The Kentucky derby is still a dozen Saturdays away, but it was insinuating itself into the thoughts of many racing fans last week when one of the first big 3-year-old races of the season—the San Vicente Handicap—was run off in California. These midwinter weeks are a time of speculative, probing glances, the more expert of which will land on the four or five hottest possibilities for Churchill Downs. And the early-season news of 1960 is that these glances are not being directed South to Florida, where the cream of eastern Thoroughbreds is in training at Hialeah. They are turned instead across the continent to Santa Anita, where an unprecedented challenge to eastern and southern racing and breeding supremacy is being mounted.
The time has long passed, of course, when no one expected anything but ranch horses to come out of California; Hill Gail, Determine and the mighty Swaps won three Kentucky Derbies for California between 1952 and 1955. But these were lone raiders from the West—or so they seemed; few suspected they might be only the advance guard of a gathering army of California Thoroughbred horseflesh which could shift the balance of racing power to the Coast.
Last year Tomy Lee won for California, and three others from the state finished in the first six. This shock had hardly been absorbed in Kentucky when it was perceived that this year California has at least a dozen valid Derby hopefuls, including the colts ranked first and third nationally—Warfare and Tompion.
A TASTE FOR SPRINTS
February 8, 1960
All of the nine starters in the seven-furlong San Vicente Handicap were among the top-rated colts of their generation. The race, as a matter of fact, was won by one of the lesser-known entries—John William, who stayed close to the leader, New Policy, around the turn and into the stretch and drove past him in the last furlong to win decisively against a good field. C. V. Whitney's Tompion, the favorite, started sluggishly, moved up a little and then finished a disappointing sixth, though only 3¼ lengths back of the winner.
The race proved two things. First, that John William loves sprints and is one of the most improved colts on the grounds. Second, that Tompion can no longer be considered the major Derby threat he looked to be as a 2-year-old. He hasn't reached the winner's circle since he took the Hopeful at Saratoga last August, and he's just as stubborn as ever about running only when he feels like it. In the San Vicente it looked as though the more Jockey Eddie Arcaro tried to whip him into doing his work the more obstinate Tompion became. Maybe the answer is to give him to a sit-still rider, like Shoemaker.
John William, who belongs to the Merrick Stable of Nat Schulman and Irving Rosoff, is a bay son of Johns Joy out of a Polynesian mare. Johns Joy is not renowned as a sire of stayers, and although John William won with authority in fast time (1:22) he's going to surprise a lot of people if he can repeat this sort of front-running effort when he's asked to take on an additional half-mile. The second horse in the race, Ralph Lowe's New Policy, a Khaled colt, had a head lead most of the way on John William, but the pace got him in the last sixteenth and he lost by half a length. Of the other San Vicente starters, Noble Noor ran an even, impressive race, even though he finished fourth and was beaten a length and a half by T. V. Lark. It's easy to be wrong about colts this early in the season, but T. V. Lark is probably a sprinter.
THE BIG NEWS IS WARFARE
Of course, of all the horses at Santa Anita, the one most in the limelight, without having done much of anything yet in 1960, is Warfare, the 2-year-old champion of 1959.
Warfare did not run in the San Vicente, but he was the center of attraction last week for another reason: a rumor suddenly went around that his owner, Clifton S. Jones, a Buena Park, Calif. real-estate developer, who had bought the colt from his father for $12,000, was about to sell him. There definitely was cause for speculation. For a week Ivan Parke, who trains the Pin Oak Farm horses for Houston Oilman James S. Abercrombie and his daughter, Josephine Abercrombie Robinson (SI, Nov. 1, 1954), had been watching Warfare closely. He apparently liked what he saw, for in buzzed Abercrombie, his daughter and her husband, Burnett Robinson, in their private plane. Into town also came Clifton Jones. The price Jones was asking for the colt was originally said to be $1 million—which Abercrombie was far from willing to meet. The deal collapsed.
