Half a dozen horses in this week's Kentucky Derby have the breeding, the class, the expert trainers and jockeys and the racing experience needed to win. They all have their convinced supporters. Only one of them also has the good wishes of fans everywhere, even their affection, to the extent that he is unquestionably the sentimental favorite of the race. He is the object of his trainer's adoration on the opposite page—Bold Lad.
Even those who find no room for sentiment in the commercial atmosphere of modern racing weaken slightly at Kentucky Derby time, and allow their feelings to run away with abandon from logical considerations. They indulged in such folly in 1958, for example, sending the colorful Silky Sullivan off as co-favorite with a genuine champion named Tim Tam. And no one was overly surprised when Tim Tam won and Silky finished a forlorn 12th.
There is nothing like a Silky Sullivan in this Derby, but in the combination of Bold Lad and Trainer Bill Winfrey are all those ingredients of past misfortune and modest perseverance that inspire sentimental support. Just 12 years ago this week Winfrey came to Louisville with Alfred Vanderbilt's fabulous gray, Native Dancer. Nobody, including Winfrey, thought he could lose the Derby. But he did, by a head to Dark Star, in the only loss of the Dancer's brilliant career. Reflecting on his feelings of May 2, 1953, Winfrey recently cast his clear-blue eyes up at Bold Lad and said with deep seriousness, "I didn't think I had the Derby coming to me then any more than I think it now, but to get beat an eye by a series of misfortunes was tough. And to know you had the best 3-year-old in the country made it tougher."
In Bold Lad, owned by the grand old lady of American racing, Mrs. Henry C. Phipps, Bill Winfrey again believes he has the best 3-year-old in the country. This winter, before Bold Lad came up with the first of his two popped splints which made many people doubt he would ever make it to Louisville, Winfrey said of his Derby chances, "If he stays this way the only way they'll beat him is through bad racing luck." The important point now is that Bold Lad did not stay "this way." He missed some valuable training time, and even a colt who was the 2-year-old champion can ill afford such a lapse when he is aiming for a mile and a quarter in early May.
There are those who believe, also, that Bold Lad is going to be a very tired horse this Saturday at the head of the Churchill Downs stretch, a desperately long quarter of a mile from the wire. Correctly, they point out that Bold Lad's sire, Bold Ruler, was more of a brilliant middle-distance horse than a true stayer (he was fourth in the 1957 Derby), and that not one of his sons has yet won at the Derby's 10-furlong distance.
Last week Winfrey signed on the man who will make the vitally important move with Bold Lad, and he couldn't have done better had he pulled Earl Sande or Eddie Arcaro out of retirement. There will be a special kind of rooting for Jockey Bill Hartack when he gets aboard this colt, for no other modern rider has a Derby record even close to his: four winners in six mounts.
Bold Lad, Winfrey and Hartack are not going to have the 91st Derby to themselves—not by a long shot. Shown on the following pages are some of their leading rivals, and on page 25 is Whitney Tower's analysis of the field.
...BUT, SENTIMENT ASIDE, IT'S TOM ROLFE
This year's Derby field should number between 10 and 15 starters; their trainers and jockeys are walking around Louisville with confident smiles masking deep anxieties—because the top contenders seem so evenly matched.
Going into Tuesday's one-mile Derby Trial, Bold Lad was still what the experts call "the form horse," the one to beat. But very close to him, putting in last hard works in front of the twin spires of the old Downs (see cover), was an extremely able cluster of four or five. The best may well be Tom Rolfe, the compact, handsome son of Ribot shown on the opposite page. Like virtually all the Ribots, Tom Rolfe is on the small side (15 hands 2 inches—or, in layman's language, 5 feet 2 inches from the ground to the horse's withers), but if this bay colt is little he is also a little tiger when he gets to running. Last Saturday at Churchill Downs he had a race over the Derby strip—an important factor—and it indicated that he may be reaching his top form at a time when some of his leading competitors have passed theirs.
