A DERBY STAR RISES

His easy victory at Santa Anita makes California's Hill Rise a strong early favorite for horse racing's top prize; but at the Florida tracks some powerful contenders are being readied to meet the challenge
March 09, 1964

George A. Pope, owner of the 16,000-acre El Peco Ranch in Madera, Calif., is a smiling, round-faced, gray-haired fellow in his early 60s. He looks 40, and most of his good friends tease him constantly about the fact that he usually dresses as if he were 20—in gray flannels and a sport coat. Pope's business used to be shipping until, as he puts it, "Bridges [Harry] put us out." Now it is ranching and raising Thoroughbred racehorses, and not even George's best friends tease him about the thorough way he has managed his business. Two years ago they flocked to Louisville to watch his homebred Decidedly break Whirlaway's 21-year-old track record in winning the Kentucky Derby. This week they are buying tickets for a return trip to watch the newest Pope marvel. His name: Hill Rise, winner of last Saturday's Santa Anita Derby by six lengths.

Hill Rise's victory in the last major California race to decide which horses earn the trip to Churchill Downs hardly surprised the 54,030 who made him the favorite. And it came as no surprise at all to Pope and his 73-year-old trainer, Bill Finnegan, who have now watched their California-bred son of Hillary win his last six races. In fact, both Pope and Finnegan would have been flabbergasted if Hill Rise had not won, for they consider him a stronger colt than Decidedly and ahead of him in condition at the same stage of their careers. "This colt suddenly has a mature look to him," said Pope, shuffling around the Santa Anita paddock among the well-dressed swells before the Derby. "I figure he's the best horse, and you expect the best horse to win, don't you?" said wise old Bill Finnegan, who has had more success in the past with sprinters than real classic horses. "He's not a flashy colt, but at 16 hands and 1,050 pounds he has good size. He's not particularly stocky, but has plenty of leg room and, although he has speed and plenty of it, he would rather go a distance than sprint. He can gallop all day."

Hill Rise quickly demonstrated how right Bill Finnegan was. Jockey Donald Pierce knew that the early speed in the field of nine probably would come from Real Good Deal and Wil Rad but that Rex Ellsworth's The Scoundrel (who had tied a track mark of 1:34 4/5 in a mile work a few days before) would be just off the pace. "If you lay in fourth position and get around the first turn by saving ground, you'll be sitting pretty," Pope told Pierce.

At the start Real Good Deal and Wil Rad burst away past the stands at high speed. Bill Shoemaker had The Scoundrel close up with them, and Pierce, who rode a superbly confident race, followed his orders. Starting up the backstretch, however, Pierce moved Hill Rise up to just a length off Real Good Deal, and now all he had to do was wait until the turn for home to take the lead when he pleased. Pierce, a 26-year-old from Broken Bow, Okla. who has been riding for 10 years without receiving proper recognition, tapped his bay colt only once at the 3/16th pole and moved off to win easily. Later Pierce, usually poker-faced, cracked a broad smile and said, "I wasn't worried about anyone. This is the best horse I've ever been on, and that includes Tomy Lee, Decidedly and even Kelso."

Hill Rise has yet to earn that accolade, of course, but he is sound, he is fit, he is in good hands and he is well bred. His sire, Hillary, is a son of Khaled, and his dam, Red Curtain, is the daughter of a winner of Australia's Melbourne Cup, thus providing classic blood on both sides. In Kentucky on May 2 he will be either the favorite or close to it.

There was no real alibi for any of the horses who finished behind Hill Rise in the Santa Anita Derby. Hill Rise covered the mile and an eighth in an excellent 1:47 2/5 (breaking Tompion's stakes record by two-fifths of a second) and finished so strongly that he went the last eighth in 12 2/5. What makes him look especially like a Kentucky Derby type is the fact that he has the necessary speed to get a good position and still retain a strong kick for the Churchill Downs stretch. For even the stoutest-hearted animal that is a quarter of a mile of sheer agony.

Bill Perry's Knightly Manner, a son of Round Table, was second, nearly a length in front of Wil Rad, who headed Real Good Deal for show money. The Scoundrel was another neck back, in fifth place. Knightly Manner should improve as the distances increase. He has a wonderful way of moving, with a sort of rolling action. He comes from way off the pace—which could work against him at Churchill Downs in a big, clumsy field—but he flows like smoke in the stretch.

Wil Rad and Real Good Deal must be considered nothing more than good sprinters. They will win nine-furlong races, perhaps, but not against the likes of Hill Rise, and it is hard to conceive of them finishing in the money in the 10 furlongs required at Louisville. Rex Ellsworth's The Scoundrel, however, cannot be counted out yet. He ran as if he was "short" at Santa Anita last week, and if Rex and Mesh Tenney decide to ship him to Kentucky (possibly via the April 4 Florida Derby) he should put on a better show. He went into this race off one six-furlong prep and one hard work (about the same routine that the stable followed with Candy Spots a year ago) but, as Tenney pointed out before the Derby, "I learned a long time ago that these tremendous works don't necessarily win races."

