Three days before last week's Florida Derby at Gulf-stream Park, Ohio sportsman John Galbreath picked up the telephone in his Miami house and called his contract jockey, Braulio Baeza, in New York. Word had reached him that Baeza, who had suffered two broken ribs in a fall at Aqueduct on March 22, was ready to go back to work and that, barring further discomfort, the brilliant Darby Dan Farm rider (page 45) might accept the mount on Abe's Mope in the Florida Derby. Galbreath, who has a horse of his own named Graustark (the Kentucky Derby favorite) for Baeza to ride this season, was understandably worried. "For heaven's sake, Braulio," he pleaded into the plume. "I don't want you taking any chances. Don't ride any horses until you feel 100% recovered, and when you do ride again, watch what you're doing. Above all, don't get set down. Remember, there are some mighty important races coming up."
For Baeza, every $100,000 horse race is an important one—whether he is riding for Galbreath, John Doe or, in fact, for Robert Byfield and Joe Bartell. These two frustrated owners of Abe's Hope had watched their game colt lose a desperate stretch duel by a nose to Buckpasser in the now-famous betless Flamingo a month ago. When the horse's regular rider, apprentice Earlie Fires, was suspended last week, the colt's polo-playing trainer. Del Carroll, summoned Baeza. And, sore ribs or no sore ribs, Braulio responded. Appearing for duty with nearly half of his slender torso tightly taped, the Panamanian rode brilliantly—but, alas, carelessly.
In a pulsating, frantic finish that converted a race between a bunch of secondary contenders for the Triple Crown into a thrilling contest—one worthy of any Derby Baeza dune Abe's Mope to victory by a neck Over Williamston Kid, who, in turn, had barely a nose margin over Bold and Brave. Three-quarters of a length behind the Wheatley color-bearer came Sky Guy, a length in front of the favorite, Kauai King. It was a line, tight finish; but few of the 25,341 observers realized that for the last eighth of a mile the race had devolved into a meaningless rough-house, with an assortment of leg-weary horses slamming into each other.
Bold and Brave was on hand as deputy for Buckpasser, whose recent quartercrack will force him to miss the Kentucky Derby as well. Trainer Eddie Neloy knew he probably was not saddling a fully equipped first-String sub, and as he accepted condolences on behalf of Buckpasser he quipped, "This game is like golf. Every shot makes somebody happy."
Bold and Brave's shot in the Florida Derby did not carry far enough. As expected, he took the lead under Bill Shoemaker, and led by as much as five lengths on the backstretch. But, turning for home, weariness overtook the son of Bold Ruler, and the chase was on. Shoemaker clung to the inside, while just behind him Don Brumfield was trying in vain to slip through with Kauai King. On the outside of Shoe was Sky Guy, who had run a consistently steady race, while next to him, driving, was Abe's Hope. On the outside of all of them, well clear of trouble, was the 90-to-1 shot Williamston Kid, under Robert Louis Stevenson.
Leaving the eighth pole, Abe's Hope ducked in and bumped sharply against Sky Guy, knocking him off stride. The five horses drove furiously on to the wire, but just before Abe's Hope reached it he came in again, and again slammed against Sky Guy. As he did, Kauai King, who had fought his way into contention virtually on Bold and Brave's Hanks, bore out. The two colts, Abe's Hope and Kauai King, put a perfect squeeze on Sky Guy and eliminated him completely from what surely would have been a second-place finish.
While this hit-or-miss game was going on, the far outside horse, Williamston Kid, had an unimpeded run into second place. But this long shot was about to benefit from the errors of others. Jim Combest on Sky Guy had no alternative but to claim foul against Baeza and Abe's Hope, and the claim was upheld. This moved Williamston Kid into the winner's circle (for the first time since last October in Chicago, when he beat Abe's Hope in the Juvenile at Hawthorne), and sent Bold and Brave from third to second. The offended Sky Guy went from fourth to third. Abe's Hope came down to fourth.
Baeza's case would normally have come before the stewards on Monday and he could have expected a five-day suspension, beginning on the Tuesday. But Braulio has an important date with John Galbreath and Graustark at Keeneland this Saturday, so he went to the stewards and requested an immediate hearing. The stewards found him guilty and gave him his live days. Sore ribs, hurt feelings and the loss of $8,340 in purse money notwithstanding, Baeza will be in Darby Dan silks this Saturday, the day his suspension ends. John Galbreath breathed a mighty sigh of relief.
If the result of the Florida race was supposed to bring the Kentucky Derby picture into clearer focus, something went drastically wrong. Abe's Hope probably was the best horse, but he has still officially won only one of eight starts this year. And not too much can be said for any of the others. The time for the mile and an eighth was a very poor 1:50 3/5. Yet, because of the close finish, there will be a bunch of happy owners strutting proudly about for the next month, clinging to the hope that in four weeks a mediocre racehorse can be transformed into a Kentucky Derby champion.
