A RUNNING MACHINE, A STRANGER TO DEFEAT
Rex Ellsworth's critical battle for leadership of U.S. racing will be won or lost in two minutes Saturday in Kentucky. The taciturn Arizona cowboy, who now calls California home, is out to whip the eastern horses owned by wealthy Jockey Club members with his powerful, oddly spattered chestnut, Candy Spots (see cover). Thousands of Westerners, remembering how the cowboy did it before with Swaps, have come to back him with their cheers and bets and to help crowd the infield and the old wooden stands at Louisville's Churchill Downs.
This will be the 89th Kentucky Derby, and Rex Ellsworth's challenge to the famous, tradition-wreathed eastern stables (SI, Feb. 25), is only one of its intriguing facets. It is the personalities and styles of the horses themselves that, finally, make a race interesting to watch—and to bet on. And this year's field combines all the qualities required for exciting competition. There are horses that like to break fast from the gate and then try to stay on top all the way; there are horses that take awhile to get started but can come on strong at the finish; and some of the best jockeys in the sport, with tactical notions of their own, will be handling the field.
As final workouts got under way at the Downs this week, the rival camps plotted strategy in secret and clocked the opposition with curiosity. Nearly everyone else discussed the chances of "the big three," Candy Spots, Never Bend and No Robbery. Not surprisingly, it is easy to come up with a convincing argument that any one of them will win. Rex Ellsworth's Candy Spots must be considered the "solid" horse in this Derby field. Big and strong, yet maneuverable, he has the acceleration power so necessary to avoid trouble. He will have been on the grounds just short of a month come Derby Day, and, for the first time all winter or spring, Mesh Tenney has been able to train him exactly as he wants to, and over the track on which he will run. "We've worked the exact schedule I planned since the Florida Derby," says Tenney. "A mile at Gulfstream [in 1:40[2/5]] before shipping to Louisville, three works at the Downs [seven-eighths in 1:24⅖ another mile in 1:37[2/5] and another seven-eighths in 1:23[1/5]] and he'll get one more work, probably three-quarters, this week, making the perfect total of five. I've added a little more mash to his feed, and he's put on a little weight since Florida. He's never looked better or worked better since we first took him to the racetrack. If his best race so far was at Arlington last summer, I look for him to turn in an even better one this week."
Why didn't Candy Spots go in the Stepping Stone prep last week? "Well," says Tenney, "the timing of it, eight days before the Derby, didn't suit us, and he was working so well he didn't really need a race anyway. But more important than that, even though Candy Spots has a perfect disposition, I want to expose him to the paddock with a big crowd around him before he makes his first start here. If he had gone in the Stepping Stone on opening day he couldn't have had this experience. With this horse I want to leave nothing to chance."
Never Bend did go in the Stepping Stone and made it a winning race in the very good time of 1:22[2/5] against little opposition. "When [Manuel] Ycaza took him back a bit in his race at Keene-land the other day," said Trainer Stephens, "Never Bend didn't seem very happy about it. So he really needed this race to step him up. Like a lot of Nasrullah's colts, this one must be carefully ridden. You can't get him back in a rut, but on the other hand he has so much lick that you know he's not going to be too far off that pace."
And who's going to be on the pace? Why, Greentree Stable's No Robbery, of course, winner of the Wood Memorial just a week after he turned in the fastest mile (1:34) ever run by a 3-year-old in New York. No Robbery felt like running in the Wood, but he also felt like counting cars and noses from somewhere near the middle of the track at Aqueduct. This week Trainer John Gaver worked No Robbery around two turns with blinkers rather than send him in the one-mile Derby Trial. "This horse doesn't have to go on the lead," says Gaver. "It all depends on the way he wants to run. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to take him back either."
One of the late-developing threats in the field is Darby Dan Farm's Chateau-gay, a full brother of the good race mare Primonetta. He has won five of eight starts but had his first stakes victory only last week when he won the Blue Grass at Keeneland over a field that included none of the big three Derby choices. (The field was further reduced when Outing Class, a stablemate of No Robbery, came down with a cough, which automatically eliminated him from the Derby, too. Trainers of other Derby colts are hoping the coughing doesn't spread.)
Bonjour, owned by pretty Patrice Jacobs and trained by her famous father, Hirsch, was to prove in this week's Derby Trial just how seriously he must be taken. Among the other Derby horses, there is not much to say about those named: On My Honor, Royal Tower, Lemon Twist, Rajah Noor, Gray Pet, Devil It Is and Wild Card.
