Round Table – When All The Stars Align
April 6, 1954. In the dark hours of that night, the foaling barn at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky was a busy place. The sound of mares giving birth echoed throughout the barn. Knight’s Daughter was in labour and about to give birth to a bay son by Princequillo, while in a separate stall Miss Disco did likewise seven hours earlier and foaled a dark bay son of Nasrullah. The two colts would go on to become champions in racing and breeding. Miss Disco’s colt would be named Bold Ruler and Knight’s Daughter’s colt would go by the name Round Table.
Round Table was on the small side. He was however a very robust and energetic soul, with an iron constitution and superb athletic ability. He was a handful as a youngster, and would get away from his handlers frequently. He wanted to run, and before long he would get his chance many, many times.
The pedigree of Round Table was a wonderful blend of speed and stamina. His sire Princequillo was a champion on the track and became a three time leading sire. He had an abundance of stamina, but could also crank up the speed early as he won races from six furlongs to one and five-eighths miles.
Knight’s Daughter was bred in England by King George VI and was purchased by “Bull” Hancock after her racing career, where she won three of her four starts, as a broodmare. Her sire was Sir Cosmo, a top class sprinter in England. The dam of Knight’s Daughter was Feola, a great foundation mare for the Royal Stud, who was in turn sired by another speed sire source in Friar Marcus.
Looking at the pedigree of Round Table we see that he was inbred to Derby and St. Leger winner Persimmon and undefeated Gallinule 5×5 in both cases. Persimmon was one of the best sons of the epoch St. Simon on both the track and in breeding. Gallinule was twice champion sire in England.
The American born Round Table had a very European slant to his pedigree. He grew up at Claiborne in close proximity to Bold Ruler, and the two hooked up in some of the very important races in America during their racing careers. Both won Horse of the Year honours at the expense of the other and were key members of one of the most accomplished foal crops in turf history. They both retired from racing for stud to Claiborne and had adjoining stalls during their stud careers. They were essentially “linked together” during their lives and for eternity.
Under the colours of Claiborne Farm, Round Table made his racing debut early in his two year old season, February 24, 1956 to be exact, at the grand old Hialeah track in Florida. Moody Jolley was entrusted to be his trainer and he started Round Table in the three furlong maiden race. This was during the time when southern tracks scheduled such races on the card for trainers with two year olds, giving them a race or two early in the calendar year. Today we do not see such races, but back in the fifties these races were abundant and considered worthwhile. Round Table’s debut was not successful, beaten by two lengths in a fourth place finish.
Two months later at Keeneland, Jolley entered Round Table in a four furlong maiden race, where the little colt won by two and one-half lengths. Round Table followed this first win with his second career victory, also at Keeneland nine days later in the four furlong Lafayette Stakes. He made it three wins in a row two months later at Arlington Park in a five furlong allowance tilt.
The next two races for Round Table came at Arlington in the Hyde Park Stakes and the Arlington Futurity. The promising bay finished second, beaten six lengths in the first and fourth by six and one-half lengths in the latter. Two weeks later at Washington Park, Round Table stumbled out of the gate and did not finish the George Woolfe Memorial.
Jolley gave Round Table a break and did not start him again until the October Keeneland meet. A one and one-half length winning margin in his return set him up nicely for the seven furlong Breeder’s Futurity, which Round Table captured by a half length. In his last start as a two year old Round Table finished a long seven lengths back in eighth place, at Churchill Downs.
Round Table was put away to prepare his challenge to get back to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Two early starts at Hialeah in January and February resulted in a pair of off the board finishes. Round Table finished ten lengths back of Gallant Man and eleven lengths back of Iron Liege in the two outings.
Before the next start, Bull Hancock sold an eighty percent share in the colt to Travis Kerr for $145,000. Hancock’s father had been ill for some time and was faltering. Hancock Jr. had been at the helm of the family owned farm since 1945 when his father suffered a heart attack. Two years later Hancock sr. suffered the first of a series of strokes that would incapacitate him. Bull was raising money to pay for the inevitable estate taxes on the Claiborne property, sensing his father’s passing was imminent. The great horseman Arthur Boyd Hancock Sr. died on April 1, 1957.
