The ever-fresh fascination of the 84-year-old Kentucky Derby has a lot to do with the fact that it has produced races of every possible variety, from easy victories by famed and short-priced favorites to tremendous upsets by unheralded long shots. It may be, though, that no previous running could quite match the combined excitement, suspense and confusion building up around the 85th version to be run at Churchill Downs next week.
The advance picture of the mile-and-a-quarter race has changed drastically in six months. Last fall, after his brilliant win in The Garden State, Christopher Chenery's First Landing was the darling of the experts. Then came the shocks of winter and spring races in California, Florida and New York. First Landing has won but two of his five 1959 starts, his most recent setback coming in last week's Wood Memorial when he finished behind Manassa Mauler, a 64-to-1 shot who is not even eligible for the Derby. In California the spotlight that was to have shone on Tomy Lee focused instead on a whole crew of new names and new faces and, when Tomy Lee regained his old form in Kentucky a week ago, so did other upstarts begin pointing their noses toward Churchill Downs with the frisky determination of young colts sniffing the sweetness of roses in the brisk April wind.
Never before has this prestigious American classic been so wide open. At last count, no fewer than 28 of the original 130 nominees could still possibly be going to the Derby starting gate next Saturday afternoon. Were you to give a lusty pull on the handle of the imaginary Derby slot machine pictured above, any one of the eight likely favorites could trip the lock on the jackpot vault. Some men of judgment would not be surprised if none of the eight got under the wire first. It is just this sort of frantic guesswork which could turn the 85th Kentucky Derby into one of the best ever.
What will also turn the next week into one of the most suspenseful weeks in all Derby history is the strong possibility that the popular star of this nationwide show may never make a stage appearance at all. The star's name: Silver Spoon, C. V. Whitney's wiry chestnut filly who runs with all the gritty determination of a tomboy chasing the next-door bully. In six starts Silver Spoon has never known defeat and, after beating the best of her own age and sex this winter in California, she defiantly stepped forward to trounce the best colts (all except Tomy Lee, who was not entered) in the mile-and-an-eighth Santa Anita Derby.
If ever a Derby had a sentimental—although by no means a purely logical—favorite, it is Silver Spoon who, if she accepts and conquers the immense challenge awaiting her at Louisville, will have written one of the most fantastic chapters in Derby history. How come? Well, fillies just don't beat colts, that's all. And when they do they don't do it at distances beyond a mile against the sort of colts who line up in the Kentucky Derby. The task is so tough that of the 913 Derby starters to date, only 28 have been fillies (the last filly starter was in 1945), and of these only one has ever won. That was in 1915 when Harry Payne Whitney's Regret, carrying 112 pounds, whipped a field of 15 colts carrying from 110 to 117 pounds.
Now, 44 years later, C. V. Whitney, only son of the late Harry Payne Whitney, has popped up with Silver Spoon and, if ever there was a challenge to cash in on the most unlikely father-son double in all the world of sport, that challenge is here and now. The decision on how to face this challenge, however, is not being reached by snap judgment by Owner Whitney and his 39-year-old trainer Bob Wheeler. There are valid arguments for and against running Silver Spoon (who, unlike Regret, would have to carry 121 pounds against the colts' 126 pounds) in the Derby, and Whitney intends to weigh all of them with the meticulous care of a Cape Canaveral supervisor before he orders the button pushed. He will even run Silver Spoon once at Churchill Downs—in this Saturday's Kentucky Oaks Prep, at six furlongs—to see how she adapts to the Downs racing surface after speedy Santa Anita.
On the pro side of the Should Silver Spoon Run debate are to be found the sentimentalists. They recall that Harry Payne Whitney, by sending Regret down to run in and win the 1915 Derby, became the sporting and inspirational force in elevating the Derby from a more or less local spectacle to the level of a national championship. How nice, say they, for his son, who in 12 previous tries has not won a Derby, to try and win it now with another filly.
Weighing in with the more practical point of view is a majority of experienced horsemen. Either a filly must be truly super to beat colts going a mile-and-a-quarter in early May, or the colts must be truly dismal. Silver Spoon, in beating Finnegan and Royal Orbit two months ago at Santa Anita, may not have beaten anything of top class. A large Derby field almost automatically ensures a rough-and-tough test of survival in which racing luck often plays a more important role than a contender's ability. Should Silver Spoon, with so many rich opportunities ahead in the filly and mare races, risk getting hurt by bigger and stronger horses in the Derby?
