There were a near-record 18 colts on the track, the winner of the race had three times in the past four years gone on to win the Kentucky Derby—but before last week's Santa Anita Derby, not a horseman in habitually ebullient California was brave enough to come right out and say there was a Kentucky threat in the starting gate at Arcadia.
After the race, they weren't sure they didn't have one, after all—in the horse that finished fourth. Coming up from eighth place in the last quarter mile with an eye-opening rush, Like Magic, a full brother to Swaps, completely stole the show.
The race was won by Rex Ellsworth's Terrang, but that seemed merely incidental, judging from the excited horsemen's chatter. It is Like Magic who has set California's heart beating faster. Terrang, his stablemate, for all his winning ways is highly disregarded.
The story of Terrang at Santa Anita this winter could almost be tear-in-the-eye soap opera, if there were any sentimentalists around a finish line.
March 12, 1956
This plucky little colt, a nondescript brown-black who hangs his head like a punished dog between races, has done everything asked of him by his owner-trainer since he was first set on the track. He won two stakes, finished second in another and third in another, all the while giving away as much as 16 pounds to his contemporaries, no small task for a horse barely 3. The only time he was an also-ran, he had an excuse as good as horse racing excuses can be: he would have needed a scythe to cut his way out of the wall of horses pinning him in on the turn and in the drive.
Yet Terrang has still to have an audible good word said about him by either his owners or the press or, for that matter, the clockers or jockeys. No matter how hard he tries, Like Magic still eclipses him.
The first week of the meeting (on the last day of the year), he beat the best 2-year-olds on the track. But Trainer Mish Tenney shook his head. "If we got a Kentucky Derby horse this year, it's Like Magic," he predicted. Terrang went on to prove himself the most consistent 3-year-old at Santa Anita by far. His reward was a chorus of yawns. "He doesn't look like a mile-and-a-quarter horse to me," said the Mirror-News' Bob Hebert. Others were downright scornful. "Ellsworth better hope Like Magic develops into a Derby horse," was the contemptuous opinion of the never-wrong clockers.
Before the race last Saturday over a mile and an eighth, Charlie Whittingham, a rival trainer, insulted not only Terrang but every other horse in the race. "No, I don't have a Kentucky Derby horse today, and neither does anyone else in here," he snapped. Trainer Whittingham might have been twice wrong. His Social Climber—a $112 payoff in his only stakes this year—finished an electrifying second and there were supporters holding their heads in anguish that Owner Liz Whitney Lunn had not nominated this Your Host colt for Kentucky.
On Derby day last Saturday, Owner Ellsworth and Trainer Tenney put star Jockey Willie Shoemaker on Terrang through no respect for the colt but "only because he's harder to handle than Like Magic."
But the public was not so bearish. Not caring a hang about a Kentucky Derby two months away, it cold-bloodedly made Terrang a 2-to-1 favorite—a rare tribute in a field so large that the starting gate stretched from infield to grandstand rail. And Terrang did not disappoint his public. Neither, however, did he impress his critics. Enjoying equal weight with his competition for the first time since he turned 3, he ran a methodical, businesslike race which satisfied the bettors if not the experts. He came out of the gate slowly but was soon stalking the flashy front-runner, Blen Host, a Your Host colt who behaved like one, with the doggedness of the inspector from Scotland Yard who knows his quarry is merely prolonging the inevitable.
The inevitable happened at the head of the stretch, and Santa Anita's Derby was all over but the faultfinding. At the finish, even Jockey Shoemaker got into the act. "I was having to hit him [Terrang] left-handed, right-handed—everything I could to make him run," he complained.
The point was that, even if he was tiring, Terrang did run—as usual. But as he swept across the finish line to win a mere $111,700 for his owners, it seemed they were looking right past him down the track. Their smiles were for Like Magic, who was finishing fourth.
BACK TO OBLIVION
In the press box afterward, Ellsworth and Tenney glowed—about Like Magic. "We were delighted," enthused Tenney—about Like Magic, even as they were peeling the chrysanthemum blanket off Terrang and letting him mope back to the barns and renewed oblivion.
Like Magic may well be the Ellsworth main chance at Kentucky in May. He did indicate his puppy days are behind him. That he was still two lengths behind Terrang at the wire may, indeed, be beside the point. "Anybody can see how a big ugly duckling like him [Like Magic] should develop," protested Mish Tenney after the race.
Well, someone wanted to know, hadn't Terrang run—all things considered—a more creditable race than Swaps last year? After all, Swaps had won his race by half a length in 1:50; Terrang had won by a length and a quarter in 1:51 on a track that was obviously slower than last year. "Swaps was only a half-fit horse this time last year," exclaimed Tenney. "Terrang is dead fit."
"Of course," added Tenney, who is shipping to Florida this week, "they tell me there aren't any Nashuas on the track down in Florida this year.... " But even then it was clear the faraway look in his eyes was for Like Magic.
After the race, Tenney and Ellsworth confirmed that they were going to fly a string of horses, including Terrang and Like Magic, to Florida Monday night. But even here, Terrang was upstaged by a stablemate: the electrifying part of the news was that Swaps might be the sixth horse in the consignment (the other three will be Lover's Aid, Barely Nothing and Airide). Did this mean there was still hope Swaps would challenge Nashua on St. Patrick's Day?
"There would be no other reason for flying him down," said Ellsworth firmly. Tenney remained silent.