Washington Racing Hall of Fame - Sir William

Santa Anita Derby hero

by Jon White

Sir William's Pedigree and Statistics

March 2, 1957, is without question one of the most important dates in the history of Washington racing and breeding. For on that particular date, Washington-bred Sir William – a colt missing his upper front teeth – won the Santa Anita Derby.
    Not only did Sir William became the first Washington-bred to win a $100,000 race, the vanquished included Round Table, who would go on to become America’s horse of the year in 1958.
    Half a century has passed since the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, but Pete Pedersen remembers it well. During the time he was working his way up the ladder as a racing official, Pedersen was a patrol judge that day.
    “I was positioned at the five-sixteenths pole,” recalled Pedersen, who spends time these days working as a freelance turf writer after his long and distinguished career as a steward came to an end in 2005. At the five-sixteenths pole, midway on the far turn, the young Pedersen had an ideal view of the 13 Santa Anita Derby contestants as they made their way around the far turn on a wet track officially rated “slow.”
    When the field reached Pedersen’s position, Buford, regarded as one of the top three-year-old sprinters in California, was the leader. To no one’s surprise, Buford and Milo Valenzuela had dashed immediately to the front in the 1 1/8 mile contest, with Royal Academy stalking the pacesetter through the early stages.
    As Buford approached the top of the stretch, he began to tire. Pedersen saw three horses – Round Table, Swirling Abbey and Sir William – gaining rapidly on the tenuous leader. Buford ran out of gas in the final quarter-mile, ultimately finishing sixth.
    With a furlong to go, it was anybody’s race between Round Table, Swirling Abbey and Sir William. They were on virtual even terms for the lead. Sir William was racing along the inside rail, where the going was the poorest. Swirling Abbey was between horses, with Round Table on the outside.
    The trio staged a furious head-and-head battle all the way to the finish. The photo showed that Sir William and jockey Henry Moreno had won by a head. Swirling Abbey nosed out Round Table for second.
    “I’ll never forget that day,” said Pedersen, who in 2002 received the Eclipse Award of Merit. “Seeing Sir William win the Santa Anita Derby and beat Round Table is one of my fondest memories in racing. It was a very big deal for a Washington-bred to do that.”
    The 1957 Santa Anita meeting was adjourned on March 11. Sir William next started on March 22 in a six furlong allowance sprint at Bay Meadows, a prep for the April 6 Bay Meadows Derby, which was supposed to be the colt’s final race before the Kentucky Derby. The race was named the “Confucious of Oakland Purse.”
    Pedersen also was at Bay Meadows for that March 22 allowance race. This time he was working as a placing judge, one of the three racing officials in charge of determining the outcome of a race.
    “Sir William broke down in that race at Bay Meadows,” Pedersen said. “That was a very, very sad day. Normally, I wouldn’t get so emotional. But anybody with ties to the Northwest couldn’t help being disappointed when Sir William broke down. He had been a very legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.”
    It was later discovered that Sir William had broken the sesamoid bone in his left foreleg in five places, an injury that ended his racing career.
    “The ill-fated day shattered the dreams of his owner-breeder, Herb Armstrong, and his trainer, Cecil Jolly,” wrote editor Clio Hogan in The Washington Horse. “Never before in the history of Washington breeding had there been such hope of invading Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. What a triumph it might have been for his owner and trainer to meet and possibly defeat the mighty titans of the turf in the fabulous Kentucky Derby. It is a dream shared by many but experienced by few. The dream will have to wait.”

From Eastern Washington to Southern California
    A son of Rover—Jodot, by Peace Chance, Sir William, was foaled in Eastern Washington at Armstrong’s Valley Farm in Harrington, some 50 miles west of Spokane. At the time, the 2,560-acre farm produced wheat, cattle and Thoroughbreds.