After that Jones decided that the horse was not for sale. Before he whipped off to the seashore to supervise a $200,000 yacht-conversion job on his recently purchased Navy-surplus minesweeper, Jones said, "The rumors about a sale also started rumors about Warfare's physical condition. I can only say that he is perfectly all right and always has been. The only thing I want to do is win the Kentucky Derby with him."
As a prelude to that trip across the Rockies, Warfare will have three starts at Santa Anita: the $50,000 California Breeders Champion Stakes on February 12, the San Felipe Handicap on February 20 and the Santa Anita Derby on March 5. The first two are at a mile and a sixteenth, the Derby at a mile and a furlong.
And why wasn't the champion in the seven-furlong San Vicente? "No point in sending him against a top sprint field when he is going to prefer going the extra distance," said Trainer Hack Ross. It was no secret, however, that Ross had found fault with the hard Santa Anita track and did not want to risk an unready horse on it. He had trained Warfare rigorously for a race in late December, then pulled him out when the colt came down with a slight fever. Getting the dark gray son of Determine back to his peak of last October is going to require all of Ross's skill and patience. But the colt can run—and fast, too—and until proved otherwise, he's still the best.
A MEASURE OF DOUBT
And yet in another month or so Warfare, and some of the other well-publicized 3-year-olds (they arbitrarily acquired that age, of course, on January 1), could turn into also-rans. A lot of colts are just getting started and their races in the next three or four weeks will revise many early opinions. One of these, who may turn out to be the best of the lot, is a compact, neat little chestnut named Eagle Admiral, owned by Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Persons' Llangollen Farm.
The eastern-based opposition at Hialeah is just starting to get cranked up, and it seems that the horses to beat there are Venetian Way, Bally Ache, Bourbon Prince, Progressing, All Hands, Pied d'Or and Toby's Brother. And though Middleground in 1950 was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without the benefit of a winter campaign, there is at least one important colt whose winter is being occupied with nothing but rest and light training. Down among the pines at Aiken, S.C. is Greentree Stable's Weatherwise, winner of last fall's Aqueduct Futurity. Nobody should go around ignoring Futurity winners, especially those sired by Tom Fool.
Santa Anita seems to be holding the high cards at this early stage, but some colts at Hialeah will improve greatly in the next three months. And, of course, a potentially good colt anywhere can suffer immeasurably if his people are guilty of mismanagement. In today's competition a trainer cannot make even one mistake and get away with it.
Many eastern horsemen find most California trainers guilty on one count: their training pattern is too rigorous, and their emphasis is almost entirely on speed rather than stamina. Californians point out in rebuttal that both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park run a great many sprint races, and that if a trainer hopes to cash in on the purse opportunities offered his logical course is to use every bit of speed his horse possesses. Then, if it develops later that his horse has the added ability to travel a distance of ground, as was the case with Swaps, so much the better.
HORSES LIKE GANGBUSTERS
The result of this system—and of the fact that California-bred horses have predominantly sprinting bloodlines anyway—is that western colts go like gangbusters in their morning works and then turn around and go like gangbusters again in their afternoon races. The art of rating is either forgotten or seldom employed, and if a jock takes back on his mount after leaving the gate in a three-quarter or seven-furlong race he can expect to look up and find his field 40 lengths up front before he realizes what's happened. California tracks are made for speed, and horses skim lightly over the top of them instead of laboring in the deeper going characteristic of racing strips found in other parts of the country.
If a colt can survive the rigors of western methods and still develop into a stayer, he has got to be a pretty good one. He has probably been in serious training since December 1 and is pointing for the Santa Anita Derby on March 5. Then he has to retain that peak form for another 60 days until the Kentucky Derby. It is not easy.
"Neither easy nor practical," admits one trainer caught up in the mad scramble for Santa Anita's rich purses. "But if a track is putting up $100,000 for you to grab at on March 5, you've got to take a shot at it. If you decide to play it smart and train specifically for the Kentucky Derby—and skip the Santa Anita one—the first thing you know it's April and your carefully conditioned horse raps himself in his stall some night. You wind up kicking yourself all over the lot for trying to be smart, because you've missed the chance at both pots. Nope, the way the money is being handed out these days you've got to go for it when you can."