Until last week the country could boast of two winter racing centers that were both exquisitely beautiful and highly prestigious. Santa Anita, below the imposing San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, and Hialeah, among tall, stately palms that have somehow survived the bulldozers on the outskirts of Miami, were designed, built and managed by men of vision who felt that racing fans should be allowed to bet on horses in a setting as luxurious and tasteful as possible.
Thoroughbreds from every leading stable vied for the rich purses of the winter season and, more often than not, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events gave advance notice of his classic potential by winning one or more of the traditional stakes that highlight the Santa Anita and Hialeah meetings. Horsemen from coast to coast gave their blessings to the two well-run plants, often by literally begging for stall space, and similar acceptance was granted by the social and glitter set, whose presence on big stakes days became important enough to be recorded on Sunday society pages, with pictures yet.
That was the happy scene for two U.S. tracks going into last week. And then there was one.
Within two days both tracks staged their respective pi√®ces de résistance for 3-year-olds—the glamour division that runs the Triple Crown route. In California a crowd of 56,624 bet $790,511 on the 29th Santa Anita Derby and watched Bill Perry's Boldnesian upset undefeated Saber Mountain by two lengths in the respectable time of 1:48 2/5 for the mile-and-an-eighth. The bettors agreed: California will send a worthy representative (even if, like Saber Mountain, he is a Kentucky-bred) to Churchill Downs on May 7. The crowd was wrong. Boldnesian was one of two horses in the field of 12 who were not nominated for the Kentucky Derby. That was regrettable, but not by comparison with what took place in Florida.
At Hialeah a bitter and booing audience of 30,011 could not bet one legal penny on or against Ogden Phipps's 1965 2-year-old champion Buckpasser, as he nosed out Abe's Hope in the Flamingo to remain a narrow Kentucky Derby favorite. This shocking—and possibly even illegal—set of circumstances came about when Hialeah's top brass (Eugene Mori, p√®re et fils, and Vice-President Walter Donovan) decided that since Buckpasser and his stablemate, Stupendous, were odds-on favorites to take it all in the Flamingo, as they had done the previous week in the Everglades, the resulting minus pool would be more than the track could bear. So, in brazen disregard of the sporting traditions that once gave Hialeah its class, and with regard only for their own profit-and-loss columns, it was decreed that the Flamingo was to be run as a betless exhibition. And if the track owners made sure they were not going to lose money on the Flamingo, they also made sure they would pick up a few dollars elsewhere. They added another—an 11th—race to the card.
"The decision was made reluctantly," said Gene Mori Jr. the day before the Flamingo, "but we might lose between $50,000 and $100,000 if we permitted betting." Even when Mori Sr., on the day after what Red Smith called "The Pink Chicken," said, "Our decision was wrong," his much-too-late admission could not remedy the unhappy facts. Class at Hialeah had nose-dived to oblivion. The sport and its traditions (for instance, win betting was allowed on the Kentucky Derby in 1948 when the Calumet Farm entry of Citation and Coal-town was a prohibitive favorite in a six-horse field) suffered a loss of prestige. The conduct of racing in Florida, as currently sanctioned by the state's patsy racing commission, is in dire need of some strong character-building. But this time Hialeah got a million dollars' worth of publicity in one day—all of it bad.
What was good was the Flamingo itself. Buckpasser ran such a phenomenally weird race that, for a brief moment, the sour audience forgot to boo the management and gasped in disbelief as the son of Tom Fool turned in the most spectacular lunging finish since Nashua nipped Summer Tan in the 1955 Wood Memorial. Turn for Home and Stupendous led in the early stages, with Buckpasser in third place. Stupendous got to the front but then simply quit near the head of the stretch, apparently leaving the race to Buckpasser. It was a situation that nobody really wanted. Bill Shoemaker did not want Buckpasser to go to the front that early because of his tendency to loaf once he gets there, and Abe's Hope, who likes to run from way out of it, abruptly came up from eighth in a big move which for him was really premature. And yet, once this awkward situation was forced upon them, Buckpasser suddenly was out in front and, just as suddenly, Abe's Hope was flying by on the outside to open up nearly two lengths.
Eddie Neloy, Buckpasser's trainer, shouted up the track, "Hold on for second, Shoe," figuring all was lost. Neloy said later, "Inside the eighth pole we were two lengths out of it, and we were still one length out with 70 yards to go. I absolutely gave up on him."
"So did I, just about," admitted Shoe, "but to come on again the way he did he must have tremendous ability and courage." The crowd wanted to cheer, but resumed booing when the photo showed that Buckpasser and not Abe's Hope had put his nose across the line first. No smiling politicians appeared on the scene to present the Flamingo trophy to Owner Phipps; instead the task fell to Bing Crosby, who laughed back at the snarlers and crooned, "I guess Bob Hope must have hired this crowd."