    Armstrong first became involved in Thoroughbred breeding in 1939, when he traded a saddle horse for his first broodmare, Kaposia. A short time later, Armstrong acquired his second broodmare, Blackmore.
    Kaposia produced one winner from five foals. Blackmore had three winners from four foals, including Mr. Valley, who won 30 races from 174 starts.
    As his Thoroughbred operation grew, Armstrong became known for having “valley” as part of the name for virtually all of his Thoroughbreds. As Susan van Dyke noted in a 2004 article on Armstrong, every foal bred at Valley Farm from 1940 through the 1948 crop had “valley” as part of his or her name (30 in all). The Jockey Club then put a halt to the practice.
    Rover became one of the stallions to stand at Valley Farm after winning the final start of his career at Hollywood Park on June 21, 1947, with John Longden in the saddle. Rover won races at two, three, four and six. Ed Heinemann, the Washington Horse Breeders Association’s field secretary at the time, played a significant role in bringing Rover to Washington from Southern California for Armstrong.
    “Herb Armstrong asked me to go to California to buy Rover,” Heinemann said in a recent interview. “Herb was interested in him as a stallion because he was by *Bull Dog. I found Rover in a pasture in the San Fernando Valley. He was skinny as a rail. And the pasture he was in had grass as tall as he was. Well, I had Rover checked out. After he checked out okay, I had him sent to Herb’s farm in Washington.”
    Rover had sired stakes winners Roving Bar and Johnie Mike prior to Sir William. Johnie Mike won stakes races at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park for Armstrong. Rover had developed a reputation as a sire of mostly sprinters until Sir William came along. Unfortunately, Rover died in 1955, two years before Sir William’s Santa Anita Derby victory, which was Rover’s greatest achievement at stud.
    According to Heinemann, Sir William “was named after Herb’s son.” The colt liked to sleep more than most horses. “All he wants to do is sleep,” Armstrong said after the Santa Anita Derby. “In fact, you have to wake him up at feeding time.”
    Sir William lost his upper front teeth as a youngster on the farm. The day after he won the Santa Anita Derby, a headline in the Sunday Seattle Times sports section stated: “Barren Gums Do Not Slow Washington-bred.”
    The accompanying story explains how the colt had lost his teeth: “As a callow colt, his owner reports, Sir William was either somewhat near-sighted or highly forgetful of his mother. So, on two separate occasions, he went looking for lunch at the wrong diner. His cold muzzle exploring their undersides did nothing for the disposition of the mares he tried to adopt for nutritional purposes. They didn’t think he was cute, and they illustrated their displeasure in no uncertain terms by booting Sir William soundly in the chops, loosening his choppers. Legend has it that this callous treatment eventually taught Sir William to identify his dam, but it did not, of course, restore his teeth.”
    Sir William made 10 starts as a two-year-old. He began his racing career on June 5, 1956, in a five furlong maiden race at Hollywood Park. Trained by Cecil Jolly (who once had lived in the Longacres clubhouse due to a lack of funds when times were tough), the colt finished ninth. After two more losses at Hollywood Park and another loss at Del Mar (with jockey Roy Lumm up), Sir William graduated from the maiden ranks in the first race at Golden Gate Fields on September 14. Sent off at seven-to-one, the Armstrong colorbearer was fourth early and came on to win the six furlong contest in 1:10 4/5.
    There would be only one more trip to the winner’s circle by Sir William at two. He was victorious in a six furlong allowance race at Golden Gate on September 20. Next to last early in the field of nine, Sir William, who again was seven-to-one in the wagering, rallied to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths. Finishing last was Ro-Fran, who would go on to have much success in Washington. Ro-Fran subsequently won four stakes races at Longacres and the Governor’s Speed Handicap at Playfair. In the 1957 Longacres Mile, three-year-old Ro-Fran faced top older horses. Relegated to the mutuel field (36-to-one), Ro-Fran finished second in the Mile to Miracle Escort.
