In the Far West where men are men and so, usually, are horses, the 3-year-old Thoroughbred who will travel east this year to test the dudes at the Kentucky Derby is a graceful beauty with an upswept hairdo, four lovely legs and a very real way with the boys. She is Silver Spoon and she was born with one in her mouth in the august stables of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. But she humbled nine roughnecks of the stronger sex in the 22nd running of the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday as though she had been born on the wrong side of the tracks with a chip on her shoulder.
Though trouncing male horses at her time of life is supposed to be as impossible as Jayne Mansfield winning the welterweight championship of the world, Silver Spoon clearly showed she didn't know she was supposed to be a lady. Only one filly (Ciencia, 1939) had ever won the Santa Anita Derby; only one (Regret, 1915) has ever won the Kentucky Derby. But the crowd of 57,300 who jammed Santa Anita on Saturday was in no mood for historical precedent. They were in love. And Miss Silver Spoon, the sweetheart of Santa Anita, went off at 3 to 2 with the hearts and hopes—and money—of almost everyone. At the finish a 75-year-old codger from the butter-and-eggs country of Cotati, Calif. pressed a package on the Spoon's jockey, Ray York, and wrung his hand with tears in his eyes. It was a 100-year-old silver spoon the old gentleman had brought the 600 miles from his home, and it was wrapped in a green ribbon and gold box for the occasion. A letter enclosed "from one who loves horses" said: "I hope you and Silver Spoon will go on to Kentucky to win that big one and perhaps I might be there for the first time before I pass on."
It was an afternoon charged with emotion. The horses in that starting gate—Ole Fols and Friar Roach, who had set and-tied, respectively, the six-furlong track record this year; the in-and-out-again Finnegan, who was "in" the last time; the stretch-charging Royal Orbit—marked the best derby field in California in years. The hard-looking trainers like Charlie Whittingham conceded, "There's lots of Kentucky [Derby] horses in here this year."
Cinderella was in post position 6 when the race started, and though it soon became evident the race track was no place for a lady this day, she won easily against horses who proved they were no gentlemen. A western varmint aptly named Fightin Indian fought his way to the front at first and, with the canny Johnny Longden aboard, was ready to offer action to anyone who came up to challenge. Another dry gulcher, Ole Fols, ranged along outside. Miss Silver Spoon, head high like a schoolmarm walking through the crowd in the front of the saloon, tried to move in between. They wouldn't let her, and for most of the way around the track they tried to break the cheeky gal's spirit.
In the end it was Ole Fols who gave way, and if it was his strategy to set up the race for his more promising stablemate, Finnegan, as many horsemen deduced, he failed miserably. He spit out the bit at the far turn and backed up dismally. He forced the astonished Finnegan to stop running just long enough to lose all chance. Mean while, aboard Silver Spoon, Jockey York, who was about to concede he too would have to take up, found that his young lady was made of sterner stuff. "She just kept going right on through there, and I got into her and had to use her. She's something all right," he said later in some awe.
With only Fightin Indian to put away, Silver Spoon was a shoo-in. Not even the slash of the whip across her flanks bothered her serene flight to a two-and-a-half-length win. Although Royal Orbit, a stretch-running bully-boy who has been known to panic even the colts, came at her near the finish, she contained him with ease and stepped across the finish line with ears pricking.
Before she ever got to the derby, Silver Spoon had had to prove her fortitude to her own dubious people. Even while weaning, she showed a lame hip in the pasture. By the time she reached the age of 3, the stable had twice tried to unload her—first by sale and then by entrance in an $8,000 claiming race. That race, her first, was at Belmont last September 23, and someone missed the bargain of the decade. The Spoon won it by six lengths, galloping, but no one had claimed her. Though she still limps between races, she never limps on the track and has never been beaten. She has won five straight races at Santa Anita this winter, and three weeks ago she won the filly championship by some 11 lengths. Girls bore her.
Silver Spoon is a daughter of Citation, who has never before distinguished himself as a producer of champions of his own kind. Owner Sonny Whitney, who also has in his 4-year-old Bug Brush the best handicap filly on the West Coast, still wipes his brow when he thinks how close he came to losing Silver Spoon, who may well become one of the famous fillies of all time.
It was Whitney's father, the late Harry Payne Whitney, who owned the only filly to win the Kentucky Derby. "But it was easier in those days," conceded Whitney in the Santa Anita pressroom after the race. "There were so few Thoroughbreds then compared with about 10,000 American horses foaled each year for racing now."
Despite the odds which might make even Nick the Greek break into a sweat, Owner Whitney proposes to dip his Silver Spoon in the Kentucky Derby. "I think she rates it, don't you?" he asked, fastening a yellow carnation from the winner's blanket of flowers in his buttonhole and fastening his blue eyes on a ring of questioners. "I mean, I'm not so sure these colts here are not better than the eastern ones. It seems First Landing has not developed the way he should—or the way one had hoped." However, he does not plan to campaign his glamour girl in Florida before the Derby. "She's a daughter now of California," he joked to the cheers of the turf writers.
Jockey Ray York, who has already won his Kentucky Derby (Determine, 1954), admitted cautiously that "It was a rough race. They had the filly in a switch all the way, and she had a rough trip. Boland [Ole Fols's jockey] kept me where he knew I wasn't going anywhere most of the way. But I had more confidence in her today than I have had in a mount in a long time. You usually got to save a filly. They won't stand a drive like a colt. But she did."
A friend asked: "How many fillies you seen, Ray, who could look colts in the eye the way she can?"
"Damn few," noted York.
Whether California's adopted daughter (who was bred in Kentucky) will become the fourth Santa Anita Derby winner of this decade to go on to win at Kentucky depends, as it always does with Thoroughbreds, on how she continues to shape up. With her, there is the additional hazard that she is, after all, a woman. "She's no tomboy," grinned Whitney. "She looks like a girl and she acts like a girl. Like all of them, she's temperamental and hard to handle when she gets her feelings hurt."
That's why all of California will be holding its breath until Derby time at Louisville.