Until last week's eighth running of the $100,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, James D. Norris' 3-year-old bay gelding Easy Spur had been singularly unlucky. Too often a victim of bad racing luck last season, and once idle for four months with a tricky knee, Easy Spur was all but written off by many experts when, after once again getting slammed about in the Flamingo, he could do no better than finish fifth behind Troilus, the pro tern champion of East Coast winter racing.
But suddenly Trainer Paul Kelley's patience began paying off. First, back on his favorite Gulfstream track, Easy Spur romped home in the March 11th Hutcheson and two weeks later, ridden by his newest fan, Bill Hartack, he humbled Troilus by eight lengths in the Fountain of Youth. Last Saturday he not only made his comeback complete but also projected himself squarely into the center of next month's Kentucky Derby picture by roaring from behind in the stretch to win the Florida Derby by three-quarters of a length over Brookmeade Stable's Sword Dancer, in the brilliant time of 1:47 1/5—only two-fifths of a second off the mile-and-an-eighth track record set by Gen. Duke in this same race.
What made the race all the more noteworthy—aside from the complete collapse of Troilus, who this time finished last after running with the pack for no more than three-quarters of a mile—was that Easy Spur finished the way a Derby horse should: a final quarter in 24 2/5 and the last eighth in 12 1/5. In the lingo of the race-tracker, this is not only a "big" race, it is a "real big" race.
From the moment the gate opened and Troilus came out badly to lose all chance of assuming his favorite pace-setting role, the race was a three-horse affair. Master Palynch, a sprinter at best, went on the lead into the first turn, with Sword Dancer next and Easy Spur loping along comfortably in third place. Midway up the backstretch Sammy Boulmetis on Sword Dancer took the lead away from Master Palynch.
Boulmetis, usually a superb judge of pace, was having some trouble rating Sword Dancer. So instead of fighting his mount he let him go and the Brookmeade colt opened up four lengths on Easy Spur. Shooting his bolt too soon may have cost him the race. Hartack, riding Easy Spur with nervy confidence, had wanted to nail Sword Dancer back at the three-eighth pole, but now, as he saw Boulmetis open up on him, he made the risky decision to wait till the stretch to get his man. And, turning for home still two lengths behind Sword Dancer, Hartack dug in and set sail. All alone by now, having left the tiring Master Palynch well behind, came the pair of them in a furious drive. Not until they were 40 yards out from the wire did Easy Spur thrust ahead for keeps.
A few minutes later in the jocks' room Bill Hartack, who is far from renowned for his friendliness toward inquiring newsmen (see page 112), appeared to have undergone a character transformation as he held court with the courtesy of a diplomat and the ready wit of a surefire comedian. Yes, said he, smiling at his audience, he hoped to ride Easy Spur in the Kentucky Derby, provided he wasn't held to a prior commitment to ride Dunce. And furthermore, yes, said he, Easy Spur certainly did look as though he'd have no trouble going the full Derby mile-and-a-quarter route. As he posed for the cameras carving up a victory cake, one of the room's valets mimicked a typical reporter's question, "When did you think you had it won, Willie?"
Hartack, who can generally be Counted on to answer this with a curdling sneer followed by the standard growling phrase, "When I saw the numbers and the official sign light up," turned sharply and let out a natural laugh. Then, seeing that an answer really was expected of him, he wisecracked, "When I read the entries, of course!"
One man who undoubtedly did think he might win when he saw the entries for the Florida Derby was Easy Spur's 55-year-old trainer, Paul L. Kelley, a quiet and patient man. Supervising the care of his charge the morning before the race, Kelley relaxed in a chair tipped back against the side of his barn. "Easy Spur is small," he said, "but he's all horse. He is sound, well-made but not too rugged. I knew he could run from the first day I ever breezed him. A lot of his bad luck can be blamed on the fact that because he usually doesn't run with the speed horses at the start he gets roughed up a bit." But this time, explained Hartack later, "he broke better than he usually does, and I let him run on his own."
