Racetrackers do not gush over people they do not know, so sophisticated New Yorkers, long accustomed to seeing the Belmont won by a member of the tightly knit Establishment of Jockey Club members, surprised one another all last week and on Belmont Day with their partisan sentiments. Almost to a man and woman, they were rooting for Mike Ford's Kauai King, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, to complete the ninth Triple Crown sweep by capturing the most demanding 3-year-old race that the U.S. offers. A consensus would read this way: "Everything we've heard about the Fords from Omaha, their trainer and their jockey—and Kauai King—sounds almost too good to be true. They're such nice people that it would really be wonderful if Kauai King won the Belmont."
There were few dissenters from this view. All week long the New York sports pages overflowed with interviews and pictures of Mike Ford, "that nice, handsome young millionaire from Omaha" and his gifted son of Native Dancer, himself a winner of the Belmont 13 years ago for popular (but anti-Establishment) Jockey Club member Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. No horseman in years had been so cooperative as Ford, both with the press and with Kauai King's fans. Ford was acting as his own assistant trainer to Henry Forrest and loving every hectic minute of it.
Newsmen came from all over, including Hawaii. Buck Buckwach, managing editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, who was covering his first horse race anywhere, turned up in a blazer conspicuously labeled with his paper's name, and with a pocketful of mimeographed material aimed at proving to the illiterates on the mainland that Kauai—once and for all—should be pronounced Coweye.
An hour before Kauai King took the track to prove his claim to Thoroughbred immortality, Owner Ford was draped in a colorful lei presented by Miss Leilani Ellis, a pretty young thing representing the Hawaii Visitors' Bureau. Ford smiled, politely for the millionth time, then slumped wearily in his box. "I'm as nervous as a cat," he groaned, wiping a river of sweat away from his brow with an already soaked handkerchief.
June 12, 1966
And then, on this 98th Belmont Stakes Day, the horse race took over. Despite the tidal wave of good wishes for Ford, Forrest and Jockey Don Brumfield—and despite the marvelous racing attributes of their horse, who went into the Belmont with eight wins in 10 starts this year—the overwhelming 3-to-5 favorite was soundly beaten. He led for much of the race, but where it counts most of all he was fourth, beaten nearly eight lengths by Reginald Webster's Amberoid. Buffle, the King Ranch colt, trailed the winner by two and a half lengths and was five lengths in front of Ada L. Rice's Advocator, who had a neck margin over Kauai King in this surprisingly large field of 11.
Amberoid, winner of only one of his seven previous races this year and only three races in 16 lifetime starts before the Belmont, went off as second choice at 5 to 1. It was not really astonishing that he won. One of the least surprised of all was Mike Ford himself. "I've been telling Lucien Laurin [who trains Amberoid for Webster] all along," said Ford later, "that his is the one horse we've been most scared of during these Triple Crown races." In the Kentucky Derby, Amberoid finished seventh, but he was only four lengths behind Kauai King, and at the start of the Derby he went to his knees coming out of the gate, all but spilling Jockey Bill Boland. Two weeks later Amberoid was third in the Preakness. "In both of those races," said Trainer Laurin, "we were too far back in the early running, and unless you stay up closer to a colt like Kauai King you have no chance of picking him up in the stretch."
Before the Belmont little was said about one other asset that Laurin and Amberoid had on their side and that might also be a distinct handicap to the Derby and Preakness winner: Kauai King had never started at Aqueduct, whereas Amberoid's finest race occurred there in April, when he won the Wood Memorial. "No question about it," said Laurin, a Canadian-born ex-jockey. "Amberoid loves Aqueduct. This isn't a cuppy track, and he can take a real good hold of it. The extra distance will suit him perfectly—if he doesn't get too far behind at the start."
To most analysts, Belmont strategy promised to be simple. Cortwright Wetherill's Highest Honors, who cannot be rated, would run out of the gate into the lead. The pace would be his for as far as his speed could carry him. Stupendous and Kauai King would never be too far back. The come-from-behinders, for a mile anyway, would be engaged in a little race of their own to see which, if any, was capable of conserving anything resembling speed for the last quarter of a mile. And that, by and large, is what happened.
