The hazards of horse racing regularly produce high drama, and last Saturday they nearly reduced to a crashing shambles one of the important tests for the Kentucky Derby. It is an oddity of the racing calendar that two of these trials are run on the same day, on opposite sides of the country. In California's Santa Anita Derby 13 horses spun into the clubhouse turn, and an instant later four were riderless (above). Rex Ellsworth's Candy Spots (No. 5) went on to win. In the Flamingo Stakes at Florida's Hialeah, No. 5 also won—Captain Harry Guggenheim's Never Bend. Thus was confirmed the two-horse rivalry that is firing the imagination of racing fans. The triumphs and tragedies are reported on the following pages.
A DERBY FAVORITE COMES THROUGH A GRIM TRIAL
The most eye-catching colt in the U.S. won his Kentucky Derby test in style. Candy Spots, who attracts a chatter of appreciation from ordinary fans as well as the sober approbation of expert horsemen, threw off a physical shock in the Santa Anita Derby that would have unnerved many other 3-year-olds and still ran away from all comers. It is not just his come-from-behind ability that commands attention; he is simply a magnificent animal. All chestnut horses look good, and Candy Spots is a big one, fully 16 hands 2 inches and almost 1,100 pounds. A long white stripe down his face helps and, finally, there are those unique (and scientifically unexplained) markings that give him his name. On his back and hind legs are splashings of black and white that look as if they were flicked on by paint brushes.
In his first major race of the season Saturday, Candy Spots was the magnet for 57,000 pairs of eyes as the 13-horse field broke from the gate. He would surely have remained the focus of attention all the way if there had been no accident. As it was, the fantastic pileup so distracted the crowd that most people failed to appreciate fully Candy's excellent performance. Many also missed the fact that, but for a fluke of racing luck. Candy Spots himself—a $1 million hunk of horseflesh which Rex Ellsworth has not insured—might not have survived the worst crash ever seen on a U.S. racetrack in a major stakes race.
The drama, heightened if anything by the beautiful and well-ordered stage on which it took place, developed within seconds of the start. At first it appeared as if careless, hell-for-leather riding had caused the accident. Later the film patrol exonerated the participants. The trouble, actually, was that only one horse in this field wanted to run out ahead. The other 12 all wanted to take back and be second.
Following his break from stall 13, Johnny Longden gunned Alfred Vanderbilt's Might and Main to the lead and, by the time he was into the clubhouse turn, old grandpappy John had moved his horse across the track to the inside rail with a clear margin. But behind him all was explosive.
Following Might and Main were Fred Hooper's entry. Sky Gem and Win-Em-All, and Robert LeSage's Round Rock, the three of them closer than a London fog, the three riders trying to contain their mounts and at the same time avoid the complications that can result from close-quarter running. Braulio Baeza was on the inside of this trio with Sky Gem. Baeza already had observed that Sky Gem was trying to bear out. Suddenly he noticed another disturbing thing: Sky Gem was about to run up on Might and Main's heels.
Then it happened. Sky Gem bore out again, and as he did he tripped up his own stablemate. Milo Valenzuela flew off Win-Em-All as though the pair of them had been hit by a howitzer. He pitched forward onto the track and lay frighteningly still. Into this muddle of flesh tore Doolin Point, Denodado and Royal Tower, and their riders went sailing, either from contact with a fallen horse or because they were alert enough to bail out in the last split second. (Denodado broke both his left legs and was destroyed immediately at the request of his trainer, Charles Whittingham. For this purpose a pistol was borrowed from a security officer, the bullet was dispatched through the crippled horse's brain and—in keeping with the eerie nature of the afternoon—bounced away to injure a bystander lightly. Win-Em-All suffered cuts on both hind legs, a bloody nose and swollen mouth. He will surely miss the Florida Derby. Doolin Point had superficial cuts and bruises. Royal Tower was unscratched. All four jockeys went to the hospital with bruises but were released that night.)
At the same time, the second echelon of horses behind Sky Gem and Win-Em-All was having trouble. On the rail Country Squire bore out without warning. He slammed into Beekeeper. Beekeeper slammed into Candy Spots and knocked him almost sideways and four or five feet to the outside. It was exactly that four or five feet that saved Candy from barreling at full tilt into the fallen Win-Em-All. Suddenly Candy Spots had a clear track in front of him. From there on he was able to run his race.
The rest was almost anticlimactic. Might and Main held his lead until the reduced field turned for home. Sky Gem was behind him, but Bill Shoemaker had Candy Spots nicely in third place, just two lengths off the pace. Then he took the spotted chestnut to the outside and gradually wore down the front-runners. The winner was drawing away at the finish, the way a good horse should. In so doing, despite his undistinguished time of 1:50 1/5, Candy Spots had partly helped to answer several questions.
The big prerace puzzle among Santa Anita horsemen was not really whether Candy Spots was a good horse. Agreement was general that Owner Rex Ellsworth had the best horse, but the question was whether, after just one six-furlong prep race, Candy Spots was ready to win at nine furlongs. Owner Ellsworth and Trainer Meshach Tenney had wanted more time to prepare. They would have preferred him to have at least two pre-Derby races instead of one. When time ran out on them (they had purposely slowed his training down when the track went through a long spell of muddy and sloppy conditions), they worked him hard and fast to get him ready. And it came off.
