Shortly before last week's mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct track, Owner Town-send B. Martin was struggling to find nice things to say about his horse, Sunrise County. In a moment the colt would race as the favorite in the East's last major test for 3-year-olds before the May 5 Kentucky Derby. Martin, a 54-year-old New York investment broker who lives in Locust, N.J. and has been in racing since 1930, broke into a sheepish grin. "I'd have to say Sunrise County is nice looking. He's solid, all right. He's also consistently in the money." Then, bowing his head slightly, he added, "Of course, the Flamingo was rather unfortunate for his reputation."
This understatement of the racing year referred to Sunrise County's startling performance at Hialeah last month (SI, March 12), when, in beating Prego and Ridan, he swerved clear across the track in the stretch. Although first to the wire, he was subsequently disqualified to third position. "It's funny," said Martin, "he never bore out that way before, and he hasn't done it since. Nothing's troubling him and he's fit to run his best today." What happened in the next few moments at Aqueduct was enough to wreck the aplomb of the coolest investment broker on Wall Street. It also helped make Sunrise County the prime candidate for Public Menace No. 1 in Thoroughbred racing. As the 11 horses broke from the gate, Willie Shoemaker bounced Sunrise County out in front from the second stall. To his right, in stall No. 3, stonefaced Braulio Baeza did the same with Fred Hooper's Admiral's Voyage. The rest of the pack, with the exception of Donut King, might as well have gone hunting elsewhere for purse money.
From the start, Sunrise County gave Shoemaker the same trouble he had given Herberto Hinojosa, who rode him at Hialeah. He tried to bear out on the first turn and plainly interfered with Baeza and Admiral's Voyage right there. But the two leaders ran as a team every foot of the way. In exchanging the lead at least three times, neither faltered once. Admiral's Voyage, in constant trouble, would not give in, and at the same time Shoemaker couldn't keep Sunrise County from wandering toward right field. In the process they combined to bottle up Manuel Ycaza on Donut King.
Turning for home, Shoemaker had his stubborn colt near the rail, and the two Derby contenders appeared ready for the kind of stretch run that hasn't been seen in the Wood since Sunrise County's daddy, Summer Tan, lost in the last stride of the 1955 race to Nashua. But as soon as they straightened out, Sunrise County started drifting again.
A furious Baeza was powerless to do anything to help Admiral's Voyage. Shoemaker and Sunrise County carried them fully a third of the way across the track. Shoe, fighting for control, used his whip right-handed, trying to get Sunrise County to veer left toward the rail. But a whip was hardly what Baeza wanted to have waving close to Admiral's Voyage's head at this point. Nor did Baeza particularly relish the banging that his left foot was receiving from Shoemaker's right boot. Neither colt, however, gave up the battle. They finished in a dead heat.
When both owners came to the winner's circle, they exchanged polite, if pointed opinions. "It looked to me," said Hooper, "as though your horse came out and hit me pretty good."
"I thought your horse was having trouble changing his lead [adjusting stride] on the turns," said Martin. The two men stood around awkwardly awaiting the decision of the stewards on Baeza's logical claim of foul against Shoemaker. Nine minutes after the dead heat, the stewards gave the $59,703 first money to Hooper and Admiral's Voyage, and to Sunrise County the second-place pot of $18,370.
The owners shook hands and went off to make plans to fly both colts to Louisville this week. If the day was a complete success for Fred Hooper, it wasn't a total loss to Townsend Martin. When he returned home following the Wood, he discovered another 3-year-old of his, Sebring, had just won the Players Navy Cut Stakes at Ireland's Phoenix Park to establish himself as one of the favorites for England's Epsom Derby. "Sebring," said Martin, "is probably a much better horse than Sunrise County, and as far as I can learn, always runs in a straight line."
Whether or not Sunrise County can be taught to run straight before his appearance on Derby Day, he will obviously be of major concern to his Churchill Downs rivals. "He doesn't move as though anything is hurting him," said a frustrated Shoemaker, "and I still intend to ride him in the Derby." Other owners, trainers and jockeys will be hoping that Shoe draws the outside post. From there, if he wants to go sightseeing to his right, Sunrise County would endanger nothing more than a few mint juleps.