The 1958 Del Mar Futurity
In recent years, we have seen local horses kick off their runs to the Kentucky Derby long before the first Saturday in May. Among the early highlights of those journeys is winning the Del Mar Futurity, and American Pharoah (2014) and Nyquist (2015) are the two horses that have used the seaside's biggest race for juveniles as a steppingstone to victory in America's biggest horse race.
Of course, the Del Mar Futurity's history with producing Kentucky Derby champions goes back much longer. California Chrome went from being off the board in the 2013 renewal to taking the racing world by storm and coming through to win the 2014 edition of the Run for the Roses. Silver Charm was the 1996 champion and famously took the 1997 Derby, and Gato Del Sol scored a Futurity/Derby double during the 1981 and 1982 seasons.
But the Del Mar Futurity is not limited to just hosting future Kentucky Derby champions. Lookin at Lucky won the 2009 Futurity before going on to claim the 2010 Preakness, and Silver Charm and Chrome also scored trophies in the Triple Crown's middle jewel. And of course, American Pharoah did more than win the Kentucky Derby as he became the sport's twelfth Triple Crown winner.
Though not as prolific with Triple Crown history as, say, a race like the Santa Anita Derby, the Del Mar Futurity nonetheless possesses a longstanding link with the spring classics. But when did this link actually start developing?
Well, one might point to the year 1958.
On September 6, Del Mar hosted its eleventh version of the Futurity. It lured eight horses to the track that day, and among them was a colt by the name of Tomy Lee.
Owned by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Turner and bred in Europe, Tomy Lee had been unstoppable since debuting at Santa Anita in early 1958. Winning on debut, he took little time in making himself known in the stakes ranks, taking the Haggin, Charles S. Howard, and Starlet Stakes at Hollywood Park that spring. Now at Del Mar, Tomy Lee again teamed up with regular rider Bill Shoemaker in an effort to maintain his standing in the circuit's two-year-old division.
Among those joining Tomy Lee were Royal Orbit, a multiple race winner bred by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and trained by Reggie Cornell of Silky Sullivan fame, and Bagdad, whom Tomy Lee had beaten in the Howard Stakes.
The race went well for all three Thoroughbreds, particularly Tomy Lee. He tracked the early pace before moving to the lead and keeping his undefeated streak intact by taking the Futurity. Royal Orbit and Bagdad each worked their way forward to finish second and third, respectively. Though not a win for either of them, a stakes placing is never anything to scoff at.
As it turned out, Those were significant finishes for not just the top three, but for the Futurity as well.
By the time Del Mar opened its 1959 campaign, Tomy Lee had gone on to be that year's Kentucky Derby winner, defeating eventual Belmont Stakes champion Sword Dancer. Overcoming a claim of foul in the Derby by Sword Dancer's pilot, Tomy Lee emerged as the first horse to win both the Del Mar Futurity and Run for the Roses with a thirlling finish in the latter. On a side note, that gave Bill Shoemaker his second of four Derby victories.
Tomy Lee did not race in either the Preakness or Belmont, but Royal Orbit picked up where the Del Mar Futurity winner left off. Two weeks after the Derby, Royal Orbit obtained his Triple Crown moment by besting Sword Dancer in the Preakness. As for the Belmont, the third time proved to be the charm for Sword Dancer, would be that year's Champion-Three-Year-Old and Horse of the Year. He took the Belmont, but Bagdad left the track with second place, capping a fantastic Triple Crown season for the top three horses in the previous year's Del Mar Futurity. And that really started the bond that has continued over the years with Gato Del Sol, American Pharoah, and others.
For years, the Del Mar Futurity has been part what could be called the unofficial end of summer for Southern California racing. But despite that status, it also symbolizes an early phase of a horse's journey. Whether that journey culminates at Churchill Downs, Pimlico or Belmont varies by horse, but the Del Mar Futurity has been in the mix over time.
But there may never be a more important edition of the race than the one that played out in 1958.