Close by the outside rail of Hialeah's clubhouse turn is a little clearing known quite unofficially among the horsemen who bring their business—and their hopes—to the South's most famous race track as Mr. Fitz's Place. James E. Fitzsimmons, now 82 and depending a bit more each year on one aluminum walking aid, would be the last person in the world to request that any special place at any race track be set aside for his use. And yet no other trainer (or anybody else at Hialeah) would ever think of setting foot in that particular clearing without a personal invitation from Mr. Fitz himself.
Last week he issued just such an invitation to a young lady on her first visit to Hialeah. "Now, you just step right along in here beside me," he said as he walked up to the rail, "and if you have any questions I'll do my best to answer them."
The young lady, like so many other first-time visitors to Hialeah, was attracted by the sight of hundreds of flamingos maneuvering curiously about the infield. Mr. Fitz noticed her preoccupation with these beautiful birds and quickly came to the rescue. "I used to think," he said, "that the flamingos would all want to be flying off back to Cuba where they originally came from. But they must like it here because I never heard of one getting very far away. As a matter of fact, I often amuse myself by clocking flamingos between poles on the backstretch. One in particular I can remember. He was a graceful bird in the air, and I know one day I caught him going an eighth of a mile in five seconds. Now don't you know I certainly wouldn't mind having a race horse who could run that fast."
For sheer speed among Thoroughbreds of 1957's 3-year-old crop, Hialeah Park is the place to be. And this week the cream of that crop is entered in the $100,000-added mile-and-an-eighth Flamingo Stakes.
The buildup of the 3-year-old season is a gradual thing, but a desperately exciting process which actually has its beginning well back in the preceding year. Its conclusion comes not on Kentucky Derby day but often on a cold fall day when the survivors of the Hialeah campaigns finally step out weight-for-age against older horses. Dozens of 3-year-olds will drop out of the real battle before Derby Day—some quite possibly for no other reason than that they tried too hard to match their own ability with that of this week's Flamingo winner.
Most racing people in the country are in agreement this week that the best 3-year-old is at the moment stabled at Hialeah. The disagreement comes when you ask, "What is his name?" The answers pop back at you rapid-fire: Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke, Barbizon, Federal Hill, Missile and a few scattered votes for Iron Liege, King Hairan, Ambehaving, Ben Lomond, One-Eyed King. (Hialeah racegoers traditionally like to give a premature brushoff to any 3-year-olds who happen to be racing at Santa Anita. They believe, for instance, that there is no real California threat this year outside of Prince Khaled.)
There is no question that most of the Flamingo interest is centered on Bold Ruler, whom Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons trains for Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, and the Calumet Farm entry of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege. More than a little of this interest was fired up in dramatic fashion less than two weeks ago when Bold Ruler, carrying 126 pounds, failed by barely a head to hold off the closing rush of Gen. Duke (in with 114 pounds) in the Everglades. Mr. Fitz came up for criticism in some quarters for working Bold Ruler a mile in 1:35 just a few days before the Everglades. "Well, in the first place," says Mr. Fitz, "I'll admit that in that 1:35 work Bold Ruler went too fast. I thought he should have done it in about :37, but just the same I don't think it hurt him. A horse has to work, you know, to get fit—for in a race those other horses aren't just playing out there.
"I told Eddie [Arcaro] to get him on his way decent. Well, he sure got him on his way. It's easy to say now, but maybe Eddie could have saved him a little. But shucks, I know—and so does Eddie—that those other jocks out there don't always let you do anything you want, and you don't always get things your own way. This week, before the Flamingo, I'll only remind Eddie of the obvious things: 'get off good and save him for where the money is and don't let him run too soon.' "
Bold Ruler himself is surrounded by a certain amount of mystery for many racing fans, because of what appeared to be a complete reversal of form last fall after he climaxed a great spring and summer with an easy victory in the Belmont Futurity. "As far as I'm concerned," says Mr. Fitz, "the only thing this colt has ever done wrong was his bad running for the last three quarters of a mile in the Remsen. Everything else he's done cheerfully and with a good disposition. If they want to compare him to Nashua [in conformation Bold Ruler is longer, lighter and a little taller than Nashua], it may be a little soon. Bold Ruler is more willing—he wants to run—and if you consider his layoff last summer, he's done as much as Nashua did at the same stage of his career."
Shortly before the Everglades, Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones was quoted to the effect that he held the upper hand because he had three Derby horses to only one for Mr. Fitz. "I didn't mean it the way it might sound," said Jimmy last week. "I only mean it's always nice to have three good horses; it gives you more of a chance and I'd be crazy not to say I was glad to have all three: Barbizon, Gen. Duke and Iron Liege." Barbizon, it will be remembered, was Calumet's big horse at the close of last season after he won the Garden State. "Barbizon hasn't shown much form in Florida after his coughing spell," says Jones, "but you can't count him out just because he hasn't run yet. I'd say, despite the way we've seen Gen. Duke develop, that Barbizon is the sounder. We're in the good position of not having to hurry him along while Gen. Duke is going so well."
