That eminent English observer, Geoffrey Chaucer, long ago noted that April rouses a longing to go on pilgrimages. What might be called Chaucer's Law is having its old effect again in the U.S. this spring as horses and people converge on Louisville and Churchill Downs for the 82nd running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday.
Private planes and entire trains have been standing by for days, waiting to ferry their human cargoes from the comparative peace and quiet of California, Texas and New York into a city that rejoices in Derby Week much as the capital of a kingdom might be expected to rejoice at the coronation of a ruler. And, in a certain sense, these people do flock in to see a ruler proclaimed. For, until at least the results of the Preakness are in on May 19 and the results of the Belmont Stakes on June 16, the winner of the Kentucky Derby occupies a very special spot in turf history. Whether or not he is the best 3-year-old in the country—and very often he is not—he will be this week the horse of the moment. A horse, in fact, so glamorized and publicized that for the time being everyone will be politely reminded that this is not the week when one should even attempt to discuss the record of a fast 2-year-old in Maryland or the breeding record of a Virginia mare—or even the possibilities for success of a famous handicapper running at Jamaica.
Those are topics, if you will, that must wait their turn at the round table, and those turns won't roll around until well after Derby Week. Not until, for instance, thousands of Louisville visitors have this Saturday grimaced in disbelief at the disappointing taste of a watered-down mint julep (at $1.25 a glass) at Churchill Downs; not until they have been stuck with fantastic hotel and restaurant bills, and not until they are squeezed into a battered old horse park where fully a third of them (of a crowd always announced as "over 100,000") will never even see the race they came all that way to see. For many, these frustrations will be taken lightly, for this, after all, is the Kentucky Derby—a horse race glamorized beyond all true perspective and proportion and yet a contest that has developed during the course of the last 82 years into a sporting spectacle probably unrivaled anywhere on earth.
To the horseman the Kentucky Derby is no spectacle. When a man has been bringing his horse along by carefully calculated training theories to a point where he hopes the colt can carry 126 pounds for a mile and a quarter against the best 3-year-olds in training, he is not particularly interested in band music in the infield or at the sight of rows of inebriates resting amongst the wrack and ruin of the day's newspapers and shattered glasses. The artificiality and carnival air of such a spectacle has, to this dedicated man, no business being part of a race meeting.
And yet they come to the Derby—trainers, owners and their horses, all the way from California, New York, Florida, Chicago, Seattle and from nearby spots in Kentucky. Many would like to be there who can't be. Many are there who, knowing full well they shouldn't be, want to share, for this brief moment, the distinction that goes out so warmheartedly to any stable willing to run in the big race. And as they gather together in Kentucky from the widespread winter racing headquarters and from the southern training grounds, the horsemen begin to talk. Usually it isn't very long before somebody throws in the old familiar line: "Worst looking bunch of 3-year-olds I've ever seen." There may be some agreement on the subject, but this becomes a time when trainers and owners engage in a tactful campaign of building up the other man's horse while simultaneously repressing the urge to state, "Brother, when you see me coming down in front on Derby Day, you're going to tell me I've got the best horse since Citation." It may indeed be this eternal hope that creates the special excitement of the Derby, for this is the race where men ask their horses to carry scale weight over a longer distance of ground than they have ever traveled before, and, in many cases, whether they win or not, the Derby is the proving ground which leads to lasting success or ultimate failure.
In Kentucky last week, as the invasion's advance guard moved into the settlement of regulars who know the horse business inside out, there appeared to be a definite justification for wailing over a generally poor crop of 3-year-olds. Victories in the major winter and spring stakes had been divided up among more than a dozen colts (see chart page 37) and, with few exceptions, form reflected highly uneven performances by colts of whom so much had been expected at the close of the 1955 season. So spotty, for instance, were the records of many a Derby eligible that in the last three major Derby preps before the big one, all three victories went to colts who hadn't even been nominated for the Derby itself. This can be taken either as an indication that many of last season's better juveniles were apparently falsely appraised or that a lot of owners simply failed to realize this winter that, if you had a sound horse in your barn, this was the time to throw out his 1955 record and give him another crack at everything in sight-Kentucky Derby included.
