It was a day to drown in mint juleps, not drink them. At exactly 4:33 p.m. last Saturday a gutsy little colt named Northern Dancer fought his way across the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the 90th running of the Kentucky Derby and prove to Thoroughbred breeders from Chino, Calif. to Ocala, Fla. what they feared all year: the best 3-year-old racehorse in the country—at least for this day and this race—is not from this country at all. Owned by the Canadian Croesus, E.P. Taylor, trained by that sly and genial old refugee from an Argentine horse farm, Horatio Luro, and ridden by Bill Hartack, the thinking man's jockey, Northern Dancer set the Bluegrass industry back several furlongs and at least a dozen years.
Never before had Kentucky-bred horses been so humiliated. Behind the Canadian came a long string of outlanders, led by the 6-to-5 betting favorite, Hill Rise (California), The Scoundrel (California), Roman Brother (Florida) and Quadrangle (Virginia). Mr. Brick, the best of the Kentuckians and an honest horse who has been running second and third to first one, then another of this same cast all winter and spring, finally found himself overpowered by sheer numbers and settled for sixth. What may also have discouraged Mr. Brick was that this was certainly the fastest Derby ever run (two minutes flat) and perhaps the best.
It was a horse race that had everything. The buildup and prerace suspense were enormous. The four favorites in the field of 12 were all in the hands of superb trainers. The jockeys, after a season of hopping from the saddle of one contender to another, understood their own mounts and the others as never before. Fans, as well as owners and breeders, had regional rooting interests spanning a continent and crossing at least one international border. And the Louisville spectators themselves came from all over to watch the best 3-year-olds in America competing at a testing distance on a testing racetrack. (They bet more than $2 million on the Derby for the first time.) Nobody could have asked for a better combination of circumstances, and the horse race lived up to the circumstances.
Northern Dancer's victory was not easily earned, and it does not prove that he is the 3-year-old champion. On this particular day he was the best, was ridden the best and undoubtedly benefited the most from racing luck that so often helps determine the outcome of such classics as the Kentucky Derby as well as the first race at Fonner Park, Neb.
On Tuesday of Derby week, Hill Rise, loser of the first two races of his life last summer at the age of 2 but winner of eight straight since, was very impressive in winning the one-mile Derby Trial. Many knowledgeable horsemen were ready to proclaim him a superhorse, following in the footsteps of fellow Californian Swaps. While Owner George Pope—whose Decidedly, trained by Luro, set the old Derby record of 2:00[2/5] in 1962—and Trainer Bill Finnegan were naturally delighted with this performance, a few skeptics on the grounds timidly suggested that Hill Rise might have run his real race in the Trial instead of saving it for the Derby.
Horatio Luro didn't exactly share this opinion, yet rarely has he displayed so much confidence in his own horse as he did in the final few days before the Dancer's biggest test. "He was confident that Decidedly could beat Ridan two years ago," said Burnett Robinson, who is married to Luro's stepdaughter, Cary. "But this time he's more confident than ever. I never saw him like this before." So certain was Luro, in fact, that in discussing the race a few evenings before Derby Day he said that the winning horse would have to run the last of the five quarters in 24 seconds flat, and that the winning time would be exactly two minutes. His broad grin left no doubt as to which horse he had in mind.
"Hill Rise ran a million-dollar race in the Trial," said Luro, "but it didn't scare me. People train horses differently, and who is to say which method is right or wrong? When my horse is going a mile and a quarter for the first time, I do not want him to race four or five days before. I want him fresh and full of energy. I think it is the only way."
On Saturday Northern Dancer was fresh and fairly popping with energy. "I think he got more sleep last night than I did," said Luro. When the Dancer came into the paddock, sporting handsome colored bandages to protect his legs before the race, he was only slightly less well-dressed than Luro himself. But his coat was magnificent, and he never looked more fit. Earlier, Luro had dropped in to see Hartack in the jockeys' room to discuss ways of beating Hill Rise. "I told him he would have plenty of horse in his hands," the Se√±or recalled afterwards, "but I warned him not to let this horse get away from him early in the race. If Northern Dancer was used too much early in the race, he would never be able to run that last quarter in 24 seconds—which I absolutely knew he would have to do to win."
The Hill Rise camp was surrounded by California supporters all day. Pope and his wife Patsy are both superstitious about such things as lucky clothes. Pope's friends insist he owns only two outfits to begin with and that one of them is an ensemble of gray flannels and a light-tan gabardine coat that he wore when he led Decidedly into the winner's circle in 1962. Pope wore the same ensemble last Saturday, and Patsy had a new good-luck charm, a bracelet depicting Hill Rise's four stakes victories last winter. "It came from Don Pierce," she said sheepishly, "who rode him in all those races. The awful thing is that it arrived the same day we told him Willie Shoemaker was to replace him on Hill Rise."
The race itself was a triumph of planning and riding by Luro and Hartack. At the start Mr. Brick, the inside horse, ridden by Milo Valenzuela, was supposed to have been taken back and saved for a late run with the favorites. But, as Milo said later, "My horse just charged out of the gate, and I had to go to the front. I couldn't take back, but what made it bad for me was that Royal Shuck went with me, and he hooked right into me for three-quarters of a mile. That took a lot out of Mr. Brick." What this meant in the overall strategy was that Mr. Brick ran a good mile and then the last quarter was too much for him. It also meant that all riders in the race were forced to stay closer to the pace than some would have liked.
