Contestants in the guessing game concerning who will run in the Kentucky Derby were offered three fresh clues last week, two at Keeneland and one at Aqueduct.
Graustark, John Galbreath's undefeated winter book favorite, coasted to his sixth straight victory, and Moccasin, Bull Hancock's 1965 filly champion, lost her first start of the season after eight consecutive wins last year. Both raced at Keeneland. In New York, Priceless Gem, Mrs. Ethel Jacobs' fine filly, served notice that she is back at the top of her form. She easily won the Prioress at Aqueduct by six lengths, though later" she was disqualified for some erratic running early in the race. All three events were at six furlongs, hardly a challenging distance for Derby horses just a month before Churchill Downs, but some valid conclusions may be drawn nonetheless.
Graustark had not raced since February 2 at Hialeah. As Galbreath suggested at the time, the injury to the heel of Graustark's left hind foot may have been a blessing in disguise. He missed the tough campaigning of the Everglades, the Flamingo and the Florida Derby and has now returned to competition in superb condition. In the hours before his race at Keeneland last Saturday the weather ranged from a mild drizzle to biting sleet to a touch of snow, and even to an odd moment of sunshine. Despite the moisture in the track the strip remained lightning-fast, and Graustark ate it up in long lovely strides.
Admittedly, he was in against two fairly ordinary runners in this betless exhibition. It was inconceivable that either Yonder or Duc d'Eclair could beat him on his worst day. What probably was most impressive about Graustark's performance was the facility with which Braulio Baeza rated this strapping chestnut son of Ribot for the first part of the sprint and the strength and willingness the colt showed in finishing his race and working on out past the wire Baeza let Duc d'Eclair cut out the early pace (first quarter in :22, the half in :45[2/5]). After the turn for home, he let Graustark collar the leader about half a length short of the eighth pole. Baeza never touched Graustark with the stick as they drew off to win by four lengths in 1:09[3/5]. They worked out another furlong in 1:22[2/5] and pulled up after a mile in 1:37.
"There was nothing surprising about it," said one staunch Graustark fan. "He just did today what he's been doing all along."
"I'd say," beamed nervous Trainer Lloyd Gentry, "that Graustark has come back just as good as ever. Baeza agreed. He allowed himself a rare smile as he changed clothes gingerly to avoid unnecessary contact with a couple of sore ribs, and added, "Mr. Gentry has done a remarkable job on this horse. As long as Graustark keeps on, I'll feel just fine, too"
John Galbreath had been just as nervous as Gentry in the paddock before Graustark's race. "Well, it's one of those days again, isn't it?" he said. Half an hour later, when his filly, Stealaway, upset Moccasin at odds of 12 to 1 (Moccasin was 1 to 5), a more relaxed Galbreath added, "Now it looks like our day, doesn't it?"
Although she finished fourth, Moccasin was beaten less than two lengths and, for those looking for excuses, there were a few handy ones available. The immediate reaction of the stunned crowd was to agree with Hancock and Trainer Harry Trotsek that Moccasin had received the sort of ride that would hardly serve to qualify Larry Adams for the Jockeys Hall of Fame.
What this gripe was all about was Adams' judgment on the stretch turn, where he elected to seek racing room on the inside and suddenly found himself blocked behind four horses. Moccasin, not always the most alert gate horse, had come out well this time (she was on the outside of her five rivals) but was immediately outrun. As the field went into the far turn, she was dead last and still on the outside. She might have remained there for her run down the lane, but Adams drove for the rail. The fillies in front of Moccasin failed to open up and, by the time Adams got her between two of them and out of the trap he had put himself into, the race was just about over.
Larry Adams rode Moccasin in every one of her eight winning starts on the way to the filly championship a year ago, and therefore must be as qualified to judge her as anyone—even an owner and a trainer sitting in the stands. "We didn't necessarily have bad luck, nor do I consider my judgment necessarily bad," he said dejectedly in the jocks' room later. "The others were running flat out [21[4/5] and 45[2/5]] for the first part, and I didn't want to drive her at this stage of the race anyway. On the turn for home she tried to lay in a little, and when she did that I figured she wasn't going to be good enough in this company to stay outside, circle them all and still win. So I let her go inside to save ground. When I finally did get her through between horses, she didn't have enough time to get to the front."
Stealaway was clocked at 1:10[1/5] as she beat Dutch Maid by three-quarters of a length, with Justakiss another head behind and one length in front of Moccasin. In the champion's defense, it also must be noted that last week's start was her first since winning the Gardenia at Garden State last November 6, and she was the only filly of the six starters who had not raced at least once this season. More important than this, perhaps, is the fact that Trotsek has not been training her for sprints but for classic engagements.
Even so, both Hancock and Trotsek were visibly upset by Adams' ride. "He rode like a Chinaman," growled Bull. "I just can't believe it was that bad," Trotsek chimed in. Later that evening, however, as he cooled out over drinks at Lexington's Idle Hour Country Club, Hancock was in a less critical mood. "Adams may have been right," he admitted. "And besides, every horse is going to get beat sooner or later. If Moccasin had to get beat, I'm glad it was in a race like today's instead of a big one. The only important thing, as far as I'm concerned, is that she came out of it sound and well. Nothing else really matters right now."
As friends came up to offer condolences, Bull brought himself all the way back to a smile. "I'll tell you one thing," he boomed across the table, "if you want to bet on the winner of next week's Ashland, put up your money right now!"
Hancock has wisely decided to say nothing further about Moccasin tackling Graustark or any other Derby colt until after the April 16 Ashland (also at six furlongs), and until after Graustark makes his mile-and-an-eighth appearance in the April 28 Blue Grass.
In the Prioress, Priceless Gem was a standout. This is the same filly—by Hail To Reason out of the great War Admiral mare. Searching—who upset Buckpasser in last fall's Futurity. After Buckpasser came back and whipped her in the one-mile Champagne, Priceless Gem went to the sidelines with sore shins. She wintered at Santa Anita, but during her return east she suddenly lost weight, as much as 60 pounds. Even last week Trainer Hirsch Jacobs admitted in the paddock, "She looks lighter than she's ever been, and I'm pretty scared."
Maybe Priceless Gem was scared about something, too, for in her first start since October 16 she set a convoy course out of the gate that could have been disastrous for many in the six-horse field. Breaking from the inside, she quickly bore out and slammed into Ogden Phipps's My Boss Lady, who was thereby forced into Amerala. The latter stumbled to her knees and Manuel Ycaza was flipped off, luckily without damage. Priceless Gem rolled away from her field after that, but her number came down in favor of My Boss Lady. It was a bitter disappointment for Jacobs on his 62nd birthday.
Hirsch Jacobs has always believed in running his horses whenever and wherever he can. He is against excessive training. "You keep training them," he says, "and don't run 'em, and pretty soon you find them going the other way." Priceless Gem, in all likelihood, will tackle the colts in this week's Gotham at a mile. After that Jacobs will decide about taking on the boys at longer distances, including the Kentucky Derby. "We've nominated her for the Derby," he says, "because if you don't nominate, you don't run. The Kentucky Derby trip for our filly would depend on whom we'd be meeting—on what happens down there at Keeneland and Churchill Downs before the Derby. I'd say if anything happens to Graustark, it's an open race. But it's still some time off, and all of us have just got to wait and see. I do know now that Priceless Gem will be better with this race in her, despite her looks."
So, for the information of filly fanciers, will Graustark be better after his latest refresher.