TEMPERAMENTAL SON OF PONDER
It is pleasant—although not always possible—to think of the Derby winner as a real champion. A colt, in other words, who stands at the head of his division, ready and capable of warding off the challenges of any contenders, and who, despite the occasional defeat that touches even the great, accepts that defeat with graciousness and a true show of heart and stamina. You think, perhaps, of a Whirl-away, a Count Fleet, a Citation, an Assault or a Swaps. Champions all—and all Derby winners who used the carnival at Louisville as the center stage for one of the most important performances of their respective careers.
What, then, do we find to indicate that the 1956 crop of 3-year-olds can produce another great name in turf history? If the class as a whole is labeled "ordinary" and "common," will the colt who graduates with top honors this week merely be acclaimed the best of an ordinary lot? Or may we expect to see one of the starting field (which will probably range between 10 and 16, depending on showings in this week's mile Derby Trial) emerge as a champion in his own right? There is always, or nearly always, during Derby Week much hopeful talk about a wide-open race. Never, so it would seem, has there been so much justification for that familiar cry as there is this week. But through the maze, of facts and figures and through the whirling mixture of calculations that will be made collectively and individually before Saturday's post time, there nonetheless stands one favorite whose 1956 record makes him the true focal point of this 82nd Derby.
That colt is a temperamental running fool with the un-horsy name of Needles (see cover). He is a good-looking bay with a devastatingly effective stretch run that immediately reminds you of his sire, Ponder, who won the Derby in 1949, and of his grandsire, Pensive, who won the same race in 1944. The fact that Needles is so unlike most of the colts who will run against him gives him a special sort of glamour during a year when glamour and excitement within the division are sorely needed. Needles, for instance, is not a work horse. He does not require much work to remain fit, and nobody apparently seems to be more aware of this than Needles himself, who, unless he feels like putting out in the morning, will struggle to avoid getting to the race track, or, once there against his will, take a particular delight in refusing to do what is asked of him. His two big races this winter were the Flamingo at Hialeah and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. He won both by coming from the back end and finishing like a jet going flat out. As both of those races were at a distance of a mile and an eighth, and in view of Needles' run at the wire, there is certainly every reason to expect that here is a horse for whom the Derby's mile and a quarter is virtually made to order.
The people who mastermind Needles' campaign are confident, but not overconfident. His owners, B. M. (Bonnie) Heath and Jackson C. Dudley, are a couple of serious-minded and highly practical residents of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. who take the sensible view that success in racing is pretty much like success in the oil business—in both of them you must have luck, patience and be willing to work. The analogy between the two fields, as far as Heath and Dudley are concerned, is quite a natural one. For neither of these men (Dudley is 44 and Heath 39) is a stranger to the oil business. Heath, with a degree as an oil engineer from Oklahoma A&M, and Dudley, a former ranch hand from Texas, had enough of an urge to seek oil that the two joined into a happy partnership after striking oil for the first time in 1945. Their interest in racing actually was largely the work of their 60-year-old trainer, Hugh L. Fontaine, who, drawing on his long years of experience in and out of racing, recognized Needles' potential the first time he saw the colt and strongly urged the D & H partnership that he was easily worth every penny of the $20,000 price tag put on him by the Dickey Stables of Ocala, Fla. As Needles was foaled in Florida (although he was conceived in Kentucky), he is technically a Florida-bred colt, and as such this year has received acclaim usually reserved for only the most distinguished native sons. The last honor to come his way, for example, was notification last week that he had been elected an honorary member of the Ocala Chamber of Commerce. By duly showing his plywood membership card at the door, Needles, like any other member of the group, will be invited to munch his oats with his colleagues at the next luncheon meeting.
Having Needles under his care represents something of a comeback for Trainer Fontaine. The Louisiana-born veteran never started out with a trainer's career in mind. The son of a New Orleans surgeon, Fontaine lost interest in his mission after a stint at medical school, but later proved himself so useful as a pilot with Eddie Rickenbacker in the First World War that he became the South's first ace and was three times awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. As a trainer in the 1930s Fontaine saddled W. R. Coe's Ladysman to upset Equipoise in the Suburban Handicap, and then put in half a dozen years in the service of Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane's Brookmeade Stable.