The first start by Round Table under his new colours was in a seven furlong allowance race at Hialeah, which he won by a comfortable six lengths. This was the last time Jolley was listed as trainer to the colt and also the last time until his five year old campaign that jockey Steve Brooks partnered him. Brooks had been aboard for every race until the change.
Now under the care of another Hall of Fame trainer in Bill Molter, Round Table shipped to the west coast and made his first start with his new support team. The great Johnny Longden was in the irons and Round Table was sent to the post for the Santa Anita Derby. After taking the lead in the stretch, Round Table was caught near the finish line and ended up third to Sir William and Swirling Abbey, a half length behind for the glory. The race was run on a sloppy surface, a track condition that in the future would continue to hamper Round Table.
The next race, the San Bernardino Handicap, was also be run on a messy track. Beaten by eight and one-half lengths back in fifth place, was all Round Table could do. Three weeks later though he regained his winning form, and on a fast track, captured the Bay Meadows Derby beating the same horses that he lost to in his previous two starts. A further six length win in the Blue Grass stakes set up Round Table for his next start, the Kentucky Derby.
The field for this edition of the “Run For The Roses” was one of history’s most decorated. His old barn mate friend Bold Ruler was in. The talented and still improving Gallant Man, another future Hall of Fame inductee, was in the race. However, the favourite in the lead up was Gen. Duke, a Calumet bred and raced colt that unfortunately did not make it to the starting gate when he injured himself and was withdrawn. Calumet did have a backup plan though in the form of Iron Liege.
Iron Liege won the Derby over Gallant Man with Round Table in third, two and three-quarters of a length back. This was the now famous, or infamous, race in which jockey Willie Shoemaker had stood up on Gallant Man at the sixteenth pole mistaking it for the finish line. The subsequent loss of motion from his mount might likely to have cost Gallant Man the victory.
Round Table was beginning to, pardon the pun, round into form. He went back to California and finished second in the Californian Stakes and then unleashed an eleven race winning streak to establish him as one the country’s leading horses in training.
The first five races came at Hollywood Park. He won in order, the Will Rogers Stakes, El Dorado Handicap, Cinema Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and the Westerner Stakes. Shipped to Washington Park in Chicago, Round Table tuned up with a comfortable win in a nine and one-half furlong allowance race on grass, his first race on this surface, and then took the American Derby by four lengths over Iron Liege. Two weeks later at Atlantic City, Round table made it three wins in arrow on grass, eight wins in a row in total, in the United Nations Handicap.
Willie Shoemaker had been his jockey in all but his first win during this winning streak. The pair was together for a tune up allowance race at Hawthorne, pulverising the competition by seven lengths, even though The Shoe was easing his mount back in the final furlong. Eight days later Round Table won the Hawthorne Gold Cup with Bill Harmatz substituting for Shoemaker.
Garden State Park was attempting to put together a stellar field for their upcoming Trenton Handicap. With the exploits of the fabulous three year old crop on display across the country, they were trying to gather together as many of the great three year olds as possible and stage a showdown of sorts. Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table answered the challenge, and would run in this exact order at the finish line. Bold Ruler went on to be named as the top three year old and as Horse of the Year, while Round Table won the top Grass Horse of the Year Award off his scintillating performances on that surface.
Round Table made one more start in the 1957 calendar year on December 28 in the Malibu Sequet Stakes. The seven furlong race was a tune up for the series of early year stakes races on offer at Santa Anita. He won this race setting off another win streak of eight straight, and twelve of the next fourteen. The final totals for Round Table’s 1957 season was fifteen wins from twenty-two races.
With a championship on his resume, Round Table now embarked on a record breaking season as a four year old and stamped his name as one of the all-time greats in American racing history. As mentioned he began an eight race win streak at the end of the previous year and began 1958 with a four length victory in the San Fernando Stakes, followed by a similar score in the Santa Anita Maturity, a three length win in San Antonio Handicap and a resounding win in the” big cap”, the Santa Anita Handicap.