"I was pleased with his race, I suppose," said Ellsworth later, "but not very satisfied with his condition. He was a long way from his real race today." What next for Candy Spots? "It's possible," says Ellsworth, "that we'll go to the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 30. But we might train this horse in the West and go right to Churchill Downs with him."
Ellsworth is just as aware as the rest of sporting America that his colt's chief rival in Louisville will be Never Bend. So is Shoemaker. In the paddock before the Santa Anita Derby, the crowd had already been informed by the track's public address system that Never Bend had won the Flamingo Stakes that afternoon. "Hey, Shoe," many called, "Never Bend won by five lengths—let's see what you can do now."
The Shoe did well, and so did Candy Spots, who may be on the way to establishing a popular equine personality in the same category as Carry Back. As to his quality, the interim judgment must be that the Spotted Wonder has the heart and the potential to be the best in the world.
IT WAS EASY FOR NEVER BEND
Some three hours after the running of the $135,600 Flamingo at Hialeah Park, Alfred Vanderbilt picked up his telephone in Miami Beach and called a dancing friend named Fred Astaire in California. "Fred," said Vanderbilt, "would you mind putting the telephone down next to the television set so I can hear the Santa Anita Derby?" Naturally Fred Astaire didn't mind, and Alfred Vanderbilt heard a colt named Candy Spots win the Santa Anita Derby even if some of his competition did lie down for him.
Ten years ago, on a soft May afternoon in Louisville, the last undefeated horse to enter a Derby was locked into the starting gate. His name was Native Dancer, his owner was Alfred Vanderbilt and he suffered the only defeat of his lifetime when a front-running dude named Dark Star beat him a head on the post. The owner of Dark Star was Captain Harry Guggenheim and, if anyone has a horse that can beat the unbeaten Candy Spots this year, it is this same Guggenheim. In the Flamingo it took only one minute 49 2/5 seconds for Guggenheim's Never Bend to prove that he is easily the best of the eastern 3-year-olds. A 37-to-1 shot, King Toots, was second, and Royal Ascot, an early-season hopeful trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, was third.
Taking command right from the start, Never Bend drew off to win by five easy lengths, leaving behind nine other—pardon the expression—horses. At no time did any one of Never Bend's opponents get close; for the crowd of 32,000 the only real excitement came from watching a fine solo performance, not a contest.
In all the history of $100,000 races there probably has never been such a simple victory. Jockey Manuel Ycaza had pushed Never Bend right to the front in the first two strides. Going into the first turn Never Bend was two lengths in front, and Ycaza had a pleasant trip around the racetrack with plenty of time for examining the hibiscus and bougainvillaea. "It is easy," he said later. "This is a fine, smart horse and he is not dumb-headed like his sire, Nasrullah. He is strong, very strong, a little bit stronger than me. When we get into the stretch I gave him two taps with the whip to keep him honest, and off he goes again. 'Bye-bye, boys,' I say to the other riders. It was, like the man said, another job very well done."
There is no doubt that Never Bend beat "nothing at all" in the Flamingo. The colts which Candy Spots defeated also were hardly the type to build monuments to. Never Bend is a good horse but as yet nothing more. He has won close to $500,000 with his nine victories in 12 starts. He is a picture horse with a beautiful, strong head and a roving eye. His stablehands call him Smokey because of his dark coloring, and when he takes to the racetrack he is a favorite on looks alone in any post parade.
His style of running is simply to go to the front and carry the target. There is, however, an extraordinary quickness to him at the starting gate and he rattles away from it as swiftly as Bold Ruler used to do. There is no higher compliment that can be paid to any horse.
There was something about Never Bend's Flamingo victory, though, that was a little distressing. Leaving the 16th pole he bore out badly. The move wasn't noticed at all by the crowd and could be seen only in the head-on shots in the film patrol. Perhaps, as his stable suggests, he shied away from a claque of photographers inside the inner rail. Maybe—but perhaps, instead, he ducked out because he had had as much distance as he could stomach. When horses tire they drift, and Never Bend was going in his first actual race of 1963 and had an excuse for tiring. (He did have a rather easy exhibition race two weeks ago.)
Never Bend goes to the post next on April 19 in the Forerunner at Keeneland. After that he will be in the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs. In the meantime Trainer Woody Stephens will merely breeze the colt in Columbia, S.C., getting him out of the Florida heat. "I believe," he says, "that this heat over a long period of time has got to sap the energy out of a man or a horse. In Columbia it is cooler, and we will just breeze him easy half miles or five furlongs."
For the next few weeks Never Bend will be out of sight, out of print, but certainly not out of anyone's mind. Right now Candy Spots weighs heavily on Captain Guggenheim's mind, and Never Bend should weigh as much on Rex Ellsworth's. The Derby is strictly a two-horse affair, and the characteristics of the competitors make for an outstanding race—Never Bend is a front-runner; Candy Spots rolls on from behind. You pays your money and you takes your choice—but in either case the payoff on your bet is likely to be modest.