'I FIGURED IT WAS MY YEAR. I HAD A HUNCH'
Overtones of unpredictability began to set the mood of the Kentucky Derby weeks before the 93rd running last Saturday. On Derby Day, as mist and rain swept in to chill and dampen the somewhat nervous throng, the atmosphere was one of tingly apprehension instead of traditional festivity.
At first there had been considerable doubt about which horses would even get to Churchill Downs, after an unusual run of bad spring racing weather and untimely injuries and illnesses in the camps of many of the winter favorites. Then came the threat of riot and disruption of the race by civil rights organizations engaged in an all-out campaign to force open-housing legislation in the city of Louisville. Early in the week five youths staged a mild preview of what might happen on Saturday. They ran out on the track in front of a field of horses. When they saw that none of the jockeys were making any effort to pull up or avoid hitting them, they climbed the infield fence and got away just in time to avoid serious accidents. On Derby Day the Rev. Martin Luther King called a press conference at the Episcopal Church of Our Merciful Saviour and urged that the demonstrations be called off. "We are not interested in creating a riot," he said.
Still, the threat of trouble hung in the air, and state, city and Churchill Downs officials decided not to take chances. A security force of about 2,500 was marshaled, including National Guardsmen armed with three-foot riot sticks, dozens of extra state and city police and racetrack guards. They took un positions on and off the track. The searching eyes of the law seemed to be everywhere, even at the clubhouse gate, where the wife of a member of the Kentucky State Racing Commission was looked over by an officer on the bomb detail. No, she assured him as he zeroed in on her foil-wrapped picnic box, it only contained fried chicken and beaten-biscuit ham sandwiches. All the uniforms and precautions could not help but transform the gayest occasion in American racing into something less cheery.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said for the race itself. An upset is more than possible whenever 14 horses go a mile and a quarter for the first time in their young careers and the race is prejudged to be a contest among just three of them. But seldom has there been a more dramatic upset than the one that occurred at Louisville. Mr. and Mrs. John W. Galbreath's second-string colt, Proud Clarion, roared around the leaders on the turn for home to win by a length over another outsider named Barbs Delight. The longest-priced winner since Gallahadion upset odds-on favorite Bimelech in 1940, Proud Clarion came bursting home as a 30-to-1 shot ($62.20), totally demolishing the favored Damascus, who was third; Successor, who was sixth; and the pride of California, Ruken, who staggered home eighth.
It was a Derby loaded with dramatics, and a sentimentally popular one for those racing fans who have followed the fortunes and misfortunes of the Gal-breaths' Darby Dan Farm and its trainer, Loyd (Boo) Gentry. It was popular, too, among the thousands who for years have regarded 31-year-old Oklahoma-born Jockey Bobby Ussery as one of the premier riders in the country. Ussery was to have had the Derby mount on Hirsch Jacobs' winter star, Reflected Glory, who missed the whole show because of a sore shin. Normally Darby Dan's fawn-and-brown silks are worn by Braulio Baeza, who has been Galbreath's contract rider for three years. But, six days before this Derby, Baeza's contract expired, and by mutual consent it was not renewed. "We had no hard feelings about it," said Gal-breath. "Quite the contrary. We both knew that Darby Dan wasn't running outstanding stock and that Braulio was having his pick of all those good Phipps horses. So it was only natural that he should want to free-lance. I wished him nothing but the best of luck and figured he had a whale of a shot at this Derby on the Phippses' Successor."
Three days later neither Galbreath nor Gentry had settled on a jockey for Proud Clarion, a son of the sensational young stallion Hail to Reason. Then Galbreath suddenly remembered something and phoned his trainer. "Loyd," he said, "how about getting Ussery?" On Thursday morning the arrangements were completed, and on Derby Day John Galbreath told Bobby Ussery what it was that he had remembered: "If you ride Proud Clarion like you rode Bramalea for me to beat Cicada in the Coaching Club Oaks of 1962, I think you've got a chance in this Derby."
Ussery, who had never so much as galloped Proud Clarion before, figured that he had a Derby coming to him anyway. "I might have won it with Bally Ache in 1960, but we finished second," he said. "Then I thought I'd win it this year with Reflected Glory. When that didn't work out, I still figured—just a hunch, I guess—that it was my year, no matter what horse I rode. I had a real hunch."
