The smiling, confident gentleman on the opposite page is wealthy San Francisco Horse Owner George A. Pope Jr., whose very fine Thoroughbred, Hill Rise, probably will be the favorite in the 90th consecutive running of the Kentucky Derby. George Pope knows that in the previous 89 Derbies the favorite has won 40 times, considerably better than the national average of winning favorites in all U.S. races. Pope also goes to his second Kentucky Derby as an owner with the knowledge that favorites still lose more often than not; two years ago his Decidedly, a lukewarm third choice, won the Derby while heavily favored Ridan was third.
Chief challengers of George Pope's equanimity in Saturday's mint-scented potpourri of nostalgia, bedlam and a dash of Thoroughbred class (see cover), are the three men at right. They are, from the top, the owners of Northern Dancer, The Scoundrel and Quadrangle. Any one of these horses—or all three—could whip Hill Rise; they are qualified and ready.
The Kentucky Derby, aside from its hoopla, has a special niche in American racing. Like the Masters in golf, it is the spring's first meeting place for the top competitors of their class over a championship distance. Derby colts go a mile and a quarter. Later, they too will be retested in their own version of the U.S. Open, the mile-and-a-half classic Belmont Stakes. When colts like Hill Rise, Northern Dancer and Quadrangle win mile-and-an-eighth races in the winter and early spring, it is no guarantee that they will do the same at a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. Often, on Derby Day, it turns out that nine furlongs, the shorter distance, is just right for a horse but that 10 furlongs definitely is not. Conversely, the fast-closing finisher at nine furlongs often seems a tempting bet at 10 furlongs. However, he may just keep right on being a fast-closing loser.
Many factors go into the preparation of a Derby winner and, while a few have simply been lucky, the year-in-year-out Churchill Downs champion is the product of exquisite timing by a trainer, and a ride by a jockey who has the cold patience to trust and follow his orders. Above all, naturally, the young horse himself will have the breeding and courage to see the job through.
This year's Derby, possibly more than most, poses a challenge in racing tactics. All four favorites like to run up front. This is not to say they are pace-setters, but they do prefer positions just behind the early leader. For a time this did not seem to be much of a problem, for it was widely assumed that Roy Sturgis' Mr. Brick would dash to the lead, as he usually does, and the others would race comfortably along close to him until the turn for home. Then, at the quarter pole, the race would begin among the charging quartet who would fight to the wire while Mr. Brick graciously retired. But last week Mr. Brick showed up for the seven-furlong Stepping Stone without blinkers for the first time, and with a new jockey. He had been ridden most recently by Wally Blum, but in this year's feverish round robin of Derby mount selections (SI, April 27) Mr. Brick suddenly found himself under the firm hand of Milo Valenzuela. This is the same Milo who rode Tim Tarn to victory in 1958, and who earlier in the week had been announced as the rider for California's Wil Rad. The reason for the removal of Mr. Brick's blinkers, as explained by trainer Jimmy Picou, is that they may have been preventing him from seeing his opposition moving up on him. The reason for the switch to Milo Valenzuela was quickly apparent when the race began. There was Mr. Brick under a tight hold, nicely off the pace set by the long shot Geology. Milo, of course, did put him in front eventually and then held him together in the stretch long enough to beat The Scoundrel by a diminishing half length. What this indicated, in the general Derby picture, is that some other sprinter, most likely Admiral's Heart or Royal Shuck, will set the early pace. Mr. Brick, who has a world of speed when he wants to use it, will be back with the favorites.
There is no question but that all the favorites have pure speed in abundance. For the first mile of Northern Dancer's winning Blue Grass Stakes last week, however, this was hardly apparent. He trailed along behind Royal Shuck in hunt-meeting time of 25, 50⅕ 1:14[1/5] and 1:38⅖ with Bill Hartack riding him. But the slow final time of 1:49[4/5] was extremely deceptive. Northern Dancer actually covered the last three-eighths in 35 seconds flat and his last furlong in 11[2/5]. The significance of this winning race is that it showed Northern Dancer can be rated off any kind of pace, from extremely slow to lickety-split, like the 1:09[2/5] six-furlong pace set for him by Mr. Brick in the Flamingo. He has speed whenever he needs it. Trainer Horatio Luro (see page 33) has a very fit horse on his hands.
