'I CAME TO WIN. I'VE NEVER BEEN SO CONFIDENT'
When square-jawed Peter Fuller, the son of a former Massachusetts governor, gets it into his Harvard-trained mind to tackle a project, there is no easy way to lead him off course. At Harvard, where he was a member of the class of 1946, Fuller was a first-class heavyweight wrestler; and as an AAU boxer he won all but five of 55 bouts. Sixteen years ago Fuller, who provides comfortably for his wife and seven little Fullers by selling about 1,800 new Cadillacs annually, turned his mind to horse racing. He got into the game in a modest way and set a few goals for himself. He would pick good trainers and never interfere with them. He would buy and breed the best he could afford, always using as first consideration the availability of leading bloodlines. And he would never forget the ambition of every horse owner—to win a Kentucky Derby.
A month ago, while most horsemen were talking about such Derby candidates as Calumet Farm's Forward Pass, Peter Kissel's Iron Ruler and Capt. Harry Guggenheim's Captain's Gig, Peter Fuller had a gleam in his calculating eye. When his Maryland-bred Dancer's Image, a handsome gray son of Native Dancer and Noor's Image, won the Governor's Gold Cup at Bowie, Peter turned down $1 million for him and shipped him to Aqueduct to tackle some of the big boys in the Wood Memorial. Dancer's Image knocked off that field, too, and the only place to go was Churchill Downs. He was following in the footsteps of Kauai King, who also was bred in Maryland, is a son of Native Dancer and won the Governor's Gold Cup.
Operating on the theory that if you can't go first class you better stay home on the farm (in Fuller's case that is Runnymede Farm in North Hampton, N.H.), Peter decided to invade Louisville in the style of a proud New Englander whose place of business is on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. First he turned down $2 million for his gallant gray colt and asked his Louisville buddy, Ed McGrath, to insure Dancer's Image for $1.5 million. ("Less than two months ago," said Fuller, "we had him insured for just $150,000.") Next he reserved most of an Eastern Airlines jet, packed up his wife, mother-in-law, five of the seven little Fullers and 45 close friends and business associates and took off for Churchill Downs.
On his first day there last week Fuller was sitting in McGrath's box in exclusive G section. Suddenly he turned to his host and said, "Ed, let's take a dry run right now on the shortest way from here down to the tunnel leading to the track and the winner's circle. I sure didn't bring Dancer's Image all the way to Louisville just to see my colors out there. I came to win this race and I've never been so confident." Later he was to explain that confidence: "The turning point for this colt came when we took the blinkers off him and put Bobby Ussery on. That was March 30 at Bowie, and we haven't lost since."
Peter Fuller made his dry run through the old Downs passageways that uncrowded afternoon and discovered it to be an uncomplicated breeze. Last Saturday afternoon, with the usual 100,000 in attendance and an estimated 18 million tuned in to CBS's nationally televised show, Peter made the run again. This time, floating along like a graceful athlete, he made it clear across the track in plenty of time to greet Dancer's Image who, as the 7-to-2 second choice, had just humbled favorite Forward Pass in the 94th running of the Kentucky Derby. Fuller had the broad smile and assured grin of a man who knew all along that this was exactly what was going to happen. It also concluded a fine parlay for the city of Boston, the Celtics having won the professional basketball championship on Thursday evening in Los Angeles.
Although Saturday's Derby will not go into the books as one in which classic colts outnumbered the bums, it nonetheless succeeded in generating tremendous interest. This was so largely because few people shared Peter Fuller's unabashed confidence—either in Dancer's Image or in any of his 13 rivals. One result of this widespread difference of opinion was an alltime Derby day betting record: $2,350,470 on the Derby alone and $5,506,069 on the nine-race card.
But long before the betting began it was apparent that the size of the field would not be determined so much by the eagerness of owners and trainers to run as by the number of colts who could escape from the veterinarians long enough to hobble over to the starting gate. Stable rumors flew faster than Fuller's jet. Captain's Gig still had a bad hoof. One of Forward Pass's knees was acting up. And Dancer's Image had trouble with his right front ankle and maybe the left one, too. When his trainer, Lou Cavalaris, forsook speed sharpeners and sent the colt instead on long gallops of four miles one day and three the next, many wrote off his chances there and then.