Going past the stands for the first time, with Mr. Brick showing the way, Royal Shuck close up beside him and with Wil Rad and The Scoundrel right there, too, a perhaps significant incident occurred. (Mr. Brick already had bumped Quadrangle slightly leaving the gate.) Now The Scoundrel brushed Hill Rise twice within a sixteenth of a mile. It did not seem to bother Hill Rise much, but it could not have helped him either.
Hartack had a tight hold on Northern Dancer. "I was surprised," he said afterward, "to see The Scoundrel with more early speed than we figured he'd have. Still, I was looking out for Hill Rise. He was the horse I had to respect the most, and I wasn't going to forget it." Going into the first turn, Hartack neatly dropped his horse down on the inside, saving ground behind Quadrangle, and with Hill Rise just outside. They were five lengths off the pace and in just about perfect positions.
On the backstretch Hartack skillfully eased Northern Dancer to the outside to avoid being trapped as they neared the five-eighths pole. "I was still behind Quadrangle," said Hartack, "and I could see I couldn't take his position away from him, so I moved out. Then when I saw The Scoundrel make a run on the turn I dropped in outside of him and left Hill Rise behind me. It was still a half a mile from home, so I let The Scoundrel go in order to save my own horse for the stretch. I was in good shape. I had a horse who had run easily under a tight hold, I was in front of Hill Rise and I knew I had plenty of run left."
Hill Rise might have had more run left, too, if he had not been involved in a further incident. Royal Shuck had been struggling along all this while to keep up with Mr. Brick. When he stopped he didn't do it halfheartedly. He stopped. Mr. Moonlight, right behind him, had to swerve out to avoid running up on him, and when he swerved Mr. Moonlight swerved right into Hill Rise.
Approaching the quarter pole Manuel Ycaza had The Scoundrel in front briefly. Mr. Brick was retiring gradually, although not without a fight. "I decided it was no use to wait any longer," said Hartack. "I knew the time had come to use my speed and use it quickly before Hill Rise could start his own run."
"I could see," Luro said later, "that the first fractions were just about perfect for us [22 2/5, 46, 1:10 3/5] and that Northern Dancer was still a very relaxed horse. Hartack had the vision in the far turn to move at exactly the right time. When he did he covered an eighth of a mile in exactly 11 seconds coming out of that turn. He opened up a little more than two lengths, and that's where he won the race—between the quarter pole and the eighth pole."
"I really went for it leaving the quarter pole," said Hartack. "I didn't know where Hill Rise was, but I knew I had run in my horse." Northern Dancer shot by The Scoundrel and was on his way. Hartack first hit him easily on the shoulder and then whacked at his flank. Shoemaker and Hill Rise, too, were coming—out of trouble at last. But Hartack went into a hard drive and never let up. Shoe was cutting the margin, but not cutting it fast enough. From two lengths back he cut it to one, and he gained all the way to the wire. But at the finish he was still a neck short. A little more than three lengths back was The Scoundrel, a nose in front of Roman Brother, who was a neck in front of fifth-place Quadrangle. As Luro planned, the last quarter was run in exactly 24 seconds.
Except, possibly, for Hill Rise, none of the losers had any excuse. Bobby Ussery, a first-time rider for Quadrangle, said, "He didn't stop. He just couldn't keep up." Then, with a bow to the team that had taken him off Northern Dancer after one unsatisfactory ride at Hialeah this winter, Ussery added, "If I couldn't win it, I'm glad Mr. Taylor did. I won the Queen's Plate for him in front of the Queen one year, and he's a nice man."
Ycaza, also a first-time rider on The Scoundrel, felt his horse might have been annoyed in the stretch by people standing in the infield and Owner Rex Ellsworth believes that by the May 16 Preakness The Scoundrel will be much improved. And what about Shoemaker, who took himself off Northern Dancer to ride Hill Rise? "I'd do the same thing again," said Shoe. "Hartack may have had some luck getting through on the inside on the first turn, and I had a little bad luck on the far turn. I know he had a lot of horse under him turning for home when he opened up those quick two lengths. I followed the best I could, and I was gaining on him. Next time it might be different."
Shoemaker could be right, but his decision to switch horses in midseason proves that even a gifted rider is not infallible as a judge of racing quality. It will never be known whether Don Pierce, riding Hill Rise, would have avoided the trouble Shoe encountered, or whether the Derby just is not Shoemaker's race. Once he stood up in the irons and misjudged the finish, and now he has lost with four favorites. In six Derbies, on the other hand, none of Hartack's four winning rides (he is now only one behind record-holder Eddie Arcaro) was on the post-time favorite.
There is no question that Bill Hartack is an immensely skilled rider and a popular figure with racing fans, if not with some newsmen. He has a tough outlook and does not mind showing it. Was he worried about the Derby at any point, someone asked him? "Yeah, sure," he cracked back. "I worried a lot—but just about collecting that green paper."