Take the Williamston Kid faction, for example. The colt is co-owned by Trainer Jim Bartlett and Paul F. Ternes, president of Standard Steel Treating Co. in Detroit. They have had a 10-year partnership that has yielded a lot of fun but little profit. "Two years ago," said Jim Bartlett after winning the Florida Derby, "I was talking on the phone to my breeder friend E.K. Thomas in Paris, Ky. I'd had a little luck with sons of Piet, and Thomas told me he had a Piet yearling. He said the price was $5,000 and if the colt wasn't just like he described him to me, all I had to do was send him back and the deal was off. I liked what I heard and bought him for $5,000 sight unseen." Co-owner Ternes smiled through this explanation and joined Bartlett in a happy cry of "On to the Kentucky Derby."
The Abe's Hope people, after such harrowing experiences in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby, might be excused if they never stabled in the Sunshine State again. But they are not giving up. Their colt, a son of Better Bee purchased in a four-horse package deal last August from Illinois Racing Commissioner William Miller, is as game as any horse in training. What makes him worthy of Derby consideration is that he finishes well and appears to like a distance. Mike Ford, the Omaha manufacturer who owns Kauai King, is not ready to turn his back on a Triple Crown challenge either. "We'll take our colt to Bowie next," he says, "and then to Kentucky."
While these people were pondering the futures of their colts—and while the Phippses were trying to regroup a stable of 3-year-olds that once looked as unbeatable as the teams from Calumet of 10 and 20 years ago—the real Derby interest was narrowing down to two old professionals, ready and waiting at Keeneland. In one corner was John Gal-breath, his undefeated (five for five) Graustark recovered from a bruised heel and set for a six-furlong sharpener this Saturday. In the other corner was cagey Bull Hancock, owner of undefeated (eight for eight) Moccasin, champion 2-year-old filly of 1965. Between the two of them Graustark and Moccasin could elevate the 92nd Kentucky Derby from a depressing scramble into an epic battle. But there are some big ifs.
Last week, with Galbreath on hand, Graustark had his final workout at Hialeah and was, according to his proud owner, "a joy to behold, running through the slop." The next morning Trainer Lloyd Gentry fixed a light skullcap on Graustark's head, and the son of Ribot was walked up the ramp of an ancient Southern Airways Transport C-46 for the $3,000, five-hour charter flight of 900 miles to Lexington. Galbreath clambered up the ramp after his prized possession, walked to the front of Graustark's tight box stall and patted his handsome head. "All ashore who plan to go ashore," said the pilot. Galbreath took a last look at his horse and said, "He's got a lot of sense and a very inquiring eye." Later, when the subject of Hancock's filly was brought up, Galbreath said matter-of-factly, "I don't think Bull will run her in the Derby when there are all those other opportunities."
Nobody knows whether Moccasin will run in the Kentucky Derby—including Bull Hancock himself. Bull is a practical man, as well as a genius with horses. But he is also a Kentuckian, and Kentuckians know that there is only one Derby. Hancock's Claiborne Farm, in Paris, Ky., has been the most successful stud farm for many years. "We've bred some aw fully good mares," says Bull. "Including Delta, Doubledogdare, Misty Morn, High Voltage and Vagrancy, just to name a few. In all honesty, I have to put Moccasin ahead of all of those, and also ahead of any mare I've ever seen."
Last fall, after Moccasin's victory in the Gardenia (just before she bucked her shins and skipped The Garden State), Bull Hancock had a few things to say about fillies racing colts. "Except at the end of a season, when there is nothing ahead but a long rest, I'm against it. No matter how great Moccasin may be next spring I would not point her for the Kentucky Derby. I honestly believe she might be able to beat the best colts, but in getting her ready for this tough race early in May we might easily be jeopardizing her future. She has a great series of filly races to aim at, and if she went in the Derby she might never be the same racemare again. In other words, I'm against sending her against colts in May, but if she holds her current form I would definitely plan to see her against colts later in the season."
That was in November at Garden State. In January, at Hialeah, with the Derby only four months away, Hancock was having second thoughts: "I'm a Kentuckian, you know, and I'd rather win the Kentucky Derby than all the rest of the races in the world put together. So, if I really thought that Moccasin had the best chance to win the Derby, it's possible that I might give her a shot at it. If she won it I wouldn't care if she never won another race in her career."
With only a month to go, Bull Hancock was still pondering the question last week. He knew that Buckpasser would be missing at Churchill Downs and that the two best colts in California this winter, Boldnesian and Saber Mountain, would also skip the trip to Louisville. He knew the results of every major 3-year-old race in America this year and had received reports on how every Derby candidate was training. Was he ready to decide? "The key to what we'll do with Moccasin is that we'll watch Graustark," said Hancock at his farm. "Everything tells me not to run. If Graustark comes up to the Derby like I think he will, we won't run. But if he stumbles along the way, we're in a position to move. There is a rule of thumb, you know—if a colt is able to work a mile in 1:40 by April 1 he'll be able to run a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. Well, our filly is ready to do this. Last week she worked a mile at Hialeah in 1:41[2/5] and all we can do now is keep on training her and watch the rest of them—but especially Graustark."
As he prepares to wait out the month of April at Claiborne Farm, Bull Hancock is looking forward to Moccasin's first start (on the same card as Graustark but in a different race) this Saturday at Keeneland. Bull remembers the fate of other fillies in the Kentucky Derby. Of 1,005 starters in 91 Derbies, only 29 have been fillies. Just one, Regret, won—in 1915. But all this form, past and present, may be thrown out when Hancock reminds himself, "I'm a Kentuckian."