The 1960 Kentucky Derby, which is to be run off for the 86th consecutive year at Churchill Downs next Saturday, might be retitled in the British tradition as a match between kings and commoners.
Two years ago the side of the kings, represented by the colt Tim Tarn, soundly thrashed the upstart but nonetheless tremendously popular commoner, Silky Sullivan. This year both factions have been notably reinforced, and when the large field roars from the starting gate over Louisville's heart-testing mile and a quarter it may turn out that the winner will take his crown and wreath of roses only by demonstrating the sheer class and courage of a genuine 3-year-old champion.
If controversy is the fuel which sustains enthusiasm in every Kentucky Derby, the 86th running got off to a flying start months ago. As the weeks before post time dwindled, the roster of the kings—so labeled because each colt was royally bred and also owned by men and women of wealth, social position and long-standing racing prestige—became menacingly stronger.
Lined up on this side, for example, is one already illustrious son of Tom Fool (who also sired Tim Tarn): Tompion, owned by C. V. Whitney, who is still looking for his first Kentucky Derby win after seeing his Eton blue silks go post-ward 13 times in 10 previous classics. Another equally promising Tom Fool colt, Weatherwise (owned by the Greentree Stable of the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, J. H. Whitney, and his sister Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson), was declared out of the Derby this week after suffering a bruise inside his left front foot. Weatherwise, who won in brilliant fashion at Keeneland recently, was attempting to become the first horse since Middleground (1950) to win the Derby without benefit of winter racing. Here, too, is Victoria Park, the property of Canada's "Mr. Racing," millionaire Industrialist Edward P. Taylor; the possible entry of Eagle Admiral and Divine Comedy, owned by the Llangollen Farm of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth (Liz) Person. Then comes the Calumet team of Hillsborough and Pied d'Or, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham's late-developing Never Give In and Mrs. Adele L. Rand's Bourbon Prince.
The opposition to this powerful task force is, however, no mere overgrown and undertrained Silky Sullivan. In fact, it is headed by an un-fashionably bred but fantastically capable piece of running machinery named Bally Ache, owned by a Toledo parts manufacturer, 39-year-old Leonard D. Fruchtman. Next is Venetian Way, a chestnut son of Royal Coinage who belongs to a 72-year-old Lithuanian-American named Isaac Blumberg, who started in this country as a butcher, switched to the junk business in Chicago and later made enough money with a machinery manufacturing company to enable him to retire to Miami Beach—where one of his hobbies has apparently become the naming of his horses after local highways (his last good colt before Venetian Way: Lincoln Road).
Other owners, of course, with reasons more apparent to themselves than to followers of form, may be expected to give the Derby the benefit of their patronage. And among the colts in this legion of hopefuls there may be such as Stephen, Yomolka, Fighting Hodge, Cuvier Relic, Tony Graff, El Zag, John William, Spring Broker and Henrijan. A win by any of these would go in the books alongside of the Derby's most recent long shot surprises—those of Count Turf ($31.20) in 1951 and Dark Star ($51.80) in 1953. A victory, however, by Leonard Fruchtman (who paid $2,500 for Bally Ache) or by Isaac Blumberg (who paid $10,500 for Venetian Way), would not surprise too many people, least of all Messrs. Fruchtman and Blumberg and their respective trainers, Jimmy Pitt and Vic Sovinski. Says Pitt of front-running Bally Ache, "They've still got to catch us to beat us." But, warns Sovinski, "Bally Ache will never beat Venetian Way again."
STRATEGY SEEMS OBVIOUS
All this typical prerace coffeehousing naturally brings up the subject of what kind of tactics will be employed at Churchill Downs next Saturday afternoon. On this point only one assumption seems safe: Jockey Bobby Ussery will put Bally Ache on the lead and try to keep him there. From that moment the chase will be on. If, approximately two minutes and two seconds later, Bally Ache is first under the wire he will join a very select group of colts who won their Derbies on the front end from flagfall to finish. Going back only a couple of decades, War Admiral fashioned this sort of victory in 1937, as did Johnstown in 1939, Count Fleet in 1943, Hoop Jr. in 1945, Jet Pilot in 1947, Hill Gail in 1952, Dark Star in 1953—and the last was Swaps in 1955.
There is a vast difference, however, between running on the lead well in hand and being in a continual drive to thwart off one challenge after another. And in the Kentucky Derby, where each competing jockey has an almost fanatical urge to win, it is too much to expect that Ussery will be allowed to lope Bally Ache around that first mile while every other jock takes back and waits for him to stop.
