Last Thursday, just 38 days before the 86th running of the Kentucky Derby, the biggest racing news of the spring broke, not on a race track in Florida or California or Kentucky but in Barn 13, Stall 21 in the bleak stable area of New York City's Aqueduct.
For racing fans it was bad news, real bad news, concerning Warfare, the charcoal-gray colt who was the leading candidate for this year's Derby. Between noon and 2:30 on that fateful day Warfare mysteriously hurt his left hind ankle, and the injury caused his immediate withdrawal from this season's spring classics and perhaps from racing forever.
Warfare, whose father Determine won the Kentucky Derby in 1954, seemed to be on the edge of the spectacular. He arrived in New York late last fall from California and suddenly matured against the hardest type of competition. Between the first week of October 1959 and the final week of March 1960 he started in four stakes and won them all, earning $359,070 in the combined time of five minutes, 50[1/5] seconds. He beat the best of his contemporaries, Bally Ache, Tompion and Vital Force, and beat them badly.
Only two weeks ago he won the Swift Stakes at Aqueduct in a manner that made many oldtimers whistle. After the race he was put back in his stall to await last week's Gotham Stakes, a race in which he would have been the prohibitive favorite.
He was playful in his barn for five days, nipping the sleeves of people walking past, taking keen interest in any movement before him. Early Thursday morning he galloped over the track and seemed his normal self. He was put back into his stall at 10 a.m.
"I checked on him at noon," said Bill Winfrey, Warfare's affable trainer, "and he was fine. I don't think he could have hurt himself on the track because he would have stepped off on the leg and we would have noticed that he was hurt. I believe he did it in his stall. He was frisky and playing around and I think he must have turned quickly or kicked the side of his stall. Horses do this quite often and seldom seem to get hurt. It's one of those freak things. It's a shame but there are a lot of shames in racing, I guess, and this is just one of them. We called Dr. William H. Wright, the veterinarian, and he took X rays, trying to find just what it was. Warfare was keeping his weight off the leg."
While Dr. Wright and Winfrey were going over the aspects of Warfare's injury, there were many racing fans waving their fingers and saying, "Ah! The old Garden State jinx. It catches up with all the winners of the Garden State!"
This, of course, is a reference to the mile-and-one-sixteenth Garden State, which is billed as "The World's Richest Race" and is run every fall at Garden State Park outside of Camden, New Jersey. The race normally produces the winter-book favorite for the next year's Kentucky Derby. Since it was first run in 1953, however, its winners have been dogged by bad luck.
Turn-to, the first Garden State winner in 1953, hurt his right front foot and was retired early in 1954. Summer Tan, the second winner, suffered an intestinal embolism in 1954 and nearly died. Prince John, the winner of the third Garden State, broke a bone in his right foot. Barbizon, the 1956 winner, had assorted injuries early in 1957; Nadir, the winner of the fifth running, picked up a virus infection. First Landing, the 1958 winner, was, until recently, hobbled by a kidney infection.
While it is probably severe to point to the Garden State and say "jinx," it is true that only two of its winners have ever gotten to the Kentucky Derby (First Landing and Summer Tan, both finishing third); only one of its winners has ever gotten into the starting gate in the Preakness (First Landing, who finished ninth); and no winner of the Garden State has ever run in the Belmont, perhaps the most prestige-laden of the 3-year-old classics.
Perhaps the "jinx" has a physical basis that could be attributed to the fact that in many cases our 2-year-old racers are brought to the tracks too quickly and invited to win too much money too soon. Last year two of the division's most demanding races, The Champagne (at Aqueduct) and the Garden State, were held only two weeks apart. It may well be that some American race tracks are thinking only of the future of their attendance and mutuel handle and not of their horses.
Bally Ache, Leonard D. Fruchtman's 3-year-old who has made a habit of doing things that experts say cannot be done, turned in a stunning performance in winning last Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream.
With the defection of Warfare, the ninth Florida Derby took on added significance. For one thing, it meant that Bally Ache, by winning, joined California-raced Tompion as co-favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Even more important was the fact that Bally Ache, a front-running sprinter, proved for the second time in five weeks that he could mow down his opposition going a distance of ground. Three weeks earlier, in the Flamingo at Hialeah, his rivals outfoxed themselves by taking back and allowing Bally Ache to run all the way home free and easy on the front end. In the Florida Derby, each enemy camp had vowed things would be different.
