'HE WIN BIG—REAL BIG'
The tenant of Barn 17 at Louisville's Churchill Downs could hardly have been blamed if he had begged off running in the 86th Kentucky Derby because of a developing inferiority complex. All week long, as he gazed soulfully out of his stall, the beautiful chestnut 3-year-old named Venetian Way saw a continuous motorcade of newsmen and tourists heading for Barn 42, where the advance-billed stars of the show, Tompion and Bally Ache, hammed it up for their admirers.
Venetian Way had a few callers, but very few. The people he knew best were there constantly: 52-year-old Trainer Vic Sovinski and 73-year-old Owner Isaac Blumberg. As Saturday's Derby drew near, Sovinski startled a few listeners: "I wouldn't trade my chances in this race for the chances of either Tompion or Bally Ache."
Owner Blumberg startled even Trainer Sovinski. "I think," said Blumberg, a shy Lithuanian-American who dislikes any and all forms of publicity, "that I'll watch the race from the backstretch with the stable hands—or else go back to the hotel and see it on television."
"Oh, no," said Sovinski. "This is one time you've got to sit in a clubhouse box, because this time you're going to win the Kentucky Derby. Take my word for it."
Sovinski apparently gave his horse the same word. On Saturday, third-choice Venetian Way literally ran away from the highly esteemed favorites, and the 86th Derby was his with remarkable ease. The minute it was over he was being touted as the hottest prospect since Citation to go on and complete the classic triple crown by adding victories in the May 21 Preakness and June 11 Belmont Stakes.
In a sense, this Derby, run on a dull, cloudy and cold afternoon and over a track that was spotty and slick, was anticlimactic. The advance buildup was for a Bally Ache-Tompion stretch duel which never materialized. Venetian Way, who figured to be at best third in everybody's book, spoiled that prospect by leaving Tompion behind at the half-mile pole and overtaking Bally Ache on the stretch turn. Nothing that either of them could do after that was sufficient to threaten the winner's run to the wire. As they say around the barns, he win big—real big.
Tactically, the plan of the race was well known to all: Bally Ache would take the lead at the start and every other horse would have to catch him to beat him. The Bally Ache fan club had its own slogan: trying to beat Bally Ache would be like trying to lick a guy you can't even hit. He'd be off and running from the break, and no other horse would get close enough to him to run him into the ground.
The Tompion people figured their best chance was to stick close to Bally Ache and wear him down in the stretch where, finally, it would be proven that even Bally Ache's great courage wouldn't be sufficient to win at the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
For his part, Vic Sovinski was confident of beating Bally Ache over a distance under any circumstances, and he also figured that if his colt was as fit as Tompion there was a good chance of putting him away, too. There had been, it is true, some preliminary sparring over Venetian Way between Sovinski and Jockey Bill Hartack. A few days before the Derby, Hartack worked the colt too fast, according to Sovinski, and word quickly spread around the track that the two men were hardly on speaking terms any more.
Sovinski denied any open breach. "I was doing the training, Bill was doing the riding, and before the race I told him exactly what I thought he should do. We agreed perfectly, and, what's more, it worked perfectly. 'All I want you to do,' I said to him, 'is to get position going into the first turn—preferably fourth or third if you can—and the rest is up to you and him.' There was only one other instruction: 'Never turn his head loose. Just hold him together, and he'll run for you.' "
NO SURPRISE AT START
Bally Ache drew number three post position, Venetian Way was in number nine and Tompion was on the outside. To the surprise of nobody, Bally Ache rolled to the front immediately. The California longshot, Henrijan, a sprinter at best, went with him, and Willie Shoemaker, getting the best start in a long time on Tompion, steamed him down the middle of the track with such zip that they went into the clubhouse turn like a team abreast. At this point Tompion's chances never looked better, for he was virtually lapped on his leading opposition and there was still nearly a mile to go.
Forgotten by most was the fact that the Sovinski-Hartack strategy was already working to perfection. Venetian Way was just two lengths back of the leading trio. "If somebody had asked me where I'd have liked to be on the clubhouse turn," said Hartack later, "I couldn't have imagined a more ideal spot. This horse is easy to place, he has speed and you can put him anywhere. From then on all I had to do was to pick my way."
