Few horsemen will take issue with the long-standing theory that a flat mile presents the Thoroughbred with his toughest challenge. Like the 400-meter or 440-yard run for humans, the horse's mile is a long, heart-searing sprint in which there is no time for a breather and where pure speed—rather than a mixture of speed and stamina—is all-important.
So, when Max Gluck's Verbatim won the Gotham mile at Aqueduct last week over 10 other 3-year-olds, the victory meant that on his good days Verbatim can be very fast indeed. Aided by an eight-pound pull in the weights from Isidor Bieber's Flamingo winner Wise Exchange, Verbatim carried his 118 pounds (most of which was Jockey John Rotz) around the Big A in a nifty 1:34. It was the fastest Gotham ever and, in fact, was only 2/5 second off a track record shared by such celebrated runners as Bald Eagle, Beau Purple and Carry Back.
Before the Gotham, Verbatim, a son of Speak John and the Never Say Die mare Well Kept, had distinguished himself by winning only five of his previous 20 races. Just a week before the Gotham he was trounced by 11 lengths while finishing sixth behind Dancer's Image in the Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie. However, in between his dismal efforts, he showed a definite proficiency at sprinting. He won the seven-furlong Bahamas and then a division of the seven-furlong Bay Shore by eight lengths in the slop. It is difficult to imagine that Verbatim, with this kind of overall record, will be a serious threat in the Kentucky Derby, or even that he will find this week's mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial at Aqueduct much to his liking. But we are in the midst of one of those 3-year-old seasons that offer a minimum of class and a maximum of strange goings-on.
In the Gotham long-shot Wellpoised took the early lead, followed by What A Pleasure and then Verbatim. Wise Exchange was fourth, much closer up than he usually runs, and none of the others, including the Garden State winner, Bugged, was really in the hunt, either then or later on. Rotz put Verbatim on the front end before the far turn, and on the turn into the stretch Eddie Belmonte drove Wise Exchange through on the inside. It looked as if Wise Exchange would win as he pleased, but at the wire it was still Verbatim by 2½ easy lengths. "My horse didn't tire," said a surprised Belmonte later. "It was just that the winner never stopped. The extra furlong in the Wood will make a difference, wait and see." Even winning Jockey Rotz probably would agree, for while he admitted that Verbatim was only "fairly strong" at the finish, his eyes fairly twinkled when he mentioned the Max Hirsch-trained Au Secours with whom he had won both his 1968 starts. "Au Secours is the colt who is really improving," he said of the bay son of Reneged. "He could be better than any of these."
Au Secours may get a crack at the Wood. If he does, he'll likely run up against both Verbatim and Wise Exchange along with such Gotham also-rans as Conceited, Hand To Hand and maybe even Bugged, who, in finishing eighth, was the major disappointment of the day. But what should make the Wood the best New York 3-year-old race to date is the appearance of two or three invaders. The most important is Dancer's Image, the gray son of Native Dancer and Noor's Image (whose sire Noor beat the great Citation four times), owned by Bostonian Peter Fuller. In the mile-and-a-sixteenth Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie, this exciting runner came from next to last in the 14-horse field and won going away by three lengths. "He hasn't beaten much yet," said Fuller, who was at Aqueduct to case the opposition running in the Gotham, "but I also can't see anything here that frightens us too much." Fuller, a 43-year-old former Harvard intercollegiate boxer, proved he was an optimist a few years ago when he took over Tom McNeeley and actually believed, for a few giddy months, that he had a future heavyweight champion on his hands. Two weeks ago he displayed another facet of his personality when he sent his $62,000 share of the Gold Cup purse to Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr.
Another invader expected to test the locals in the Wood is Iron Ruler, the unlucky loser of the Flamingo. The Maryland-based sprinter Clever Foot may also show up to keep the pace honest. With the running of the Wood, the eastern view of the Derby picture will become considerably less hazy. But it still may be clouded for at least another week in Kentucky, until they run off the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 25th. In that one we should have a corking good race among Forward Pass, the Santa Anita Derby winner Alley Fighter, last year's Futurity winner Captain's Gig and a son of Sword Dancer named Gleaming Sword, who may be the fastest-improving of any of the Derby-bound colts.
This week's $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, another nine-furlong affair, may also provide additional entries at Churchill Downs. Bill Perry's Dewan is skipping the trip to Kentucky, but those most likely to come on are Don B., Prince Pablo and Proper Proof. So two weeks from now we should know a lot more. Then again, we may well be thoroughly misled. How many racegoers even knew Proud Clarion's name three weeks before the 1967 gallop at Louisville?