The Charles H. Strub Stakes, for 4-year-olds at a mile and a quarter, is the first $100,000 race on the U.S. calendar. Last week's fifth running at Santa Anita should have been the occasion of Buckpasser's 15th straight victory and official recognition by West Coast doubting Thomases that one of the great horses of our time was in their midst. But instead of parading proudly to the post before a crowd of 52,483 in the foothills of the smog-hidden San Gabriel Mountains, the 1966 Horse of the Year spent the day in pain in stall 20 of barn 37, his right forefoot soaking in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts.
In Buckpasser's absence—and partly because his starting status had been questionable all week—an even dozen runners turned out for the Strub, and it was won by the best horse, Howard Keck's Drin, by one length over Lou Rowan's long shot Quicken Tree. But despite the importance of the event Drin's victory probably will be talked about as "the Strub that Buckpasser missed." Drin's trainer, Charlie Whittingham, who has now won more stakes at Santa Anita than any other trainer in history (31), was the first to concede this. Describing his son of Bagdad, who had managed to win only five of 15 races before the Strub, Whittingham said, "Drin isn't a top horse, but he's the good, honest type that tries all the time. The fast pace and Buckpasser staying back in the barn did it for us."
It was a good description of the race. Fleet Discovery and Model Fool took the early lead while Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. followed Whittingham's instructions to lay off the pace eight or 10 lengths. The quarter was run in 22 ⅗ the half in 45 [4/5] and the first six furlongs in 1:10 ⅗ so Pincay had no trouble wheeling Drin around the field from ninth position up to fourth, and finally to the lead just inside the 16th pole. "He rode a perfect race," said Whittingham, who now appears to have a stacked deck for the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap on Feb. 25. In addition to Drin, Charlie has Keck's Saber Mountain, back in top form after 11 months of inactivity, and Llangollen Farm's Pretense, a recent winner over Native Diver.
On the racetrack or in the barn, Buck-passer made the news in California—as he has been doing since he arrived weeks ago. In his first start of the winter he won the seven-furlong Malibu, beating Drin (who was second) and other West Coast specialists at their own sprinting game. Two weeks later, at a mile and an eighth, he won the San Fernando over Fleet Host and Pretense (Drin was fifth), and picked up new admirers every step of the way. He became the perfect "house" horse, beating everything sent against him by only as much as he had to, thus giving all owners on the grounds some hope that one of their horses actually had a chance to beat him. Of course, none did.
Early last week, however, trouble hit the champion for the second time within a year. Last March, after winning the Flamingo at Hialeah, Buckpasser developed a crack on the inside quarter of his right front foot. A special patch was applied, but the colt was forced to miss three months of racing, including all the Triple Crown events. When he returned to action on June 4 he was good as new and rolled up his winning streak to a near-record 14.
Trainers and veterinarians find it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the reasons for any specific quarter crack, but in Buckpasser's case it is more than likely that an excessively dry or thin wall of the hoof is the weakness that leads to the crack. At any rate, five days before the Strub, Buckpasser suffered a recurrence of the injury, and Trainer Eddie Neloy immediately had a new patch applied by Joe Grasso, who treated the colt a year ago. The purpose, said Neloy, "was to keep the crack from running into the coronary band."
That was on Monday. On Wednesday, Neloy told the press what he had done, and he notified track officials that his Strub starting status depended entirely on whether the inflammation "in the area of the coronary band" subsided in the next few days. That night the point of inflammation abscessed and broke, and on Thursday morning Buckpasser worked a half mile in 48. So pleased were Neloy and Owner Ogden Phipps that they announced Buckpasser was an almost certain starter. "I'm afraid the trouble was that we were trying to do two things at once," said Phipps later. "We were trying to keep him in the race and get him well. As a result, neither worked."
In order to get him well, Buckpasser's wound was closed by the patch. "We tried to do in four days what takes nature three weeks," said Neloy. Barely 24 hours before the race the infection spread to the coronary band. On Saturday morning Buckpasser was standing bravely in his stall like a man with a boil on the bottom of his foot. He was in pain and could not stand properly, and there was absolutely no question that he would have to be scratched. "Thank God this is a temporary thing," said Neloy, "not like a break or even a bow, and we are all confident he will come back from it just the way he did last year."
Be that as it may, whenever a name horse is suddenly withdrawn from a major stakes after weeks of publicity buildup there is criticism from those who feel cheated. "The track wants the full house," they say, "and they tell us the big horse won't run at the last minute." All aspects of this affair were open and aboveboard, however, in keeping with the high standards of both Santa Anita management and Eddie Neloy. At 4 p.m. Friday, Neloy suspected the inflammation was spreading, but he thought Buckpasser had an outside chance to make the race. On the morning of the Strub he planned to take the colt on the track at 7 instead of the usual 8:15, in order, if things got worse, to scratch him before the Santa Anita programs went to press and also to catch every early morning news broadcast. At 7:10 Neloy made up his mind, and the news was on every regular broadcast beginning at 8 a.m.
Buckpasser's future depends entirely on how fast he recovers. "It is conceivable," said Ogden Phipps, "that this could clear up in less than a week. In that case Buckpasser would miss only one or two works and he might even get to the Widener at Hialeah on Feb. 18." Mrs. Phipps takes a different view. "Now he can get some rest, which he needs," she said. "Looking ahead to a long season, this may be a blessing in disguise. We'd still like to get him to England and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on July 15." Neloy isn't making any predictions. All along he has said, "We want to get him to Europe this summer and back for the weight-for-age races in New York this fall." My own hunch is that Buckpasser will leave for Hialeah within a week or so, get his much-needed three, or even four, months' rest and make his next start at Aqueduct sometime in May.
For Neloy, Saturday was all bad news. As he was leaving his motel to determine Buckpasser's condition, he received a long-distance call from Miami. In one of those freak accidents, a colt by Bold Ruler out of Stepping Stone (thus a full brother to Bold Monarch) broke his leg while galloping at Hialeah and had to be destroyed.