Barely a month ago the management of Churchill Downs, where the 94th Kentucky Derby will be run this Saturday, was facing a serious danger of overpopulation. Aside from the standard headache brought on by excessive demands for reserved seats, there arose the problem of how to accommodate an expected record number of starters in the race. Two starting gates abreast could handle 26 horses, and the way candidates kept popping up in New York. Florida, California, Maryland and finally in Kentucky itself, it seemed that even this number might be exceeded. If so, it was suggested, why not do away with the gates and start them all from a barrier the way it used to be done?
Luckily, this won't be necessary. Not only is the 1928 record of 22 starters safe, but the 1968 field will almost surely fit comfortably into one 14-stall gate. Furthermore, one outstanding favorite has at last emerged. He is Calumet Farm's Forward Pass. Only a colt with the courage and stamina to beat him has a chance to take home the cash and the roses.
In the two months preceding this Derby at least a dozen among a near-record 191 nominees appeared qualified to succeed. Then, because they couldn't win often enough, because of untimely injuries or even because of the prudence of a few wise owners, many suddenly became noncandidates. Among those whose owners chose not to run were last year's 2-year-old champion Vitriolic, the Santa Anita star Dewan, the Flamingo winner Wise Exchange and the Garden State winner Bugged. A lot of riffraff also dropped by the wayside in recent weeks, but the prospect was for one of the dullest Derbies in years, contested by horses of little or no class.
But last Thursday at Kentucky's Keeneland track Forward Pass changed all this with one of the finest pre-Derby races in many a season as he won the Blue Grass in near track-record time of 1:47[4/5]. In addition, though a majority of horsemen believe Forward Pass has a virtual lock on the race, almost as many concede a pretty good chance to his chief rival, Peter Fuller's Wood Memorial winner Dancer's Image. Finally, Captain's Gig, whose troublesome legs had made him a questionable Derby starter, won his third race in a row on Saturday. His admirers are now persuading themselves that this unseasoned sprinter is capable of carrying his speed for a mile and a quarter, though he has never raced beyond one mile.
All of this adds up to a well-fought Derby, with Forward Pass the horse to beat. This big bay, a powerful 16 hands and 2 inches, has three factors in his favor: impeccable breeding, first-rate handling and a record of racing consistency. It has been said that Forward Pass is an in-and-out runner, yet in 17 lifetime races he has won seven and has never been worse than fourth. The most important part of that record is the fact that Forward Pass won his last two starts, after Trainer Henry Forrest cured him of a tendency to lug in by using blinkers with full cups.
Forrest, a 60-year-old Kentuckian who has won more races at Churchill Downs than any trainer in history, is no stranger to the Derby winner's circle. Two years ago, the first time he started a colt in the classic, he won with Mike Ford's Kauai King. Now Calumet's full-time trainer, Forrest believes Forward Pass is an even better horse. "At least he's more on his toes," says Henry. "Kauai King was a nonchalant type. Forward Pass was a little slow in developing, like his sire, On-and-On. But his grandsire was Nasrullah, and he's got some of that temperament." On-and-On was the son of Nasrullah and a glorious mare named Two Lea, among whose accomplishments were 15 wins, earnings of $309,250 and the production of Calumet Farm's last Derby winner, Tim Tam. Nasrullah has yet to sire a Derby winner, but his sons include Nashua and Never Bend (both second) and Bold Ruler (fourth). Forward Pass's dam, Princess Turia, was a champion race mare in her own right.
In the Blue Grass, Forward Pass was nothing less than sensational. With Milo Valenzuela substituting for regular Jockey Donald Brumfield, who was sidelined by food poisoning, Calumet's devil-red-and-blue silks showed first at the break and there was simply no catching the big colt. Charles Engelhard's Alley Fighter first took up the chase and was the first to retire, finishing a dead-tired fourth. Then T. V. Commercial gave it a try and actually got to within a length of Forward Pass around the three-eighths pole. At that point Milo gave Forward Pass a couple of quick raps with his stick and the race was over. He won by five lengths over T. V. Commercial, with Francie's Hat another half a length back, followed by Alley Fighter and Gleaming Sword. The winner covered nine furlongs in the fastest time of any Derby candidate this year. "He reminded me a lot of Tim Tam," said Valenzuela after the race, "and I wouldn't mind riding him again. But Brumfield has the mount and he deserves it."
