Until 4:32, Louisville time, last Saturday afternoon, the 92nd Kentucky Derby seemed likely to survive in the records as "the consolation Derby." Horsemen from everywhere, who converge on Churchill Downs more out of habit than anything else, complained all week that the 15 starters represented evenly matched but uninspiring survivors of a once-brilliant crop of 3-year-olds. The defection of Graustark a week before Derby Day left a gloom over all racing fans, and as they poured into the Downs on a beautiful, warm and fast-track day, the general attitude was, "We'll see a horse race and have a good time, but what is it really going to mean?"
Two minutes and two seconds after the gates sprang open at the top of the long and demanding stretch, the enormous crowd had something to go home and talk about. Nearly 100,000 watched Mike Ford's slightly favored Kauai King lead every step of the way in the mile-and-a-quarter classic (see cover). At one time he was three lengths ahead on the backstretch, and he held off a multiple threat in the stretch to win by half a length over Ada Rice's Advocator. It was, as most Derbies have been that were condemned in advance, a wonderfully exciting race, won by the best horse.
Kauai King streaked under the wire as the first start-to-finish leader since Jet Pilot beat Phalanx a head in 1947; only 17 others have won that way. And he drew from the previously blasé crowd a deserving thunder of applause. Gradually, people discovered that they were not applauding the famous silks of some stable accustomed to Derby contention, but instead a beautifully proportioned brown colt (ridden by a jockey in unfamiliar colors) who had just avenged his sire's defeat in this same race. Thirteen years ago Native Dancer was beaten—the only time in 22 starts—by Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby.
The Derby cheers, too, were for three men, none of whom had ever before participated in the Derby but all of whom were bound by an almost fanatical devotion to their game Native Dancer colt.
The three are Mike Ford, Henry Forrest and Don Brumfield, owner, trainer and jockey, respectively, of Kauai King. Ford, a 41-year-old Omaha industrialist who has been racing for six years and who has spent some $800,000 in that time to build up a representative stable, paid $42,000 for Kauai King at the Saratoga yearling sales. Tall, handsome Mike Ford did one very smart thing in his comparatively young racing career when he joined forces with Trainer Henry Forrest, now 58 and a 40-year veteran of the sport. Forrest, in turn, did himself no harm by recognizing the extraordinary skills of an unheralded yet experienced rider like Brumfield.
This trio tackled the 1966 Kentucky Derby as a well-knit team, and had fun along the way. Among horsemen, Forrest is one of the most respected and well-liked trainers in the country. As a jockey, Brumfield is one of the most underrated. He brought to the Derby team two valuable assets. "No one," said a critic on Derby Day, "is better when it comes to rating a horse on the lead. Secondly, he has ridden more than 1,000 races at Churchill Downs, and don't think that won't help him in this kind of Derby." (The day before, Brumfield had ridden Native Street, a Native Dancer filly, to a head victory in the 92nd renewal of the Kentucky Oaks, the other major race on Churchill Downs' stakes program.)
Mike Ford brought contagious enthusiasm that made him popular both at Louisville parties and around Kauai King's stall in barn 34. He is so interested in learning everything there is to know about the operation of his stable that fellow horsemen rib Forrest about his "assistant trainer." And, whereas Forrest never in his life went looking for a press conference, Ford was eager to provide Derby newsmen with adequate answers to any and all questions. When one reporter asked Forrest if Ford would mind being interviewed, Henry snapped back, "Mind? Shucks, man, Mike will hunt you up and buy you dinner."
Still, the Kauai King team was deadly serious about its business. Brumfield, a Nicholasville, Ky. boy who has been riding since he was 11 and has been a jockey for the past 12 of his 27 years, was out daily with the King. Forrest had brought the colt along through the winter and spring campaigns with such good timing that Kauai King had won six of his eight races this year. His only poor race was the Florida Derby, when Brumfield probably was guilty of an indecisive ride that led to a fifth-place finish. But the important thing, Forrest and Ford agreed as they came to Kentucky fresh from an easy victory at Bowie over Stupendous, was that "Kauai King has come along step by step. We know we have to have a seasoned horse, and Kauai King will be ready May 7."
So right were they—so ready was Native Dancer's son—that none of the others in the classic ever really had a chance. This was partly by design, partly through plain racing luck. "We didn't plan to be on the lead out of the gate," said Ford, "but we didn't discount the possibility, either. We thought Quinta and Dominar would set the pace." Brumfield agreed, as the victorious team sipped champagne at the winners' party later. But he added, "We may not have expected to be in front, but we knew there was a 90% chance that we would be."
