"Churchill Downs is like a county fair back home," says Oklahoma-born Paul Davis. "Only it's more supercharged. Racing at Saratoga is elegant, almost exclusive. At Churchill Downs there's much more happening. It's like a circus." Davis, one of today's rising young painters, went to Louisville for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last May to record the impressions that appear on the following pages. "A week before the Derby," he recalls, "people start pouring into the city from all over the country—movie stars, politicians, college students, cowboys, gamblers. There's one guy I seem to see at every track I've been to—in a cowboy hat and a big tie (below). He's one of a hard-core group you find at Aqueduct, Santa Anita, anywhere. They're serious gamblers, horse gamblers. They don't bet on anything else. Other people in Louisville can't seem to stop gambling. At every party there are card games or other things to bet on. That's one of the fascinating aspects of the week, all the gambling. You don't have to join in to enjoy it, but it's more fun if you do. At the track, there are always lots of girls around, just standing there, self-conscious, waiting to be seen, like this one (opposite). She said she was a movie starlet, and she was disappointed that nobody recognized her. Outside the jockeys' room there are always beautiful girls standing around, too. Beautiful and blonde and always tall. The reason for the dark colors I've used is that when you come in out of the bright sun to the betting windows under the grandstand it is dark. Actually, I can't say why I use certain colors. It's just a feeling. I can't explain it. There's no time to sketch all this, of course. I work with a camera and color film. That way I can put myself where I want to be. Later I organize the pictures and compose the ideas for the paintings. Not right away—I like to let the ideas sift through. I painted the big scene (pages 38 and 39) in the form of a scroll, trying to show how at the same time that you're looking at the picture you're rolling it up—that's how fast the Derby is over with. All week long it's been building up, and then it's all over in two minutes. On Derby Day people start arriving in early morning. Soon most of them are so crowded together they can't even see the track, and only a few can tell which horse wins. It's an astounding sight. Before the Derby the band plays My Old Ken-lucky Home and everybody stands up and sings. Then they all rush back to place a few more bets. Two minutes and it's all over. The end of the rainbow (page 40) for some. The happy ending."
A TIME FOR LOOKING BACK
When members of the patient Churchill Downs staff get around to picking up the bodies and sweeping up the shattered mint-julep tumblers this Saturday evening, the chances are that they will pause and wearily note, "Well, that was Damascus' Derby." On his record, Damascus will certainly go to the post as the favorite. And when he steps out on the Downs strip under colors, his presence will evoke a sweep of memories among knowing spectators.
It was 37 years ago that Belair Stud's red-dotted white silks first appeared on Derby Day. Before the day was over, Jockey Earle Sande had won the 56th Kentucky Derby on Gallant Fox, who went on to triumph in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Seven more times Belair was represented in the Derby, and twice more Belair won—with Omaha in 1935 and Johnstown in 1939.
May 7, 1967
Twelve years ago this week, the colors appeared in one of the most memorable of all Derbies. Back for a last try for the William Woodward family came venerable old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, and with him Jockey Eddie Arcaro, aboard the hero of the East, temperamental but talented Nashua. Sunny Jim and Arcaro figured that the horse they had to beat was Summer Tan. It was not until the turn for home—with Nashua running second and Summer Tan third—that they and everyone else realized that the leader, an underrated chestnut from California with the incongruous name of Swaps, was in front to stay. Arcaro and Mr. Fitz, masters of their respective trades, had been fairly whipped by an upcoming group of horsemen—Jockey Bill Shoemaker and the owner-trainer team of cowboys Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney.
Before their racing careers ended, Nashua and Swaps did more to popularize racing in the U.S. than any other Thoroughbreds since Native Dancer. After their famous match race, which was won by Nashua, Sunny Jim felt—he did so to his dying day—that he, Arcaro and Nashua had vindicated the Belair colors by beating the upstart Westerners.
This week, with no Ellsworth horse in the Derby and with Arcaro a member of the CBS television team, the white-and-red-dot silks will, ironically, be worn by Shoemaker, who will be trying to win his fourth Derby with Damascus. Gone are both William Woodwards, senior and junior. With taciturn, coolly professional Frank Whiteley training in the place of Mr. Fitz, the Belair silks now run in the name of the elder Woodward's daughter, Edith Bancroft, whose husband Tom is a New York textile-manufacturing executive. Mrs. Bancroft has been a lover of horses all her life, but she will be obliged to watch this Derby on television (with the aid of Eddie Arcaro) because of illness.
There are other ironies in this 93rd Derby. For example, Damascus' sire is Sword Dancer; when Shoemaker won his second Derby in 1959 he was on Tomy Lee, who beat Sword Dancer by a nose. The blood of Nashua is here, too—in his son, Diplomat Way, who won last week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Finally, just as Nashua carried the hopes of the East against Swaps, Damascus faces another powerful western invader in Ruken. He gave indications of brilliance at Santa Anita and has acquired an army of new fans since moving to Kentucky and winning the Spendthrift. Ruken is owned by Pasadena Horseman Lou Rowan (except for a quarter share that belongs to Minneapolis Investment Banker Wheelock Whitney), trained by Clyde Turk and ridden by Fernando Alvarez.
No horse is a sure Derby bet, but Damascus' finishing power in the Wood Memorial stands out as the best example of late running seen this spring. That is what is required in the Derby, more than in any of the mile-and-an-eighth tests that precede this classic. Diplomat Way looked good enough in winning the Blue Grass, but he has been inconsistent for most of his career. At Keeneland he and Jockey John Sellers had the lead to themselves, and they set a slow pace in order to assure a respectable finish. But in the Derby they are not going to control the pace. Some horse is surely going to run a lightning three quarters, and it is not likely that Diplomat Way will enjoy extending himself after that. Like his sire, Nashua, this colt can be guilty of using his head too much. Second to Diplomat Way in the Blue Grass was John Galbreath's Proud Clarion, who may be the sleeper of the whole lot. Victory would be the sweetest satisfaction for his trainer, Loyd (Boo) Gentry, after Boo's misfortunes with Graustark a year ago. Third was Gentleman James, who might be one of those who runs late but not well enough. Fourth-finishing Successor had an excuse—a poor start. But how many sons of Bold Ruler, for all the terror they inspire in sprints, relish 10 furlongs?
In last week's Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs, Ruken was clearly the class, coming from fourth in the field of six to win, pulling away, by two and a half lengths. After this seven-furlong prep he continued on to a mile and an eighth in 1:51 1/5. It was a good show. Dr. Isby closed well to be second, while Calumet Farm's Balouf took third. Others who are likely to get to the Derby post this week include Cool Reception, Ask The Fare, Dawn Glory, Lightning Orphan, Field Master and Patrice Jacobs' Reason to Hail. Only the last has a chance against Damascus or Ruken.
Picking Derby winners may be a risky business, but it is part of the Derby tradition. Omens and hunches are always in the air. Last week, for example, on his first day at Churchill Downs since he came from California in 1958 to watch Silky Sullivan, Lou Rowan was all smiles as he said, "Well, I've got my omen. On the way here my plane stopped at Nashville, and that's the name of Ruken's sire." If that's the way Lou Rowan wants to play, on my first day in Kentucky this year the car-rental people turned over a new car to me. It didn't have any dots, but it was red and white.