Cavalaris, long one of the most successful trainers on the Canadian circuit, seemed to be spending more of his time commuting to Detroit and Canada's Fort Erie than at Churchill Downs's Barn 24. And Fuller himself, sticking to his rule of noninterference, was able to shed little light on his colt's condition. "I know nothing about training," he said, "so there's no point in pretending I do. If my trainer told me my horse galloped 10 miles instead of four, I'd probably say, 'Fine,' because it's none of my business. Sure, this colt, like many other Native Dancers, has weakness in his ankles, but he won't be a Derby starter if Lou doesn't think he's ready and fit for his very best effort. It's as simple as that."
By Derby morning—with the promise of a warm and windless May day—it was clear that Dancer's Image would be a starter even if Cavalaris had to bring the gray over to the paddock with both his front feet swathed in cold-water bandages. He had stood for hours in tubs of ice.
Meanwhile, a lot of smart money was rolling in on Iron Ruler. Captain's Gig had his supporters despite the fact that the well-bred colt (Turn-to out of Make Sail) had built his reputation entirely on victories up to seven furlongs. And there was play, too, for Mrs. Montgomery Fisher's Proper Proof, largely on the basis of his somewhat impressive win in the one-mile Derby Trial early in the week. But the favorite's role simply had to be given to the winning combination of Calumet's Forward Pass, Trainer Henry Forrest and battle-tested Jockey Milo Valenzuela.
"What it comes down to," said former Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones, "is that Forward Pass looks like he may be the best horse, but he may need some racing luck to win. Dancer's Image is obviously improving with each race, but how sound is he? I'd have to take a sound horse over him at a mile-and-a-quarter. The way they are coming up to the race, I wouldn't trade Forward Pass's chances for that of any other two horses in the field."
Pace is always a key Derby factor and this 94th running offered all the speed anyone could wish for. Even if he wasn't destined to last, Captain's Gig promised to be up front early, and it was expected that Verbatim, Don B. and Iron Ruler would serve in the same role. What was not anticipated—at least not until shortly before the race—was the part played by Kentucky Sherry, who had been badly beaten a week before the Derby by Captain's Gig in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone. He had finished fourth, beaten by about 13 lengths. After that showing Trainer Alcee Richard said, with obvious disgust, "No more taking back and rating this colt. If we're going to die in the Derby, we'll die on the front end." This was hardly pleasing to trainers of the other speed horses, but sounded good to those who handled the come-from-behinders.
The Derby field rolled away from the gate at exactly 4:40 and 30 seconds on Saturday afternoon and, immediately, Dancer's Image got two assists. First, Jimmy Combest, following Alcee Richard's orders, slammed Kentucky Sherry into the lead so swiftly that he took the pace right away from Captain's Gig. Forward Pass, who had broken out of the 13th stall, settled into his run just outside this pair and in third place. Second, at the moment of the break, the outside horse, Gleaming Sword, bumped Forward Pass, who in turn bumped Dancer's Image. This may well have helped Dancer's Image immeasurably, because it forced Ussery to take him back and he quickly moved to a spot along the rail, saving ground. Dancer's Image stayed there much of the time, plodding along dead last as Kentucky Sherry led the way by the stands the first time with a :22[1/5] quarter on his way to a half-mile in :45[4/5] and a killing six furlongs of 1:09[4/5].
Up the backstretch, as Kentucky Sherry continued to make it impossible for either Captain's Gig or Forward Pass to steal away on his own, Ussery neatly moved Dancer's Image from 14th to 10th. Then, with the same coolness and command he displayed in bringing home Proud Clarion a year ago, Bobby drove Dancer's Image between Iron Ruler and Gleaming Sword and found himself in eighth place as the spread-out field bent into the far turn. Kentucky Sherry had tested Captain's Gig, and now the latter was ready to retire. But Forward Pass, who had been third for most of the run took up the struggle. If he hadn't it is entirely possible that Kentucky Sherry would have run away with it all. Valenzuela and Forward Pass got the lead at the head of the stretch, after Kentucky Sherry had steamed his mile in 1:36[1/5]. The Calumet team, aiming for the stable's eighth Derby victory and first since Valenzuela rode Tim Tarn just 10 years ago, was on top for barely a sixteenth of a mile. Ussery and Dancer's Image were back on the rail and as the tiring Captain's Gig bore out on the turn for home, he left a hole on the inside that was big enough for one of Peter Fuller's Cadillacs. Ussery didn't miss it.
