A month ago the outlook for the Kentucky Derby was a mess. Horses were sick, injured or mysteriously off form. Today, after a few races that could be considered Derby qualifiers, things are even more confused. This encourages the large and optimistic class of long-shot bettors but seriously embarrasses the professional horseman and handicapper.
In the first place, of the 139 horses originally nominated for this year's 88th Derby on May 5 at least 30 must still be considered possible contenders. If as many as 20 make it to the starting gate, half of them must be given some chance to win. True, the lack of a standout favorite (such as Citation was in 1948) can make for a more interesting Derby. But it also raises the question of whether the current 3-year-olds are, as the tired saying goes, "an ordinary bunch," or if the fact that they regularly have taken turns beating one another signifies good quality in depth.
My judgment is that there is indeed quality in the division but that much of it won't be seen in the Derby. I mean George D. Widener's Jaipur, Christiania Stable's Cyane and Christopher T. Chenery's Cicada. Neither of the first two will go to Churchill Downs. And the filly, Cicada, is a possible but unlikely starter.
Jaipur looked almost unbeatable in winning his 1962 debut recently, but just a week after his victory in the Gotham he bruised a heel and now will be pointed for the Preakness instead of this week's Wood Memorial. Cyane spent a restful and profitable winter at Camden, S.C. (SI, March 26), and, if his debut is as impressive as Jaipur's, their meeting in either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes—or both—should be the best contest among 3-year-olds no matter what happens in the Derby.
Still, the Derby is the big race—at least to the public. Earlier this winter Sir Gay-lord was the obvious choice. He ran over everything sent against him at Hialeah before injuring an ankle. There is no doubt that a sound Sir Gaylord would be far and away the best colt around to handle the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance. But ankle injuries, like others to the delicate underpinnings of Thoroughbreds, often recur. In Sir Gaylord's case, Owner Chenery and Trainer Casey Hayes maintain that their Turn-to colt is fully recovered and better than ever. Hayes, who publicly admonished one newsman for getting too nosy about the ankle in February, will ship Sir Gaylord to Churchill Downs this weekend. Hayes says the colt will start there in a sprint prep a week before Derby Day.
"If Sir Gaylord doesn't make it in time," says Owner Chenery, "we have the filly Cicada to backstop him." Chenery doesn't really want to run Cicada in the Derby, but the way he has campaigned her so far this season leaves little doubt that he would substitute her for Sir Gaylord. Before sending her against Mrs. Moody Jolley's Ridan in the Florida Derby a few weeks ago—a race, incidentally, in which she did her reputation no harm in losing by barely a nose—both Hayes and Chenery had something to say on the subject of fillies.
Hayes, who has never been known to race his stock lightly, said: "This is a real running filly with a real heart. Right now she's good, and we like to run her when she's good." Chenery was more explicit. "I don't think a good filly like Cicada will run any faster against colts than she will against fillies. If she's good—and we think Cicada is good—she'll run her best no matter whether it's against other fillies or against colts or geldings or all three."
Horsemen who watched her courageous race with Ridan might be inclined to believe that competition with colts brings out the best in Cicada. Some would also say that after such a tough race she would have to.be an iron horse ever to return to her best form. That will be proved, one way or the other, if not in the Derby itself, then in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday of Derby Week.
Which brings us to Ridan, the top 2-year-old sprinter of 1961 who earlier this season found it life and death to go a distance of ground, or at least to get there ahead of Sir Gaylord. After using first Bill Hartack and then Milo Valenzuela on Ridan, Trainer LeRoy Jolley switched, in the Florida Derby, to Manuel Ycaza, and the result was the best ride Ridan has had this year. The trouble all along had been in trying to rate the headstrong colt and to conserve some of his great speed for the stretch.
"A lot of people," said young Jolley, "put the knock on Ridan when they may not have realized how tough it is for a horse to make the transition from a series of sprint races to going a distance. Same as you may be the best 100-yard-dash man in the world, but if they suddenly put you in a 440 or 880 you're not going to adjust overnight. This colt had developed a sprint habit, but this winter the more he was sent a distance the more he got used to it."
Ycaza, who has never been modest about his own skills, rode a near-perfect race in the Florida Derby and said, "After what I'd heard about him, I thought he was so tough to hold. Well, he wasn't tough at all—not for me anyway!" Ycaza and Ridan will probably get together next in the April 26 Blue Grass at Keene-land, again at the mile-and-an-eighth distance, and then on to Louisville.
Among the other Derby contenders already in Kentucky are Decidedly and Crimson Satan. The former missed both the Flamingo and Florida Derby because of intestinal trouble, but off his second to Sir Gaylord in the Everglades he still must be considered better than average. Hartack has the mount on him in the Blue Grass. Crimson Satan, an everytime loser in Florida, where his stable blamed defeat on either the Florida climate or a nasal condition and yet kept entering him, bounced back to win at Keeneland the other day for the first time since he captured both The Garden State and the Pimlico Futurity last fall. It could be he is all well again, but he still will have to prove it against some class before becoming a serious Derby threat.
Two of the last big pre-Derby tests are scheduled this week. At Tanforan the California Derby should bring together Royal Attack, Doc Jocoy and Prince of Plenty, among others, to decide which deserve the trip to Kentucky.
Royal Attack, the impressive winner of the Santa Anita Derby, retired to Owner Neil McCarthy's ranch last month for a three-week rest and while there had both knees blistered. Last week, in his first start since March 3, this good-looking son of Royal Charger went up against older horses and although he finished well out of the money (seventh) at a mile and a sixteenth, he made one promising move. Afterward Owner McCarthy apparently was satisfied with the colt's progress, and Trainer Buddy Hirsch said, "He seems to be in fine shape. I'm sure he'll do better in the California Derby." Royal Attack no doubt will benefit from two races at Tanforan (where the footing is comparatively soft) on his way to Kentucky.
Missing from the Tanforan scene was Sir Ribot, Fred Turner's in-and-out runner who retired to Hollywood Park to recover from a virus while his trainer, Frank Childs, was making up his mind whether or not this son of a notable sire would come to Louisville.
Derby hopes in the Wood
The mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial at Aqueduct this week will settle only the question of which New York horse is second-best to Jaipur. Sunrise County, Townsend Martin's improving Summer Tan colt who won the Flamingo and then lost it on a disqualification, probably will be the favorite. He seems to have learned to stop bearing out, and Martin recently hired Willie Shoemaker to ride him. Willie can make a difference of five lengths even if he is aboard a lead pony. Other Wood probables are Donut King, who has shown a distinct dislike for an off track, Prego, Endymion and possibly Admiral's Voyage, who has shipped around the country (from Alabama to California to Louisiana to Florida to New York) like an equine version of a Harlem Globetrotter.
Only two weeks to Derby Day. The handicappers, professionals and amateurs, have their work cut out.