Some other colt, whether he be part of an entry or one of the outsiders who shouldn't be starting anyway, must run with him almost from the start. By doing so he will, of course, kill off his own chances, but he will almost surely spoil Bally Ache's, too. Leave Bally Ache to his own devices and he'll murder his field. In 1958 Lincoln Road nearly pulled it off. He went to the front at the start and had a two-length lead entering the stretch. Only a brilliant run by a champion like Tim Tarn, who finally nailed him by half a length, stopped Lincoln Road from winning at 47-to-1 odds. All the arguments about Bally Ache's ability to go a distance (he's won twice now at a mile and an eighth) can go out the window if some colt does not put the big question to him both quickly and often. Disbelievers of California form (they are a fast-disappearing breed today) said Swaps could not go a mile and a quarter. When Eddie Arcaro took back on Nashua (to keep his most serious eye on third-place Summer Tan) Willie Shoemaker let Swaps roll. Realizing he was watching the wrong horse as he hit the far turn, Arcaro put Nashua into a drive. But when he drew up to Swaps entering the stretch Shoemaker simply let out a notch with Swaps, who had been coasting up to then, and he won drawing away. It was one of his easiest victories, simplified no end by false theorizing that he would stop in the last eighth. Good horses don't stop in the last eighth—unless they are forced to by better horses.
Venetian Way came close to beating Bally Ache in the Florida Derby and might well have done so had he been able to benefit from an additional week or so of training. With Bill Hartack on him in the Derby, he is going to be dangerous.
The most dangerous of all, however, figures to be Tompion, who, after a six-week layoff from competition following his record-breaking Santa Anita Derby victory, came back last week to capture the seven-furlong Forerunner at Keeneland. Tompion, who is a medium-sized brown colt just under 16 hands, has all the potential to be brilliant. He gave signs of it last year in winning the Hopeful at Saratoga. Then, following three straight losses to Warfare, it began to look as though Tompion just wouldn't outgrow his precociousness. He wasn't a particularly alert gate horse, and it seemed that if he could not run free and clear (and with no dirt kicking up in his face) he would act like a sulky schoolboy.
Suddenly he appears to have gotten the headmaster's message. He's won three straight, and although he was still trying to jump a few shadows in his Keeneland race he put in the sort of finishing run that overwhelmed a good field in very fast time. "Considering seven furlongs may not be his best distance," said his rider, Willie Shoemaker, "and that he broke nearly one length behind his field, this was a real big race."
Charlie Whittingham, who trains Eagle Admiral and Divine Comedy for Liz Person's Llangollen Farm, thinks he may have not one but two good colts. "With one of the two we'll have a shot at this race," warns Whittingham. "And a pretty good shot at that."
A FIRST FOR CANADA
The same may be said for Edward P. Taylor's Victoria Park, who has already beaten Bally Ache once this winter and who, in his most recent start, finished second to Tompion. Once offered for sale at $12,500, Victoria Park could give Canada her first Kentucky Derby victory. Even for Taylor, who has won his country's Derby equivalent, the Queen's Plate, five times, this would be a big thrill. So would it be for Jockey Manuel Ycaza, who might get the mount.
Far from a novelty, however, would be the sight of the devil's red-and-blue silks of Calumet Farm in the Churchill Downs winner's circle. They've been there a record seven times so far, and Hillsborough and Pied d'Or will try to make it eight. Pied d'Or, who has inherited much of his sire Nasrullah's unpredictable temperament, will be allowed to run—and, in fact, urged to—in an effort to keep the pace busy. Trainer Jimmy Jones tried this with him in the Flamingo, but it turned out that that was one of the days Pied d'Or decided to do no running at all.
Hillsborough, on the other hand, is a genuine stretch runner like his daddy, Ponder (Derby winner in 1949) and his granddaddy, Pensive (Derby winner in 1944). Jones thinks Hillsborough may be more advanced in his training than Ponder was at a similar stage, and in any case he's got to be given a chance even though his last race, in which he finished fifth to Tompion, was anything but good. The sight of Calumet colors at Churchill Downs has a habit of inspiring the bettors, and evidently the environment sometimes has the same effect on many a downgraded Calumet horse (as with Iron Liege in 1957). Jimmy Jones, who always has a word of despair on occasions like this, has already started his annual grumble rumble: "No, I haven't given up yet, but I'd say if we pulled it off now it would be the hat trick of all time."
Maine Chance Farm's Never Give In, second in last week's Wood Memorial to non-Derby eligible Francis S., might improve rapidly enough to be a threat. And if Eddie Arcaro elects to ride him his chances won't suffer any. Some day this colt's breeding will bring results, and major ones at that. He's by the Epsom Derby winner Never Say Die and his dam was the champion race mare Myrtle Charm. You can't beat that.
IN THE FINAL STRIDES
Inasmuch as everyone, from the organizer of the office hat pool to the oddsmaker at the Caliente Future Book, makes it a solemn duty to pick Derby winners, this department feels it should get in the act, too: for the first mile and an eighth Bally Ache is going to run his courageous heart out. Horses will run at him, not one challenger but two or three, and he'll put them away with devastating efficiency. Nearest to him, turning down the stretch where the last quarter of a mile will decide the 86th championship, should be Venetian Way, Tompion, Victoria Park, Divine Comedy and, possibly, Pied d'Or. Rolling into high gear behind them come Hillsborough and Eagle Admiral.
Past the eighth pole, and Bally Ache can hold the lead no longer. Down to the sixteenth pole, and it's Venetian Way, Tompion, Eagle Admiral, three of them across the track. In the last few desperate strides one of them draws slowly away. Last August his owner said of him, "I wouldn't be at all surprised if he isn't the best colt I've owned since Equipoise." His name: Tompion.