Crown series. The injury that kept him from the Derby turned out to be a broken bone in his foot. He never fully recovered to race.

A little over a year after being scratched from the Derby, in a one last tragic twist of fate, Gen. Duke contracted “wobbles” a neurological disorder that effects a horses ability to maintain its balance. At the time, the disease was considered fatal. On July 28, 1958, the New York Times reported that Gen. Duke was destroyed at Calumet Farm.

Over 50 years later, Gen. Duke’s 1:46 4/5 still stands as the Florida Derby stakes record.


Shirley Povich, “Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke Renew Rivalry in Florida Derby Today,” Washington Post, March 30, 1957
Shirley Povich, “Hartack’s Mount Sets Record for 3-Year-Olds,” Washington Post, March 31, 1957
Walter Haight, “Horses and People,” Washington Post, May 5, 1957
Six Turf Writers AgreeSports Illustrated, May 6, 1957
Whitney Tower, “A Year of Greatness,” Sports Illustrated, May 6, 1957
Walter Haight, “Horse and People,” Washington Post, May 6, 1957

More to come on the 1957 Triple Crown season…

Into crunch time this weekend for the Derby preps — looking forward to a long day of racing on Saturday starting in Dubai and ending in Florida. I will be backing Theregoesjojo in the Florida Derby. His move on the turn in the Fountain of Youth was very impressive. As good as Dunkirk and Quality Road might be, I’ll take jojo at what I am hoping is a square price.

Reporting from College Park, Maryland this week. On a mini-road trip for my real job. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be making a pit stop at Laurel Park tomorrow afternoon. The last time I saw live racing was Jockey Club Gold Cup Day…too long.


Filed in Bold Ruler,Calumet Farms,Florida Derby, 1957,Gen. Duke,Iron Leige,Kentucky Derby, 1957

5 Responses to “Gen. Duke wins Florida Derby, 1957”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is his name Gen. George or Gen. Duke? It switches in the story.

  2. Colins Ghost says:

    Oops! Thanks for the correction. I was in DC when I was writing this – had Gen. George on the mind I guess

  3. Colins Ghost says:

    My copy editor is now looking for a new job!

  4. Anonymous says:

    For fifty years it was always reported that Gen. Duke, “the Derby favorite” was scratched the morning of the race. Then, this year, Churchill Downs produced a 1957 Derby morning line that said Bold Ruler was 8-5 and the Gen. Duke-Iron Liege entry was 5-2. Now, you say the entry was the 5-2 morning-line favorite and Gen. Duke was scratched 15 minutes before betting windows opened.
    Feels like a revisionist history effort from Churchill.

  5. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks for the comment – the confusion may come from the fact that they created two morning lines one with Gen. Duke and one without. When Gen Duke scratch, they went with the morning line that had Bold Ruler as 8-5. I should have made this more clear in the post