But Bally Ache fooled them again, and masterfully at that. Before the race his trainer, Jimmy Pitt, was perspiring in Gulfstream's sun-soaked paddock as the eight runners came out. Looking over his program, Pitt jabbed his finger straight at the first name on the page: Venetian Way, the chestnut son of Royal Coinage, who equaled a six-furlong track mark at Gulfstream exactly a week earlier. "This is the colt who will try to run with us," said Pitt, "but I don't think he can take the lead away from us." Two other names caused Pitt even less concern. Edward P. Taylor's Victoria Park and Llangollen Farm's Eagle Admiral are both come-from-behinders who had beaten Bally Ache this winter in tune-up races. "Experimenting with strategy and tactics cost us those defeats," Pitt said frankly. "Neither of 'em will get us today." When Jockey Bobby Ussery walked out to join him, Pitt gave him a playful slap on the back and then confidently doled out the sort of instructions trainers dream about: "Go to the front and stay there. Just let him roll, Bobby. Remember, if any of these colts are gonna beat you, first they gotta catch you." Ussery smiled, was hoisted aboard and went on his way.
Jimmy Pitt had doped the race perfectly. As Ussery jetted into the lead immediately after the start, Bill Hartack moved Venetian Way up into a contending position. Manuel Ycaza had Victoria Park just off this pair in third place, but Willie Shoemaker, on Eagle Admiral, encountered some crowding after the break and had to take his colt farther back than he had intended. Whatever shot Shoemaker may have had at first money went down the drain there and then, although Eagle Admiral rallied eventually from last place and finished fourth.
Bally Ache's margin over Venetian Way never exceeded two lengths as they spun up the backstretch. "At the five-eighths pole," Ussery noted afterward, "I knew Hartack was coming after me." Slowly the gap of daylight between them disappeared. Rolling into the far turn it was apparent that Victoria Park was not going to be the real threat and that Venetian Way almost certainly was, and was at that very instant.
A FINISH TO REMEMBER
In the middle of that far turn, right about the five-sixteenths pole, they finally hooked up. Over a quarter of a mile to the finish, and here they came head-and-head, stride-for-stride, every precious inch of the way. Entering the stretch, Venetian Way took a momentary lead of a head. Just as quickly he lost it. "At the sixteenth pole I thought Bally Ache was finished," said Ussery. Once again he had fallen behind by the smallest of margins. But Bobby put his whip to work like a runaway trip hammer and in a furious driving finish outlasted Hartack and Venetian Way by barely a nose.
Hopping off the dead-tired winner, Ussery gleefully remarked, "Today Bally Ache showed his stamina for the first time. I'd have to say this was the gamest race he's ever run. There's no question in my mind now that he can handle the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter." What Ussery may not have realized at the moment was that Bally Ache had also become the fourth colt ever to win both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby—and that his three predecessors, Nashua, Needles and Tim Tarn, all went on to become champions of their division. Needles and Tim Tarn both won the Kentucky Derby as well, and Nashua finished second to Swaps.
In a sense Venetian Way's Florida Derby was every bit as remarkable as was Bally Ache's, and possibly more so. It may be that had he had one more week of training to overcome a series of setbacks he suffered earlier in the winter, last week's decision might have been reversed. Vic Sovinski, who trains Venetian Way for Miamian Isaac Blumberg (his Sunny Blue Farm also had Lincoln Road, who shadowed Tim Tarn home in the Florida and Kentucky derbies, as well as in the Preakness), says of him convincingly, "When Venetian Way is right—and he's just getting that way—there isn't a better colt of his age in the whole country." That might not be far from the truth.
TREK TO KENTUCKY
As the exodus of 3-year-olds from Florida starts this week—and the invasion of Kentucky begins—the Kentucky Derby picture is still not clearly in focus. With Warfare out, things certainly look better for both Bally Ache and Tompion (who, incidentally, finished second and third to Warfare in last fall's Garden State). At the same time one shouldn't give up quite yet on Victoria Park and Eagle Admiral or, for that matter, on Calumet's Hillsborough, son of the 1949 Derby winner, Ponder, "Give Hillsborough another month," says Calumet trainer Jimmy Jones, "and he'll be right up there with the best of the boys."
But Jimmy and all the boys might do well to mull over Jimmy Pitt's advice to Bobby Ussery on Bally Ache: "Remember, if any of these colts are gonna beat you, first they gotta catch you."
THE WARFARE STORY
X ray of Warfare's left hind leg (below, right) taken by Veterinarian William H. Wright shows bone chip which caused removal of 3-year-old from this year's classic races. "In race horses," says Dr. Wright, "85 to 90% of all fractures are to the front legs. In Warfare's case it is a back leg. The X-rays reveal the presence of a simple, complete, proximal, articular fracture of the dorsal aspect of the first phalanx, or large pastern bone. There is a little piece of bone which has chipped off. An operation is a thing to consider, yet if you remove the chip you might be removing only the effect and not the cause." Artist's rendering shows the lower structure of a horse's foot and the bone chip, which is about the size of a pea.