That chance, of course, came at the instant of the break, when Brumfield got the King away perfectly from the 12th stall. Rushing down the middle of the track on his way to a first quarter in 22 4/5, Don cleared his field neatly before cutting to the rail and taking a comfortable lead over Quinta into the first turn. Dominar, as expected, was next in line (also, as expected, he stopped on the backstretch and finished last). With a three-length lead over Quinta after a half mile in 46 1/5, Brumfield was sitting pretty and now tried to give his colt a little breather before going into the far turn. "I didn't think much about how far I was leading," he said, "except that one thing I know is if you're in front, the others have got to cover the ground you've been over."
During this first part of the race the others did not pose any threat. Abe's Hope, with Bill Shoemaker aboard, had, as Shoe put it afterward, "real good luck into the first turn, where we were well back, about 10th, but not too far out of it and in no traffic." Stupendous moved gradually from ninth to sixth on the backstretch and seemed in an ideal spot from which to launch a challenge. Quinta had the look of a colt chasing in vain (he eventually finished 12th), and Amberoid, who as usual trailed everyone for at least the first half mile, began his run in the far turn. Until then the only surprise was that Advocator, a 17-to-1 shot, who had been well-placed all the way, was becoming more and more of a menace. At the same time the California hopefuls, Fleet Shoe and Tragniew, were ready to be counted out.
When Kauai King covered the mile in 1:35 3/5 the real excitement started, for horses do not run this fast a mile in the Kentucky Derby and hang on to win, if better horses are behind them. And now, as the large field came out of the far turn, a number of colts tried to prove that they were better. John Sellers drove Advocator to within a length of the leader and later said, "I thought I had him at the quarter pole. It was a question of whether Don's horse or mine could last. The money was all there for the getting, but we couldn't get."
While Advocator was giving the King his first serious test of the afternoon, Stupendous and Blue Skyer began to challenge at the head of the stretch. The latter hung on, beaten only a nose for place money. But Stupendous, who was second just a furlong from home, suddenly revealed a Bold Ruler trait. "I think he must have said to himself," Braulio Baeza commented in the jocks' room, "that the last eighth was too much for him." Stupendous finished a dead-tired fourth. Shoemaker, meanwhile, got into Abe's Hope on the turn and wheeled around the field in a sensational run that ended as abruptly as it began. Just four and a half lengths behind Kauai King—and with nothing but open space in front of him as he came to the head of the stretch—Abe's Hope hung badly and finished fifth, a neck behind Stupendous and a length in front of Rehabilitate. (The latter is definitely a colt to watch in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes on June 4.) Amberoid, the fourth choice, was a disappointing seventh, while strung out behind him, in order, were Fleet Shoe, Exhibitionist, Sky Guy, Williams-ton Kid, Quinta, Tragniew, Beau Sub and Dominar.
Despite the challenges thrown at Kauai King from the quarter pole home, it never really looked as if he would be beaten. Brumfield was busy with the stick through the stretch, and as he and the King pounded the last and crucial furlong he said to himself, "Help me, Lord, because I need you now." When he stood up in his irons after the finish, he recalled, "I didn't cry, but I just got cold chills up my back. There were all these "people, and so many of them were rooting for me. It's a wonderful feeling. I've been waiting 12 years for this kind of a day, and now I'm the happiest hillbilly hardboot you have ever seen."
Kauai King's Derby will not go down as one of the greatest, although-it never lacked for genuine excitement. It was a good-quality race until the last quarter. When you consider that that quarter was run in a slow 26 2/5 (final time, 2:02) and still not one of the 14 others could catch the leader, you must conclude that the trailers were indeed a bunch of short horses.
Still, Kauai King earned his victory, and Brumfield gave him a superb ride. Thirteen years ago the Derby crowd stood in almost silent disbelief as their gray hero, Native Dancer, failed by a head to overhaul Dark Star. Since that time thousands of the Dancer's fans have waited for one of his sons to accomplish what he could not. Last year, his only other Derby starter, Native Charger, was fourth. For some reason, most of Native Dancer's success at stud has come in Europe rather than in this country. Across the Atlantic are his son Dan Cupid, himself the sire of the 1965 Arc de Triomphe winner, Sea Bird, and the fine stakes winner Hula Dancer.
If horses could talk, Kauai King might have rung up Native Dancer on Saturday night at Alfred Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, Md. and said the same thing that Don Brumfield said to Trainer Henry Forrest before dismounting from Kauai King.
Forrest, who has been looking for a day like this for twoscore years, trudged out to meet his horse and rider as they came triumphantly back to the winner's circle. In his arms Forrest carried his 3½-year-old son, Henry Bryant Forrest, named for his close friend, Coach Bear Bryant of Alabama. Don Brumfield looked down at his friend and boss and said, "Thank you, Papa."