This should be a fast Derby. It seems certain that No Robbery will take the lead but, if he starts, Gray Pet will do his best to keep No Robbery company for the first mile. Never Bend will not be far away during any of this, for Ycaza cannot afford to wage a rating battle with a colt who wants to run. If Never Bend really wants to get into the fight he will take off after No Robbery, which is exactly what the rest of the field would love to see. "The more they mix in the early pace the merrier," says John Jacobs of the Bonjour camp. "We come from behind, so we'd love it that way."
The team that should love it most of all—and profit most, too—is the team of Candy Spots and Willie Shoemaker. "This horse," says Tenney, "can be positioned anywhere that Shoe wants him. He's got speed but can use it anytime, anywhere. With all that speed in the field I certainly don't think Candy Spots is going to have to worry about taking the lead. But we don't intend to be too far away at any time either. We want to have our speed left, you know, down there where it counts." He pointed across the barn area to the old twin spires, and his finger came down slowly and settled as steadily as a sniper's rifle squarely on the finish line.
Candy Spots is a wonderfully gifted running machine. He doesn't know what it is to lose. Seven horses among 983 starters before him have gone into their Derbies with the same happy feeling, but only two of the seven, Regret and Morvich, came out still unbeaten. Candy Spots should make it three.
THE SOFT SELL BRINGS A MILLION-DOLLAR GATE
"The Kentucky Derby is a showcase of racing, a traditional institution like the Army-Navy game and the World Series. It's the biggest one-day business in American sports, and it's also a promoter's dream. The Derby promotes itself. No track could afford to pay for the advertising that we get free."
The admittedly prejudiced speaker is Wathen Regel Knebelkamp, the 62-year-old, gray-haired, blue-eyed president of Churchill Downs who works 364 days a year to make sure that on the 365th the Kentucky Derby will be the only sports topic discussed by Americans throughout the world. "I really don't have the tough promoter's temperament," says this master of the soft sell, who was hired in 1959 to succeed the late Bill Corum. "Actually," he says, "since Colonel Matt Winn died there is no Mr. Derby. Colonel Winn made the Derby, his successor, Bill Corum, kept it before the public, and I don't do much except the best I can."
Knebelkamp, a native Kentuckian and former master distiller for Schenley, is well aware of the constant criticism of his track and Derby week prices in Louisville. "It used to be," he says, "that sportswriters called us ramshackle. Now they call us charmingly ramshackle. But we have spent $1 million on improvements at Churchill Downs in four years." There are now 5,000 hotel and motel rooms available within 12 miles of Louisville, more than double the number listed in 1953. This, Knebelkamp believes, signifies the welcome end of that annoying local custom of charging sky-high three-day rental fees for one sleepless night.
Despite the predictability of its traditional presentation, Derby popularity continues to grow. Some 100,000 people (the figure usually given out but never actually counted at the gate) will turn up this week, but 10,000 of them—or about the number who watched the first Derby in 1875—will be working for the other 90,000. Included will be 1,200 pari-mutuel clerks, 1,500 caterers, 1,000 state militia, 800 police, 450 ushers, assorted help on the backstretch of the racetrack, trainers, jockeys, admissions men, parking attendants and 1,050 members of the press, radio and television corps. (Western Union will file 450,000 words out of Louisville between 5 p.m. and midnight on Derby Day.) Thousands who do not attend will have tried, vainly, to acquire some of the 43,800 reserved seats, 60% of which are already the permanent possession of 2,800 boxholders.
Whether the request is for one $9.15 seat on a bench on the Grandstand Terrace or for a $160 box, either Knebelkamp or Resident Manager Lynn Stone answers each letter, turning away politely some odd inquiries. One man from Iowa said that although he was from the North he had always admired the South, and wound up with, "I hate Lincoln. He was a heel." A request arrived with some numbers scribbled atop the page. "This isn't my phone number," wrote the sender. "It's my girl's measurements—to impress you!"
This Saturday while fans bet some $4 million at Churchill Downs (over $1.5 million on the Derby itself) the track's gross, including admissions, TV rights, etc., will be around $1,700,000. Obviously the Derby is the built-in profit guarantee for the 2,123 Churchill Downs stockholders, who can buy at between $19.50 and $21 per share, and who have received a dividend of about $1.30 for the past 15 years. The track operated a total of 41 days in 1962; of its operating income of $963,244.96, approximately $675,000 resulted from business during Derby week. Dividends paid out amounted to $498,279.60; thus, the track that many deride is one of the most successful in the Thoroughbred industry.
"The only disadvantage of the Derby," says Louisville Chamber of Commerce man Dave Humphrey, "is that we can't have two or three of them a year." And, adds Wathen Knebelkamp, a former president of the Chamber himself, "we could use 50,000 more seats, too."