"I hit Forward Pass right-handed as I took the lead away from Kentucky Sherry," said Valenzuela later. "He started to loaf when he got to the front, and then when I saw Dancer's Image coming to me on the inside, I started hitting left-handed. When I did this in the Blue Grass, Forward Pass jumped right out and ran away from the field. This time he just didn't respond. Maybe the track was a bit too cuppy for him to get a good hold. Whatever it was, I know he's a better horse than he showed today."
Ussery, who had already demonstrated that he knew how to cash in on breaks if they came his way, needed no more. Driving furiously along the rail, where Dancer's Image likes to run best of all, Bobby lost his whip and never noticed it. (Later, in fact, he was so dazed by victory that he really believed he had brought his whip back with him to the jocks' room.) Dancer's Image went to the front for the first time approaching the eighth pole and he was pulling away steadily from Forward Pass as he charged under the wire a length and a half in front.
Longshot Francie's Hat came on with a fine run from 11th place to miss second money by barely a neck. Behind him, in order, were T. V. Commercial, Kentucky Sherry, Jig Time, Don B., Trouble Brewing, Proper Proof, Te Vega, Captain's Gig, Iron Ruler, Verbatim and Gleaming Sword. Dancer's Image, who covered the last quarter in 24[1/5] seconds, won his Derby in a very mediocre 2:02[1/5] over a fast track.
"I don't care what the time was," said a joyful Bobby Ussery. "I still don't think they'll beat this colt, no matter how far the distance. All that talk about his ankles! Shucks—he's never taken a bad step with me." Ussery had become the first rider in 66 years (and only the third ever) to win consecutive Derbies. He ran off to join the Fuller clan at the victory party.
Amid the champagne toasts, the autograph signing and the picture taking, Peter Fuller basked in fulfilled optimism. "I wasn't exactly wrong when I said we had come to win, was I?" he asked. A man in this sort of streak is just apt to syndicate his horse for about $3 million, increase his insurance by another million and then make off with next week's Preakness.
That race, [1/16] mile shorter than the Derby and run over a track more favorable to speed horses, probably will bring together five of the first six Derby finishers and maybe all six. In addition, it would be no surprise if the field were to include such non-Derby starters as Warner Jones's Go Marching, heretofore a grass-course specialist, and one runner from the Max Hirsch stable. Both California Derby horses, Don B. and Proper Proof, have been shipped back to Hollywood Park, but they will be replaced in Baltimore by Poleax. Still, the ultimate duel at Pimlico should again be between Forward Pass, the speedster, and Dancer's Image, the devastating come-from-behinder. If he runs back to his Louisville form, Kentucky Sherry will make it hot for both of them. Francie's Hat might find racing room sooner than he did last week and be even more of a threat, and T. V. Commercial and Jig Time cannot be discounted. Until one of these colts proves he can hold off the stretch charge of Dancer's Image, Peter Fuller's gray must be the logical favorite. And the winner's circle at Pimlico is so easy to reach that Fuller won't even have to go through a dry run.
IS THE DERBY LOSING ITS EMINENCE?
Long the most popular event on the racing calendar, the Derby is not considered the most significant by expert horsemen. Many say the Belmont Stakes, for example, is a truer test of classic horses. It is suggested that in recent years the Derby has also lost some of its class, only its long history having saved it from becoming just one $100,000 race among dozens of others. In the first 16 years after the 'Daily Racing Form' began choosing the Horse of the Year, five Derby winners were voted that honor (*) in the year of their victory; in the last 16 years no Derby winner earned it.
At left are the first three finishers in the Derby since 1936. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked eight experienced horsemen to review the list and name the three they considered the best, judging them on the class, speed and stamina that are the essential requirements of a classic winner. Their choices:
Nearly all of the experts' choices among Derby horses competed more than a decade ago. Only Damascus, of those who raced in the past 12 years, received a vote as being best of all, and only he was included in the top three. Interestingly, he did not win the Derby. Citation failed to make the list of only one expert.
Pot o' Luck
Come On Red
C. V. Whitney