The temperature was in the 80s two hours before Kentucky Derby post time as the handsome woman in pink and scarlet made her way gingerly through the surging crowds to her box seat in the exclusive G Section of Churchill Downs' rickety old clubhouse. Mrs. Willie Shoemaker's candy-pink suit from Neiman-Marcus was chic, but what she wore on her head—it would be slighting to call it a hat—was a remarkable sight indeed. Specially designed by I. Magnin, it was an Everest of American Beauty roses and rose petals, a mountainous cone-shaped swirl of brightest red, bobbing gently toward its wearer's seat. "They don't seem to want to give Bill the roses around here," said Mrs. Shoemaker, referring delicately to her husband's occasional inadvertencies on Derby Day, "so I brought my own from California." (In 1957 Shoemaker misjudged the finish when he was riding Gallant Man and lost to Iron Liege; last year he was offered the mount on Northern Dancer, the eventual winner, but chose Hill Rise instead.)
At about the same time activity of a different sort was kindling down the clubhouse line in L Section, across from the point where the famous one-mile track curves rather sharply into the first turn. A lit cigarette had slipped between two of the aging floorboards and suddenly, with little warning, flames shot 10 feet into the air and patrons on the upper floor scattered from the thick, dark smoke. The fearful thought swept through the crowd that may well have numbered the 100,000 traditionally claimed: Was Churchill Downs, that brunt of tinder-box jokes for decades, finally going to be converted into a fiery disaster area?
Firemen raced to the scene, their truck appropriately escorted on the track by a galloping lead pony, but fortunately there was no semblance of panic. When the wind quickly shifted and blew the flames away from the inviting target of a solid quarter of a mile of dry old wood, the fire hoses did their work quickly and efficiently. Before they were turned off, however, Churchill Downs President Wathen Knebelkamp had decided that the Derby's usual 4:30 post time would be set back a half hour to allow track crews to put the thoroughly soaked first turn back into shape and to assure the eager audience its customary one-hour prerace betting period. This, of course, wreaked havoc with the coast-to-coast CBS television schedule. The network, which has recently been experiencing trouble enough on American League baseball diamonds, had other problems. As it extended its one-hour Derby show by an additional 30 minutes, the audio cable repeatedly failed. Millions of once-a-year racing fans saw a fine picture and heard the unsynchronized voice of radio announcers hastily juiced in. (The cameras found and lingered on Babs Shoemaker and her roses; only lip-readers were able to identify her.)
After all the heated prerace excitement the 91st Derby may have been an anticlimax to some worn-out spectators, but not for Babs. I. Magnin's roses ready, she watched her man Bill win his third Louisville classic by bringing Lucky Debonair home a diminishing neck in front of Dapper Dan. The latter's stablemate, favorite Bold Lad, withered in the stretch and beat only one horse, Narushua, in the 11-horse field. Shoemaker brought Babs home the real roses with a skillful ride aboard a colt many thought was over the peak form that had carried him to an outstanding victory in the Santa Anita Derby. This estimate was partially inspired by his unimpressively close win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland just nine days before the Derby.
But Lucky Debonair, a son of Vertex out of the Count Fleet mare Fresh as Fresh, is a deceptive sort of runner, as Shoemaker and Trainer Frank Catrone have often pointed out. "The trouble with him," Catrone said after the Blue Grass, "is that if you don't keep after him once he gets to the lead, he'll try to pull himself up. He does only the work he has to to stay in front." Shoemaker added, "He was leg weary in the Blue Grass and would have been beaten if he wasn't such a good horse." As Chateau-gay and Northern Dancer discovered in the two previous years, the mile-and-an-eighth Blue Grass is an ideally timed final prep for the mile-and-a-quarter Derby, and just because horses don't win it by fancy margins does not mean they are lacking in classic ability.
Though he finally went off as the third Derby choice (behind Bold Lad and Hail to All), Lucky Debonair did not cause much commotion along the back-stretch during the final hectic days of Derby Week. His owner, Mrs. Ada L. Rice, wife of a Chicago grain broker, seldom came to call on him, and Trainer Catrone was so awed by interviews that he relied pretty much on such stock phrases as "I'm tickled to death to be here." Nobody paid too much attention to what he was tickled to death about.
At 4 feet 9, Catrone must be the only trainer in America who has to look up to 4-foot-11 Shoemaker. He may also be the only trainer in America who would think, when called by a wire service representative of UPI, that he had mistakenly been approached by an official of some obscure university. "Imagine," he said afterward, "a reporter calling me up to ask my opinion about anything!" But ex-Jock Catrone, who learned under the great Trainer Sam Hildreth and who has been working at his trade since 1936, is a sound and solid horseman. He knows exactly what to do with a sound and solid colt, and Lucky Debonair is just that. He proved it last week just one day before his actual third birthday. Those close to this bay colt, who is a first foal of his dam, were not surprised at all. Howard Endicott, manager of the Rices' Danada Farm in Lexington, recalls that two years ago Danada's yearling boss, Bob Ross, picked Lucky Debonair out of a field of colts and said, "This is the best one; he's a real comer."