The Everglades results may or may not have caught Jimmy Jones by surprise. "There's no question that the 12-pound weight pull helped us a lot, but I honestly didn't think Gen. Duke would beat Bold Ruler in that one. He exceeded my expectations, and what pleases me now is that I believe he will improve. What I'd like to know," he added, "is how much Bold Ruler is going to improve."
That answer will come this Saturday for some 40,000 eyewitnesses and millions of televiewers. The field will carry equal weight of 122 pounds in the toughest grind of the season so far. If an outsider wins it, it will change the whole complexion of the 3-year-old picture. For the crop already is regarded as one of the finest in years. "When colts like Gen. Duke and Bold Ruler can do what they're doing so early in the season, you know they must be good," says Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
"That's quite true," adds Jimmy Jones with calculated caution. "But don't forget, there are a lot of horses who haven't run this winter who will be right in the middle of the Kentucky Derby—that is, if they're good enough. One that I know is good enough is Barbizon."
Last week's Widener, in which only five horses finally showed up, was, on paper at least, to have developed into something of a match race between Mrs. John Galbreath's Summer Tan and Calumet's Bardstown. Bardstown had been the sensation of last fall's handicap division. Summer Tan had developed into nearly everybody's favorite after coming back from a close brush with death three years ago and, when he whipped Bardstown by three lengths in the McLennan Handicap, most people were inclined to agree when Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons said the other day, "Summer Tan is the finest horse in training in America. He's great."
No one disliked the buildup more than Summer Tan's trainer Sherrill Ward, who knows as well as any trainer in America that you don't want to be considered a cinch against Calumet in a $100,000 stake. "Sure it's flattering to be told you have the best horse," groaned Sherrill the day before the race. "But these people are judging our horses today on what they saw in the McLennan. I will say that in that one I think Summer Tan was as good as he's ever been. I can't be sure he'll stay at that peak—but I can be pretty sure that Bardstown will improve."
Jimmy Jones loves to hear the other fellow's horse built up, for it gives him the perfect opportunity to perfect his technique of crying that he has absolutely no chance. "Why, in my mind," he said, "there's no question that Summer Tan is a better horse than Bardstown. Shucks, Bardstown got his reputation beating grade B horses."
Widener Day found the Hialeah strip a little gummy and holding. A rumor flew through the stands that Bardstown would be scratched because he didn't like the going. But Ben Jones, Jimmy's father, scotched that one by saying, "Jimmy doesn't seem to think our horse likes this stuff but says we have to run in it for all that money."
Bardstown got to the winner's circle with a front-running effort that left Summer Tan—after one good run at him right in the middle of the big last bend—a soundly beaten fourth.
"I thought," a friend said to Ben Jones, "Bardstown wasn't supposed to like this track."
"Well," replied the old master, "Jimmy was scared. But then Jimmy is always scared, you know."
WHO CAN BEAT BOLD RULER?
This week's $100,000-added Flamingo Stakes in Florida and Santa Anita Derby in California are the two most important early tests on that road of gold-or-heartbreak leading to the classics of 3-year-old racing: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. One colt stands out as a firm current favorite: the Wheatley Stable's son of Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, who in unofficial future books is quoted at a mere 4 to 1 for the Kentucky Derby, and this despite his narrow defeat last week by Gen. Duke (see right), to whom he was conceding all of 12 pounds. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has conducted an informal poll among racing people at Hialeah and Santa Anita to discover which horse they think likeliest to beat Bold Ruler. Five selections and their selectors are given below:
MISSILE: Race Caller Fred Capossela: "I rather think that there will be another name up a bit later, and that is Missile."
PRINCE KHALED: Pride of the West Coast and selection of Trainer Bob Roberts, Jockeys Willie Shoemaker and George Taniguchi, and the director of Santa Anita, Dr. Charles Strub. One of the favorites of Marshall Cassidy of The Jockey Club.
FEDERAL HILL: His owner, Clifford Lussky: "Mine was 75 pounds too fat when Bold Ruler beat him. He's up top."
BOLD RULER ABOUT TO BE CAUGHT ON WIRE BY GEN, DUKE
GEN. DUKE: The conqueror of Bold Ruler in the Everglades Stakes is the pick of West Coast Announcer Joe Hernandez, Leslie Combs II (head of the syndicate which owns Nashua), top Jockey Willie Hartack and Trainer Ben A. Jones.
BARBIZON: He is liked by Trainers Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Reggie Cornell, Charles Whittingham; Jockeys Eddie Arcaro, Jack Westrope, Ted Atkinson; Handicappers Jimmy Kilroe of New York and Santa Anita and Charles McLennan of Hialeah Park.