But Kauai King, although always a very willing runner, has manifested a fault or two. He can be very rank, particularly at the start of a race. This rank-ness showed in the Derby, but Brumfield was able to settle him down after he went by the stands the first time at Churchill Downs. His worst habit, however, says his jockey, "is trying to lug in. In the Florida Derby this colt really was lugging in. In fact, it was so bad that turning for home he actually brushed the inside fence."
That's how the King ran in the Belmont. He was never so rank as he was when the field got away. He usually runs with his tongue hanging out and his head sharply cocked, and this time his whole length was twisted nearly sideways. Brumfield was all but powerless to keep him under control. Highest Honors opened up four lengths as the field headed up the backstretch, but Kauai King and Stupendous were well within range, while Advocator was a comfortable fourth and Buffle well placed in sixth position. Amberoid, saving ground all the time, was ninth. "I wasn't really worried about any horse," a dejected Brumfield said afterwards, "except my own. He was trying to lug in all the way, and there wasn't anything I could do about it." When Highest Honors collapsed after a mile, Brumfield had Kauai King in front—which is where Brumfield did not want to be so early in a mile-and-a-half race. Seekers of excuses for Kauai King's loss in the Belmont will be quick to point out—that's the wonderful thing about hindsight—that the slow pace (the half in 46[3/5] and six furlongs in 1:12[3/5]) set things up perfectly for a stretch-running colt like Amberoid. It also will be said that Brumfield, instead of fighting the King, should have turned him loose. But when your horse, and everyone else's, is going a mile and a half for the first time, that can be chalked off as a good, honest mistake.
At any rate, as Kauai King took the lead even before the field had reached the five-eighths pole, everyone felt that he was in front too soon and would never last. And everyone was right.
Amberoid, the slow starter, had been ninth and then fifth after a mile, and he rolled around his field in a wonderfully strong run that brought him second to Kauai King at the head of the stretch. He took the lead before they had gone another sixteenth. Instinctively, the crowd knew the race was his at that point, and although Buffle made a courageous run at him over the last furlong it was not nearly enough. Advocator, who has a habit of finishing in the money in many of the big ones, did it again, to get third money of $12,500. Mike Ford, who has won $375,147 with his colt, had paid $6,250 to start Kauai King as a supplementary entry in the Belmont and received fourth money. How much was that? Exactly $6,250. Crestfallen after losing, Brumfield had no real excuse. "We fired—and fell back," he said.
And so, after 18 years without a Triple Crown champion, U.S. racing must wait at least another year. Kauai King, now off to Chicago and a date in the American Derby on August 6th, will be back for a Saratoga meeting with Amberoid in the August 20th Travers, at a mile and a quarter. In that one they may face Ogden Phipps's 1965 2-year-old champion, Buckpasser, who, after suffering a quarter crack in Florida, made a smashing return to action with a fine win in the race before the Belmont. In the meantime one cannot help being very impressed by Amberoid as a classic horse. His sire, Count Amber, is by Ambiorix, by Tourbillon, and his dam, Spencerian, has the blood of Beau Pere and Bimelech in her veins.
At the winner's party after the Belmont, Webster and Laurin were so overjoyed that they could barely speak coherently. "I was so nervous," said Laurin, "that I couldn't even spit properly." Webster described himself as a "68-year-old half-baked financial executive—which means I'm on the board of directors of 30 or so small companies but no very big ones. I don't know how we did it, but we did. At this rate, if I live another week it will be a miracle."
As the champagne flowed, Mike and Ronnie Ford entered the exclusive Trustees Room at Aqueduct. The young man from Omaha was still sweating. He went to Lucien Laurin and congratulated him, spotted Webster and charged over to him. "Mike," said Webster, raising his glass, "I'm glad we won, but let me tell you most sincerely that I really wanted to see you win the Triple Crown. Nearly everyone here today wanted to see your horse win."
Mike Ford wiped his brow once more and made a polite reply. As a gentlemanly outlander trespassing on the playground of The Establishment, he undoubtedly knew that, five days before the Belmont Stakes was run, Reginald N. Webster, the half-baked financial executive, had been elected the 71st member of The Jockey Club. How are you going to beat 'em?