Many Californians are now claiming that Hill Rise has the Kentucky Derby locked up. They have not been to Florida's Hialeah and were not overly concerned about the outcome of this week's Flamingo (also at a mile and an eighth), in which the big favorites were Northern Dancer and Roman Brother. Both these horses have the potential and the form to be at least the equal of Hill Rise, and they are not the only ones, either. Quadrangle is going to get a lot better. So may Chieftain and Trader before the trek to Louisville begins. Jimmy Jones, who has had real use for Calumet Farm's crying towels in the last few years, has two fine colts in Ky. Pioneer and Kentucky Jug. The ever noncommittal Jones is obliged to admit this himself.

For the moment, however, the spotlight is on George Pope, Bill Finnegan and Hill Rise, and if anyone has a right to squirm under his sombrero because of this it is The Good Se√±or, Horatio Luro, who trains Northern Dancer for E. P. Taylor. Luro trained Decidedly, and trained him to absolute perfection, for Pope's first Kentucky Derby victory in 1962. Right now he could be training Hill Rise as well as Northern Dancer—which would have put him in the enviable class of a Ben Jones, who had Citation and Coaltown in the 1948 Kentucky Derby (they ran one-two). Before Hill Rise left the farm, Luro went up to El Peco with George Pope to pick out a colt to race at Santa Anita that winter. "I picked out a quick little chestnut who looked as if he would be ready to run soon, and I thought we could win with him," says Luro. "But when the van arrived, out comes a big and rangy bay, the kind you know you have to develop slowly. I say to myself this is not the colt I picked out. I didn't even put the tack on him. I sent him right back to the ranch."

The colt was Hill Rise. Back to the ranch, and eventually into Finnegan's hands, went the rangy bay who is now the talk of West Coast horsemen. "All your life," says Pope, "you hope to breed a good horse like Decidedly, and then when you win the Kentucky Derby with him you figure you'll never be that lucky again. It would be amazing and wonderful if Hill Rise were to be that good—and I think he has a chance at that."

Pope watched his Santa Anita Derby winner being led away, and he broke into a wicked giggle. "Hill Rise may not have impressed Luro when he got out of that van last year," he said, "but he probably scared him to death today. And if Luro sees this horse at Churchill Downs you can bet he'll take a pretty good look at him this time." The owner of the newly established Kentucky Derby favorite rubbed his gray head, looked at his pretty wife, Patsy, and added, a little more seriously, "I don't think I'd go back to a Kentucky Derby unless I thought I could be in the first four. If this horse runs there the way he did here today, he just has to be in the first four."

"First four!" said a new member of the Hill Rise fan club. "He'll be first. No way he can lose."

"Yes," said a cynical eastern observer, "no way he can lose. I heard those words before a fight in Miami last week."

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PHOTOA handsome, well-bred Easterner is Quadrangle, here parading with Jockey Braulio Baeza. PHOTOThe big move by Hill Rise (No. 7) in the Santa Anita Derby began in the top of the stretch (opposite) as he pulled away from Real Good Deal (No. 8). Rushing up on the far outside, Knightly Manner finished second. Wil Rad (center) was third. The Scoundrel, shown last, was fifth.

RATING THE LEADING KENTUCKY DERBY COLTS
The big race is May 2, but the best from East and West have yet to meet. Whitney
Tower has studied them all and offers an original method of estimating their chances

HORSE

BREEDING

STAMINA

SOUNDNESS

CONSISTENCY

TOTAL

HILL RISE

8

9

9

10

36

KENTUCKY JUG

10

8

8

8

34

KNIGHTLY MANNER

9

9

9

7

34

QUADRANGLE

9

8

9

8

34

ROMAN BROTHER

8

8

9

9

34

NORTHERN DANCER

10

8

7

8

33

THE SCOUNDREL

9

8

9

6

32

CHIEFTAIN

9

6

8

8

31

KY. PIONEER

8

8

8

7

31

DUEL

9

7

8

6

30

ISHKOODAH

7

8

8

7

30

MR. BRICK

7

7

8

8

30

TRADER

9

7

8

6

30

REAL GOOD DEAL

7

6

8

8

29

SALTVILLE

8

6

8

7

29

HIGH FINANCE

9

7

7

5

28

JOURNALIST

8

7

7

6

28

BUPERS

8

6

7

6

27

SUSAN'S GENT

7

6

7

7

27

TRAFFIC

8

6

7

6

27

WIL RAD

6

6

7

8

27

ALPHABET

7

7

6

6

26

DUNFEE

6

7

6

7

26

DANDY K.

5

7

7

6

25

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)