Two and a half months before the Kentucky Derby, horseracing's biggest guessing game is well under way: Which of today's slowly maturing 3-year-olds will win the 1961 classic?
This year's crop of eligibles boasts an abundance of speed. At the shorter distances they have raced thus far—six and seven furlongs, for example—they have been dazzling. This week, in Hialeah's Everglades and Santa Anita's San Felipe, the distances are more demanding, but sheer speed may still be the deciding factor, because some good colts with staying power are not yet competing. But then come the tougher trials: the Flamingo, the Santa Anita Derby, the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass—all at a mile and an eighth—before the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby on May 6. Even in these races, speed is certainly necessary, but the winner at a classic distance must know how to use it at precisely the moment when it will do him the most good. Only one in a hundred ever learns that lesson perfectly and also possesses the qualities of heart and stamina that bring victory at Churchill Downs.
Among those who now seem capable of this achievement are a handful of colts and a filly named Bowl of Flowers who probably could whip the boys at any distance. But Bowl of Flowers, owned by the Brookmeade Stable that sent out Sword Dancer, will not run in the Derby. She will be saved for the important filly classics at about the same time, though there is some chance she may enter the Preakness and Belmont.
Of the colts there is, first, Carry Back, now campaigning at Hialeah. Carry Back is medium-sized and brown, and last year he won nearly $300,000. He is owned and trained by a rotund, 53-year-old Ohioan named Jack A. Price who, with his wife Katherine, races five horses in the name of the Dorchester Farm Stable. Price occasionally loses sleep worrying about Carry Back but insists that he's never lost any worrying about the traditions of racing.
"Horses are like pieces of machinery," he argues. "If they work and make money for you, O.K. If not, I want to get rid of them." Jack Price does know his machinery. In 1940 he started the Winslow Manufacturing Company, a Cleveland firm that builds special equipment for the aircraft and automotive industries. "I was general manager when I sold out to my two brothers in 1955," he says. "After 15 years, I was tired of fighting the unions. I drew a big salary, gave most of it to the government, and when I figured I was going to wind up with ulcers I said 'what the hell' and retired."
Except for his years at Winslow, Price has had a continuing interest in horses. He bought his first yearlings in 1938, has raced a modest string since 1950 and, in 1955, decided that he would become his own trainer and try to put the stable on a paying basis. "I think of racing in terms of a profitable avocation," he says, "the main objective of which is to make money for the corporation. My wife is more sentimental about racing than I am. She gets to liking a horse and hates the idea of losing him. For me, if they can't produce, I don't want 'em."
Carry Back's chances of producing a juicy dividend for Jack and Katherine Price (a few weeks ago they turned down $500,000 for him) are not bad at all. He is a wiry colt, easy to train and with a mind quite his own. His mind will not take him a classic distance, however, and there is some doubt as to whether his breeding will either.
His sire is an old number with the forlorn name of Saggy. His dam, with the equally ramshackle name of Joppy, often distinguished herself on the race track by refusing to come out of the starting gate. She failed to win any of her seven races, earned a total of $325 and eventually came into Price's hands for $300. She was one of three mares Price was shipping from Cleveland to Florida in 1957. "A friend of mine suggested I stop in Maryland and breed the mares to Saggy," he says. "They were going to give me a bargain rate: breed all three mares to him for $900. I said why not."
Saggy does have some credentials. He once held the world record for four and a half furlongs (which is something like a track man owning it for the 45-yard dash), and as a 3-year-old in 1948, his name popped up in headlines when he upset the mighty Citation in a prep race at the old Havre de Grace track in Maryland. This was Citation's only defeat in his Triple Crown year. At stud, Saggy has produced a number of useful winners at sprint distances. His best offspring was Gerard S. Smith's brilliant filly Outer Space, who once extended her speed to win a stake at a mile and a furlong. Breeding notwithstanding, if Carry Back can win the February 25 Flamingo Stakes at the same distance, he will rate the highest consideration for the Derby.
At Santa Anita the speedy Captain Fair has the most impressive record—12 wins in 18 starts, including the last five in a row, four of them stakes. He is owned by Texas and New Mexico Rancher Robert LeSage and is speed-bred all the way. However, LeSage and Trainer Charles Comiskey feel that they may have a sort of carbon copy of Bally Ache who, just when he was expected to fold up, often called upon a determined heart and refused to quit.
The two best Santa Anita candidates probably are Olden Times and Flutterby. They finished in that order, only a neck apart, in last week's California Breeders' Champion Stakes. Olden Times (SI, July 25) belongs to Rex Ellsworth, who has spent five years rebuilding his stable after its success with Swaps. Flutterby belongs to Calgary businessmen Max Bell and Frank McMahon. They usually get fellow Canadian Johnny Longden to ride, and they use Long-den's son, Vance, as trainer.
Flutterby is by Noor (a four-time conqueror of Citation) out of the mare Blue Butterfly, and his training has been noteworthy. "Over the years," says Vance Longden, "my father has introduced me to many of the leading European trainers. The most important thing they have taught me is that in training for longer races the basic formula is to work horses over a distance, but not too hard and not too often. Now, with Flutterby we know his breeding should carry him a distance, so this season I've kept him out of sprints while building up his stamina. This builds the horse up physically while allowing the muscles to develop gradually."
Olden Times, who has twice this season lost to Captain Fair by narrow margins at seven furlongs, is, as his trainer Mish Tenney puts it, "still a good horse until proven otherwise." He is perfectly balanced and flawless in action. His distance capabilities will depend on the success of the Rex Ellsworth theory that a good combination of bloodlines often has speed on the side of the sire (in this case, Relic) and staying power on the side of the dam (Djenne, from the line that produced Pharis).
Other colts, of course, are going to be heard from on both coasts between now and Derby time. In Florida, to test Carry Back, are the recent stakes winners Vapor Whirl and Crozier, along with Try Cash, Beau Prince, Nashua Blue, Garwol and Guadalcanal, a son of Citation who may well be the best of the lot in two months.
At Santa Anita, already prepping for their March 4 Derby, are Pappa's All, Game, Flatterer, Gay Landing and another Ellsworth prospect, a Swaps colt named Hustle Bubble.
The guessing game will continue with growing excitement through the competition of the next 11 weeks, and on the afternoon of May 6 it will be at its peak. By then it will be confined to about a dozen hardy, possibly patched-up survivors. For racing fans, this will again be the moment of the year.