Even for an experienced partygoer like the dashing Horatio Luro, last week's Florida Derby Ball at Miami Beach's Carillon Hotel was a bit of all right. The tall Latino, who trains Northern Dancer for Canadian E. P. Taylor, roared at Georgie Jessel's jokes, gazed admiringly at a rather fleshy stripper and, from time to time, wondered if his guests, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and Jockey Bill Shoemaker, were having as much fun as he was. The Taylors seemed to be, while Shoe rode out the long evening, squirming in his neat little tuxedo, with the look of a man who knows that occasionally a world-famous athlete must dine with the boss even though he would rather belt down a few with the boys in a key club at the Miami Springs Villas.
When Luro finally got home the sleep that should have come easily hardly came at all. All he could think of, in fact, was Northern Dancer's race in the Florida Derby the next afternoon. "After the ball he tossed and turned all night," said his pretty wife Frances.
"And why wouldn't I?" said Luro. "I was remembering how Northern Dancer ran away with his exercise boy on Friday morning. He did five furlongs in 58 seconds, and I was scared to death. That could have been his race right there, you know, just thrown away in a workout."
The management of Gulfstream Park and the 30,212 spectators who showed up in humid 82° weather on Saturday refused to share Horatio Luro's worries. Confidence in Northern Dancer was the order of the day—so much so that Joe Tanenbaum, the track's information director, threw superstition to the warm Florida winds early Saturday morning. An iron jockey stands alone in the center of Gulfstream's walking ring, dressed in the painted silks of the winning owner of the previous year's Florida Derby. For the last year it has worn Rex Ellsworth's black and red colors in honor of Candy Spots. On Saturday morning Tanenbaum boldly ordered those colors stricken in favor of E. P. Taylor's turquoise. Then, he explained, after the Florida Derby the painter would only have to add some gold spots to the turquoise to complete the motif of Taylor's Windfields Farm.
As it turned out, Tanenbaum and his painter called their shots—or spots—perfectly, and Horatio Luro could have saved some of his tosses and turns for Louisville the night of May 1, Kentucky Derby eve. Northern Dancer was made a 3-to-10 favorite and he let nobody down as he added the Florida Derby to his earlier Flamingo score. Now he heads north to Kentucky as co-favorite for the Derby with California's Hill Rise, who is already at Keeneland. They may meet in the April 23 Blue Grass, and that should be quite a race, too.
Only seven opponents showed up to challenge the Dancer (Owner Taylor unconsciously called him Native Dancer when describing him to a friend at the Friday ball), and most of them should have stayed in their stalls. In the paddock, Taylor, who often looks as though one of his many companies has just declared bankruptcy, was beaming. Rival Owner John Galbreath (Saltville) said, "Eddie, you aren't scared of anyone, and you don't have to be." Taylor insisted he was, but nobody believed him.
Luro threw Shoemaker up on the bay son of Nearctic, gave him two friendly pats on the seat of his white pants and left to watch the race. He looked like an Argentine version of Alec Guinness who has just tossed the crown jewels into the trunk of his car.
Having drawn the inside post position, Shoemaker's only problem, as he and Luro saw it, was to get good position going into the first turn and then lay slightly off the pace until it was time to make the winning move going into the far turn. Everyone knew who was going to set the pace, because at a press breakfast the morning before, Herb Paley, trainer of the long shot Greek Episode, had accommodated all hands by announcing, "Our horse is as sharp as a razor blade now, and whoever wins will have to catch us first."
"I wasn't much concerned with catching Greek Episode," said Shoemaker later. "I didn't think he'd go this distance anyway, so it didn't bother me."
Sure enough, Greek Episode shot quickly to the front, but Northern Dancer was never far behind. Shoe was slightly crowded by Saltville going into the first turn, but coming out of it he moved Northern Dancer into perfect position, a length off the pacesetter and a length ahead of Rex Ellsworth's The Scoundrel.
The pace was not fast. In fact, it was slow: 23 for the quarter, and 47 3/5 for the half mile. Still, Shoe sat like the iceman he can be and waited until the half-mile pole loomed up in front of him. Then, without hitting his horse once, he gave him a gentle "go" sign and Northern Dancer rolled into the turn with the kind of self-assurance that is the mark of a champion. Leaving the quarter pole, Northern Dancer was in front, and he stayed there.
The Scoundrel, who had been the only threat, was also the only horse in the field to make a battle of it. He went for the lead turning for home but couldn't quite get it. He didn't quit either, and hung on to finish second, beaten only one length. He was two and a half lengths in front of Dandy K., while stretched out over another nine lengths were Roman Brother, Greek Episode. Ishkoodah, Ky. Pioneer and Saltville—in that order.
Shoemaker had nice things to say about Northern Dancer—though he has elected to ride George Pope's Hill Rise in all the Triple Crown races. "In the Flamingo this horse was definitely very tired at the finish," he said. "Today he was different. It seemed to me that he did what he had to, and did it well. The important thing is that when The Scoundrel came to him—and before that when Roman Brother challenged him—he took the challenge and moved away from them. He was not tired at the finish. I hit him only once, and he gave me no problems at all. This was his best race so far, and he's probably improving."
If Northern Dancer is improving, his Florida Derby rivals are in for a rough time if they hope to reverse the decision in Kentucky. The Scoundrel may be expected to improve also; at least, Trainer Mesh Tenney will be surprised if he doesn't. Before the Florida race he said hopefully, "Our colt would have to run a race that showed us he was finishing well and that the extra furlong of the Kentucky Derby would help us." After The Scoundrel's second-place finish he said, "We'll go to Churchill Downs."
