Only six weeks ago horsemen in Florida and California were sure that the Kentucky Derby would be a contest among Bold Lad, Sadair and Jacinto. Then came one of those weird sequences of disasters or semi-disasters so characteristic of racing. Sadair broke down and was retired to stud. Bold Lad popped a splint and had to stop racing. Now it has been discovered that a calcium deposit in the right knee may be more serious than the convalescing splint. It conceivably could delay his return to action so long that he would have insufficient time to train up to the Derby. At worst, it could mean the end of his career.
Last Saturday the ax fell again, this time on Jacinto. The 1-to-2 betting favorite among a crowd of 61,245 was thrashed by four lengths, as he lost the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby to Mrs. Ada L. Rice's Lucky Debonair. Three days before this Derby, which contributed to a track handle of more than $5 million (the first in California history), Native Charger won the $100,000 Flamingo at Hialeah, and all of a sudden the upcoming 3-year-old classics had a totally new look about them.
Both the Flamingo and the Santa Anita Derby are at a mile and an eighth, but they are run over greatly different surfaces. Hialeah's is a comparatively dead strip compared to Santa Anita's very fast one. In Florida, Native Charger's winning time, as he beat Sparkling Johnny a half length, was a dull 1:50, while Lucky Debonair's in California was a meteoric 1:47, the fastest of all 28 Santa Anita Derbies and only three-fifths of a second off Bug Brush's track record. It is interesting also that Lucky Debonair ran his swiftest at the end—where it counted. The fractions of 23, 46[2/5] and 1:10[2/5] for the first three-quarters of a mile belonged to pacesetter Philately. Then Bill Shoemaker took over with Lucky Debonair and covered the mile in 1:35 on his way to a brilliant finish. At Hialeah, on the other hand, pacesetter Country Friend covered the first three quarters in 23, 46[1/5] and 1:10[3/5]. Native Charger hit the mile in 1:36⅘ and as his cheerful trainer, Ray Metcalf, put it later, "We outstaggered them at the wire."
Whether or not Native Charger was staggering, Metcalf has a pretty good horse. He obviously thought so when he told newsmen before the Flamingo, "If that jock [John Rotz] feels as good as my horse does and as I do, we'll have no trouble and we'll win. My horse has never gone over seven furlongs, but he'll do it just fine in the Flamingo, and I don't care if the track is fast, slow, muddy or sloppy. I am confident." Jockey Rotz admitted that he hadn't cared much for Native Charger's two previous races—he stumbled badly at the start of the Hibiscus and finished fifth to Hail to All—and then conceded that some of Metcalf's confidence had rubbed off on him. That may have been all the colt needed.
Rotz was never worse than third on the son of Native Dancer, who cost Owner Albert Warner $20,500 as a yearling at Saratoga and then ran second to Bold Lad four times last season. After taking command from Country Friend turning for home, Native Charger was threatened only by Sparkling Johnny, who got through on the inside and was gaining on the winner at the wire. Favored Hail to All, who finished third, beaten three and a half lengths, had no excuse, even though his rider, John Sellers, had him closer in the early running than he is accustomed to being, and this may have sapped some of his stamina. The others in the 12-horse field were badly beaten, and it would be foolish to predict much of a future for them. However, Native Charger, who will run at Gulfstream in the April 3rd Florida Derby, may have one. And so may Albert Warner, who happily told friends after the Flamingo, "I'm 82 years old, but this will add 20 more to my life."
All week at Santa Anita, meanwhile, the talk was about how Jacinto couldn't miss in the Derby after his impressive victory in the San Felipe, when he beat Lucky Debonair a neck. On Wednesday he worked three quarters in 1:09[4/5] and was eased up the last eighth of a mile. But at least one man on the grounds must have acquired some of Ray Metcalf's confidence all the way from Hialeah. "He ain't a bad horse," said Frank Catrone, the 4-foot 9-inch ex-jock who trains Lucky Debonair for Ada and Dan Rice, owners of Lexington's Danada Farm. "When he got beat by Jacinto, his race was good, and he was game. He didn't have any excuse, although he was on the outside all the way and traveled farther than anyone else. The way I see it this Derby should be a two-horse race, the same two." "The way I see it," added Bill Shoemaker, "is that some people around here may have underrated Lucky Debonair rather than overrated Jacinto."
Three contenders, then two
Lucky Debonair ran an overwhelming race after Catrone simply told Shoe, "Get him home anyway you can." "Jacinto," said Shoe, "was the horse we had to beat, and I didn't want to have him get in front of me at any stage of the race." He didn't, either. Shoe actually broke on top but then took his horse back behind Philately's pace, while Manuel Ycaza took up third position behind Shoe. At no stage did it appear that any of the other five horses had the slightest chance of winning. Going into the far turn Shoemaker took Lucky Debonair up to challenge Philately for the lead, and now a race was developing as Ycaza called on Jacinto, too. At the three-sixteenths pole Jacinto came to within a head of Shoe's horse, but at the eighth pole Shoemaker whacked Lucky Debonair, and he opened up daylight and coasted home by four lengths. Jacinto had a seven-length margin over third-place Charger's Kin. Jacinto was bumped coming out of the gate by both Gummo and Philately, but this was hardly the cause for defeat.
It will now become fashionable for bloodline critics to point out that sons of Bold Ruler—like Jacinto—do not make true distance horses. While Bold Ruler fillies have won a number of times at classic distances, the colts have yet to prove that they can. Jacinto obviously has some proving to do.
Lucky Debonair, by Vertex out of a Count Fleet mare, is certainly bred for the classic distance. His sire was a top handicap horse—and a vastly underrated one—a few years ago, when he was running against the likes of Bardstown and Amerigo and winning at distances from six furlongs to a mile and a quarter. Lucky Debonair, his first stakes winner, made only one start last year and bucked his shins at Atlantic City. This year he has had six races, winning four and finishing second in the other two. He now goes to Laurel to run in the Chesapeake on April 10, before heading for Churchill Downs.
"He won like a good horse should," said Frank Catrone, "and if Shoemaker wants to ride him from now on, it's up to him."
"I'm beginning to think I will," said Shoe. Fifty-seven-year-old Catrone, a trainer since 1939 without much to brag about, broke into a broad grin. "I was always eight blocks away from the big money," he said, "but things may be looking up now."