    Many considered Sir William’s best performance as a juvenile to be when he finished second to Swirling Abbey in the Golden Gate Futurity. Swirling Abbey raced for Thomas Ross (a lumberman from Oregon) and Phillip Klipstein (a cattleman from Bakersfield, California) and was trained by Reggie Cornell. Ross, Klipstein and Cornell campaigned Silky Sullivan, whose come-from-behind victories made him one of the most popular horses to ever race in California. After Sir William took the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, Silky Sullivan won the 1958 renewal when rallying from 28 1/2 lengths off the pace.
    As for Sir William’s first stakes victory, it came in the 1957 Los Feliz Stakes at Santa Anita on January 5. Dismissed at 10-to-one, he was eighth early in the field of 10. Sir William closed fast in the stretch to win by a head. It marked back-to-back years that the Los Felix had been taken by an Armstrong-owned son of Rover, with Johnie Mike having taken the 1956 edition. *Seaneen finished fifth behind Sir William in the Los Feliz. The following year,
    *Seaneen would win the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, ending a 10-race winning streak in California by Round Table, who was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 1972. John Henry is the only other Hall of Fame member or Eclipse Award winner to ever win 10 straight in California.
    Jockey Bill Harmatz had ridden Sir William in both of his wins as a two-year-old. Harmatz also guided the colt to his Los Feliz victory.
    “Sir William was really a nice horse,” Harmatz said in a recent interview. “One thing I remember about him is he would wait on horses once he got in front. Once he got in front, he thought his job was over. Other than that, he did everything right. He was a pleasure to ride.”
    (Harmatz, who currently operates a bowling center near San Diego while also working in the real estate business, made headlines with another Washington-bred in 1966 when he won the Californian on Travel Orb, with the vanquished including the great Native Diver.)
    Sir William and Harmatz finished fourth in Santa Anita’s six-furlong San Miguel Stakes on January 16 at Santa Anita and fifth in Santa Anita’s seven-furlong San Vicente Handicap on January 23. Buford won both races. Sir William had a troubled trip in the San Vicente. When he made his next start in a 1 1/16 mile allowance race at Santa Anita on February 8, he had a new rider. With Bill Shoemaker in the irons, Sir William finished fourth.
    Armstrong’s colt made his next start as one of 15 contestants in Santa Anita’s San Felipe Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on February 16. Virtually ignored in the betting at 27-to-one, Sir William closed strongly to finish second, three-quarters of a length behind Joe Price.
    Then it was on to the Santa Anita Derby, a race that had grown substantially in national stature, with three of its past five winners (Hill Gail, Determine and Swaps) going on to take the Kentucky Derby.
    Fourteen had been entered in the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, but Prince Khaled was scratched minutes before the day’s first race.
    “Prince Khaled’s owner, Gen. W.W. Kratz, said that the colt had been injured while engaging in his final workout for the Derby on Thursday morning,” Robert Hebert wrote in The Blood-Horse. “Just as Prince Khaled was breaking off for a half-mile drill, his stable pony stepped on his left fore ankle, inflicting a wound that caused some bleeding. Kratz and trainer Tommy Taylor thought that Prince Khaled would be all right in time for the Derby, so they entered him. At noon on Derby day, the ankle still caused some distress and so, ‘in the interest of the horse’s future,’ Prince Khaled was scratched.”
    Favored in the Santa Anita Derby was the four-horse entry consisting of Round Table, Irisher, Gaelic Gold and Joe Price. It was Round Table’s California debut. The great John Longden, who was seeking his fifth Santa Anita Derby victory, rode Round Table.
    Earlier in the year, A.B. (Bull) Hancock, Jr. of Claiborne Farm had sold a majority interest in the colt to Oklahoma oilman Travis Kerr. The sale to Kerr had literally saved Claiborne Farm.
