Late last week Trainer Pancho Martin, a shrewd Cuban who has engineered singular success for Owner Sigmund Sommer, was putting out a strong signal. The word was that Martin was willing to make a $5,000 horse-against-horse wager that Sommer's Santa Anita Derby winner, Sham, would beat 1972 Horse of the Year and current Kentucky Derby favorite, Secretariat, in New York's Wood Memorial, the last major eastern test for 3-year-olds hoping to earn a ticket to Churchill Downs for the big race on May 5. Had Pancho made his boast on Saturday afternoon before a largely pro-Secretariat assembly lunching in the trustees' room at Aqueduct, he would have found all the action he was looking for. However, it was made before an early morning crew of grooms and hot-walkers at Belmont Park, and the challenge was not accepted. Too bad, Pancho.
What happened was that Sham did beat Secretariat by a hefty four lengths in the Wood Memorial. But wait. First to finish in this mystifyingly run mile-and-an-eighth race, just a short head in front of Sham, was Secretariat's stable-mate, a colt named Angle Light, who had been easily dispatched by the champ in their two prior meetings. What also happened in the one minute, 49 and [4/5]th seconds that it took Angle Light to pull off his upset (he had never won a stakes race) was that the son of Quadrangle, who races in the white and green silks of Toronto's Edwin Whittaker, changed the entire complexion of the 99th Kentucky Derby.
Before the Wood Memorial the 1973 Run for the Roses was being conceded to Secretariat despite the fact that until last week he had never tried running beyond a mile and a sixteenth. He was the big, glamorous chestnut who could do it all on any kind of track. He could run on the pace or come from behind. He could circle his fields or bull his way through them. They gave him names like Sexy or Big Red II, for here was the second coming of Man o'War, another horse of the people like Native Dancer, Kelso and Carry Back. They considered him a shoo-in to become the first colt since Citation in 1948 to capture the Triple Crown.
Now, suddenly, all that has changed and there is going to be a Kentucky Derby after all instead of a one-horse walkover. It may not be necessary to start the race in rows, Indianapolis 500-style, but following Secretariat's defeat a lot of guys are going to be cranking up 3-year-old maidens from New England to Nevada and shipping them to Louisville.
In a way the 49th Wood Memorial was a series of vignettes that show why the sport of horse racing is a very special attraction for many different people. Stars of Secretariat's caliber draw large crowds to any track, and Aqueduct's attendance of 43,416 was the best of the New York season. Racegoers are fickle: they began by cheering Secretariat in the walking ring, then, after he had finished third, they boisterously booed him (or was it his jockey, Ron Turcotte?). Winning (and losing) Trainer Lucien Laurin was so nervous before the race that when he went to the saddling enclosure he stood by mistake in Sham's stall. When the challenger walked in, Laurin looked at him and exclaimed, "Who's this?" And after the race was over and Laurin's eyes remained focused on Secretariat, a fellow in the box behind the trainer leaned over, slapped him on the back and said, "Congratulations!" Laurin spun around and said, "Congratulations for what? Who won?"
"You did—with the wrong horse!"
Pancho Martin had intended to have two of Sham's stablemates, both owned by Sommer, accompany his big horse to the post. But when he was criticized for trying to knock off the favorite by using "rabbits" to insure what racetrackers call "an honest pace," Martin responded angrily by scratching both Knightly Dawn and Beautiful Music. "Sham will go out and beat Secretariat alone—with no help," he declared.
Did this make things a little sticky for Laurin, who was still running an entry, but for two different owners? "Not at all," said Lucien. "My instructions to the jockeys [Jacinto Vasquez was to ride Angle Light] will be to do their best and ride their own races. I would never consider telling Vasquez to set it up for Secretariat, sacrificing the horse of one owner for the horse of another. After all, Edwin Whittaker pays training bills, too, you know, and he is entitled to a fair shake."
The fair shake for Whittaker, an electrical company executive, came in the form of $68,940 out of the purse of $114,900 (Angle Light, who cost only $15,500 as a yearling, now has won $191,956 with four victories in 14 starts). Long after the numbers went up, people were asking themselves—not to mention Laurin and Turcotte—what happened.
It was quite simple. When the starting gate burst open to set loose the eight colts, seven of the jockeys took tight holds on their mounts while Vasquez and Angle Light, breaking from the extreme outside, roared to the front and had a clear lead of a length after the short run into the clubhouse turn. Jorge Velasquez, subbing for Laffit Pincay on Sham, put the son of Pretense right behind Angle Light (he was never more than a length and a half off the lead) while Turcotte kept Secretariat back in seventh position. The two leaders had the race to themselves the rest of the nine-furlong trip. But what surprised onlookers even more was the absurdly slow time in which the horses ran. Angle Light's fractions were 24[3/5] for the first quarter of a mile, 48[1/5] for the half, a pathetic 1:12[1/5] for the six furlongs and a mile in 1:36[4/5]. Two weeks earlier, in winning the Gotham Stakes, Secretariat had set his own fractions for three quarters in 1:08[3/5] and a winning mile in a dazzling 1:33[2/5].
None of the field except Sham made any effort for nearly a mile to put a stop to Angle Light's runaway. Turcotte just could not get any response from Secretariat. "Jumping around in the gate before the start didn't bother him," the jockey noted later, "and he broke fine. After that I had him closer to the pace than he's often run, but even when I got him clear and moved outside on the backstretch, I could tell he wasn't right. It was just one of those days. Every horse has them once in a while."
