For weeks now the only racing fans who haven't felt cheated have been those who are as proficient at diagnosing medical and weather reports as they are at interpreting past-performance charts. Kentucky Derby eligibles based in New York, Florida and Maryland were beset by so many troubles that the question was not who would win the various Derby preps but who would be healthy enough just to walk to the starting gate. Some were running on snow, with unhappy results. Others ran away from snow-covered tracks to—they hoped—a warmer climate in Kentucky. Some were suffering from bucked shins, while still others were showing signs of the tailing off that results when 3-year-olds point to the mile-and-a-quarter classic in May by running in everything but the Boston Marathon.
Into this general picture of gloom and despair was projected one sparkling performance last week. Shortly before Native Charger, who had already won the Flamingo at Hialeah, wrapped up the Florida 3-year-old championship with a close victory over Hail to All in Gulf-stream's Florida Derby, the spotlight was turned on an ordinary six-furlong, $8,500 allowance race at Aqueduct. Only it wasn't ordinary at all. It marked Bold Lad's return to competition for the first time since the Wheatley Stable's 1964 2-year-old champion won the Champagne Stakes by seven lengths last Oct. 17.
Bold Lad (SI, Feb. 22) had certainly had his share of troubles enroute to last week's first start of the season. Five weeks after popping a splint on his right foreleg on Feb. 2, he popped a second one, on his left foreleg. "This was closer to the knee and could have been more serious," said Trainer Bill Winfrey, "but we didn't have time to fire the splint and still make the Derby. So we took a chance by treating it with a liquid called Splintol. Splintol may not hold and the splint may come back on him, but we had no choice."
New York racegoers expected to see Bold Lad make his debut in the one-mile Gotham, but Winfrey had other ideas. "I want to run my horse, sure, but it will do him more good running three-quarters than going a mile the first time out and giving weight to seasoned horses. Bold Lad went six weeks between breezes, but he did a lot of galloping, and each work showed that the fitness he had developed by Feb. 1 hadn't been entirely lost."
How right Bill Winfrey was. Running against four older and able horses, Bold Lad looked better than ever. After laying off the pace set by Pack Trip and Exclusive Nashua, Jockey Braulio Baeza took Bold Lad around the leaders on the far turn, moved steadily to the front without raising his stick and drew away from the eighth pole to the wire to win by three easy lengths. His time for the six furlongs was a good 1:10 3/5, and he worked on out to cover seven furlongs in 1:23 2/5.
"The colt was well in hand the whole way," Winfrey observed later. "In this race he spoke for himself, and I couldn't have asked for anything more. I feel better all the time. I'm not going to get the champagne out quite yet—but maybe we can start putting it on ice."
Bold Lad's first appearance under silks in five and a half months reestablished him as the Kentucky Derby favorite, but the week's action involving other colts brought mixed results. Jacinto was going to make the Gotham his first outing since he was soundly walloped by Lucky Debonair in the Santa Anita Derby on March 6. (In that race, incidentally, one excuse offered for Jacinto's startling defeat was that three days prior he had "run off" with his exercise boy and was clocked for three-quarters in 1:09 4/5 instead of a leisurely 1:12.) But snow fell on New York early Friday morning, the day before the Gotham, and out at Belmont Park, where Jim Maloney stables the horses he trains for William H. Perry, Jacinto was being readied for a long, slow gallop. "This colt has big feet that are more concave than flat," Maloney said, "so we greased them to keep the snow from packing in. It didn't do the trick, because he knuckled over—almost stumbling—a few times, and when he came back we found snowballs four or five inches deep in his feet." With the snow packed down hard in there, Owner Perry figured, "it must have been like a man trying to walk on stilts. Jacinto pulled himself a bit, with the result that his right ankle filled slightly."