Next week Owner Whitney must make his decision. Results of final prep races may help him decide. So will Silver Spoon's own deportment. Fillies rarely mature as quickly as colts, and nature has provided another handicap: even for a filly with the best-regulated heat periods the schedule can vary, and although a filly can run at full effectiveness while in season, this condition can result in startling reversals of form.
The ultimate decision will revolve around two specific points: 1) If Whitney feels that Silver Spoon has the best possible chance of winning, should he risk her whole career for the sake of getting a line in racing's most exclusive record book and 2) should owners and trainers exercise their prerogatives to start a horse when and where they feel like it, or are they to yield to the pressure of public sentiment? In pondering his verdict, Whitney might like to have a thought on the subject from a young sage named Willie Shoemaker who has seen every good 3-year-old in the land. Said Willie last week, "If ever there was a chance to win a Derby with a filly, brother, it's now!"
Regardless of whether Silver Spoon enters the Derby, or the previous day's Kentucky Oaks (for 3-year-old fillies only), or neither race, she is properly bred to beat almost anything at almost any distance. She is by Citation out of a Mahmoud mare named Silver Fog. (Silver Spoon and Regret do not claim the same close kinship of their respective owners, but nonetheless there is a bloodline relationship going back eight generations. To quote breeding authority Leon Rasmussen: "both Regret and Silver Spoon are tail-female descendants of Ballet, a chestnut daughter of Planet, foaled in 1872. Ballet, in 1876, produced a chestnut filly named Vega, by War Dance. Vega is the seventh dam of Silver Fog, the dam of Silver Spoon. In 1881 Ballet foaled Modesty, by War Dance, and thus a full sister to Vega. On the pedigree tree she became the third dam of Regret.")
From the start of her life on the Whitney farm in Lexington, Silver Spoon never drew rave notices for her good looks. "She has never looked really feminine," says Farm Manager Ivor Balding. "Not feminine like First Flight. But neither is she as masculine-looking as, for example, Twilight Tear or Gallorette." An accident, presumably a hard kick, gave Silver Spoon a lame hip just before weaning time, but when X-rays showed nothing she was brought along with the rest of the fillies; and in her yearling trials in which she reeled off successive furlongs in :11 3/5 and :12 and won her own trial by five lengths on an off track, she showed Balding that, lame hip or no lame hip, she could run. "She was always good at the gate and has been easy to rate all her life," recalls Balding. "And from Citation she has inherited that beautiful long smooth stride which gives the natural impression that she is going slower than she actually is."
On the theory that a lame hip is not the most ideal asset to a race horse, Whitney nonetheless decided last fall that as long as he was selling a lot of eastern stock before moving his racing operations to California, the sale should include Silver Spoon who at the time had never started. The sale was scheduled for Monday morning, October 6. On the morning of September 22, Trainer Syl Veitch dropped her name in the entry box for a maiden race the following day: six furlongs down the Widener Chute. She was eligible to be claimed for $8,000. "I didn't think anybody would claim her," said Veitch, "because the second they looked at her they'd know she was lame." Lame she may have been as she jogged to the post, but when the gates sprung open away she flew, not a trace of lameness now, as she drew away easily to win by six lengths leaving a parade of 27 beaten rivals strung up the track like weary stragglers at the end of a marathon.
When Whitney heard about the race he immediately ordered her taken out of the sale and had her sent to Santa Anita where Bob Wheeler had taken over the entire stable. The startled trainer who learned much of his trade by working for Ben Jones in the late '30s took one look at Silver Spoon as she hobbled onto the railroad siding and rushed to phone Farm Manager Balding. "What on earth is wrong with this filly you sent me?"
"Oh," replied Balding, "I forgot to tell you she is a little lame. I also forgot to tell you she can run." Wheeler quickly found out. After winning an allowance race on December 30, Silver Spoon got the new season off to a sensational start by winning four stakes in a row. She bowled over the best fillies by 10½ lengths, and in the Santa Anita Derby she survived some murderous roughing to bust through her male rivals and win by two and a half lengths. A fit horse then, Silver Spoon requires little serious work to maintain her sharpness. She carries no surplus flesh on her 16-hand frame, and as far as Wheeler is concerned, now that Silver Spoon is already at Churchill Downs, she'll get through on walks, gallops and a minimum of work. "She is fit and will stay fit," he says. "Any change would only tempt disaster."
