As the paintings on the preceding pages recall, last year's Kentucky Derby was made memorable by the presence of a spunky colt named Carry Back. He captivated racing fans by his come-from-way-behind style, and he won as the overwhelming sentimental favorite. This year's race has no such focus of interest. Nevertheless, because of the remarkably diversified talents in the field of 3-year-olds who meet this Saturday, the Derby should be one of the fine racing spectacles of our time.
This is, admittedly, strong advance billing for an event that until very recently appeared likely to be a contest among ailing, eccentric and mediocre colts. But the results of two races last week now offer the prospect of a stirring, gate-to-wire duel between two evenly matched horses, Sir Gaylord and Ridan; only rain or racing luck could provide a long-shot winner.
Because of its esteemed position on our racing calendar, the Derby should not be contested by horses with little or no chance to win. Unfortunately, it often is. This year, for example, before last week's Blue Grass and Stepping Stone, only eight horses had actually earned valid credentials for the Derby. Yet possibly twice that number may make it to the starting gate for the mile-and-a-quarter grind. The eight good ones are Sir Gaylord and his stablemate, the brilliant filly Cicada, Ridan, Sir Ribot, Decidedly, Sunrise County, Admiral's Voyage and Donut King. Add to this list Crimson Satan, though his excuses for losing are now wearing thinner than a second-hand kimono, and Royal attack. Clearly, the number of legitimate choices is limited.
The role of Derby favorite will almost certainly go to Sir Gaylord, who won last week's Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs—a seven-furlong prep—by nearly two lengths over Sir Ribot. Out of action since suffering an ankle injury at Hialeah after he won the Everglades, Sir Gaylord came within two-fifths of a second of the track record and was then officially timed over the Derby distance in 2:02 2/5. (But a horseman sitting beside Casey Hayes, who trains Sir Gaylord for Christopher T. Chenery, clocked the colt running out the mile in 1:34 3/5 and the mile and a quarter in 2:01 4/5.) For a horse that had not raced in over two months that was impressive, to say the least. Half an hour later, Trainer Hayes sent out Cicada in the Kentucky Oaks Prep, and she not only beat a field of 11 fillies but also Sir Gaylord's time by a fifth of a second.
All this took place two days after Ridan had won the Blue Grass at Keeneland, running just a fifth of a second slower than Round Table's track mark of 1:47 2/5 for the mile and an eighth. He beat Decidedly by four lengths and Crimson Satan by nearly nine. Immediately horsemen began to debate which of these performances was most meaningful.
I believe Ridan's was. By every standard, this superb performance by the big, rugged colt shows he is now 25% better than he was when he lost twice in a row to Sir Gaylord in Florida this winter. The improvement should be credited to his present jockey, Manuel Ycaza. With his strong hands, his fiery competitive instinct and his marvelous talent for tuning his own ability to that of his mount, Ycaza is made for a horse like Ridan.
"We can't ever get an exercise boy to ride him right," says Ridan's owner, Mrs. Moody Jolley. "He's too strong, and they can't hold him. Ycaza can—and did in the Blue Grass." Breaking on top, Manuel took Ridan back while the speed horses, Roman Line and Areopolis, cut out the early pace. When they folded, Ridan, who had been in third place, had the lead to himself. Ycaza pulled away in the stretch, thwarting the brief challenges of Decidedly and Crimson Satan. The latter made his big move going into the last turn and quickly gave up.
On that occasion, Ridan worked out the mile and a quarter in 2:01. Later, when Ycaza had decided to ride the colt in the Derby (he also was offered Donut King by Owner Verne Winchell), he was asked if Ridan had felt stronger in the Blue Grass Stakes than when he barely edged Cicada in the Florida Derby. "Well," said Manuel, with a glistening display of teeth, "today he was pulling away at the end." That alone should indicate how sharp Ridan is now.
Of course, Sir Gaylord was impressive in the Stepping Stone. In this six-horse race first Doc Jocoy and then Sir Ribot went to the front while Milo Valenzuela kept Sir Gaylord very near the pace. When they straightened for home, Sir Gaylord gradually wore down Sir Ribot and won going away. However, Valenzuela had to ride his horse all the way, and in the final sixteenth of a mile Sir Gaylord was noticeably trying to lug in to the rail. Milo had to hit him left-handed to keep him straight. This could have been caused by mere fatigue since Sir Gaylord had not raced since February 21. Or it could be his right front ankle is hurting again.
The filly is ready
Cicada, who already qualifies as one of the best racing fillies ever seen in this country, is still eligible to be entered in the Derby, and there is every likelihood that she will be, just in case anything happens to Sir Gaylord. But she probably will run in Friday's Oaks instead. Willie Shoemaker rode her in the Oaks Prep and later told Trainer Casey Hayes, "If she'd been running in the Florida Derby like she ran today we'd have beaten Ridan a city block." He also said that she was not only the greatest filly he had ever ridden but the greatest he had ever seen.