X rays were taken of the ankle, but they turned up nothing, and 24 hours after this minor injury Jacinto was his normal self. "If this had been any horse other than our Derby contender," said Maloney, "we would have run him in the Gotham." Jacinto was scheduled to ship to Kentucky's Keeneland track this week and probably will be seen next in the April 15 Forerunner, a seven-furlong prep for the April 22 Blue Grass Stakes.
In either of those races, or both, he can expect to meet archrival Lucky Debonair, who fled to Derbyland from Laurel when Trainer Frank Catrone decided the Maryland "spring" weather was delaying his colt's workouts and, in some instances, making them downright hazardous. Lucky Debonair has done nothing of a serious nature for some time. If he is still to be considered the strong Derby contender that he indicated he might be a month ago in California, he will have to make a mighty impressive showing at Keeneland.
With the absence of Bold Lad and Jacinto detracting from the importance of the Gotham, the race went, almost by elimination, to one of the three Hirsch Jacobs-trained colts. Off his victory in the Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie, Isle of Greece looked like the best of the three. But both he and one of his stablemates, Turn to Reason, came up with shin trouble during the race, and that left things up to the third part of the entry, Flag Raiser. He broke on top under Jockey Bobby Ussery and simply stayed there to win by four lengths in the moderately good time of 1:36 3/5. Flag Raiser had been badly beaten by Sparkling Johnny and Hail to All in stakes at Hialeah in February but has always turned in his best showings at Aqueduct. If he looked good in the Gotham, it was simply because he had things all his own way; none of the other six horses elected to contest the early lead. When something does run with him—which will certainly happen in the mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial on April 17—the chances are that Flag Raiser will not look anything like such a strong Derby contender.
Of those beaten in the Gotham, the most impressive was Ogden Phipps's Dapper Dan, who came from next to last to finish second. Had he not been stopped at the three-eighths pole by a tiring Wrong Card, Baeza might have gotten Dapper Dan through and into a more challenging role. He is a son of Ribot and probably will like his races better when the distances stretch out. The same applies to Raymond Guest's Ribot colt, Tom Rolfe. After being beaten nine and a half lengths at seven furlongs by Flag Raiser at Aqueduct on March 24, Tom Rolfe was at Laurel last week and won rather easily at a mile in preparation for this week's mile-and-a-sixteenth Chesapeake. He beat nothing of proven class, but his time of 1:38 3/5 was the best of the meeting, and he finished with the kind of kick that augurs well for the future.
It was hardly a surprise that Native Charger won the Florida Derby. He had beaten his chief challengers with reasonable authority in the Flamingo, and there seemed to be no reason for him not to do it again. The trouble with Native Charger may well be the same thing that often affected his daddy, Native Dancer: he never wins by more than is necessary, and he thereby makes his victories appear more difficult than they actually are.
If anybody had difficulty in this Florida Derby, it was Native Charger. He is not happy about going into the gate, and can be persuaded only by the use of a hood that blindfolds him. But last week it was not going into the gate that upset the big gray half as much as leaving it. Breaking from the outside under Jockey Johnny Rotz, he stumbled badly and nearly went to his knees. Rotz barely hung on until the colt managed to get back into full stride. After that it was a question of taking the long way around to beat Hail to All by a neck. Sparkling Johnny, whose scruffy front legs show the wear and tear of seven tough winter races, was an unimpressive fifth. And still another son of Ribot, this one named Maribeau, came up with sore shins the day before the Gulfstream race and failed to start.
With the Derby now only three weeks away, hardly anything about the race is clear. Greentree Stable, for example, may unveil O'Hara, a son of Ballymoss, in time for the Wood but, as Trainer John Gaver puts it, "that race in Louisville is coming up a little too soon for Groton or New Act." It could be too soon, at that, for many of the 130 nominees, but it is also too late for many more. Hirsch Jacobs, who nominated six for the Derby, may have hit it just about right when he said the other day, "Well, at least I have numbers even if I don't know all about their quality yet. In this kind of year maybe it's just numbers a trainer wants most."