It is customary on Florida Derby Day at Gulfstream Park to surround this major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby with all kinds of eye-catching hoopla. Last Saturday there were bands of three types—Dixieland, marching and Scottish bagpipers—water-skiing and sailing on the infield lake and enough of a rum concoction called a Derby daiquiri to float the nearby Diplomat Hotel.
When the 26,655 customers had endured all this added folderol it remained for a wonderful brown colt with the now-familiar name of Carry Back to make the biggest splash of all. As the slim favorite in the field of eight 3-year-olds primed for this mile-and-an-eighth southern classic, Carry Back swooshed through a sloppy surface more suited to the Eton wall game than to horse racing, made up 12½ lengths and won over hard-luck Crozier by merely a head. Carry Back's victory makes him the clear-cut Kentucky Derby favorite, despite the strenuous program mapped out for him between now and his date at Churchill Downs on May 6.
The Florida Derby field did not include the West Coast contenders Four-and-Twenty, Flutterby, Songman and Pappa's All and some New York-based Kentucky prospects, but it had all the rest who were fit to run. It also had nearly all the top jockeys: Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Milo Valenzuela and the newest sensation, 23-year-old John Sellers. Sellers, who has the innocent smile of a boy accepting his prize as the most improved singer in the choir, is in fact about to get a similar award. He is a night student at Hollywood's South Broward High School, and needs only one more credit in English literature to qualify for his diploma. In the meantime he qualifies, along with a character known as the Fabulous Fabian (no horseman), as one of the two richest high school students in the U.S.
Much of Sellers' wealth comes, of course, from his superb handling of Carry Back, who in winning $75,100 in the Florida Derby has now earned the staggering total of $475,118 even before competing in any of the rich Triple-Crown classics. Actually, Sellers might have picked up an additional grubstake 10 days before the Florida Derby except for the benevolence of Carry Back's owner, short, plump and happy Jack Price. Carry Back finished third in the March 22nd Fountain of Youth Stakes (beaten three lengths by Calumet's Beau Prince and Fred Hooper's Crozier). But Price refused to put the blame on his horse or jockey. "Carry Back was a little short for the race," he said, "and it was all my fault. I wanted to work the colt on the Sunday before the race, but I changed my mind simply because I didn't think it was fair to ask Sellers to get out of bed too early on a Sunday morning."
There was nothing short about Carry Back in the Florida Derby, except his winning payoff of $5.20. On paper the race stacked up as a three-way battle among Carry Back, Crozier and Beau Prince—with an outside chance going to Garwol and Ronnie's Ace. But a five-hour downpour hit the Miami area in the predawn of Derby Day, turning the track into goo and throwing all tactics open to wide speculation. With mud being kicked up from the leaders, for instance, no contender could take the chance of getting too far out of it for the first part of the race. A front runner like Crozier could skip away in the slop and be long gone before any serious chase began. But Crozier's owner, who had watched his game colt run second to Carry Back in the Flamingo (and also had seen him beaten a total of only one length in losing his last four starts) had some new ideas of his own. Fred Hooper said, "We really think Crozier would run better coming from behind, and today is the day to try it out."
In the other camps there was not too much concern about the track. Beau Prince (as is the custom with most sons of Bull Lea) had never been bothered by off going. "I'll probably mind the mud, but this colt won't," said Arcaro. As for Carry Back—"He'll run on anything," said Jack Price. "Who are we frightened of? Nobody."
At the start it seemed almost strange not to see Crozier go right to the front. This pace-setting role was played in partnership between the outsiders, Oak Dandy at 127 to 1 and Intensive at 56 to 1. They splashed around the clubhouse turn as though they were trying to outdo the water-skiers. Hartack had Crozier laying perfectly in third place; bringing up the rear were Beau Prince, Carry Back and finally Garwol, whose sudden rearing at the start cost him at least five lengths.
"Carry Back was a little slow to take the bit," Sellers said later, "but he got to running smoothly on the backstretch. I knew I was way out of it then, but that's the way I wanted it. I was looking at Arcaro ahead of me, and the plan was to move about when he did." Leaving the half-mile pole Arcaro got into Beau Prince, and away they went. But Sellers put Carry Back in the fight at the same time, and the pair of them set sail around the far turn in pursuit of Hartack, who was now just about to take the lead from Oak Dandy and Intensive. As they turned for home, Crozier was in front, on the rail, and Beau Prince was knifing to the inside just behind him. Carry Back was charging up on the outside. It was a dramatic spectacle, and the stands sent up a powerful roar at the prospect of just the fight all had paid to see.
For an instant it appeared that Hartack and Crozier had the battle won. They were two lengths in front down the straightaway. Suddenly two things happened: Beau Prince gave up nearing the eighth pole, and Crozier (who has always had difficulty telling a straight line from a convoy course) ducked out, sharply, about 10 feet. Crozier never was the same running machine again.
Sellers and Carry Back came to the wire together with Crozier. Carry Back's neck stretched forward like a man guzzling spaghetti, while Hartack struggled to get Crozier back to work. Three jumps before the finish Carry Back stuck his head in front and kept it there. Beau Prince was just over three lengths behind.
With this victory Carry Back has earned the early Kentucky Derby favoritism that once went to such other Florida Derby winners as Correlation, Nashua, Needles, Tim Tam, Gen. Duke and Bally Ache. Some observers believe this race (in the excellent off-track time of 1:48[4/5]) is bound to take something out of a colt who has now had six tough trips this season and had 21 races last year. But Owner Price will not, apparently, let up on him. Despite a left foreleg that may be somewhat sore, Carry Back is scheduled to go to Aqueduct for the April 22 Wood Memorial before being shipped to Kentucky.
But Jack Price is honest enough about his intentions, and about himself. "I'm not a 20th century empire builder like Mr. Louis Wolfson or Mr. John Galbreath," he says. "My ancestors weren't 18th or 19th century empire builders, and my grandmother doesn't sell cosmetics. We just want to make some money with this horse."