Easy Spur's bloodline credentials—he is by Crowfoot out of an Easy Mon mare named Easy Reeling—are not overwhelmingly impressive in classical terms, and yet Crowfoot did sire the good race mare Nell K and also Jamie K, who, but for the misfortune of being foaled in the same year as Native Dancer, might have won two of the three Triple Crown races in 1953. Jamie K proved he was capable of going a distance of ground in exceptionally good company. Whether Easy Spur will be able to do the same is another matter, but for the moment at least he must be given as good a shot at it as any of the other winter-raced Kentucky Derby eligibles. "He could, after all," says Trainer Kelley, "be a pretty good horse. And I guess, like most millionaires, Norris would be a proud guy to come up with a good horse."
With the Kentucky Derby still three weeks away, it is nonetheless possible now to form a rough picture of it. Without a single standout like Tim Tarn a year ago, the 1959 Derby will undoubtedly attract a large and unwieldy field. And full of question marks it will be.
Both Easy Spur and Sword Dancer will be shipping from Gulfstream, and Sword Dancer, who finished a very creditable third to First Landing and Tomy Lee in last year's Garden State, will benefit enormously from his Florida Derby experience. In fact, this being only his third start of the year, it must be considered every bit as good as Easy Spur's eighth start. And what now of Troilus? His race last week was complete and utter disappointment, and if there was any excuse only Troilus himself could tell us which of the many offered for him is the most valid. Admittedly a "short" horse and, in the words of Trainer Charlie Peoples, "looking like a fat old brood mare" for his race 10 days before the Florida Derby, Troilus was given some good works in preparation for his rematch with Easy Spur. Along with the stiff works, however, came some bad luck. First it was a couple of abscessed teeth. Then, only the day before the race, he rapped his left foreleg in his stall, and for most of Friday his starting status was extremely doubtful. When the leg showed no signs of soreness it was decided to send him on his way. In the race itself, observed Jockey Chris Rogers, "he went fine until we got to the half-mile pole, but then he ran dinky the rest of the way and I thought he pulled up kind of lame." Rogers reversed this decision an hour later when, back at the barn where Troilus was cooling out, he had to agree with Owner Bayard Sharp and Trainer Peoples that his mount looked sound as a bell. "The only explanation I can think of," said Peoples, "is that he choked up on that mucus draining from his teeth after going three-quarters of a mile—and simply stopped."
"Either that," added Sharp, "or else he's the alltime bum of the race track. But whatever it was bothering him I'm inclined to just forget this race altogether and think about going to Kentucky. He deserves a chance at it, and if he continues to stay sound I'm going to give him his chance."
Nothing else in the beaten Florida Derby field would seem to deserve that same chance. Already in Kentucky are the Calumet hopefuls, On-and-On and Torocuik, neither of whom yet looks threatening; Claiborne Farm's disappointing Dunce; and Cain Hoy's Hoist Away, a Turn-To colt who, if I had to pick a dark horse now, would be as good a bet as any.
New York is going to provide its Derby shippers in the next 10 days, and of course the big names there are First Landing, hoping to bounce back in the April 18th Wood Memorial, and Intentionally, who passed up the rewards and rigors of winter racing in favor of a South Carolina training track. Others who may win the necessary backing at Jamaica to undertake the trip to Churchill Downs include Atoll, Black Hills, Our Dad, Open View, Moony and maybe one of the Greentree colts. From New England comes Hurry Home, a Dark Star colt who will get his chance in the Wood.
The biggest question mark—and also the strongest Derby contingent in years—is the invading crew from California, headed by the unbeaten filly Silver Spoon. With her will come several of her Santa Anita Derby victims, including Royal Orbit, Finnegan and Tuleg, as well as last year's West Coast 2-year-old champion Tomy Lee, who is headed for Keene-land's Blue Grass stakes on April 23.
There are not more than 15 of the original 130 Kentucky Derby nominees who rate a chance to run for the rose wreath at the moment, but with the way the topsy-turvy season has been going so far it's beginning to look more and more as though the time is ripe for a whopping payoff on a long shot.