The fact that there was no speed in the race made many, including Secretariat's Owner Penny Tweedy, wonder why Turcotte did not recognize the pace was unrealistic and do something about it. "It looked to me," she said unhappily, "as though we were racing one horse, Sham, and forgetting the rest of the field."
"What's the difference?" said Laurin. "We got beat by Sham, too."
In a few more strides Sham would have been the victor. He cut down the winner's margin from a length and a half to a head in the last furlong. If Pincay, who knows Sham better than Velasquez and who rode him to four victories in five races this winter at Santa Anita, had been aboard, the final decision might have been reversed.
The Derby poses a serious question for Laurin and his owners. Barring any mishap, Secretariat will be entered. But Whittaker, who has only two horses with Laurin as opposed to Mrs. Tweedy's barnful, says rather sadly (and perhaps naively), "Today just happened to be my day. I think Secretariat is the better horse, and I told Mrs. Tweedy even before the Wood that if Secretariat and Angle Light could not run as separate entries in Louisville, I would like to skip the Derby. I don't want the responsibility of running as an entry with the best horse." Laurin has applied to the Kentucky State Racing Commission for permission to run his owner's horses as separate betting interests, but as anyone who can remember as far back as 1968 to the Dancer's Image Derby knows, this is a commission not noted for prompt decisions. One alternative, which Laurin has suggested to Whittaker, is that Angle Light be handled by another trainer in Louisville. "I don't like that idea," says Whittaker, "because I wouldn't want to lose Laurin as my trainer." Laurin listened with a bewildered look on his already sad face and said, "Look, when you have a Derby horse, you go. You may never have another one." This week a decision will be made about the two colts.
Laurin, although conceding that Angle Light was a nice sort of colt, never thought he'd see the day when he could beat Secretariat. This season Whittaker's horse finished seventh in the Hibiscus, second to Royal and Regal in the Bahamas, fifth to Restless Jet in the Everglades, third to Our Native in the Flamingo and third to Leo's Pisces in the Louisiana Derby. So it could be, as Whittaker claims, that it just happened to be his day, or possibly Angle Light is improving at exactly the rate that will make him a dangerous contender in the Kentucky Derby. The way he was being steadily overhauled at the end of the Wood, after a pace that was a lot slower than anything he'll encounter at Churchill Downs, suggests that this is not the case.
Pincay will be back on Sham in Louisville, which certainly should improve the horse's prospects. Sham looks like a runner and is bred to be a Derby horse. Both his sire, Pretense, and grandsire, Endeavour, are noted for their staying blood, and his dam, Sequoia, is by Princequillo, which is about the best recommendation an American broodmare can have.
If Sham represents almost everything a Derby winner should have, from management to breeding, there seem to be some flaws in Secretariat. Even before the Wood there were horsemen who wondered if the colt could go a distance. "He's by Bold Ruler," they would say. "If he can get the Derby trip—a mile and a quarter—it'll be only because he is out of a Princequillo mare." It has become fashionable to knock Bold Ruler's ability to sire classic horses. This stallion, who was Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old (even after finishing fourth in the 1957 Derby), has sired 68 stakes winners and for seven consecutive years led the U.S. sire list.
But it is true that his offspring are not at their best at a mile and a quarter or beyond, and when they do win over extended distances, it often is after they have reached the age of four.
In Laurin and Turcotte, Secretariat is guided by a fiercely loyal pair of French Canadians who can talk to each other in a language that would baffle any turfiste at Longchamp. Turcotte, who is New York's current leading rider, learned his trade after a stint on his father's lumberjack horse. Laurin learned his mostly from an uncle, Eddie Bowie, and those who remember Lucien as a jockey at Blue Bonnets and other Canadian courses recall that he was fearless, a man who could have taught Manuel Ycaza a thing or two about the rough stuff and who was strong enough to hold an elephant an inch away from a bale of hay.
Turcotte is a proud and sensitive young man who quietly burns with resentment when it is suggested that his concentration is something less than Bobby Fischer's. Sitting by his locker at Aqueduct and puffing on a Villiger-Kiel cigar a few hours before the Wood, he disagreed that Secretariat was in charge during a race, not his jockey. "This horse is very mild mannered," he said. "Only once, before the Bay Shore, did he try to run off with me, and after I pulled him up I had sore arms for a week. I know he's mild. Why, with his size and strength, if he wanted to be rough he could be, and there's not a jock alive who could hold him."
When Secretariat, Sham and Angle Light (if he goes) arrive in Kentucky, they will have most of the limelight to themselves, although Linda's Chief, who has one victory over Sham this year, should add some interest to the race following his win last week in the California Derby. He spurted off to a 10-length lead midway through the race, but only scrambled home by three-quarters of a length. The colt did seem to have an excuse for his fast fade. He put his tongue over the bit, an antic that causes a horse's mouth to become numb and makes him difficult to rate.
The Derby prep races at Keeneland have produced little excitement. In one, Flamingo winner Our Native was awarded a victory on the disqualification of Greentree Stable's Starkers, a Ribot gelding who had run with no great distinction at Oaklawn Park. In that same Keeneland race, undefeated Mr. Prospector indicated that his best prospects are to remain in the sprint division: he was a tiring third in his first try at a mile and a sixteenth. Two days later, Florida Derby winner Royal and Regal had to run like fury to beat something called Cari County.
Some of these will have a chance to redeem themselves in this week's Blue Grass or Stepping Stone against horses like Arkansas Derby winner Impecunious, Restless Jet, Shecky Greene or the fast-improving Forego, but a week from this Saturday, when they rerun the Wood Memorial at Churchill Downs, the showdown will be for real. Only the results will be different.