If disaster is to come to Silver Spoon in competition it is difficult to know just where to find it. On paper certainly First Landing must be the strongest threat, followed by Tomy Lee.
Since his brilliant 2-year-old season in which he lost but one of 11 starts, First Landing has been something of a problem colt. His failures at Hialeah prompted a flood of speculation. Was he overtrained? Was he undertrained? Had the Florida heat sapped him of his sparkling competitive determination? What was the matter? Last week Owner Chris Chenery set the record straight. "It was none of those things," said he. "We sent a urine sample to the lab and the report came back: insufficient water. He just wasn't drinking enough. We immediately switched him from Florida water to that bottled Mountain Valley water [the same brand used by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons on Nashua and Bold Ruler], and he picked up right away in every way."
If First Landing is going to get a mile-and-a-quarter next Saturday it is apparent that he's not going to do it by dueling with sprinters for the first three quarters, as he did in the Wood Memorial. If Arcaro will rate him a few lengths off the pace he should have a good, if not excellent, chance to carry The Master to his sixth victory in his 20th Kentucky Derby ride.
Of the others in the Wood the brightest new face belongs to a grand-looking chestnut named Our Dad, owned by pretty Patrice Jacobs and trained by her dad, Hirsch Jacobs. Our Dad may be just hitting his top stride. He was finishing fastest of all in the Wood and conceivably might have won had not Jockey Pete Anderson found himself pocketed against the rail in the last sixteenth with plenty of live horse under him and no place to go.
Awaiting this invasion by the New York colts are nearly two dozen potential Derby starters already in Kentucky, either at Keeneland for this week's Blue Grass Stakes or in the barns at Churchill Downs. Heading the list are Fred Turner Jr.'s Tomy Lee, Calumet Farm's On-and-On, Claiborne Farm's Dunce, James D. Norris' Easy Spur, Brookmeade Stable's Sword Dancer, Bayard Sharp's Troilus, and a trio due in from California made up of Finnegan, Monk's Hood and Royal Orbit who finished one-two-three in last week's mile-and-an-eighth California Derby at Tanforan.
Tomy Lee, like First Landing (by whom he was narrowly beaten twice last fall), has been the victim of bad luck for most of the season. Bothered by splint trouble a year ago, he injured a frog of one foot at Santa Anita this winter. Just a week ago, however, he returned to action at Keeneland, and with Willie Shoemaker up he set a track mark of 1:21 3/5 for seven furlongs. Admittedly the Keeneland track is lightning fast, but when he dismounted Shoemaker was quick to comment, "Tomy Lee has come back big; in fact, he's better now than he was at 2. I know him better now, of course, so I was watching for him to start bearing out with me, but this time he didn't give me any trouble."
On-and-On, a half brother to last year's Derby winner Tim Tam, is going to attract a lot of attention on Derby Day for two excellent reasons: he will carry the colors of seven-time winner Calumet Farm, and he'll be trained by that jolly rose sniffer Jimmy Jones. On-and-On's trouble early this year in Florida was that he showed no interest in his work at all. But after a win at Keeneland last week Jones was reminded that it was just 10 years ago that he and his father pulled a major ($34 to win) Derby Day surprise with an unheralded colt named Ponder. Is On-and-On as far along now as Ponder was, Jones was asked. "Oh, Ponder never gave us an indication, really, until the Derby Trial. I'd say two weeks ago On-and-On was behind Ponder in his preparations. But right now, he's ahead of him. He's coming along just about right. Got to be careful with him, though. Don't want to crank him up too much." And then, with the renowned Jones chuckle he added, "Don't want to get him really cranked up until about 4:30 the first Saturday afternoon of May."
Easy Spur and Sword Dancer, who finished in that order in the Florida Derby, have both progressed satisfactorily since leaving Gulf-stream despite typical race-track rumors that each is suffering leg ailments. In Easy Spur's case it was supposed to be a tricky knee and a touch of arthritis. To this Trainer Paul Kelley replies with a smile, "He's doing everything we're asking him to, and he's in fine shape. If he stays as he is, he is going to be hard to whip." Trainer Elliott Burch laughed off a report that Sword Dancer had a troublesome foot and commented, "He's as sound as I've ever seen him. Not a pimple anywhere."
