For the first mile of last Saturday's big race at Gulf-stream Park the 23,906 fans had good reason to believe they were watching a thrilling, even Stephen contest. Then, in the last furlong, Jockey Bill Shoemaker whacked Rex Ellsworth's undefeated Candy Spots seven times. The first four whacks had no noticeable effect, so Shoe switched his whip for some left-handed slashes, and the big chestnut accelerated like a Ferrari. He pulled away to win the Florida Derby by an easy four and a half lengths over Sky Wonder, who had a neck margin over Cool Prince.
Candy Spots' time of l:50 3/5 was nothing to cheer about (and a far cry from Gen. Duke's track record of 1:46 4/5) but his race as a whole was highly impressive even though his opposition was not. This amazing animal has now won all six of his races and $336,812, with the Triple Crown classics and other rich opportunities still beckoning him. Also awaiting him for an engagement at Churchill Downs on May 4 is Captain Harry F. Guggenheim's Never Bend, who has won nine starts in 12 races and who was a noticeable absentee from the Florida Derby.
These two, Never Bend and Candy Spots, so different in many ways, rule this week as equal choices for the Kentucky Derby, and it seems hardly likely that this status will change in the five weeks remaining before they meet in Louisville. Other colts, of course, will make news between now and then. They have names like Ahoy, Bonjour, Jet Traffic, Outing Class, No Robbery, City Line, Chateaugay, In the Pocket and Top Gallant. Only a few observers of the winter racing scene (and I am not one of them) seriously believe that these or any other 3-year-olds in America will be ready on May 4 to beat either Never Bend or Candy Spots—and certainly not both of them.
In the days before the Florida Derby, Candy Spots' trainer, Mesh Tenney, who is Ellsworth's closest friend and racing partner, was acting as though he was trying to steal a page from Calumet Jimmy Jones's alibi booklet. Mesh moaned and groaned around Gulfstream's Barn T the way the Jones boys often do before they wrap up another easy $100,000 stakes. "This track is heavy and deep," said Mesh, "and horses aren't apt to run well over it first time out." Another complaint, and one which he had used with monotonous regularity before sending Candy Spots out to win the Santa Anita Derby, was that his horse "had been trained ragged and offbeat the whole winter," either because of California weather conditions or lack of racing opportunities.
On the day of the race Mesh admitted that he had worked his horse only three times in the last month instead of the five he preferred, and that this accounted for the way Candy Spots showed up in the Gulfstream paddock, both tucked up and in a sweat. Although the colt stands 16 hands 3 inches and weighs 1,125 pounds, he also looked underweight. There was the usual talk among the racing fraternity about Candy Spots' celebrated ankles. One writer had called them "boxing glove" ankles, meaning big and blown up. "It's remarkable to me," said Tenney, who did all the talking for his stable during Florida Derby week while Owner Ellsworth was riding the range in Arizona. "I don't see any 'boxing glove' ankles. You read a lot about that, but I don't do the writing and I don't try to influence the people who do. This horse's ankles are not too large. They are right for a coarse-boned, big-boned horse, and look to me like the kind of ankles that can stand a lot of wear and tear." (It is worth noting that a few years ago there was another horse who did all right on ankles that were not modeled on Miss America's. His name was Native Dancer.)
But no matter what people said about Candy Spots in Florida last week—too thin, too nervous, too this or too that—nobody could deny his running ability. Tenney and Shoemaker have teamed up so often in the last few profitable years that there is hardly any need for Mesh to give Shoe any rigid riding instructions. Just before he was hoisted aboard Candy Spots, Shoemaker squinted up at Tenney and said calmly, "I guess we'll lay back, eh?" Tenney squinted down at Shoe and said, equally calmly, "Yes, I guess that's the thing to do."
That's what they did, at first anyway. "My horse turned his head just as the gate opened," Shoe said later, "so, actually, it was a bad start for him. But then we got a break going into the first turn. I cut in to the rail and saved ground, getting by four or five horses outside of me. Then I wasn't worried."
For a while it appeared that he should have been worried. Gray Pet opened up a long lead up the backstretch, with Sky Gem second. But Shoemaker utilized some of Candy's marvelous acceleration powers around the turn, and suddenly, after breaking dead last and then speeding through on the inside of the clubhouse turn, he found himself third though still five lengths off Gray Pet. The pace was not killing: 23 1/5 for the first quarter and only :47 for the half mile. Shoemaker then encouraged Candy Spots to do something about it.
"I went to the lead at the three-eighths pole," Bill said, "but I didn't want to take too much of a hold on him because he was nearly pulling me out of the saddle. The trouble with this horse is that he can be lazy and likes to loaf on the lead. When I saw Sky Wonder coining to me I had to go to the whip, and then, of course, Candy picked right up and ran on. In fact he really took off in the last sixteenth."
When asked, as he always is these days, to compare Candy Spots as a young 3-year-old to another Ellsworth-Tenney colt named Swaps at the same stage of his career, Bill Shoemaker sticks to the facts only. "Swaps wasn't undefeated before going to Kentucky, was he? This colt is, so maybe you could say he's better. Certainly I've got no complaints with him yet." Mesh Tenney doesn't put it quite the same way. "I wouldn't want to compare the two right now," he says. "But I'll tell you this much. Before we won the Kentucky Derby with Swaps I felt we had a decent chance to dead-heat with both Nashua and Summer Tan. Now I say we have the same chance to be dead-heated with Never Bend."