Two days after the Blue Grass, Forrest informed Brumfield that he and Calumet Owner Mrs. Gene Markey had decided that Valenzuela would ride Forward Pass in the Derby. They did so, said Forrest, because Brumfield probably would not be up to full strength in time. Then they let Brumfield, a forlorn and sick young man, make the announcement to the press that he was taking himself off the horse of his own volition. "These things happen in racing," said Don bravely, "but there'll be other Derbies. Don't write that I'm being a good sport. Just say I didn't feel up to it, and that this will work out for the best."
If Forward Pass wins the Derby, and with it a pot of around $120,000, Calumet will undoubtedly offer Brumfield suitable remuneration. Exactly 10 years ago this week Jockey Bill Hartack, who had fractured a leg in a starting-gate accident, was replaced on Derby co-favorite Tim Tam by an eager young rider named Milo Valenzuela. Milo won while Hartack watched the race from the press box. Later Mrs. Markey rewarded Hartack with a check for $5,000.
"This isn't a question of money," said Forrest. "It is simply that if the Derby came down to a hard finish, Don might not have the strength and Milo would. If Don rode him and lost, the monkey would be on my back. Even though the defeat might not be his fault, there would be a lot of criticism all the way around."
I expect that most of the talk after this Derby will be that Forward Pass was just too damn good. The colt with the best chance of beating him, Dancer's Image, also has made his last two starts his most impressive races. The good-looking gray will be a popular colt in Louisville. He is a son of the great Native Dancer, who suffered the only loss of a distinguished career in the 1953 Derby when he failed to catch Dark Star. In the Wood Memorial, Dancer's Image nailed Iron Ruler inside the 16th pole after the latter held a four-length lead.
One obvious question is, how good is Iron Ruler? He clearly was moved too soon in the Wood and had nothing left at the finish. My impression is that Iron Ruler is a cut below the top pair. What should help his chances, however, is a switch in riders from Angel Cordero, Jr. to Braulio Baeza, who is not apt to make any premature moves. Dancer's Image will like the distance, and his jockey, Bobby Ussery, knows his way around Churchill Downs. He won the Derby last year on Proud Clarion with as skillful a ride as you'd ever want to see.
The mystery horse in this year's Derby is Captain's Gig, owned by Captain Harry F. Guggenheim, whose Dark Star hung that defeat on Native Dancer just 15 years ago. If he survives Derby Week—and there are veterinarians on the ground who say it will be a miracle if his right front hoof holds together until post time—Captain's Gig will provide plenty of excitement. He is quick, shifty and very fast and does his running on the front end. His jockey, Manuel Ycaza, says, "He's on the muscle right now and at least acts like he wants to go on. He's won all three of his starts this year. So let's say we're on third base now and there's only one way to go—to find out if he can get home. We've got to try him in the Derby. And who wants to win a Derby more than me?"
It is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for any of the other half a dozen horses. At week's end Charles Engelhard still had an entry going for him, but it was more than likely that the better half of the team, Alley Fighter, would be declared out and only Jig Time would go. Millard Waldheim's T. V. Commercial, second in the Blue Grass, didn't appear to be making up ground in the run to the wire. He hasn't won in five starts this year and the Derby is not the race to snap this streak. C. V. Whitney's Gleaming Sword fifth in the Blue Grass, spent much of the race stargazing. California's Proper Proof and Don B. who ran one-two in the April 20th California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, have struck no terror among the opposition. Proper Proof worked so poorly one day that he was scheduled for a final test in this week's one-mile Derby Trial. Kentucky Sherry, winner of the Louisiana Derby, probably should have remained in the bayou country.
Derby history reveals that a long shot often runs in the money even if he is not a winner like Dark Star. In the last 10 years the list of those who wound up on the board paying handsome dividends includes Lincoln Road, Roman Line, Dapper Dan, Advocator and Barbs Delight. The best bets to do that this year are Francie's Hat, Trouble Brewing and T. V. Commercial.
I expect a race that starts with Captain's Gig setting the pace. Iron Ruler and Verbatim won't be far away, at least for the first mile. But Milo Valenzuela will not be deceived by fast early fractions. When Dancer's Image, Proper Proof and perhaps Jig Time make their late moves, Milo and Forward Pass should withstand the charge.