The first time I saw Nashua—or at least the first time I can remember seeing him—I had better than a clubhouse seat. The occasion was a four-and-a-half furlong maiden race at Belmont Park almost exactly a year ago, on May 5, 1954. I was on Mrs. L. Lazare's Golden Prince, breaking from post position 13. Next to me in 14 was Jess Higley on Nashua. During the race I had problems enough of my own, but I still have a vivid recollection of Nashua turning on a wonderful burst of speed and winning easily by three lengths. My horse finished 11th.
Sometimes a jockey can see qualities in a horse that make him immediately want to ride that horse in future races. I have had such a "second sense" about horses before this—with Assault and Citation, for instance. In Nashua's case I knew instinctively as he drew away from his field that this was a horse with a determined will to win. Incidentally, those who have been following Nashua's career as closely as I have since that day will notice that he never again won a race by as much as three lengths. Frankly, I don't think he ever will—or particularly wants to. But his will to win seems to bring him through just the same.
THE MARKS OF GREATNESS
After that first race Mr. Fitz agreed to let me ride Nashua in the future, and although I've been accused of making a few unkind remarks about Nashua's temperament and running behavior, most of those comments were taken seriously when they should have been taken in jest. Actually, Nashua shows many signs of true greatness. The fact that he has a personality of his own—that he turns on his speed burst when he wants to and not a moment before he wants to—contributes, I think, to his greatness. Last year I looked on him as a boy with a few playful pranks. This year I think of him as a man who still likes at times to play like a kid. Be that as it may, he's all man when there's a job to be done.
During all this time I've still been very much aware of the qualities of Nashua's chief rival, Summer Tan, who is, to say the least, of a very different temperament. Where Nashua usually has to be continuously coaxed to run for every foot of his race, Summer Tan is a very free running horse, and until he is driven in the stretch he is running well under restraint. But when Summer Tan is driven, he'll do all he can do. He'll win by as big a margin as he possibly can. He won this year by 14 lengths.
No living human could tell me that Nashua would beat any horse—even a milk horse—by any 14 lengths.
Ordinarily I would have been up, as usual, on Nashua for his first 1955 race against Summer Tan in last Saturday's Wood Memorial. But a while back I was trying too hard to win a couple of races and was set down for carelessness. It was my own fault, and I'm sorry. Sure, they were little suspensions, but they seemed awful big last Saturday. In my place Mr. Fitz put Ted Atkinson who was a great choice. Ted had exercised Nashua and knows him pretty well. Besides, he's one of the best riders in the country and has enough sense and horsemanship to know whether Nashua is responding or not. What I mean is that Nashua can be difficult to ride only in that the jockey must ride him as he finds him. Some days, for instance, he runs well with the stick. Other days you feel no response, so you know it's time to put the stick down. If Nashua feels he's doing his best and you hit him, he's liable to react by doing just the opposite from what you want him to do. Ted knew all of this, of course, so there were very few things I could tell him in the way of helpful hints before the race. One thing I did mention to him was that Nashua has a tender mouth and should be allowed to have his head leaving the gate. One thing I forgot to mention to him—and Ted gave me a kidding later—was that Nashua generally goes the other way when he gets to the gate. They have to come and get him.
THE STRATEGY WAS OBVIOUS
I guess I wasn't alone in figuring out, before post time, what the race strategy would be. There were, of course, three other horses besides Nashua and Summer Tan in the race. In this particular spot, however, and judging from their past performances, I would have had to overlook the other three, and look out only for Summer Tan who, as usual, had Eric Guerin up. The post-position draw, which put Summer Tan in the third gate and Nashua beside him in number four, was not detrimental to Summer Tan, but it gave a slight advantage to Nashua. Why? Well, because Summer Tan is a speed horse and I certainly expected him to go out and set the pace as soon as he could. Being on the inside of Nashua, Summer Tan was in a good position to break into the lead quickly, while similarly Nashua, who likes to lay just off the leader, was in just as good a position to break out and stick with the horse he had to beat. The strategy looked simple enough: Summer Tan would go to the front and try to stay there. Nashua would lay off him—not more than two lengths, I hoped—and when he made his move, that's when the excitement would start.
In the post parade both colts looked fit and ready. Nashua reminded me—from my unfamiliar position on the roof in the unaccustomed role of racing analyst—more than ever of a big frisky kid, and Mr. Fitz had him looking like split silk. He looked big, too. When you're on him he feels big, and I wondered if Ted felt as I had often felt about him: that maybe you should be tied on. Summer Tan appeared to be in great shape, and I think his trainer, Sherrill Ward, did an amazing job in bringing this colt up to form after his serious illness last fall.
I suppose I became as excited and nervous as anybody else watching the race. Unconsciously I did some "calling" of my own, echoing Announcer Fred Capossela's sudden "They're off!" I noticed immediately how nicely both Summer Tan and Nashua were running, and as they went past us into the clubhouse turn with Summer Tan in front and Nashua second, I remarked to the fellow beside me: "Summer Tan can't get away from this horse—I'll tell you that." Coming to the half-mile pole Ted was still right on him, but Summer Tan looked awfully good still. As they approached the quarter pole I said "Nashua's going up and get him. Both of them are driving." Then I'm told I yelled out into the roar: "Go get him, Ted!"
And then they came driving down the stretch. At the 16th pole I was speechless but I thought: "By Golly, it don't look like he's going to make it." There was only 70 yards to go, and I yelled, "Get him, Ted!" Ted was whipping away with everything he had. He must have hit Nashua five good cracks and then, like a flash, Nashua had shot out and put his head across the line in front. With everybody else I shouted: "He did it! He made it!"
TED WAS WORRIED TOO
Looking back on it a few moments later, I realized how close it had been. At the 16th pole it didn't look to me as though Nashua could possibly win, but suddenly here comes what I said all along—he put in that will-to-win run in the last 70 yards—and this is Nashua's mark of greatness. His time of 1:50 3/5 for a mile and an eighth was pretty good, too, I thought.
I think Ted gave Nashua the finest possible ride. He made that horse run all the way, and that's what he had to do, but even before going down to talk to Ted I knew perfectly well that there was some place in that race where he thought he wasn't going to win. And sure enough, Ted confirmed it. "I felt," he told me, "if I could get him to uncork at the eighth pole I could win, but he took forever to get going." "Just like I told you," I said. "You got to ride him like you find him."
"When I saw Ted even with me at last," said Eric Guerin, "I knew he had me. Those last two jumps of Nashua's—Wow!"
Wow may be a pretty good way to describe this horse I ride. He'll unnerve you, he'll thrill you and he'll worry you. Why, with Summer Tan out of the Wood, Nashua would have probably beat the rest of the field [the third horse, Simmy, was 25 lengths back of Summer Tan] by about a length, hardly any more than that. You can count on him to give everyone a heart attack every time he runs.
Well, next stop for Nashua is going to be the Kentucky Derby, where I'll be back on him again—and where, once again, I'll have to ride him as I find him. I fully expect Nashua to turn in the same kind of a race he always does. Also I have no reason to believe that his will-to-win spirit will desert him when we get to Churchill Downs. I won't do any predicting, but I know one thing: I have the best horse.