Perhaps the most important man at Churchill Downs this Saturday will be a 34-year-old Nebraskan jockey by the name of Dave Erb. Erb, a handsome, well-knit athlete, hardly qualifies as America's best-known rider. And yet, as is often the case between man and horse, there is a harmony between Needles and Erb that manifests itself best when the two are flying up the backstretch after the leaders in a race which apparently both colt and rider feel they can win by doing things right—and doing them together. "Needles," says Erb, "is the most intelligent horse I've ever been on in my life because he does things on his own. He runs on his own courage, and seems to know without my telling him when it's time for us to make our move." After looking at some of the rivals Needles will have to meet, Dave Erb last week had still another astute observation: "I'm not about to knock another man's horse, but from what I've seen so far this year, I'm very confident. If anything, Needles is in better shape now than he was in Florida, and if he won the big ones there, he should be able to do it at Louisville."
The confidence shown by the Messrs. Dudley, Heath, Fontaine and Erb is hardly matched in other camps. There was, for instance, serious trouble last Saturday morning at the C. V. Whitney barn where the entry of Head Man and Career Boy were being put through their final paces. While Head Man, winner of the Experimental and the Wood Memorial (the latter victory achieved through the disqualification of the non-Derby eligible, Golf Ace), was expected to fulfill an engagement in one Derby trial just four days before the big race, the status of Career Boy became most uncertain over the weekend. Just 48 hours after he had finished second in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes to another non-Derby eligible, Toby B., Career Boy turned up with a sore right hind foot. Trainer Syl Veitch, for the moment, could hazard a guess that his colt would have no better than a 50-50 chance of getting to the Derby post, and he added that he probably wouldn't be able to make up his mind one way or the other until the 11th hour. Derby disappointments are nothing new to either Owner Whitney or Trainer Veitch. The biggest of all for both of them came in 1947 when Career Boy's sire, Phalanx, went to the post as favorite only to lose a photo decision to Jet Pilot after coming from dead last with a whirlwind stretch run. But Veitch, a clear-thinking horseman with common sense, partially hid his disappointment behind a philosophical announcement that reflects to a fine degree the racing man's constant attitude that in this sport nothing can be taken for granted. "Look at all the men who want to run their horse in the Derby," he said. "Look at how many of the colts go wrong during winter and spring racing. If they are going to get upset over one injury, they don't belong in the sport at all. Well, we brought two colts up for this race, and if both of them start, aren't we luckier than the man who has none—or even one? If Career Boy can't make it we can still be thankful that we may have one starter in Head Man. We've seen the breaks go against a lot of owners this season. If they go against us now, I reckon it's because it's our turn. We'll do the best we can, and nobody can do better than that."
The Veitch-Whitney strategy originally called for Eric Guerin to ride Career Boy and Eddie Arcaro to ride Head Man in search of his sixth Derby victory. The same plan still holds, and although a Derby without Career Boy would seriously hurt the Whitney chances for a victory, a confident Arcaro thinks Head Man actually has as good, if not better, chance of winning than his stablemate. "It's the sort of entry you like to have," says Eddie, "a colt like Head Man who can run on the pace and a colt like Career Boy who runs way off it. But in the Derby some of those late runners often get into a lot of trouble because when they make their moves they often find themselves running over dead-tired horses who run so unpredictably that you may never know whether to go inside of one horse, outside of another—or where to run. And if you come around on the outside you may lose too much ground. For this kind of a race I'd prefer Head Man because I can put him in where I want him and can make sure that I keep out of trouble."
Guerin likes Career Boy better than any 3-year-old he's seen this year, and that includes Needles. He won the Gotham with him, and in view of the off-track conditions for last week's Blue Grass, he considers Career Boy did well enough to finish second—although at this point it might be mentioned that his conqueror in that one, Toby B., who was beaten 17 lengths while finishing 11th in the Flamingo, was a very ordinary colt a year ago. A conclusion about Career Boy is that if he is lucky enough to run at all he simply must have a lightning fast track in order to insure his best effort. "We know now," says Veitch, "he practically needs a strip of concrete, and if the track is in the least bit greasy or slippery, he just doesn't seem to be able to find good footing."
