It is curious how the whole complexion of a racing season can be altered during the less than two minutes it takes to run off a single race. Consider, for example, the current 3-year-olds. Until the middle of last week the banner of the division was to have been carried through the 1968 classics by the massive, sensational-looking Vitriolic, Ogden Phipps's champion of the 1967 2-year-old season. In his Hialeah debut on February 12 Vitriolic looked most impressive, beating Master Bold and Iron Ruler at seven furlongs. Highweight at 126 pounds in the Experimental Free Handicap, Vitriolic, a bay son of Bold Ruler and the Ambiorix mare Sarcastic, stands 16 hands, two inches and weighs, according to Trainer Eddie Neloy, somewhere between 1,150 and 1,200 pounds. "He's a huge colt," says Neloy. "But he was not real smart last year. In fact, he was so dumb that it took him more time than most colts require to learn their lessons. But now, as the distances lengthen and as his constitution develops, I expect him to improve a lot."
Last week the distances for the 3-year-olds did lengthen, but all that Vitriolic got out of the Everglades, in which he went off as the 3-to-5 favorite, were two cuts, a three-length beating and a tarnished reputation. It was hardly his day.
The Everglades is the first stakes of the year at a mile and an eighth. It usually separates a lot of the boys from some of the men, and in at least three instances, when it was won by Citation, Tim Tarn and Carry Back, it signaled the winner of both the Flamingo and the Kentucky Derby.
Right after the start Mike Phipps's Master Bold, another son of Bold Ruler, took off to set a blazing pace. But at the finish it was Calumet Farm's Forward Pass, a 17-to-1 shot, who staged a wild rodeolike stretch run to nip Wise Exchange by a head, as Master Bold hung on bravely to take third. He was beaten only by a neck, but still finished three lengths in front of fourth-place Vitriolic. Behind this quartet came Subpet, Maggie's Pet, Verbatim and the hopelessly outclassed longshot Tough.
Master Bold's pace of :22[3/5] for the quarter, :45[2/5] for the half, 1:09[1/5] for six furlongs and 1:35[2/5] for the mile, over a track that wasn't all that fast, should have set things up perfectly for a late runner with the credentials of Vitriolic. But, in all fairness to the big boy, he did have an excuse or two. As they went into the first turn, Verbatim put him into close quarters, and at this point Tough, who had come out of the inside gate, veered out and almost knocked Vitriolic sideways. In the course of this donnybrook, Vitriolic sustained one cut on the inside of his left front ankle and a deeper cut on the rear of the pastern of the same leg. No one could blame him for not putting forth his best effort following such an encounter.
At the same time this should not detract from a fine, honest performance by Forward Pass, who at the moment seems to have as much right to the claim of a real future as any colt on either coast. He has the look about him, says former Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones, "of a lot of our old big wicked-running Calumet-type horses, and Trainer Henry Forrest has him in superb condition."
Last year Forward Pass was in the money seven times in 10 starts, and in his only stakes victory, the Flash at Saratoga, Vitriolic was third. This season Forward Pass won the Hibiscus by five lengths over Wise Exchange and then was fourth to Verbatim, Subpet and Wise Exchange in the Bahamas. But, says rival Trainer Neloy, "With his form, he could beat any of us at any time. If he doesn't win, he's never far from it, and you've got to respect that kind of runner."
You also have to respect what Jimmy Jones calls "the sort of pedigree that could mean almost anything." Forward Pass's sire is On-And-On, a son of Nasrullah, and his mare is Two Lea, by Bull Lea. "Two Lea was one of the greatest fillies I ever saw in my life," says Jones. "Why, she was smart enough to talk to you. Forward Pass's dam, Princess Turia, is by Heliopolis and, although she was born with a crooked leg and almost didn't get to the races, she ultimately won the Kentucky Oaks, Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan, the Acorn and was barely beaten by Levee in the Coaching Club American Oaks. With this breeding, don't discount anything."
Jockey Don Brumfield is even more excited about Forward Pass. After the Hibiscus a few weeks ago, he noted that during the winter the colt had gradually changed from a boy to a man and was running the way a good horse should instead of being shook up and bothered during a race. Following the Everglades, he added, "Sure, Forward Pass was tired, but he kept on fighting down to the wire like a good horse should. And if anybody is interested in comparisons, I still think Forward Pass has shown me more so far this season than Kauai King did at the same point."
The eight colts in the Everglades and those who will join some of them in this week's Flamingo are not the only Derby-bound horses who will make news in the next two months. Among those who still may get into the main act at Hialeah are Iron Ruler, a hard-driving winner just two days before the Everglades, and Salerno. At Santa Anita, T. V. Commercial made his first start of the winter last week and finished fourth. And California fans have been treated to some noteworthy performances by such runners as Dignitas, Don B., Dewan, Chris, Sharivari, Fiddle Isle, Alley Fighter, Prince Pablo, Royal Fols, Jig Time, Baffle, Page and Able.
Meanwhile, back at the farm—the South Carolina training centers, that is—are two of last fall's best 2-year-olds. Captain's Gig, tied at second high weight in the Experimental at 123 pounds with Iron Ruler and Subpet, stepped on a nail in December, somewhat delaying his training and canceling a trip to Hialeah. But he is doing well now in preparation for a spring campaign at Keeneland before Churchill Downs. Bugged, the winner of the Garden State, is at Camden, S.C. and is also progressing satisfactorily. As undistinguished and mediocre as the 3-year-olds may be as a group, they should provide stirring competition. The absence to date of one truly outstanding colt practically insures this.