Molter shipped his champion to Gulfstream Park and after a win in an allowance race, Round Table then won the Gulfstream Handicap by a comfortable four lengths. A two month gap between this win and next, which would come in the Caliente Handicap, ran his win streak to eight. The streak came to a halt at Hollywood Park in the Californian when Round Table finished second to Seaneen by four lengths.
Round Table re-appeared two weeks later at Hollywood Park and got right back to his winning ways with victory in the Argonaut Handicap. Two weeks later on the grass at Washington Park in Chicago in a special non-wagering allowance, Round Table won and then on the same track another two weeks later took the Arch Ward Stakes. Moving over to Arlington Park, Round Table was beaten by a head in the Wright Memorial on the dirt track, then won the Laurance Armour Handicap on the Arlington grass course.
Back on the dirt for the Equipoise Mile, Round Table could only muster a fifth place finish four lengths behind Clem. He reversed the order in the Arlington Handicap on the grass but Clem had revenge in the Washington Park Handicap, which was back on dirt.
The full and steady stream of races for Round Table continued with two starts on the Atlantic City turf course where he won an allowance race and then lost his first ever turf race in the United Nations Handicap to his nemesis Clem. Round Table followed up this race with his worst performance of the year in the Woodward, finishing seventeen lengths back on a very sloppy surface. The final race of the long campaign was a winning one in the ten furlong Hawthorne Gold Cup, in a record time of 1:59 4/5.
Round Table won fourteen of twenty races in 1958 and was named as the Champion Grass Horse for the second time as well as the Champion Handicap Horse and the ultimate award as Horse of the Year. Kerr announced that his champion would be back for another season of racing.
Returning to Santa Anita, Molter entered Round Table in the seven furlong San Carlos Handicap on January 3. The veteran finished second to Hillsdale. Three weeks later Round Table was in the starting stalls for the ten furlong San Marcos Handicap on the Santa Anita turf course. The reigning grass champion put in a display of class and speed unseen by this time in history. Round Table and his jockey Willie Shoemaker flashed past the winning post in a record time of 1:58 2/5, thus setting a new mark for the distance.
Round Table stretched out for the twelve furlong Washington Birthday Handicap at Santa Anita, but the course was a deep and soggy quagmire, which Round Table did not enjoy running on. Needless to say he did not win, finishing a very long thirty lengths back of the winner in the bog like conditions.
Back to Chicago we go and Round Table’s next race which came three and a half months later in the Citation Handicap at Washington Park. Round Table got up just in time to win the one mile event, just edging Etonian at the wire. After a ten length shellacking of inferior opposition in a nine and one-half furlong grass allowance race, our hero then captured the Stars And Stripes Handicap on the fourth of July, beating among others Tudor Era. Round Table carried 132 lbs, giving as much as twenty-five pounds, to his challengers.
Round Table had carried imposts of this magnitude before. In fact this was the twentieth time he had to shoulder 130 lbs or more in a race. He was also the betting favourite in the last twenty-five races. Such was the big reputation of the small horse.
Burdened with another 132 lbs impost for the Equipoise Handicap, Round Table finished third, five lengths back of Better Bee, on a sloppy track. Back on the grass, albeit a soft course, Round Table won a ten thousand dollar handicap and one week later won the Arlington Handicap on his favoured firm footing. Going back to the Arlington dirt track to win the Washington Park Handicap by six lengths, Round Table travelled to Atlantic City for the United Nations. He won again and carried 136 lbs in the effort.
Round Table made three more starts to complete his 1959 season, none of which were on the grass. He was third to Sword Dancer, the newest star three year old in the Woodward, won the Manhattan Handicap carrying 132 lbs, and finished second in the two miles long Jockey Club Gold Cup to Sword Dancer. Round Table was awarded his third consecutive Grass Horse title and second consecutive Handicap Horse title. He would be beat out for Horse of the Year by the upstart Sword Dancer.