This was a Derby field chock full of interest. Six of the 11 starters had perfectly good reasons for winning. Bold Lad, of course, was the colt who commanded the most attention and the most respect. What nobody really knew about Bold Lad was whether his souped-up training schedule of the last month had brought him to a perfectly timed peak or had further affected his already ailing legs. Trainer Bill Winfrey, nevertheless, not only was confident that Bold Lad was ready to run the race of his life, but also thought that his other charge, Dapper Dan, could get a part of the purse. "The only things I fear," said Winfrey before the Derby, "are bad racing luck—and the distance." And then he added, thoughtfully, "The two horses I respect the most are Tom Rolfe and Lucky Debonair. I rate them equally, but I'd have to give the edge to Lucky Debonair because his rider has more Derby experience than Ron Turcotte."
It was hardly a pre-Derby secret that the speedy Flag Raiser would set the pace and let the others try to catch him. His rider, Bobby Ussery, said, "I don't think he's a mile-and-a-quarter horse either, but this is one way to find out." In any Derby it is axiomatic that the eventual winner must have good position in the vital run to the first turn unless he is an exceptionally fast finisher, and this race was no exception to the rule. Before the field got that far, Jockey Bill Hartack made a key discovery of his own. "I was hesitant about Bold Lad even while he was warming up," he said later. "He wasn't striding right or doing anything easy." Hartack, who is more often right than wrong about such matters, was right again. After he brought the hopelessly beaten colt back, he said, "We really didn't have a shot at it at any time. At first I thought the trouble might be the track cupping out from him, but that wasn't it. He was trying to run all the way, but he was just not going anywhere. Something is bothering him. He wasn't Bold Lad, because Bold Lad doesn't run like that." After Hartack had spoken privately to him, Bill Winfrey added, "Bold Lad couldn't have run like that unless he was hurting. I'm afraid we'll find he's not 100% sound."
As Flag Raiser took a two-length lead past the stands and into the important first turn, long shot Narushua pressed him on the pace, while Lucky Debonair, who at no time was worse than third, was just a head behind. Native Charger, under John Rotz, made a little trouble for himself by coming out slightly on the turn. But when the horse started up the backstretch in fourth place Rotz thought to himself, "I was in a golden chair. By the three-eighths pole I thought we were in." Bold Lad was sixth at this point and still in a contending position, while Dapper Dan was way back in last place after having been shut off on the first turn. Tom Rolfe moved smartly into third place along the inside of Native Charger toward the end of the backstretch, and as Flag Raiser slowly tired after covering the mile in 1:37, Shoemaker and Lucky Debonair took command. "There wasn't anything to it then," said Shoe. "He was relaxed and rating himself. I set him down pretty good at the three-sixteenths pole after we took the lead straightening for home, and he opened up three lengths."
The only serious threat to Lucky Debonair up to now had been Tom Rolfe. Rounding the far turn, Turcotte, riding in his first Derby, noticed Flag Raiser tiring in front of him as Lucky Debonair went to challenge for the lead. Turcotte also thought he saw enough space between Flag Raiser and the rail. His one big chance, he thought, was to drive for that opening and go after Lucky Debonair on the inside, saving ground. Turcotte and Tom Rolfe drove. And as quickly as they did they discovered, a) the opening was never big enough to get through and, b) Ussery and Flag Raiser were closing it completely. "Ussery tightened the hole on me at the three-eighths pole. It was the right thing to do," said a dejected Turcotte after the race. "I'd have done the same thing myself."
With Tom Rolfe now eliminated as a serious threat and neither Native Charger nor stretch-running Hail to All making up ground on Lucky Debonair during the run to the wire, the Derby seemed all but over. But no! With an inspiring swoosh, along came Dapper Dan. He had been dead last, and Jockey Milo Valenzuela had taken him around the whole field because as he put it, "This colt is so temperamental." Dapper Dan naturally had clear sailing on the outside. But he lost enough racing ground in those last three furlongs to make it extremely difficult to catch the leader. At any rate, Milo and the chestnut son of Ribot, flying as they were, missed Lucky Debonair by just a neck, finishing two lengths ahead of Tom Rolfe, the other Ribot colt in the race. Native Charger was fourth and Hail to All fifth, followed by Mr. Pak, Swift Ruler, Flag Raiser, Carpenter's Rule, Bold Lad and Narushua. Thanks to a brilliant last quarter in 24⅕ Lucky Debonair recorded a final time of 2:01[1/5] to make this the third fastest Derby—behind Northern Dancer's 2 minutes flat and Decidedly's 2:00[2/5].
None of the beaten riders had much in the way of excuses. Manuel Ycaza, on Hail to All, said, "At the quarter pole I thought I had it all. I was one length off Native Charger and Tom Rolfe and then finished the same way. My horse just got tired." Rotz said of Native Charger, "He either got tired or outrun. I can't tell which."
Lucky Debonair now has a record of six wins in nine races this year and is fully entitled to be called the best 3-year-old around. Certainly he will be favored to win the shorter-by-a-sixteenth Preakness at Pimlico on May 15 even if it attracts his old Santa Anita foe, Jacinto, and such other non-Derby starters as O'Hara, Bosun and Seaman. Babs Shoemaker is, of course, going to Pimlico with Bill, but she's not taking her mountain of roses. "I'm having another one specially made," she said. "It's covered with black-eyed Susans."