Earlier that same day Shoemaker had been put through a jockey's nightmare. Sunrise County, his own choice as a Derby mount—and everyone's choice as the Derby's problem horse—was scheduled for a work at the Downs. Out on the track, Sunrise County displayed the same erratic behavior that brought him disqualification in both the Flamingo and the Wood Memorial. "After going about half a mile," said Shoe, "he ran to the outside in a slow, drifting movement and pulled himself up. It must be in his mind. He was working with blinkers, which he had on in the Flamingo but not in the Wood, but they didn't seem to help. This week we'll work him with a special one-eye blinker, the right eye only. And if that doesn't work we'll have to go back to no blinkers at all. I know he can run, and run fast. It's true that I'd rather have him break from an outside gate SQ he can follow horses around the first turn instead of being inside and possibly getting into trouble after the break. But there's something else I thought of, too. There may be such a noisy crowd on both sides of the track on Derby Day that Sunrise County will get confused by it all and run perfectly straight."
Neither horse that finished second in last week's preps in Kentucky should be lightly dismissed. Decidedly, a son of Determine, was second to Ridan in the Blue Grass; Sir Ribot was behind Sir Gaylord in the Stepping Stone. Both are perfectly bred to run the Derby distance, both are bound to improve off their last races and both may benefit if Churchill Downs comes up slow or muddy—conditions that are unfavorable for Sir Gaylord and Ridan.
Decidedly, a neat gray horse who could take a conformation prize in any show ring, was beaten by Ridan by four lengths last week, but he had a few traffic problems along the way and was far from disgraced. Sir Ribot is a big, gangling bay colt with a tremendous lick of speed when he feels like turning it on. The best place for him to turn it on, obviously, is in the stretch, where it can be of most use. If either Sir Ribot or Decidedly is to make his mark at Churchill Downs this week, the others in the field must cooperate. The best opportunity for these two would come if Sir Gaylord and Ridan killed each other off with a full sixteenth of a mile to go. Then a stretch runner might overhaul the pair of them.
Now the long shots
It is discourteous but reasonable to scoff at the chances of the other Derby candidates. Crimson Satan, a wow when no other first-rate 2-year-olds were around last fall, has never made it back to his best form. In Florida he came down with respiratory and intestinal trouble and raced poorly. Even his native Kentucky air has not helped him. Sunrise County will need a super-strong Shoemaker and possibly a special trackside radar beacon to keep him on course. Admiral's Voyage, game and versatile as he seems to be, isn't likely to relish the distance.
Doc Jocoy, one of the California invaders, has a pleasant 300-pound owner named Lionel Sternberger, whose chief claim to fame is the fact that in 1923 he invented the cheeseburger. But off his fourth-place finish to Sir Gaylord last week, Doc Jocoy is hardly headed for a winning mile and a quarter. Royal Attack, a Royal Charger colt, has the breeding, but knee trouble in March probably set him back too far in his training. Donut King cannot make it on an off track at all, and even in the Wood, in which he finished third on a fast track, he rapped himself slightly. He is another son of Determine, however, and must be given an outside chance. The others in the race—Prego, Good Fight, Roman Line, Sharp Count, Boone Co., Mister Pitt and Green Hornet—will all be long shots, and deservedly so.
A plot for the race
How will the Derby be run? Fast for one thing, fast enough, perhaps, to beat Whirlaway's 1941 record of 2:01[2/5]. A colt like Roman Line will take the lead early, and you can expect to see Ycaza on Ridan and Milo Valenzuela on Sir Gaylord running just off the pace, Sunrise County, if Shoe can manage it, will be close to Sir Gaylord and Ridan, and if Braulio Baeza wants to take back with Admiral's Voyage instead of making a hurried run for it, there will be at least four riders in this pack watching each other very closely.
Somewhere behind will be Donut King, Decidedly, Sir Ribot and Crimson Satan. It is doubtful that Ycaza will make any real move with Ridan before they turn for home. Milo and Sir Gaylord will be right with them. From way back, Sir Ribot will get into gear and so will Decidedly. At the eighth pole the sprinters will fold, and the stretch runners will be straining to overtake Sir Gaylord and Ridan, who will be driving together in a furious charge. If Cicada makes the race either as a substitute for Sir Gaylord or as an entry with him, she'll be in there somewhere, too.
The stretch runners may overtake the big two in the Belmont or next fall. But not in this week's Derby. And I believe Mrs. Moody Jolley's Ridan is going to win that race.