Hunch or no hunch, Bobby Ussery's ride at Churchill Downs last week was one of the best in Derby history. Proud Clarion had never won a stakes race—he had won only three of eight lifetime starts—and he still must prove that he is the champion of the 3-year-old division. But no future results can detract from the magnificent performance of this young man and his young horse last week. It was a case of jockey and colt triumphantly combining their individual talents to maximum effect.
Derby Week is a hectic time, especially for trainers, who are expected to spend their mornings answering the prodding questions of turf writers and their evenings feasting on the banquet circuit. Some enjoy the routine, while others find it difficult to open their lives to a small army of sleepy-eyed guys with notebooks who wander casually from barn to barn competing with another small army of bright-blazered troops representing the TV industry. Among those who do not seem to be bothered by the intrusion of the working press are Eddie Neloy, Hirsch Jacobs, Clyde Turk and Frank Childs. Neloy could be a good straight man for Joe E. Lewis if he felt like trying it, and everything about Successor was available for the asking. For instance, Eddie said flatly, "If the Blue Grass Stakes [in which Successor was fourth] had been run in New York instead of at Keeneland we wouldn't have bothered to ship down to the Derby at all. But here we are in Kentucky, so we'll run."
Hirsch Jacobs and his son John spoke just as frankly about the chances of their California Derby winner Reason to Hail. So did Clyde Turk about the Santa Anita Derby winner, Ruken; Johnny Meaux about the Blue Grass Stakes winner, Diplomat Way; and Frank Childs about Dr. Isby. By contrast, there was a second group of trainers who were either not visited at all by the writers or preferred solitude. Frank Whiteley would take Damascus to the track at 5 a.m. to avoid interviews. He has nothing against the press, but he just doesn't want to be bothered. Boo Gentry, on the other hand, is a young man who has lived through a painfully trying year. He has personal dislikes among the racing reporters and isn't in the least hesitant about expressing himself on the subject of what the press thinks it knows.
A year ago Boo nearly came to the Derby with Galbreath's fine colt, Graustark, but the horse was injured running in the Blue Grass Stakes on a sloppy track and never raced again. Criticized in some quarters for his training methods as well as for having started Graustark in the mud, Gentry has had little to do with many reporters during the past year. And with Darby Dan's racing fortunes hardly rivaling those of the Phippses, few writers gave Boo Gentry much thought, either. During Derby Week, Gentry had Proud Clarion in the same barn with Ruken. Ruken got the attention, and that was fine with Gentry. Even when he got around to talking about Proud Clarion it usually was not with too much enthusiasm. "My best colt this year," he said, "is Graustark's half brother, Cup Race. He can do anything Proud Clarion can do, and twice as well. This colt is our second string, and yet I must admit he's improving every day. Cup Race bucked his shins at Hialeah and won't race until Chicago, then maybe Saratoga. In the meantime we'll have to go it alone with Proud Clarion."
When Galbreath arrived in Louisville and got a look at Proud Clarion, a well-built bay, he exclaimed with delight, "This colt has changed more in 60 days than any horse I have owned in more than 30 years around the racetrack. He used to be nervous and did a lot of sweating. Then suddenly he started eating and developing. Now he looks like a race horse, and he's starting to run like one, too."
That was true enough. As an 8-to-1 shot in the Blue Grass, his first start in a stakes, Proud Clarion was second to Diplomat Way. It was the kind of improvement that one looks for in a colt who must put his very best foot forward in only nine days. Walking to the paddock at Churchill Downs, in a rain that steadily increased throughout the murky afternoon, Galbreath said he thought Proud Clarion should improve even more, and that a top effort might put him in the money. "But on form," he added, "you've got to go along with Damascus. His record of six wins in eight starts is impressive, and he is the colt we all have to beat." Galbreath glanced up at "Chateaugay" among the names of winners painted on the clubhouse wall. Chateaugay had won for Darby Dan in 1963 at 9-to-1 odds. "What makes the Kentucky Derby the great race that it is," he concluded, "is the tremendous uncertainty about which horses can go the mile and a quarter. This, believe me, is no place for a faint heart."