The Derby, in recent years, has had a very special significance for the proud state of California. In 1952 the Calumet colt Hill Gail came off a winter of Santa Anita racing to beat the best that New York and Florida tracks could offer. Two years later it was a California-owned horse, Determine, who did the same thing. And last year, of course, it was the great Swaps, bred, owned, trained and raced on the West Coast, who shattered the myth of Nashua's invincibility with one of the most brilliant Derby victories ever. From across the Rockies this year have come three more pretenders to the throne. Of the trio most of the attention this Saturday will be focused on a brown colt named Terrang, who, like Swaps, is a son of the stallion Khaled and who, also like Swaps, is owned by Rex Ellsworth, trained by Mish Tenney and ridden by Willie Shoemaker. Trainer Tenney is not ready to concede that his Derby horse belongs in the same class with Swaps, but the record shows that when Terrang is right he can do a lot of running. He won the Santa Anita Derby, and not long ago in Florida he came very close to Swaps's world-record time for a mile and 70 yards. On this colt the watchword is simply: "Watch out!" Mish Tenney is not in the habit of starting horses unless he feels they are "ready." The fact that he thought enough of Terrang to ship him to Louisville at all should be warning enough.
The other West Coast invaders do not bring with them quite as highly qualified credentials as you might read in Terrang's papers, but nonetheless they have not come along just for the ride. First, there is Count Chic, winner of the San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita and the Biscayne Bay at Gulfstream. Second, there is No Regrets, who on the same day that Head Man lucked through with his victory in the Wood was winning the California Derby at Tanforan. Count Chic, beaten only three parts of a length by Needles in the Florida Derby, is owned by a Seattle, Wash, pizza palace owner named Dino Lozzi, who picked up his Derby entrant in a claiming race for the bargain price of $6,500. No Regrets, although Kentucky-bred, is owned by W. E. (Buck) Britt of Clayton, N. Mex. Britt, a combination Hereford cattle rancher and oilman, has a colt who was picked up for $12,500 in the 1954 Keeneland yearling sales.
The status of Calumet Farm's Derby eligibles will probably be rather undecisive until the very last moment, but should either of their two leading candidates, Pintor Lea and Fabius, reach the starting gate, the respect which Derby crowds hold for Trainers Ben and Jimmy Jones will insure a certain amount of heavy support. Pintor Lea, who suffered a slight injury at Keeneland a few days ago, is the kind of a colt, says Ben, "that you can't count out until he's had every chance to round out into shape just before the entries close." Fabius, a son of Calumet's Triple Crown Winner Citation, was third in the Flamingo (behind Needles and Golf Ace), but at Keeneland he burned up the track winning two sprints. Owner Mrs. Gene Markey said last week that she'd certainly love to see at least one of the two start, but that there was some doubt in her mind as to whether Fabius was quite ready to carry that weight over the Derby distance. Ben Jones, plodding conscientiously back and forth around his barn, had a hungry look in his eye—even for a man who has already trained five Derby winners. "Yep, they say I'd like to win another Derby," he remarked. "I'd like to know the man who wouldn't."
In the last few days before post time, there will be additions and subtractions to the list of probable starters. Among the so-called lesser lights who seem pretty certain to give it a try are the Brandywine Stables' (owned by Donald P. Ross) Countermand; Louisiana Derby Winner Reaping Right; Maine Chance Farm's Gun Shot; J. Cavegnano's High King, and the colt Ben A. Jones, owned by the Maggio-Gregory Stable in Chicago. Should any of them win over their more celebrated rivals the surprise would be immense.
In the spirit of the unpredictable spring season—and knowing what we do about the past performances of some of the eligible starters—we might venture a guess as to what Saturday's running account could sound like. The starting field has withstood the long winter test of soundness and fitness. An assumption will be made that Career Boy does make it to the gate. Less familiar names may, at the last moment, make it too. And now—
The horses are all in. There is a nerve-shattering and breathtaking silence. And there they go! It is Fabius shooting into the lead under a tight hold by Hartack. They are corning past the stands for the first time, Fabius on the front end and the pack behind him, including High King and the colt Besomer, just down from Maryland. And right in there with them is Head Man. Arcaro has a good hold on the roan and is free of all trouble as they swing into the clubhouse turn. Terrang, Gun Shot and No Regrets are there, and then come Reaping Right, Ben A. Jones and Count Chic. Bringing up the rear—and resembling two colts that are out for nothing more than a light morning's work—are Career Boy and today's big favorite, Needles. Up the backstretch they turn, with Fabius still setting the pace.
More daylight shows between the pursuers now, and—wait a minute—here they go. Yes, there goes Erb on Needles and Guerin on Career Boy. The two stretch runners are starting to flatten out as their riders give them the signal that the moment to move has come. Around the far turn and it's still Fabius, but now Arcaro is driving out Head Man, and Shoemaker is making a serious move with Terrang. Behind them, and thundering along past some of the tired horses, are Career Boy and Needles. Needles is on the outside. He's taking the long way around, but nonetheless he appears to be fine.