When all was said and done, Round Table made sixty-six starts in a four year racing career. He won forty-three of these races, with eight second places and five thirds. Round Table won some of the most prestigious races against some of the best horses from a generation that was deep and very talented. He carried big weight and didn’t crumble under the imposts. He set track and world records, carrying some of these big weight burdens on his back. Now he was to be retired and go back to his birth place to begin his stud career and try to pass on his speed, class and great athletic ability.
When he retired from the track, Round Table was the all time leading money earner in history and was the third horse to surpass the one million dollar mark. He won $1,749,869. The record would stand until 1965 when Kelso surpassed the mark.
Bull Hancock had made one stipulation when he sold eighty percent interest in Round Table to Travis Kerr. The stipulation was that he would have first right to stand the horse at stud following his racing days. Round Table was syndicated, Hancock retained his share, and the multi champion took up residency beside his old buddy Bold Ruler at Claiborne.
Round Table had a sparkling stud career. He led the North American sire list in 1972. He sired eighty-three stakes winners. He is the broodmare sire of one hundred and twenty-five stakes winners. Many believe him to be a very good sire but not a great one since he never sired “a big horse” but got a lot of very good ones. His sire line has waned in recent times, which also leads some people to have this opinion of him as a stallion.
I believe Round Table was a great stallion. His eighty-three stakes were twenty-one percent of his entire named foals. One of only eight sires in the twentieth century to surpass the twenty percent mark. That alone tells me he was a great sire.
Likely due to his balanced mixture of speed and staying ability in his own pedigree, Round Table sired stakes winners of different distance abilities. He had many high class stakes winners on both sides of the Atlantic. And in keeping with his own versatility, they could win on dirt or grass or, in some cases on both like him.
His European stakes winners included the high class Baldric (2000 Guineas, Champion Stakes), Apalachee (Champion Two Year Old in England and Ireland), Flirting Around (Champion Sprinter in England), Targowice (Champion Two Year Old in France), undefeated stakes winner Brahms, Artaius (Champion Stakes, Sussex Stakes), Cellini (Dewhurst Stakes), and Last Light (Royal Whip Stakes).
Most of the get of Round Table raced on his home side of the Atlantic. A personal favourite of the author’s was He’s A Smoothie. This versatile Canadian bred champion won on dirt and grass, at distances ranging from six furlongs to sixteen furlongs. He’s A Smoothie won the Prince of Wales Stakes, Seagram Cup twice, Canadian International, Hialeah Turf Cup, Eclipse Handicap, Canadian Maturity, and four more stakes races. He is a member of the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame. He’s A Smoothie was bred and raced by Bill Beasley, one of the more prominent breeders/owners in Canada at the time.
Drumtop was a sound and well raced mare by Round Table. Unraced as a two year old, Drumtop made forty-four starts in the next three years. Among her big wins were the Canadian International, Hialeah Turf Cup, Bowling Green Handicap, Columbiana Handicap, and Princeton Handicap. She won seventeen of her forty-four races, ten of which were stakes wins. As a broodmare, Drumtop produced three stakes winners, Brogan, War of Words, and Topsider. The latter became a good sire standing at Claiborne.
King’s Bishop won the Carter Handicap, Michigan Mile and One-Eighth, Pontiac Stakes and the Round Table Handicap. He stood his short stud career at Windfields in Maryland getting some good ones like Bishop Ridley, Cabrini Green, King’s Swan, Lady Lonsdale, Queen To Conquer, and Possible Mate. King’s Bishop died at the age of twelve in 1981. There is today a grade one stakes race named in his honour.