Hill Rise himself has not been idle since coming to Kentucky after his victory in the Santa Anita Derby on Feb. 29. Before running in this week's one-mile Derby Trial, he won his seventh straight in a seven-furlong race at Keeneland. Somewhere along the line, however, Hill Rise has acquired a case of nerves, and perhaps because of it he kicked out in his stall and bruised his left hind hock. That is now all cleared up, and last week he worked a mile in 1:38[3/5] before a beaming George Pope and Trainer Bill Finnegan.
Paul Mellon's Quadrangle, who will go in the Derby with no other race since winning the Wood Memorial, does not get Hartack to ride him after all. With Hartack firmly set on Northern Dancer and Braulio Baeza's status indefinite pending legal troubles over his contract with Owner Fred Hooper, Trainer Elliott Burch has given the mount on Quadrangle to Bobby Ussery. "Hartack suited this colt perfectly," said Burch, "but of the other available riders, Ussery is very strong and rides a lot like him. Ussery is at his best on a horse that likes to lay close to the pace."
While he is not doing as much talking as he was obliged to when he brought Swaps to Louisville in 1955 and Candy Spots last year, Mesh Tenney has never been more serious than he is about training The Scoundrel for this Derby. A year ago he was criticized by those who thought Candy Spots came to the big race somewhat "short" after a long layoff from racing. Tenney passed up the Stepping Stone and with it, his critics said, all his Derby chances. "I didn't want to pass it up," Tenney explained recently, "but Candy Spots was a more nervous horse than many people suspected. He needed to get used to crowds. That race was on opening day here, and I think if I had taken him to a strange and noisy paddock that day he would have been absolutely terrified. I still think I had about an equal chance to win."
The Scoundrel, although fit, very much needs the experience of racing. In the Florida Derby he had trouble changing his leads. This did not bother him as he finished second to Mr. Brick in the Stepping Stone; what most impressed observers was the way he made up a length and a half from the eighth pole to the wire and finished very strongly. "Naturally I don't feel as confident with this horse as I did with Candy Spots," said Tenney, "because this colt has yet to prove he has that kind of ability. But we wouldn't be here if we didn't think he had a good deal of ability anyway."
It is still difficult to say just who will start this Saturday. Mr. Brick bore out in the stretch in the Stepping Stone, which could mean something is bothering him. Mr. Moonlight, winner of the Gotham, had a touch of the virus that briefly set him back in training. Ishkoodah was a stretch-running disappointment in Florida, and Wil Rad does not appear to have the stamina for a mile and a quarter. But Roman Brother, who ran so well last fall, could be a surprise if he continues the improvement shown in the Wood Memorial, where he finished third. He is as little, however, as Hill Rise is big. And he is also a come-from-behinder. In a big Derby field, the late runner must rely on lucky breaks to get through without losing yards of ground in circling the tiring horses in front of him. One advantage a little horse sometimes has in a crowded field is that he may be more shifty on his feet and therefore less apt to be thrown seriously off-stride if he is knocked about. Kentucky Jug may have earned a trip to Louisville with a good showing last week at Laurel, though he finished second. There are also the usual offbeat hopefuls. A Canadian colt named Grand Garcon (trained by a relative of Germany's World War I ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen) has been entered on the basis of a victory over Northern Dancer a year ago. Another on the grounds is Admiral's Heart who, bless his heart, is still a maiden. But then so was Sir Barton in 1919, and all he did was become the first Triple Crown winner. Finally there are Dandy K., Extra Swell, Clem Pac, Floral Shop, He's A Gem and Prince Davelle, but by entry time two days before the race some of these and others may have been frightened off by the Big Four.
But which will be the Big One? In an open race, my vote goes to Northern Dancer.