It seemed certain that one day Ribot, the undefeated winner of 16 races who twice captured the mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, would sire a genuine U.S. classic runner. Tom Rolfe, owned by Ambassador to Ireland Raymond Guest, may be just the colt everyone has been expecting. Last week, it is true, he was going only seven furlongs in the Stepping Stone Purse, but he made a tremendous impression with a length-and-three-quarters win over Native Charger, who, in his previous two starts, had won the Flamingo and Florida Derby. With Ron Turcotte aboard, Tom Rolfe literally took off around his field on the turn to win going away. And he never looked better. As Turcotte put it, "He's sharper right now than he's ever been." Trainer Frank Whiteley, a patient horseman, has brought Tom Rolfe along with perfect timing, and he certainly runs as though his first attempt at a mile and a quarter is not going to bother him in the slightest. In addition to carrying the staying blood of Ribot, he is out of the mare Pocahontas, whose dam was How, a winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Ladies Handicap over a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half. This tiger is bred to run all day.
Native Charger, who went off in the Stepping Stone as the 4-to-5 favorite, had a legitimate excuse for his loss, although on this day, I believe, he would not have beaten Tom Rolfe no matter what. Jockey Johnny Rotz had him in sixth place up the backstretch. When he tried to save ground by hugging the rail around the far turn—which is where Tom Rolfe said goodby to everyone—Rotz had to check his mount sharply as the 72-to-1 shot, Golden Bobbie, stopped abruptly in front of him. Still, Native Charger was the solid horse in Florida this winter, twice beating the best around at the longest distances.
Last Thursday Willie Shoemaker rode Lucky Debonair to a half-length victory over the Arkansas Derby winner, Swift Ruler, in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes. The time was a so-so 1:49, and the winner was extremely hard put to achieve his victory at all. Swift Ruler got to Lucky Debonair in the stretch and even put his head in front for an instant at the eighth pole. It took a good deal of determined work on Shoe's part to get the California champion home. In the Blue Grass, where, admittedly, Lucky Debonair may have been a little short, Shoe had only one challenger to contend with in the stretch. If he gets in front at Churchill Downs he will find not one but several colts driving at him during the last furlong. As for Swift Ruler, I think he's going to find 10 furlongs just about one furlong too far. John Mecom's Narushua, third in the Stepping Stone, finished as though he didn't want much more either, while Mrs. Mary Keim's Needles colt, Mr. Pak, is the sort of fast finisher who usually gets some of the money but rarely the biggest share.
Of the fast finishers likely to be seen in Louisville the swiftest may be Mrs. Ben Cohen's Hail to All. Although he won the Hibiscus in a long, hard drive, coming from last place to win by a neck, he is more often a bridesmaid than a bride. Native Charger beat him a neck in the Florida Derby, and Flag Raiser beat him a neck in the Wood Memorial. Trainer Eddie Yowell has replaced John Sellers with Manuel Ycaza on the colt and if Manuel can get this bay son of Hail to Reason moving before the distance again runs out, he must be considered a serious Derby threat. But Ycaza knows as well as Sellers (who won the 1961 Derby by coming from 11th place with Carry Back) that unless a slow starter is willing to take the worst of it by circling the whole field in front of him, he must gamble heavily on finding openings through which to zigzag his way to the front. No one will deny that Ycaza is a fearless exponent of this kind of race riding, but in the Kentucky Derby holes do not open up just for the asking.
If Dapper Dan wins, it will be because Ribot has sired a classic U.S. colt and his name is Dapper Dan and not Tom Rolfe. He is a little fellow, too, also 15 hands 2 inches and weighing only 1,000 pounds, but Trainer Bill Winfrey calls him "tougher than nails and another little tiger who wants to run all day." Dapper Dan, like Tom Rolfe, may be just reaching his peak, but he has now had nine races this year and his record of only two wins over minor competition hardly suggests that he has the genuine class to match the best of his generation.
Although he has now won three straight stakes, including the Wood, Flag Raiser does not finish the way a Derby horse should. If Darby Dan's Bugler does well in the Derby Trial this week, he will be brought back for the big one but, despite having won three in a row, including a victory in the mud over Lucky Debonair, he does not appear to be up to most of the opposition. Even less qualified are Carpenter's Rule, Apple Core and At First Blush.
This may not be the finest field of Derby horses, but it is going to provide a fine betting race, and possibly a blanket finish as well. I've watched most of the colts prepare for their meeting from early January through April, and I would say that if Bold Lad doesn't win, Tom Rolfe will.