TROILUS TO TRY AGAIN
Troilus, the Flamingo winner who so disappointed in the Florida Derby, flew into Louisville entirely recovered from an abscessed tooth condition which undoubtedly troubled him during his last race. But Owner Bayard Sharp sadly admits that "We lost a precious week of training with him, and just won't be able to get that week back. But we'll run him in the Trial to see how he is."
Neil McCarthy's Finnegan, who showed flashes of both brilliant and indifferent form at Santa Anita this winter, was hard-put to win the California Derby at Tanforan on Saturday—passing the wire barely a head in front of E. O. Stice's Monk's Hood and two heads in front of Royal Orbit, who races for Mrs. J. Braunstein. Off form in this race, if not in all previous outings, all three of these colts deserve a crack at Kentucky—even though riders who wintered in California and who have ridden both western and eastern Derby eligibles consider that, with the possible exception of Tomy Lee and Silver Spoon, the Westerners are not top class.
The big question about the 85th Kentucky Derby, still over a week away, is not only who is going to win it, but who is going to run in it. An appearance by the sentimental favorite, Silver Spoon, might, it can be argued, do ever so much to make us forget that the present 3-year-olds are no great shakes.
And a win by Silver Spoon would probably be the most exciting sports moment of 1959.
Mr. Winn's Wisdom
Hero to Hobo
A Nose Is a Nose
Banning of the Books
Plethora of People
The Cossack Derby
Donohue's Smart Money
All Eyes on Isaac
Lady of the Land
De Mostest Hoss
Dark Day for a Star
Boo-Boo of a Shoe
A RACE OF WONDER AND WONDERMENT
As a boy of 14 Matt Winn saw the first Derby from the back of his father's wagon and dreamed that some day he might run the race himself. Twenty-seven years later he was general manager of Churchill Downs, brought it to new eminence and never missed a Derby until he died in 1949.
Vagrant won the second Derby and continued to race until he was 10; yet his reward on retirement was to pull a cart through the streets of Lexington.
Bookmakers were allowed at Churchill Downs for the first time, and they made Runnymeade a 4-to-5 favorite with no place betting. Apollo, at 10 to 1, won, and Runnymeade ran second.
Jockey Billy Donohue bet his life savings on his mount, Leonatus, and won easily. Donohue was a good judge of horses, apparently, for Leonatus never again lost a race.
In the slowest Derby ever run, all four jockeys were told to hold back for a mile, and the Negro rider Isaac Murphy pulled away in the last half mile to win his third Derby.
Only three starters went to the post, and Huron raced to a six-length lead, to be beaten a nose on the post by Azra.
A local sheriff threatened to destroy the Derby if bookmakers were permitted on the course, so Matt Winn, bless him, found a statute that allowed parimutuel betting.
Regret, the only one of 28 fillies to start in history of race to date, won her Derby handily.
Man o' War didn't make his Derby because his owner thought a mile and a quarter in May was too far for a 3-year-old to run, thus depriving the "mostest hoss" of the "mostest race."
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons urged Earle Sande out of retirement to handle Gallant Fox, giving Sande his third winner. Upon seeing Sande cross the finish line, Damon Runyon wrote: "Roll back the years! Yea, roll 'em!/ Say, but I'm young agin,/ Watchin' that handy/Guy named Sande,/Bootin' a winner in !"
Notables at the Derby included Jim Londos, Jack Curley, Max Schmeling, Barney Old-field, Vice-President Charles Curtis—all to see Mrs. Payne Whitney's Twenty Grand win.
In the roughest of all Derbies, Don Meade on Brokers Tip and Herb Fisher on Head Play fought through the stretch, with Brokers Tip winning by a nose and no one claiming foul.
A young boy of some promise named George Edward Arcaro won the first of his five Derbies by riding Lawrin.
Famous Race Caller Clem McCarthy, after confusing the winner of the Preakness three years previously, called "Middleburg" the winner when winner's name was Middleground.
Nation's sentimental favorite, Native Dancer, lost the only race of his life to long-shot Dark Star.
Willie Shoemaker stood up in his irons at the 16th pole, thinking it was the finish line, possibly costing Gallant Man a victory over Iron Liege.
Well, let's just all sit back and see what happens.