Advocator won five stakes race, as part of his ten total wins from forty-six starts. He placed in a further twenty races. Bicker (Del Mar Derby), Illustrious (Native Dancer Handicap), multi stakes winner Knightly Manner, Duel (Charles S. Strub Stakes, Saratoga Special), Beau Brummel (Garden State Stakes), Dignitas (Charles S. Strub Stakes, San Vincent Stakes), King Pellinore, (Oak Tree Invitational, Champions Invitational, Blandford Stakes, Carleton F. Burke Handicap, second Irish Derby), Tell (Hollywood Derby), Royal Glint (Santa Anita Handicap, United Nations Handicap, Haskell Stakes, Arlington Park Handicap), Upper Case (Florida Derby), Poker (Bowling Green Handicap), Dancealot (Selima Stakes), and Table The Rumor (Fair Ground Oaks), were all very good sound race horses sired by Round Table.
While the sons of Round Table did not fully carry on a tail male line, his daughters produced some gems that did very well. European champion Caerleon (Prix du Jockey Club, Benson & Hedges Gold Cup) had a very successful stud career as he led the England/Ireland sire list twice. Siring one hundred and one stakes winners including classic winners Cape Verdi, Lady Carla, Moonax, and duel Derby winner Generous. Caerleon also sired Arc winner Mariebard and is the dam sire of Mutafaweq (St. Leger Stakes, Canadian International) and Japanese Horse of the Year Taiki Shuffle.
Another sire of note produced by a Round Table mare was Sir Tristram. A revelation in the Antipodes, Sir Tristram stood at Cambridge Stud in New Zealand and proceeded to sire one hundred and forty stakes winners, and daughters who collectively produced two hundred stakes winners. Sir Tristram led six sire titles and has established a tail male line through his great son Zabeel.
Other top class stakes winners produced by Round Table mares are Bowl Game (Man o’ War Stakes, Washington D.C. International, Turf Classic Stakes, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Arlington Handicap), De La Rose (Hollywood Derby, Saranac Stakes, Diana Handicap), Outstandingly (Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies, Hollywood Starlet Stakes), Hidden Lake (Beldame Stakes, Go For Wand Stakes, Hempstead Handicap), Northern Baby (Champion Stakes, leading national hunt sire)and Briartic (Connaught Cup, Victoria Stakes, Highlander Stakes, leading sire in Canada).
Poker would have ever lasting fame at stud as the dam sire of Triple Crown winner and leading sire Seattle Slew and of multi classic winning champion Silver Charm. Flirting Around sired South African Horse of the Year Wolf Power. Wolf Power stood in the U.S. and sired Freedom Cry (Santa Monica Handicap) and is the dam sire of two times Eclipse Award Horse of the Year Wise Dan and two times leading Canadian Sire Milwaukee Brew.
Round Table was pensioned from stud in 1979 at the age of twenty-five. He would live out his life at Claiborne, meeting and greeting his admirers when they came to visit him. One of his admirers was none other than Queen Elizabeth II, who altered her trip to Kentucky in order to visit Round Table. The Queen had a vested interest in the great horse as it was her father King George VI who bred Knight’s Daughter and subsequently sold her to Bull Hancock. There have been many champions in thoroughbred history who had the athletic ability and iron constitution to compete over four long seasons. That Round Table was able to compete with the elite, and win consistently, over a sixty-six race career was truly remarkable.
Round Table defeated some great horses such as Bold Ruler, Iron Liege, Clem, Porterhouse, Bureaucracy, Nadir, Tudor Era, Bald Eagle, Swoon’s Son, and Seaneen. He was equally good on dirt or grass, although many are in agreement that grass was his better surface. He carried large weight and set records doing so. He was fast and very durable, as his sixty-six starts will attest. On the track, Round Table was a durable honest competitor.
He was also one of the most cherished of souls. His genial personality made him a farm favourite of Bull Hancock’s daughter Dell. “He was one of the kindest horses I have ever known”, said Dell when reminiscing about the great champion. The internet is full of stories from fans that had the chance to meet Round Table. He remained kind natured to the end. Round Table passed away on June 13, 1987 at the age of thirty-three.
There were many admirers of Round Table, from casual race fans to those in the business of breeding, advising, writing, training, riding or any other vocation pertaining to the industry. History is also admiring of Round Table, the small iron horse with the big heart.
(Photo courtesy of Claiborne Farm and the Tony Leonard collection)