Making up 13 lengths in the stretch, Carry Back (10)—the horse with "no breeding"—overtakes Crozier 40 yards from the wire (below).
THE MAN WHO WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT
For days before last week's 87th running of the Kentucky Derby, Jack Price, the co-owner and trainer of favored Carry Back, had managed to make himself about as popular with Louisville boosters as a patch of poison ivy on a nursery school playground. Reprising a theme song which seems to have a Jack Price copyright and one which he has sung for seven months now in New Jersey, Florida and New York, Price consigned racing tradition to the birds. Money, he insisted to hundreds of inquiring visitors at Churchill Downs' Barn 42, was the sole objective of his trip south from Aqueduct. Carry Back, he pointed out, already had won $492,368, and Carry Back, he was certain, was about to win him another $120,500.
"Sure, I'll be happy to keep the cup they give away," he said, "and I don't mind the prestige of being on the winners' list. But to me this is just the seventh race on Saturday, May 6."
May 14, 1961
Kentuckians couldn't have been more horrified if Price had told them that their bonded bourbon was only 60 proof. But the amazing thing about Derby Week in Louisville was that absolutely everything Jack Price had to say about Carry Back and the field of 14 who opposed him last Saturday was precisely on target.
Price showed up in the press box to watch the one-mile Derby Trial five days before the big race. After seeing his archrival, Crozier, set a track record of 1:34-3/5 while beating California's speedy Four-and-Twenty, Price roamed among the typewriters and gave anybody interested in listening his own expert opinion. Looking squarely at the reporters, including many from the West Coast and Canada who were there to record the feats of Four-and-Twenty and his Alberta Ranches stablemate, Flutterby, Price announced, "I've thought all along our eastern 3-year-olds could beat those California horses. Now, Crozier's win makes Carry Back look better than ever, and as far as I'm concerned the Derby is between Carry Back and Crozier."
Of course, not everybody believed him, and by Saturday night the disbelievers had a big case of the regrets. For exactly as Price had said it would be, the 87th Derby was ultimately resolved between those two. The stretch run, in which Carry Back made up 13 lengths in a quarter of a mile to beat Crozier, will be remembered as one of the great finishes of this classic—even in a race where drama at the wire is the rule rather than the exception.
This was a tremendous race despite the unusual fact that virtually every soul in the creaking old joint knew exactly what the strategy would be and exactly which horses would dictate it. Globemaster, winner of the Wood Memorial, Crozier and Four-and-Twenty were the speed. Barring a horrendous traffic jam at the start, they could be counted upon to fly out of the gate and have at each other for as long as each could last. Carry Back, Flutterby, Dr. Miller and Bass Clef would be way back awaiting the collapse up front and the precise moment to move. Somewhere in the middle Sherluck and Ambiopoise would be waiting to make a somewhat shorter move of their own, once the leaders showed the first signs of weariness.
At his barn the morning before the race, Price dug out a file in which he had all of Carry Back's racing charts together with his own penned impressions. "Now, in the Wood Memorial," he noted, "we were 12 or 13 lengths off the pace on the backstretch. Too far out of it, and not enough time to make it up. The Flamingo was ideal. We were never more than five or six lengths off the pace. We'll pattern the Derby strategy after the Flamingo, although I wouldn't mind being as many as 12 lengths behind here. The distance is greater, and the leaders will probably come back to us faster after trying to carry their speed a mile and an eighth."
At the start, sure enough, there went Globemaster, with Four-and-Twenty right after him and Crozier third. The Wood winner took only 23 4/5 seconds to cover the first quarter of a mile, and even Johnny Longden on Four-and-Twenty was surprised. "I didn't think there was a horse around that could outrun us for the first quarter," he said later. Up the backstretch, while Globe-master was still rolling along on the lead, his two closest pursuers stuck together. The rest of the field seemed to be having a pleasant little race of their own some six lengths behind. Carry Back had been 11th going by the stands the first time, about 13 lengths behind Globe-master. After going half a mile he was still 11th, but now Jockey John Sellers had him a frightening 16 lengths away from the front end.
Sellers makes his move
Past the half-mile pole and into the far turn, the leaders held the pace over a tiring and holding track (the result of a long, steady rain the day and night before), and Sellers decided it was high time to move. "I shook my stick at him a few times to get him on the bit. I clucked to him, and he took off like the little man that he is."
But Carry Back had a long way to go, and his chances of making it at this point hardly looked good. Globemaster was still setting the pace, having covered the half mile in 47 3/5 and the first three quarters in 1:11 2/5. But around the far turn Globemaster started to weaken, and Longden immediately put Four-and-Twenty on top. He winged around the final turn into the homestretch and past the quarter pole after covering the mile in 1:36[1/5]. Sellers had Carry Back tuned up now, however, and as they passed tired horses they turned for home in sixth place. They were still 13 lengths away from Four-and-Twenty with only one quarter of a mile to go.
As the crowd roared its approval of the duel unfolding before them, Braulio Baeza sent Crozier after Four-and-Twenty just as he had done in the Trial. He mastered Four-and-Twenty quickly, and suddenly at the eighth pole found himself half a length in front. "We were out of it," said Tommy Kelly, trainer of Globemaster, "but I thought by then there was no way on earth that Crozier could be beaten."