The next few weeks will be important for both colts. Tenney plans to take his prized possession directly to Churchill Downs some time before the 15th of April, depending on weather conditions in Louisville. "I wouldn't want to show up there in the midst of any cold spell after the Florida heat," he explains. "And at last I think we can work out a regular training program instead of a haphazard one. I'd like to work this horse at least once a week between now and the Derby, and maybe more." With a smile he adds, "We'll have to depend on my poor judgment for that. But with regular workdays to count on I don't think Candy Spots will be as nervous anymore. He won't break out, as he did today, and next time he runs you'll see a much better horse."
That is a frightening prospect for the opposition. The next time probably will be in the Stepping Stone purse, a seven-eighths-of-a-mile prep on Churchill Downs opening day, April 26. "It's eight days before the Derby," says Tenney, "which leaves you sort of left-handed. It should only be a week before the Derby. The Derby Trial, only four days before, is too close to suit me. I'll make up my mind about the Stepping Stone as we go along. It could be that we might go in the Derby with no more races. And my decision won't be affected by whether or not Never Bend goes in the Stepping Stone. I don't want those people to think I'm big stuff, because I don't think I'm big stuff. I'll do with Candy Spots what I think best regardless of what they do. I'm not looking for trouble. I'm looking to run this horse and win some money the easiest way I can."
While Candy Spots was demonstrating his supremacy in the Florida Derby in much the same authoritative way that Never Bend had asserted his in the Flamingo a month earlier, the latter was living a different sort of life. Except for 30 days in Florida, Never Bend, like a lot of quail shooters, polo players and fox hunters, has been wintering in the Carolinas. His training program, devised by Captain Guggenheim and executed by Trainer Woody Stephens at the fairgrounds track in Columbia, S.C., is patterned on the European approach to preparation for a classic season.
Guggenheim admits that he may have overraced Never Bend as a 2-year-old (10 starts vs. Candy Spots' three), and he isn't about to make the same mistake this season. "With winter racing and the opportunities it offers," he says, "too many people have forgotten the significance of the classics. I am trying to breed classic horses—as Mr. Ellsworth is—not just speedballs. In preparing for the Kentucky Derby a horse must be raced, of course, but our plan this winter has been to coordinate some of the basic English and French methods of long, slow gallops with moderate racing. We took exactly a month of Hialeah racing to get in two races and not a whole series of slashing stakes."
When I visited Columbia recently, a few days before Never Bend vanned to Keeneland on his way to Churchill Downs, I saw the formula put into practice. After a few days of nothing but easy two-mile gallops over a moderately deep track, Stephens planned a typical work for Never Bend. With 122-pound Exercise Boy Joe Perrino up (his heavy saddle and tack made the total weight about 130 pounds), last year's 2-year-old champion went through his paces for his owner. First he walked nearly three-quarters of a mile. Then he galloped a mile and an eighth. Then Perrino pulled him up, walked him a sixteenth of a mile and broke him off sharply into racing speed. He went the half in :47 2/5, the five eighths in :59 2/5, and three-quarters (around a fairly sharp turn) in 1:13. "It would be the equivalent," says Max Hirsch, who has trained at Columbia for years, "of working six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 at Belmont Park."
Never Bend looks even better and stronger than he did during his Florida campaign. He's relaxed, except for a habit of wriggling when his girth is being tightened. But, as Guggenheim puts it, "His muscles are there, all right. He's strengthened up since the Flamingo and has some real hard flesh now." Says Trainer Stephens, "Never Bend is not a hard-pulling horse, but when he gets rolling he drops his head and knows how to lay into that bit."
When Never Bend won the Flamingo on March 2 some horsemen were critical of his drifting out during his stretch run. Was he hurting? Was he just tired? "He was rubber-legged at the end and will never go a mile and a quarter," said one trainer. "It was caused by a bunch of photographers in the infield," says Guggenheim. "He was not hurting, and he was not overly tired." Although Never Bend won the Flamingo by five lengths, neither his owner nor his trainer would have been too upset if he had lost. "I told Woody I thought it would be fine to win the Flamingo," says Guggenheim, "but that we didn't have to win it. I just wanted him to race as part of his training program, for our one goal at the moment is to have this horse at the very peak of his condition on the afternoon of May 4."
Stephens concurs. "I thought Never Bend was perfect to win at a mile on Flamingo Day. From there on he had to be the best to win as comfortably as he did at a mile and an eighth."
Now at Keeneland, Never Bend will get one race there, at seven-eighths of a mile on April 19. The following day he'll van over to Churchill Downs, and, says Guggenheim, "He'll be in either the Stepping Stone on opening day, or in the Derby Trial. We can swing either way by then, depending on how he works."
So, with a little over a month to go, the Kentucky Derby shapes up as a two-horse race: the one, legged up carefully in the deep Carolina sand and being trained by a team of perfectionists; the other, still unseasoned but vibrant with promise and slowly reaching top form. If both follow their planned schedules, Candy Spots will enter the Kentucky Derby with only seven races behind him in his young career, and Never Bend with 14. If you keep statistics on this sort of thing it is interesting to note that in the last decade only one horse has won the Derby after fewer than 10 starts. His name was Swaps, and he had run only nine times (only three that year) for Ellsworth and Tenney before upsetting Nashua in 1955.
As of now, I must rate Candy Spots and Never Bend all even. (The latest odds offered by the Caliente Future Book list both colts at 2 to 1. The next choice is 10 to 1.) Their last week of training is likely to decide it all, and just before the race starts both teams may be content to settle for a dead heat.