    In the book Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Horses of the 20th Century, Round Table was ranked No. 19. Kimberly Herbert wrote: “The sale of a majority interest in the Claiborne Farm colt to Travis M. Kerr early in his three-year-old season ‘more or less held the farm together, paid the estate taxes, and so on,’ said A.B. (Bull) Hancock after the death of his father, A.B. Hancock, Sr.
    “The majority interest in Round Table was sold in a verbal agreement to Kerr for $145,000 on Feb-ruary 9, 1957, with Hancock retaining 20 percent interest in the horse’s future breeding qualities (probably worth about $500,000). It was in Kerr’s colors that the champion raced from that date forward. The smallish son of *Princequillo—*Knight’s Daughter, by Sir Cosmo, had won the Breeders’ Fu-turity, Lafayette Stakes and three other races as a two-year-old for Claiborne.”
    On the day of the sale, Round Table finished sixth in a 1 1/16 mile allowance race at Hialeah Park. The winner was Iron Liege, who would go on to win the 1957 Kentucky Derby by a nose over *Gallant Man for Calumet Farm. That’s the Kentucky Derby in which Shoemaker, riding *Gallant Man, misjudged the finish.
    In his next start, Round Table won a seven furlong allowance race by six lengths at Hialeah. He then was sent to California for the Santa Anita Derby.
    Multiple Eclipse Award-winning writer Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form, recently wrote a column about Sir William’s 1957 Santa Anita Derby victory.
    “His trainer, Cecil Jolly, wanted jockey Eric Guerin for the Santa Anita Derby but ended up with Hank Moreno, who was best known for his upset of Native Dancer aboard Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby of 1953.” {Moreno died this past February at age 77.)
    For his column, Hovdey spoke to Bill Petersen, who was Sir William’s groom.
    “Sir William was a big, strong colt, but not that sound,” Petersen recalled. “The track for the Santa Anita Derby that year came up muddy and real sticky, like we don’t see anymore. But he could handle that stuff. And I’m not sure Round Table was at his very best, since it was his first start in California after he was sold. But because he was considered an underdog, Sir William was pretty popular with the crowd.”
    Petersen also noted to Hovdey that Joe Baze, Russell Baze’s father, was galloping Sir William at that time.
    In his recap of the Santa Anita Derby in The Blood-Horse, Herbert wrote: “In the paddock, Petersen told Moreno, who has been having some tough luck this season, ‘This colt is going to put you back on the map.’ Petersen was dead right.”
    When Sir William ran in the Santa Anita Derby, Petersen was engaged to Jolly’s daughter Sandra. Petersen would later embark on his own successful career as a trainer. Among those he conditioned were Natashka (great-great-granddam of Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones) and Spearfish (great-great-granddam of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro).
    Hebert wrote that for the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, it “was a holding, tiring track, drying out from a drenching two days before.” “Gummy” was another term used by Herbert to describe the going.
    Jolly had instructed Moreno to “have a lot of horse under you at the quarter pole.” Consequently, Moreno was in no hurry early.
    “While Buford and Royal Academy went out winging, Hank and Sir William were back in 10th position, the colt going along on his own courage for better than six furlongs,” Leon Rasmussen wrote in The Washington Horse. “Moreno then spoke to him through voice and whip and the son of Rover surged into the fray with impressive willingness.”
    Sir William, Swirling Abbey and Round Table put on quite a show in the stretch. Armstrong’s colt with his upper front teeth missing gave his all and eked out a narrow win, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:54 1/5.
    Third-place finisher Round Table would go on to earn numerous national titles. He was champion grass horse of 1957, 1958 and 1959. In 1958, Round Table was acclaimed champion older horse and horse of the year. At stud, he was America’s leading sire of 1972. Table Run, a son of Round Table, is considered by some to be the best horse to ever compete at Longacres. Table Run became one of the most successful sires to ever stand in Washington.
