The first few weeks of the New York racing season have pretty well established that the East's two leading challengers of Needles for Kentucky Derby favoritism are Career Boy and Head Man. Both these colts were conditioning in South Carolina while Needles, the Florida champion, was making such a name for himself this winter. When they eventually came north to Jamaica to carry the Eton-blue and brown colors of C. V. Whitney, it didn't take New Yorkers long to realize this entry was loaded with talent.
First, Trainer Syl Veitch sent Head Man out to win the Experimental Free Handicap over Nail, and last week Career Boy ran over his opposition in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Gotham with such ease (including the last quarter in 24 seconds) that some railbirds dared to suggest that Veitch has the strongest Derby entry since Citation and Coaltown finished one-two in 1948.
Career Boy, who looks black although he is listed as a dark brown, is, according to Veitch, just about faultless in appearance if you are willing to overlook his large lop ears. Like his sire, Phalanx, he is a late runner who goes about five-eighths of a mile before leveling out. When he started his move in the Gotham—after being last at the half-mile pole—even Veitch became very excited. Later Syl said he thought he noticed something significant in Career Boy's running style. "When he leveled out," he described it, "he was practically running on his belly—real low to the ground. The way he ran he is the only horse Eve ever seen who reminds me of Equipoise. The difference between the two—so far—is that when Equipoise got past the leaders he'd cut sharply in toward the rail—a bad habit that got him a lot of disqualifications. Well, Career Boy doesn't have that habit, thank goodness. And Ed say that if he turns out to be just half as good as Equipoise he'll be worth owning."
Head Man, a roan son of Eight Thirty and, like Career Boy, out of a Mahmoud mare, is longer-bodied and bigger than his stablemate, not in anyway ugly but nonetheless lacking some of the elements of perfect balance which you notice right away in Career Boy. Veitch isn't ready to offer an opinion as to which of the two colts may be the better, but he expects to learn a lot between now and Derby Day. This week, for instance, Head Man is expected to start in the Wood Memorial at Jamaica—his first effort over the mile-and-an-eighth route. Career Boy, meanwhile, has shipped to Kentucky for the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 26. After that it will be the Derby Trial at Louisville for Head Man, then the Derby itself for both colts.
If Veitch thinks he has two good runners going for him against Needles he can also rest assured that he will have two of the country's leading riders aboard the entry. Eric Guerin has the mount on Career Boy, and Eddie Arcaro has asked to ride Head Man—which he most certainly will do unless he is held tightly to a prior commitment to ride Nashua in Jamaica's Grey Lag Handicap on Derby Day.
Although he was running against "nothing," as they say, in the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream last Saturday, Swaps's first start in two months will rank as one of the most brilliant performances of an already amazing career. All the California chestnut did was carry 130 pounds to a new world record of 1:39 3/5 over the mile-and-70-yard distance—and, at that, was being eased up at the finish. The old record of 1:40, by the way, was set way back in 1945 at River Downs, Cincinnati by the 3-year-old South Dakota, who, for his record-breaking occasion, was carrying only 122 pounds.
If we are to search for any significance to Swaps's glorious Florida debut, I think the main point to be made is that Owner Rex Ellsworth and Trainer Mish Tenney proved themselves correct in playing the waiting game with their champion rather than succumbing to the demands of the public and the press to race him before he was truly ready. I am reminded of something Tenney told me at Gulfstream while he was being criticized for not sending Swaps against Nashua last month. "With the tender condition of Swaps's foot," said Mish, "I'm still trying to bring him along slowly. I refuse to start the horse until he's ready.... When we're ready we'll meet Nashua or any other horse—it makes no difference." It would appear, gentlemen, that Ellsworth, Tenney and Swaps are ready. And how!
DERBY ELIGIBLES: HOW THEY'RE DOING
NEW YORK: Horse to watch in this week's Wood may be Beam Rider, a 12-length winner in his only 1956 start...Passage to Louisville may be earned through good showings in the Wood by Nail (who still must prove he can go a distance), Gun Shot, Happy New Year, Jean Baptiste and Tellarian.
KENTUCKY: Calumet's Fabius and Pintor Lea ran one-two in the six-furlong Lanark at Keeneland...Hartack took the latter the long way around and was gaining at the finish...Countermand was third...Career Boy reached Keeneland by rail for 12 days of local training before the Blue Grass Stakes...Needles checked in at Churchill Downs and may, after all, get in one race before the Derby...Arkansas Derby winner Johns Chic also on hand and probably due to start in the Derby Trial on May 1.
FLORIDA: Santa Anita Derby winner Terrang, top prospect of the Ellsworth string, turned in best effort in weeks, winning at mile and 70 yards at Gulfstream in 1:40 2/5...Ben A. Jones was second...Like Magic, stablemate of the winner, was scratched.
MARYLAND: Besomer won first stakes of his career, covering six furlongs of Governor's Gold Cup in 1:11 1/5 at Bowie...He'll get chance against tougher opposition in this week's Chesapeake at Laurel...Among possible starters will be Eastgate, Beau Fond and Born Mighty, the last a stablemate of Career Boy and Head Man and a close winner of his last start at Jamaica.