But if Buckpasser was, finally, the best in the Flamingo, he can hardly afford to run the same way against a really top horse. "He'd never win a Kentucky Derby like this," said one voice of experience. "His also-rans today are just average horses. If Graustark went by him while he was loafing there'd be five lengths of daylight, not two, and Buckpasser would never make that up."
Blue Skyer, who finished third, a little more than two lengths back, was one of the average horses Buckpasser beat (the time, incidentally, was an unimpressive 1:50 for the mile-and-an-eighth). A year ago he would not have been within 10 lengths of Buckpasser. And yet, if Blue Skyer ran his race, it must mean that Buckpasser definitely did not run his. Why not? There could be a number of explanations. One is a suspicious knee that has been with Buckpasser throughout his career. It may be hurting him enough to make him want to loaf after taking the lead. Another theory—to which Trainer Neloy does not subscribe—is that if Buck-passer is a difficult colt to handle under a sustained drive he may need a stronger and somewhat more forceful jockey than the light-handed and relaxed Shoemaker. For the time being, however, the only change to be made will be one of tactics. "I think," said Shoe, "that next time we'll have to take a hold of Buckpasser coming out of the gate instead of running him up near the pace. Take him way back, and let him make just one move. But it sure has to be timed right."
Boldnesian's victory 3,000 miles away in the Santa Anita Derby was achieved with far more facility, and it is indeed a shame that he must now wait until the Preakness (for which he may be made a supplementary nomination) or the Belmont for a chance to lay claim to the 3-year-old championship, though his victory was not without a certain amount of racing luck—good luck for him and bad luck for Saber Mountain.
At the start the long shot Ri Tux moved into a clear lead, but Shoemaker, who was on Saber Mountain in this race, used his whip and put him right up there in good tracking position. Wally Blum broke Boldnesian with the pack and had him snugly along the rail, but behind three horses, as the field raced up the backstretch. When Ri Tux tired nearing the half-mile pole, he drifted out ever so slightly. Blum had a split-second decision to make, and he didn't muff it. He drove Boldnesian into the hole on the rail and, as he did so, and while Ri Tux was still drifting out, Saber Mountain was carried out even farther. This loss of ground certainly did not help him, but even when he did make his run at Boldnesian he never had the look of a winner. Of course, Blum had had to make his move before he wanted to, but it paid off. As he said later, "My colt took on new life once he went on through. He must be a good one, though he's still green."
Owner Perry and Trainer Jim Maloney agree with Blum that they may have something pretty good in Boldnesian and both of them, considering that neither has ever started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, are plagued by regrets that they did not bother to post a paltry $100 (their Santa Anita Derby winning pot was $96,900) to get in the Derby before nominations closed Feb. 15. "To tell you the truth," said Perry, "by Feb. 15, Boldnesian had won only one maiden race and one six-furlong allowance race. You don't consider you have a Derby horse off that record. On Feb. 19, four days after the Kentucky deadline, we won a mile-and-a-sixteenth race by 10 lengths, and I started kicking myself." Perry's partner and a half owner of Boldnesian is Arthur B. (Bull) Hancock, master of Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. Informed that Boldnesian was not in the Kentucky Derby, Bull roared, "I'd like to kick that Perry, too, but good."
Saber Mountain, in view of his racing luck, was not disgraced, but he definitely lost some of his following. Shoemaker, who is not willing to give up on him, said later, "Saber Mountain probably is just as good as Buckpasser but, like him, he wants to loaf in his races." Charlie Whittingham, who trains Saber Mountain for Oilman Howard Keck, is not dismayed either. "They ran it in 1:48 2/5, and it's no disgrace to get beat in that kind of time," he said. "And remember, if Boldnesian hadn't gotten through when Ri Tux came out he'd have had nowhere to go, and he might not have finished better than fourth. Saber Mountain is still a good horse." Hirsch Jacobs' Exhibitionist was a fast-finishing third, beaten only a neck by Saber Mountain, and may be a fair sort at that. Nothing much can be said of the others, at least on this day, since such potentially good colts as Advocator and Hill Clown finished back in the pack with no apparent excuses. At Louisville the California folks had better stick with Saber Mountain.
The whole Kentucky Derby picture seems just as confused as it was before the hectic week began. John Gal-breath's unbeaten Graustark started galloping again in Miami and is scheduled for three pre-Derby starts at Keeneland in April, but neither his owner nor his trainer, Lloyd Gentry, can tell how quickly he will return to top form. Still, unless Graustark shows that he has not recovered from his recent bruise, he is the colt Buckpasser and Saber Mountain must beat in Louisville. If any or all of them falter, 1966 may be the year for the fillies. Moccasin and Priceless Gem (who beat Buckpasser in last fall's Futurity at Aqueduct) are both among the nominations, and both will be ready. Neither is likely to tolerate a colt who wants to stop to court or sightsee at the head of the Churchill Downs stretch.