As Hialeah opened its 38th racing season last week the palm-studded horse park held more past and current champions than ever were stabled at one track at the same time. Among them were Kelso, Roman Brother, Moccasin, What A Treat, Parka, Tosmah, Bold Lad and Queen Empress. But for all their extraordinary achievements over the last few years, these swift, fragile bundles of talent must yield center stage for the moment to a couple of newly turned 3-year-olds who are competing for the designation of early Kentucky Derby favorite.
One of the two colts, of course, is Ogden Phipps's 1965 2-year-old champion, Buckpasser, the powerful bay son of Tom Fool and Busanda, who already has won nine of 11 races and $568,096. His rival, even now considered by many horsemen as a potential superhorse in the mold of a Man o' War, is chestnut-colored Graustark, bred, owned and worshiped by superfan John W. Galbreath (SI, Jan. 24). There is nothing like the presence of an undefeated candidate to spark interest in a list of Kentucky Derby nominees, but the surprising aspect of Graustark's rise to prominence is that, although he is now 4-for-4, he has won but a single minor stake. He has, as they say along the shed row, "beat nothing"—unless you want to consider Port Wine, whom Graustark whipped by six lengths last August, as a top colt. The record shows that Port Wine, virtually unbeatable in California, followed up his loss to Graustark by losing a 17-length decision to the eastern sprinter, Our Michael. Before retreating to California, Port Wine also finished eighth in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, beaten over 16 lengths by Buckpasser. Last week, in a six-furlong Hialeah allowance race, Graustark made his 1966 debut and won his fourth victory. He beat an undistinguished field of eight others by taking the lead at the half-mile pole and coasting home by five lengths. His previous winning margins had been seven, nine and six lengths respectively, so you can see he does not fool around once he gets the lead. It is precisely this facility for doing everything effortlessly—together with his impeccable blood lineage—that has prompted the Graustark legend.
A son of Ribot (which doesn't hurt at all these days), Graustark is also the son of Flower Bowl by Alibhai. In her day Flower Bowl won the Delaware Handicap and the Ladies' Handicap and, when bred to Sailor, produced the fine champion, Bowl of Flowers. Thus on both sides of his pedigree Graustark has forebears of classic stature. He brings to this enviable blend of proven stamina a breathtaking dash of pure speed. After watching him win so easily (in 1:10 3/5) last week, Trainer Lloyd Gentry said, "Over the long range his speed is going to be a big help. There's nothing like being up there out of people's way. As this colt gets more fit, I'd like to see him run the first part of it right up there, sort of like Swaps, a length or two off the pace."
While Graustark shows off his speed in morning works in preparation for his next race, the seven-furlong Bahamas on February 2, rival Buckpasser is heading toward the classics at a more leisurely pace. After winning the one-mile Champagne last October 16 he had a two-month rest at Claiborne Farm. According to Trainer Eddie Neloy, he will get a seven-furlong prep about the second week of February before the first scheduled encounter with Graustark in the mile-and-an-eighth Everglades on February 23.
As both Graustark and Buckpasser trained their separate ways on the road to Louisville, some of their rivals went at each other in last week's Hibiscus at Hialeah, while still others were preparing for this week's San Vicente at Santa Anita. On a rainy Hibiscus day, Owner Phipps and Trainer Neloy again demonstrated that they may have the strongest stable in the country, at least in the important 3-year-old division. If anything goes wrong with Buckpasser, they have a strong "bench" ready to run. Stupendous, another son of Bold Ruler, won the sixth race by five lengths, and an hour later Impressive played with his field to win the Hibiscus over 13 drenched and soundly trounced rivals. If it's going to require an entry to whip Graustark, the Phippses appear to be ready.