    For winning the $143,000 Santa Anita Derby, Sir William increased his career earnings to $131,335. That put him at the top of the Washington-bred money list, surpassing Hank H. and his total of $130,700. (Hank H. won the 1947 Washington Championship at Longacres under a staggering 138 pounds, which remains the most weight ever carried to victory in Washington.)
    A crowd of 54,379 was on hand to see Sir William’s Santa Anita Derby triumph. The colt’s owner and breeder had stayed home, just as he had done for all of Sir William’s previous races. Rasmussen wrote that Armstrong “likes to breed and raise the horses and let Jolly take it from there.”
    “I’d crawl a hundred miles over broken bottles to see the colt run,” said Jolly. “But that’s Herb and more power to him. He gets just as thrilled as though he was here. I had to re-run the [Santa Anita Derby] for him over the phone at least five times.”
    Armstrong had planned to make the trip to California to watch Sir William run in the April 6 Bay Meadows Derby. But he never got the chance after the colt broke down.
    When Sir William suffered his career-ending injury, “that’s when I found out what kind of a man Herb Armstrong is,” Jolly later recalled. “When I called him that night and gave him the bad news, there was a pause on the other end of the line. And then he told me to do everything I could to save Sir William. There was no bitterness that he had lost a future money maker, only concern for the horse. As if to make me feel better, he said they had some good-looking colts at the farm and he wouldn’t be surprised if there was another Sir William among them. That’s the kind of man he is.”
    Jolly and Petersen deserved credit for their work in saving Sir William for stud duty after his sesamoid injury.
    “The veterinarians advised Jolly to destroy Sir William, but instead he worked with the horse for several weeks, day and night, and pulled him through,” Armstrong said at the 1960 WHBA awards dinner.
    Hovdey wrote that Petersen slept on a cot outside the colt’s stall for weeks until Sir William was pronounced well enough to travel to a farm for retirement to stud.
    “There were vets who said we should have put him down,” Petersen told Hovdey. “But he was like Barbaro. He had a great heart and a great attitude, and he really wanted to make it.”
    Sir William retired to Ed Goemans’ Curragh Stock Farm in California. He made little impact at stud. From 15 crops, he sired 85 foals, 60 starters and 42 winners of $639,969, with average earnings per runner of only $10,666. He sired just three stakes winners (Bill’s Talent, winner of a division of the 1962 Alameda County Futurity at Pleasanton; Echo’s Doll, winner of the 1964 North Montana State Fair Handicap in Montana; and Vigilante Spirit, winner of the 1972 Sunland Park Handicap in New Mexico).
    In recognition of what he accomplished on the track, Sir William was elected to the Washington Racing Hall of Fame in 2006. He was following in the footsteps of his breeder, Herb Armstrong, who previously had been inducted in 2004.
    While Sir William loved to sleep, he also had the talent and heart to become the first Washington-bred to ever win a hundred-grander. Indeed, as a sleeper in the 1957 Santa Anita Derby, he got the job done in a seminal moment for Washington breeding and racing.

Pedigree Notes

    Rover, sire of Sir William, was a son of *Bull Dog that Herb Armstrong brought to stand at his Valley Farm in late 1948. Bred and raced by Coldstream Stud, Rover won six of his 34 races over a four-year campaign and earned $13,935. While he was better than the average runner from the crop of 1941 – with an SSI of 1.70 – noted pedigree pundit Leon Rasmussen wrote: “He won features – not fixtures – up to a mile and a sixteenth, but was at his best when sprinting; seven furlongs preferred.”
    French-bred *Bull Dog, a son of noted runner and sire *Teddy, was a stakes winner in his native land before entering stud in 1931. *Bull Dog was one of a host of stakes winners and prominent sires and producers out of stakes-winning Plucky Liege, a daughter of English Derby winner Spearmint. Though *Bull Dog sired the likes of Bull Lea, Our Boots, Occupation and Miss Dogwood and led the general sire list in 1943, his full brother *Sir Gallahad III would surpass him by ranking as the nation’s leading sire in six years and also leading the broodmare sire lists for several other seasons.