Baeza, a Panamanian with the classical face of a warrior and the gift of superb horsemanship, was not, at that moment, sharing Kelly's optimism. "I see horse coming up on outside, and I know it can be only one horse. He Carry Back," Baeza said later. Sellers was riding desperately, and the real duel was on. An eighth of a mile to go—just 220 yards—and Carry Back was in fourth place, four lengths behind Crozier. For a split second Crozier gave a hint of going off course, as he had done in both the Flamingo and the Florida Derby, but Baeza quickly straightened him out and then joined the battle.
As they came down to the 16th pole, it was still Crozier, and you thought it must end this way. But Carry Back has never been known to quit, and now he proved his right to a high place in this race's colorful history. Charging relentlessly on the outside, as he so often has before, Carry Back wore Crozier down inch by inch, foot by foot and yard by yard. Barely 40 yards from the finish their noses were together. Then, in the last few strides, it was Carry Back drawing triumphantly off to win by just three-quarters of a length. At last, too, he won the applause and respect so long overdue from those who have dwelt on his "unfashionable" breeding instead of admitting that his consistent good form simply must mark him as a genuine champion.
There can be little or no excuse for the others in this Derby field. The race was cleanly run and the track, as the saying goes, was the same for all of them. Two lengths behind Crozier (who has now lost three of the biggest races in America to Carry Back by a total margin of only a length) was the field horse Bass Clef. Hirsch Jacobs' Dr. Miller, 22 lengths behind turning for home, finished fourth, beaten only five lengths by Carry Back. Sherluck, turning for home in fourth place, looked dangerous, but his run stopped almost before it got properly started and he finished fifth, just ahead of Globemaster. Four-and-Twenty and Flutterby were seventh and eighth, and the latter's showing was the day's big disappointment. From the rest there was no threat, no run and no results.
When it was all over, the day's most appropriate remark came from Chuck Parke, Crozier's trainer. "I guess that little brown horse got my number, that's all." Well, the fact is that little brown horse seems to have everybody's number at the moment, and the team of Jack and Katherine Price and Jockey John Sellers and Carry Back is the most colorful group in racing. The second Florida-bred colt to win the Derby has now earned $612,868. Sellers, who is only 23, has already become a superb rider. It could not have been easy for this handsome boy to take back and then sit back on a Derby favorite, knowing that three of the best mile horses in America were 16 lengths ahead of him and that any one of them might steal away and never give a late runner a chance.
"It wasn't easy," Sellers said later, '"but that's the way the horse runs. That's the way I know I can get the best performance out of him. I know that somewhere between three-eighths and a half mile after the start, Carry Back will be ready to go. Not before. And when he's ready, it's just up to me to decide when to go with him."
A distinguished ride
"A funny thing about this Derby, though," Sellers remarked at the winner's party. "All week I felt real tense about today. Then suddenly today came, and I surprised myself by not being nervous at all." Sellers' patient ride and strong finish (he covered the last quarter in 25[1/5] for a final clocking of 2:04) belongs in the category of very distinguished rides. In the jocks' room later the beaten riders made almost as much of a fuss over John as the newsmen.
Winning his first Derby is not likely to send John Sellers rushing out for a larger-sized hat. Nor are the events at Louisville last Saturday apt to cause much of a change in the personality of outspoken Jack Price. "They told me about all the tradition of the Derby," he was saying during the party in his honor, "but to tell the truth, I didn't feel much different here than I did while winning the Everglades at Hialeah. When they played My Old Kentucky Home I was watching my horse. I tried to squeeze out a tear, but it just wouldn't be squeezed."
People are often remarking about Carry Back (and quite often within earshot of his owner-trainer) that this colt by the sprinter Saggy out of a no-account mare named Joppy is the worst-looking excuse for a champion ever seen. "He may not be much to look at," is Price's reply, "but he sure looks good to me. I know he's not outstanding, but he is well balanced, and he has everything in the right places. Down here all the writers are telling me something is wrong with my horse. I learned he has a bad ankle, suspect sesamoids, a cold in his back—everything but the final stages of cancer. Well, it doesn't bother me one bit, and it doesn't bother Carry Back either. He's never been better in his life. When they criticize him I've got a good comeback: I just look at the figures."
The lure of money is strong for Price, but before the party was over he had made a shy admission: "I've always liked horses and nearly always owned a few. I could also have led a better life than being a trainer if I wanted to, like sipping cool drinks and hopping in and out of swimming pools. But I must like getting up at 5:15, or I wouldn't want to lead this life. Nobody, even me, could put in a trainer's hours without loving it. It isn't only the money."
Before his trip to Louisville and just before Carry Back was beaten by Globe-master in the Wood Memorial, Price was having breakfast at Belmont Park one early morning. There he also admitted something else. "Basically I'm a pretty sensitive guy. I was nervous with this horse at first. Being criticized as a bad trainer upset me because I really do think I'm a good trainer." The Dorchester Corporation (which he and his wife own and which owns Carry Back) pays Jack Price a salary of $15,000 a year to train his own horse. "Of course, I get travel expenses, too," he says, "plus a bonus if we have a good year."
Maybe after what happened last Saturday at Churchill Downs Katherine Price will see her way clear to giving this good trainer his bonus. While she's about it, she might consider putting him in for a raise, too.