They're coming now to the quarter pole and all you see are driving horses in close formation across the track. Whips are slashing, heads bobbing. The final drive is on. Fabius, Terrang, and here now is Count Chic, and with them are Head Man and Career Boy reaching for a piece of the money. And there too is Needles sprouting wings and going flat out. They have now reached the eighth pole—just a furlong away from everlasting fame. The only question as they roar down on the line is: Which of them—if any—will be capable of withstanding Needles' thundering finish over that last, desperate and ever-so-important eighth of a mile of Kentucky soil?
The topic will be kicked around in a million homes and offices this week. The nonexpert will have an opinion every bit as valid as the expert—six of whom, by the way, go out on a limb for SI this week (see page 39) with their own predictions of the first four finishers. A year ago six different men of the turf happily sent us their Derby selections. Not one of them had the winner. It's at times like that when a common bond springs up between the serious gambler, the little bettor, the hopeful owner and the distressed trainer. It also signals the bandmaster a warning that it's high time to strike up the fraternity theme song: "Well, that's racing for you."
DERBY SELECTIONS BY SIX LEADING TURF WRITERS
1. Needles—Has done everything asked of him
2. C.V. Whitney entry (Head Man and Career Boy)—Head Man comes of stronger family
3. Count Chic—Could "steal" the race
Chicago Daily News
1. Needles—Already beaten some of them twice
2. Career Boy—Could be the drop-in horse
3. Reaping Right—Will be running all the way
4. Fabius—Probably lacks stretch stride
Los Angeles Times
1. Needles—Two big races in Florida
2. Terrang—Won the Santa Anita Derby
3. Fabius—Can't ever sell Calumet short
4. Count Chic—Small but hard-hitting colt
Miami Daily News
1. Needles—Perfect distance for him
2. Fabius—Calumet's sleeper
3. Count Chic—Solid, with endurance
4. Head Man—Could be real surprise
1. Needles—Bad actor but good stretch runner
2. Fabius—Can't count Ben Jones all way out
3. Count Chic—He'll be closing fast
4. Terrang—Winning stable last year
New York Daily News
1. Needles—Proven performer as 3-year-old
2. Count Chic—Little Calif. horse with big chance
3. Career Boy—He'll be flying at the end
4. Fabius—Ben Jones colt always dangerous
THE ROAD TO CHURCHILL DOWNS
Los Feliz Stakes
Johnie Mike (118)
Lucky G. L. (122)
More Glory (122)
San Miguel Stakes
Count Chic (118)
Johnie Mike (118)
Liberty Sun (112)
Come On Red (114)
Calif. Breeders' Champ. S.
1 1/16 m.
Fathers Risk (118)
Lucky G. L. (118)
Eiffel Blue (114)
Dark Charger (118)
Gun Shot (114)
San Vicente Handicap
Fathers Risk (122)
Bold Bazooka (124)
1 1/8 m.
Liberty Sun (114)
San Felipe Handicap
1 1/16 m.
Social Climber (108)
Count Chic (120)
1 1/8 m.
Golf Ace (122)
Santa Anita Derby
1 1/8 m.
Social Climber (118)
More Glory (118)
1 1/8 m.
Reaping Right (111)
Mr. Bob W. (111)
Frosty Mr. (112)
Fountain of Youth Handicap
1 1/16 m.
Oh Johnny (114)
Greek Spy (116)
1 1/8 m.
Count Chic (119)
Pintor Lea (113)
1 1/8 m.
Johns Chic (117)
Come on Red (117)
Mr. Bob W. (114)
Head Man (119)
Polly's Jet (119)
1 1/16 m.
Count Chic (120)
Lead Scout (108)
1 1/16 m.
Career Boy (122)
Jean Baptists (122)
Governor's Gold Cup
1 1/8 m.
Head Man (126)
Golf Ace (126)
Oh Johnny (126)
1 1/16 m.
Frosty Mr. (113)
Born Mighty (114)
1 1/8 m.
No Regrets (126)
Lucky G. L. (126)
Blue Grass Stakes
1 1/8 m.
Toby B. (121)
Career Boy (126)
Reaping Right (126)
(weights in parenthesis)