    Among *Bull Dog’s other topnotch runners was Alabama Stakes winner Floradora, an older full sister to Rover. Floradora produced four winners from four foals, led by Star Pilot, who won the Futurity, the Pimlico Futurity and the Hopeful Stakes and placed in the Champagne Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.
    My Play, the damsire of Rover and Floradora, was a full brother to Man o’War.
    Rover, who was the leading sire in Washington in both 1956 and 1957, sired only 33 foals in seven crops before his early death at age 14. Of those, 29 (88 percent) made it to the races, and 25 (76 percent) returned to the winner’s circle. They earned a total of $521,620 for a high average per starter figure of $17,987. In addition to Sir William, Rover also sired Los Feliz and Debonair Stakes winner Johnie Mike, who won 11 of his 37 starts, placed 15 other times, and earned $68,030; Washington and Spokane Futurities winner River Bill, who won nine races and $44,635; Playfair Mile winner Roving Bar and five stakes-placed runners. Again, courtesy of Mr. Rasmussen: “as a sire in Washington, he [Rover] did quite well, nearly all of his offspring showing plenty of willingness and speed. His 1956 record in the [Thoroughbred] Record shows his get averaged 6.44 furlongs in their winning races and their average winning purse was $1,902. I don’t believe any other Washington sire did as well.”

From the Family of Carbine
    Sir William was one five foals out of 100 percent producer Jodot, a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Peace Chance (a son of Belmont winner Chance Shot, by Fair Play). Jodot placed three times in 11 starts and was a half-sister to stakes-placed colts Predictor and Predict, both sons of Psychic Bid whose lone stakes placements both came in the Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at the Fair Grounds.
    In addition to Sir William, Jodot produced stakes-placed Danny James, a full brother to Sir William who won 15 races and earned $59,470 over his eight seasons and 137 races; the stakes-placed Tavistock fillies Honey Dot and Jewel Dot, each of whom would produce one stakes-placed runner; and eight-race winner Final Dot, a filly by Final Appeal who earned $9,742. Jodot stems from Bruce Lowe family No. 2.
    Belle James, maternal granddam of Sir William, was sired by St. James, who had been the co-champion two-year-old colt of 1923 with Wise Counsellor after winning the Futurity. Among St. James’s stakes winners was Jamestown, who won five stakes at two, including the Futurity, and was named co-champion two-year-old runner of his generation with Equipoise. (Jamestown in turn sired Hall of Famer and Kentucky Derby and Futurity winner Johnstown.)
    Belle James was a granddaughter of the High Time matron Belle Fair, also dam of Fair Grounds Derby Trial winner High Foot and Dearborn Handicap winner Sassy Mate, and a half-sister to 1925 Kentucky Oaks winner Deeming, whose dam, Pin Feather, was a full sister to Astoria Stakes winner Stitch in Time. Pin Feather was out of stakes winner Pins and Needles, a half-sister to Travers Stakes winner Lady Rotha. While the next few dams show a few good stakes horses, including Luke McLuke and Spur, his 10th dam, Clemence, an 1865 daughter of Newminster, would become the granddam of a national hero.
    Clemence was a half-sister to the excellent race mare Imperieuse, winner of the 1,000 Guineas and St. Leger Stakes in England. Among her daughters was the unraced Mersey, who was sent to New Zealand where she was bred to Musket and produced the sensational Carbine, winner of the 1890 Melbourne Cup. In 43 starts, Carbine had 33 wins, most of them at the highest stakes level, and was only once unplaced. Fondly known as “Old Jack,” Carbine was sold to the Duke of Portland in England due to the world-wide depression of the 1890’s. His chief influence in England was felt due to son Spearmint (see Plucky Liege above), grandson Spion Kop and great-grandson Felstead, all of whom became English Derby winners. Susan E. van Dyke

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