For the others in Florida the trip to Louisville may be pointless. (New York is something else—see opposite page.) Roman Brother had no excuse in the world and is now going for the April 18 Wood Memorial. "If he can't do well in that," said Trainer Burley Parke, "why should we go to Kentucky?" Saltville, according to Jockey Braulio Baeza, just wouldn't take hold of the bit; he may be considerably better than he showed on Saturday. There must also be hope of sorts for Dandy K. You can chalk off Greek Episode and Ishkoodah, and the same probably can be said of Ky. Pioneer from the Calumet Farm stable.
"At the moment," says Trainer Jimmy Jones, "I don't think either Ky. Pioneer or Kentucky Jug are Derby horses. We wouldn't have a prayer with either horse unless something drastic happened. But there's always hope when you consider that some of these other horses won't hold together. And then there's always the question of which of them will go a mile and a quarter. Northern Dancer runs good, real good. He looks like he'd be good in any Derby. The rest of us have to play for developments."
Added to this is the uncertain condition of one of the favorites. While Hill Rise, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, is completely sound, Northern Dancer could be running on borrowed time. He has had a splint on one leg all his life, though it has yet to bother him. He ran most of last fall with a quarter crack and it has been fixed—permanently, it seems—with a special Bane Patch, named after the ingenious California blacksmith who developed it. Now the patch has been removed and the process of normal re-growth of the hoof has begun. Northern Dancer's foot may be as strong now as Lou Groza's, but it is, nonetheless, more uncertain than a foot that has never been injured at all.
As he heads for Keeneland this week Northern Dancer is the pride of the East. Or, rather, he is the pride of eastern Canada, not Kentucky, where 70 of the previous 89 Kentucky Derby winners were bred. Already the winner of $261,365, Northern Dancer could become the first Canadian-bred to win our Derby. If he does, he will have one more distinction: as a late foal, he would be the first 2-year-old to win a 3-year-old U.S. classic. Northern Dancer's actual third birthday is May 27, just 25 days after he runs for those roses.
While Northern Dancer was winning in Florida and Hill Rise was being bedded down tenderly in his stall at Keeneland, from Aqueduct two very distinct warning shots were fired at their Kentucky Derby chances. The louder came from Mr. Moonlight, a questionably bred, lightly raced, totally ignored, so-so-looking horse who won the $58,300 Gotham Stakes by a desperate nostril. The softer—but equally important—warning came from Quadrangle, an excellently bred, lightly raced, well-respected, beautifully formed 3-year-old who won an allowance race in game style over good company.
There is no reason why anyone should have heard of Mr. Moonlight before the Gotham, since it was his first stakes try in 11 races. Quadrangle, on the other hand, has been a developing horse right along but one who chose to run the very best race of his life in the Pimlico Futurity last November 23—a day when no one was thinking of horses.
Mr. Moonlight's Gotham victory came at a perfect time to throw some imponderables into the minds of the owners, trainers and jockeys of Northern Dancer and Hill Rise. This chestnut son of an undistinguished sire, Moon-dust II, is not the type of horse that comes smashing on from far behind like Whirlaway, Needles, Carry Back, Silky Sullivan or Beetlebomb. Instead, his race is best when he is close to the leaders, waiting for them to soften each other up. On the other hand, Hill Rise and Northern Dancer are basically front runners. Mr. Moonlight was positioned seventh during most of the Gotham, but he was never farther than eight lengths away from the leaders. Those leaders, in fact, had some fairly good credentials, too, for among them they had accounted for the Hopeful, Sapling, Bay Shore, Cowdin, Tremont and Governor's Gold Cup over the past two seasons.
Jockey Jimmy Combest brought Mr. Moonlight from five lengths back in the stretch and got him up in the last jump to beat Traffic. Moving up from five lengths back in a race is not normally considered a supereffort, but horses have been having trouble gaining ground in the Aqueduct stretch this year, probably because the course has been overused. It now is as frustrating to try to come from behind at Aqueduct as it is to lap the field on a merry-go-round. As Combest and Larry Adams, the rider of Traffic, pulled their horses up on the backstretch. Adams hollered over to Combest, "Did you get me?" Combest hollered back, "I got you, baby!" and he held his index finger and thumb so close together that only a sliver of light showed. "I thought so," said Adams.
Mr. Moonlight probably will immediately become the Derby favorite in the hearts of Carry Back alumni everywhere and. in truth, he seems a horse for all nations. His sire, Moondust II, was raised in Ireland, raced in England, stood at stud in Australia and is currently standing in Lexington, Ky. The best thing that can be said for Moondust II is that he is a half brother to Migoli, who begat the memorable stayer of a few years ago. Gallant Man. The next race for Mr. Moonlight will be either the Wood Memorial or the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs. Mr. Moonlight is trained by Jimmy Combest's brother Nick and is owned by Mrs. Magruder Dent of Greenwich, Conn.
Quadrangle, although running a little greenly, won a race at a mile last week, beating another top Derby eligible, Knightly Manner, by a neck. He will run, and probably be one of the favorites, in next week's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. If Quadrangle shows good form in the Wood, Elliott Burch, who trained Sword Dancer four years ago, will ship the horse to Kentucky to be readied for the Derby. Burch already has a commitment from last year's winning Derby rider, Braulio Baeza, to handle Quadrangle in the classic. While Quadrangle could certainly not be put in a class with Hill Rise and Northern Dancer at the present time, he has one rather large item in his favor. He seems to love mud and mud has made monkeys out of many Derby favorites. In the last 20 years the Derby has been run over an off track eight times, and in those eight races the favorite won only twice.