As they went up the backstretch, the timer's fractions were all Bally Ache's—:23 2/5 for the first quarter, :46 4/5 for the half-mile, 1:11 flat for the three quarters; all this over a track which probably was about a second and a half off for the full Derby distance. Bally Ache's lead grew to two lengths, and, after Henrijan started a withdrawal which ultimately resembled a full stop, everyone began to wonder just when Tompion would go after the leader. As glasses pinpointed the act in the distance, the wonder turned to grave doubt. Venetian Way suddenly made the first move at Bally Ache, up around the five-eighths pole. ("I wanted to go after him with Tompion at the same time," Shoemaker said afterward. "We started a move, but it didn't last long. In fact, by the time we hit the half-mile pole, Tompion was dead—so dead I didn't think he'd be in the money. He was doing some slipping and sliding around, and it's easy enough to blame the track. But remember, everyone had to run over the same track. My horse just quit on it." Actually, unbeknownst to Shoemaker, Tompion lost his left front shoe at some still-undetermined point in the race—a mishap that injured the hoof wall badly enough to cause the colt to be withdrawn from next week's Preakness.)
There was no quitting for Venetian Way, then or later. "Just as we hit the head of the stretch," said Hartack, "I nailed Bally Ache. Although Venetian Way was willing, I hit him anyway. I wanted to go by that Bally Ache as fast as I could, and I rode my horse from there on in like someone was on my tail all the way."
As they came down the stretch, Bally Ache put on another typical demonstration of his gameness. For a fleeting instant he started to close the gap, but this time the distance was too much for him, and he gradually faded out of contention as Hartack and Venetian Way finished three-and-a-half lengths to the good. It was nearly eight lengths back to third-place Victoria Park and over two more lengths back to Tompion. The latter, beaten by 13 lengths, barely saved fourth place by a nose over Bourbon Prince. Venetian Way's final time of 2:02 2/5 was brilliant, considering the track conditions.
While no really valid excuse can be made for any loser, some special credit must go to a most deserving and gallant winner. Venetian Way chose the ideal moment to turn in his best race since his last victory over Bally Ache in the 1959 Washington Park Futurity at Arlington. He was brought up to this race perfectly by a patient trainer and ridden to the letter by one of our most capable reinsmen. No doubt, much more will be heard from Venetian Way, a colt from the first crop of Royal Coinage, the third best (behind Nashua and Summer Tan) of the 1954 2-year-olds, and from the now-harmonious team of Sovinski and Hartack.
Hartack, acting more as if he had finished last than first, bristled at newsmen in his postrace press conference, and at one point he barked sharply, "My name is Bill, not Willie, for Pete's sake." He followed this up by saying he would answer all questions except the stupid ones, and when one well-wisher, later at the winner's party, dared suggest to him that this was a night to celebrate, Hartack had an ever-ready reply: "I'm a dedicated man, dedicated to be a perfectionist. Sure, this was a good race to win, but all races are good ones to win. Winning the Derby is an accomplishment, not a celebration. One race doesn't make a person. I feel this very deeply inside, and I can't help it."
Isaac Blumberg, who has been in racing for 10 years (he was fifth in his first Derby with Admiral Porter in 1954, second with Lincoln Road in 1958), was clearly treating the occasion as both an accomplishment and a celebration. Surrounded by friends and talking against a salvo of popping champagne corks, this quiet little man who had just won $114,850 could do little more than smile politely. "I like horses more than I like going to the races," he did say. "In fact, I still like to watch from the backstretch with the stable boys."
As another bottle of champagne was plunked down, Trainer Sovinski was awash with smiles. "After what happened today," he said, "I don't know whether I'm walking, sitting, or flying or anything." And against the competition of a lively jug band, the wise guys were busy refurbishing some old jokes, like "For an ex-baker, that Vic Sovinski sure got the dough today."
The dough was won last Saturday by the tenant of Barn 17, and on Sunday the newsmen and tourists came to pay him tribute. Traffic was very light at Barn 42.