With less than three weeks remaining before the Kentucky Derby, what the first of the Triple Crown classics seems to lack in the way of an outstanding favorite it more than makes up for in numbers. Roughly half a dozen colts appear to have the qualifications to whip the others at a mile and a quarter on May 6. This became all the more apparent after two races last week in which the favorites, Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's Damascus (opposite) and Wheatley Stable's Successor, were both narrowly beaten.
The more important of the two Derby-testing races was the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct. Damascus, who had looked so impressive when winning the Bay Shore three weeks earlier, trailed Florida-bred Dr. Fager, owned by Tartan Stable's William L. McKnight, honorary chairman of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corporation. On the same afternoon, down in Kentucky, Lou Rowan's Santa Anita Derby winner Ruken won by a nose over Successor in the seven-furlong Spendthrift at Keeneland. The results of these two races were not half so startling as the revelation by Dr. Fager's trainer, Johnny Nerud, on the day of the Gotham that despite Dr. Fager's well-deserved and impressive victory over the Derby winter book favorite, the colt definitely would be held out of this week's Wood Memorial, and probably would not be entered in the Derby itself. Startling? Perhaps, not really.
Dr. Fager (named for a Boston neurosurgeon who operated on Nerud in 1965) has had the look and ways of a
sprinter. Last year in five starts he won his first four, including victories up to seven furlongs, by such astronomical margins as seven, eight and even 12 lengths. But in the one-mile Champagne, after leading Successor by three lengths at the eighth pole, he tired rapidly and wound up being beaten a length. After that he called it a season and, like Successor—who first went on to win the Garden State and the 2-year-old championship—was duly shipped south to Hialeah.
Dr. Fager's sire and dam, Rough'n Tumble and Aspidistra, are not the sort one would expect to produce a classic winner. And nobody knows this better than Johnny Nerud, who said as long ago as last December, "There's nothing in his pedigree that makes him out to be a stayer. Still, he does have beautiful action, and the smoothest, longest stride I've ever seen on any of my horses. That action may help him get a mile and an eighth, despite his pedigree."
At Hialeah, Dr. Fager developed a bothersome blood infection that kept him out of action all winter. By the time he got to New York last month all was fine with his blood count, but then there was another cause for alarm. "This colt is not the soundest horse around," Johnny explained the day of the Gotham. "More important than his blood infection is a bad right knee. It worries me a lot. Besides that, I've never believed Dr. Fager is a genuine Derby horse. He may not be tough enough."
Dr. Fager demonstrated at least some toughness—and a lot of gameness—in the Gotham. With Manuel Ycaza aboard, he ran practically head and head with Damascus for nearly five-eighths of a mile and then steadily pulled away from the slightly favored son of Sword Dancer.
Ycaza, for one, would like to change Nerud's mind about skipping the Derby, but in any case a definite decision probably will not be made until Johnny sees what develops in this week's Wood at a mile and an eighth. "Mr. McKnight has never told me how or when to run his horses or where to run them," Nerud says. "The Kentucky Derby may mean a lot to the man, and if he says he wants to go—and insists on running in it—obviously, we'll go to Churchill Downs. But if he leaves it up to me, Dr. Fager will stay in New York and point for the Withers on May 13 and then maybe the Preakness on May 20."
Nerud, who came so close to a Derby victory 10 years ago, only to have Willie Shoemaker stand up in the irons aboard Gallant Man, would like to try again at Churchill Downs. And if Dr. Fager won't get him there, he has another Florida-bred—a bay son of Intentionally (also the sire of In Reality)—who might. This one is named Brunch, and so far he has a three-for-three record. "I'm not much on racing 2-year-olds very often, anyway," says Nerud, "and that's why nobody saw anything of Brunch last year. He shin-bucked two or three times and had a few other small ailments. But he's all right now." Indeed he is. In his first start at Hialeah on March 1, Brunch broke his maiden by six lengths. A month later, again at six furlongs, he won by four. And last week, in his first try at a mile, he led all the way under Shoemaker to win again easily. Brunch will find out how good he is when he runs this week in the Wood Memorial, where he will have his first go at class horses.
Shoemaker thinks that Brunch has ability, and another jockey, a four-time Derby winner name of Hartack, is so impressed by Brunch's prospects that he phoned Nerud last week to ask if the mount was open. "I had to tell him that I ride Shoe, Ussery and Ycaza mostly," explained Nerud, "but that I'd keep him in mind if anything developed. I'd always consider Hartack, especially in the Derby. It's one race we know he's not going to get buck fever in, don't we?"
