1952: Hill Gail's Derby Double
Since the closing years of the twentieth century, it has been quite common to see a Kentucky Derby winner emerge from the Santa Anita Derby. Silver Charm started it in 1997, and every few years or so seems to bring another horse from Southern California's most famous Derby prep race.
Another regularity has been seeing a Santa Anita Derby winner beat his rivals on the first Saturday in May. I'll Have Another (2012), California Chrome (2014) and Justify (2018) are the more recent examples, but you can go back years to find additional horses in this category. Some names that come to mind are Affirmed (1978) and Sunday Silence (1989). And of course, there was Swaps, who scored wins in both Derbies in 1955.
Before all those legends, however, the Santa Anita Derby was still a long ways off building that history. In fact, after Gallahadion surprised the favored Bimelech in the 1940 Kentucky Derby, no other horse from the Santa Anita Derby took the prize in Louisville for years.
But that changed in 1952 thanks to Hill Gail.
Sired by the legendary Bull Lea, Calumet Farm's most important stallion, Hill Gail owned a win in the San Vicente Stakes before entering the Santa Anita Derby. He was similar to Gallahadion in that regard, since the former also went into the mile and one-eighth contest as champion of the San Vicente. But their respective Santa Anita Derbies played out far differently.
Gallahadion finished well off the board in thirteenth place in the 1940 renewal, while Hill Gail won handily twelve years after his predecessor. But the prep season parallels did not stop there. Like Gallahadion, Hill Gail started in the Derby Trial a few days prior to the Run for the Roses after winning Keeneland's Phoenix Handicap and finishing second in an allowance. Gallahadion rebounded from the Santa Anita Derby to take second, but Hill Gail went one position better, getting the win and setting what was at that point the fastest time ever for the race.
Next came the ten furlong excursion around Churchill Downs. Hill Gail went off as the big favorite for the Derby in the field of sixteen while starting from the rail (just like Gallahadion twelve years prior). With Eddie Arcaro, a winner of multiple Derbies, in the irons, Hill Gail exited from the first post and got into early contention. By the time the crowd saw him on that same part of the track, he was well in front of his opposition. With a furlong to go, only Sub Fleet was nearby; everyone else was way behind the leader. At the sixteenth pole, the race had all but finished.
Hill Gail simply overpowered everyone under the Twin Spires, coming to the wire in 2:01 3/5. Only 1941 Triple Crown champion Whirlaway ran the race faster.
With his victory, Hill Gail earned the status of being the first horse to win both the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. It has since become a rare and laudable achievement, with just ten horses succeeding him as holders of that double. To be a member of that fraternity is something special.
The momentum started in the Santa Anita Derby, and it continued on into Louisville. When Hill Gail made it to the finish of the 1952 Kentucky Derby, he captured what was then an unprecedented sweep, and that automatically granted him a deserved historical status among Thoroughbreds.