There was many a faint heart in the stands a few minutes later as Proud Clarion zipped off the third fastest Derby ever (2:00[3/5]) and was drawing away at the finish the way a winner should. At the start, however, it hardly looked as though Proud Clarion and Bobby Ussery would be in the hunt. Barbs Delight, winner of the one-mile Derby Trial just four days before and a son of Bagdad who had yet to lose at Churchill Downs, burst to the front immediately. There was nothing surprising about that, for that is the way this bay likes to run over his favorite track. The two other acknowledged speed horses in the Derby, Dawn Glory and Diplomat Way, took up the pursuit, about as expected. Behind them, in ideal position, were Bill Shoemaker and Damascus. Going by the stands the first time, Ussery had Proud Clarion in ninth place, but free of traffic and saving ground on the inside. Fernando Alvarez had taken back on Ruken after coming out of the inside stall of the starting gate and had only a field horse, Second Encounter, beaten as they charged into the clubhouse turn. Ruken, in fact, never did do much running. Possibly the combination of staying on the rail, where the going was deeper, and taking a heavy load of dirt in the face discouraged him from anything close to his best previous efforts. All Alvarez said later was that Ruken could not seem to take hold of the track.
Up the long backstretch, as the crowd stood in the rain and yelled at a spectacle few could see clearly, it was still Barbs Delight, Dawn Glory, Diplomat Way and Damascus, running their own little race. One had the distinct impression that as this quartet left the half-mile pole Shoemaker had the three leaders measured perfectly and would have them at his mercy whenever he chose to end the suspense. "I was thinking the same thing," said Shoe afterward.
But Bobby Ussery, now alone in eighth place, was doing some thinking, too. "I knew," he said, "that if I was going anywhere I couldn't stay back there on the inside forever. So I started weaving my way up in order to be on the outside on the far turn. Before we got to the half-mile pole Reason to Hail, who was just ahead of me, came out a little. When he did, I moved inside of him. Then I drove up between Lightning Orphan and Field Master, and by the time we got to the five-sixteenths pole, halfway around the far turn, I made the outside and was just starting to run."
Dawn Glory and Diplomat Way had had enough by now. After tracking Barbs Delight through fractions of 22⅕ 46[3/5] and 1:10[4/5] for six furlongs, on the way to a mile in 1:36, both were ready for honorable retirement. Just as ready was Shoemaker—ready to move up for the kill, to put away Barbs Delight and run down the long stretch for his fourth Kentucky Derby victory. Shoe and Damascus drove, and the crowd roared as it hadn't yet on this dismal day. The noise came not only because Shoemaker and Damascus had signaled their move but because Barbs Delight was not about to quit. And at the same moment, as Damascus was struggling to get by the courageous pacemaker, there were Ussery and Proud Clarion on the far outside, flying like the wind in one magnificent sweeping charge that carried them nearly to the center of the track.
It soon became apparent that Damascus was no longer the challenger and that if Barbs Delight was not going to win this Derby from wire to wire Proud Clarion would have to stop him. These two battled down the stretch, Barbs Delight on the inside and Proud Clarion out where the going was better. (The track was "fast," although wet and a little loose on top.) At the eighth pole Barbs Delight was still a head in front but, Ussery said later, "I knew I had him then." Steadily Proud Clarion pulled away to win by a length.
Barbs Delight—a Maryland-bred who once was sold for $2,000 and is now owned by Lexingtonians Guy Huguelet Jr., Gene Spalding and Trainer Hal Steele Jr.—hung on to be second by a length and a quarter over Damascus, who had the same margin over fourth-place Reason to Hail. Behind them came Ask The Fare, Successor, Gentleman James, Ruken, Diplomat Way, Second Encounter, Dawn Glory, Dr. Isby, Field Master and Lightning Orphan. None had any excuse, although Jockey Kenny Knapp, on Barbs Delight, insisted his horse was beaten not because he was tiring but because he had started to "watch the crowd in the stretch. He got his mind off running." Damascus had a perfect opportunity and couldn't take it. Reason to Hail cannot do the job, in this company, that his ailing stablemate, Reflected Glory, might have done. And Successor is not the horse he was a year ago.
Proud Clarion may well develop into a top colt. Hail to Reason is an established sire, and the Derby winner's dam, Breath O'Morn, is a daughter of Djeddah and Darby Dunedin, who in turn is a daughter of Blenheim II, sire of Derby winners Jet Pilot and Whirlaway. Blenheim II also sired the dams of three Derby winners, Ponder, Hill Gail and Kauai King. Next week many of the Derby horses will challenge Proud Clarion in the Preakness. After that and the June 3 Belmont Stakes, Proud Clarion's ranking should be clearly established.
Just a few months ago Darby Dan's own estimate of that ranking was considerably different. After a bad race at Hialeah, Proud Clarion had almost been sold; he would have been, except that the prospective buyer backed out. And on Derby morning the trainer was not even sure the colt would start. "He had worked poorly on an off track," said Boo Gentry. "If the rain had begun earlier than it did, we probably would have scratched him."