In view of Dr. Fager's known partiality for sprints, it was not really astonishing that he beat Damascus in the Gotham. Shoemaker was not happy about the race even at the start. Breaking on the outside of the nine-horse field over a track that had been muddy in the morning, then turned to good and finally to fast, Shoemaker wanted to move Damascus to the front and then make for the inside, where he would have the best running surface. In order to do so he had to make use of his colt sooner than he had planned. As it developed, a 55-to-1 shot named Royal Malabar had gotten the jump and opened up three lengths on the rest of the field, with Damascus and Dr. Fager not far off and already engaged in their own duel. Damascus gained an inside position up the backstretch, and, as Shoe observed later, "When Dr. Fager came up on my outside I simply had to go with him. In doing so I may have moved a little too soon, but actually it was the horse—and not me—who made up his mind to run. He got beat, but not by much, and as far as I'm concerned he's still as good a Derby horse as there is around. This race should help him, and we'll all know more when he goes an extra eighth of a mile next week in the Wood."
There's no question that the Gotham was an excellent race for both Dr. Fager and Damascus. They completely outclassed the field. The perennial bridesmaid, Reason to Hail, was five lengths back in third place and the Wheatley hope, Bold Monarch, put in another disappointing performance, to finish seventh. Dr. Fager's winning time of 1:35[1/5] was respectable enough, considering the shifting condition of the track. Frank Whiteley, who trains Damascus, was naturally disappointed at losing, but he has never been much of an optimist. "He ran well," observed Whiteley afterward, "but not well enough. I didn't give Shoemaker a single instruction and, because he knows this horse, I never would. Next time around I hope things will be different, because I know Damascus is a good horse."
Because he is still relatively green, it is likely that the Gotham will help Damascus considerably. The next time the chances are that Shoemaker will not have to hurry his mount excessively during the early part of the race, giving him more of a finishing kick. On the other hand, in looking only as far ahead as the Wood, who is to say that any horse will improve in one week's time after a race that was as hard-fought and taxing as last week's Gotham?
Successor, bred and raised at nearby Claiborne Farm, was the natural odds-on, 7-to-10 favorite in the Spendthrift at Keeneland, despite his fourth-place finish in the Swift at Aqueduct on March 13. Driven out of New York by bad weather and the possibility of an extended horse owners' boycott, Successor beelined to Kentucky for his final Derby preparations. And it may have been the right move, for he now has 12 days between his good Spendthrift effort and the April 27 Blue Grass Stakes at a mile and an eighth. At his best it is hard to imagine Successor losing to anyone in his age group at seven furlongs, and it could be that he has not yet regained his best 1966 form. This should not, however, detract one iota from Ruken's victory in his first start since he won the Santa Anita Derby six weeks ago. In Kentucky, where it is fashionable to put the knock on California horses, veteran horsemen had to admit that Ruken is probably a lot better than many of them had previously thought. Ruken, of course, had more seasoning than Successor but he also demonstrated in the Spendthrift—as he often has done before—that he is a Derby type of runner. Coming from off the pace and circling his field with long, sweeping strides, he made up an enormous amount of ground on the stretch turn, and after passing Calumet's leading Balouf he had opened up two lengths at the eighth pole. Only then did Successor, who had been running third, put in his own quick bid—which fell short by a nose. Successor will now stay on at Keeneland for the Blue Grass and a possible meeting with such horses as Tumble Wind, Diplomat Way, Grand Premiere and Ask The Fare. Ruken will take a different course to the Derby. He will run next in the Stepping Stone, another seven-furlong race, on Churchill Downs' opening day, April 29. "I've had a lot of luck," says Ruken's trainer, Clyde Turk, "running horses in distance races off sprints."
With these developments at Aqueduct and Keeneland last week, there might be a tendency to forget some of the winter stars—who may or may not still be stars. Reflected Glory, for example, the Flamingo winner and Florida Derby disappointment, had such a sore left shin last week that he had to miss the Gotham, and it is questionable if he will make it back in time for the Wood. "He was that way after the Flamingo, however," says Trainer Hirsch Jacobs, "but came out of it O.K. His shins weren't an excuse in the Florida Derby, in which he finished seventh. In that one the boy, Jorge Velasquez, just gave him a bad ride. Instead of coming from way back, which is the way this colt likes to run, he had him up there too close too soon. Now he's got real shin trouble, and there's no way of knowing if he'll get over it in time for the Wood or not. It's a day-today thing with him."
In Reality, the Florida Derby winner, is another question mark. Trainer Sunshine Calvert, who has never been convinced that In Reality is a classic horse, has been surprisingly noncommittal about his intentions. He shipped In Reality to New Jersey's Garden State this week—a strange way of getting from Miami to Louisville—and won't make a decision about the Derby until the last possible moment, until he sees what happens to the New York horses in the Wood and to a few others in this week's Blue Grass prep, the Forerunner at Keeneland.
Lurking behind all this in-and-out bunch is a second division, made up of such types as Gentleman James, Proviso, Lightning Orphan, Cool Reception and Dawn Glory. So if anyone says the 1967 Derby is an absolute lock for any one colt he should have his head examined. And if an operation is needed one could do worse than get in touch with Dr. Charles Fager in Boston. Johnny Nerud knows the number.