Because its purse is $100,000, the Flamingo at Hialeah is obviously a race well worth winning. And one also worth careful watching for the clues it offers to the distance ability of colts on their way to the Kentucky Derby and other Northern pots of gold. In the Flamingo—a mile and an eighth—all horses carry 122 pounds, only four less than they will in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
How good a barometer of talent the race is can be judged from the list of those who have won it or finished in the money—among them Citation, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Alsab, Stymie, Bold Ruler and Buckpasser. Most of the classic hopefuls in Florida this season got to the post in last week's 40th Flamingo, but two did not and that forces a delay in summing up the East Coast contingent. The unknown quantities are Bull Hancock's Drone and E. P. Taylor's Viceregal, both unbeaten and both being prepped for the March 29 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Nevertheless, the Flamingo turned out to be especially significant because the first three to finish—Top Knight, Arts and Letters and Beau Brummel—are almost surely colts of exceptional quality. Three weeks ago Paul Mellon's Arts and Letters won the Everglades, beating Top Knight by three lengths. He was, however, carrying 10 pounds less than Steve Wilson's 1968 2-year-old champion. In the Everglades, too, Dinny Phipps' Beau Brummel ran a miserable eighth, but everyone felt that was hardly likely to happen again. The only excuse that came out of the Everglades was offered by Top Knight's trainer, Ray Metcalf, who said, "He was probably a little short for the race and because of it he wasn't abused at all. But you train good horses for good races, and the Flamingo is what we are after."
Metcalf's confidence showed in his pre-Flamingo instructions to Manuel Ycaza, who is riding as well as he has at any time in his long career. "Get out of there in the first flight. Be in the first four or five, because he can move whenever you want him to." Manny knew perfectly well that the pace probably would be set by Fast Hilarious, but the horse he had to beat was Arts and Letters.
As expected, Fast Hilarious zapped off to a quick lead that at one point on the backstretch put him four lengths in front of Arts and Letters, who, under Jockey Jean Cruguet, had broken second and stayed right there. Ycaza, executing his plans perfectly, had come out third and put himself right on the flank of Arts and Letters. From there, as Arts and Letters' trainer Elliott Burch declared later, "Ycaza outsmarted Cruguet by dictating the whole race and by staying off the rail on the best part of the track." Ycaza himself, celebrating that night at the posh Palm Bay Club, put it even more directly: "It was man against boy."
With Top Knight almost nibbling at his horse's flank as they left the half-mile pole, Cruguet's inexperience in $100,000 races became evident. He moved Arts and Letters up on Fast Hilarious too soon, which is exactly what Ycaza wanted him to do. As they turned for home, Arts and Letters took the lead by slipping inside of Fast Hilarious, but it cost him some energy prematurely, and here came Top Knight flying on the outside. Ycaza made his move at the quarter pole. He rapped Top Knight with the stick on both sides and, just short of the 16th pole, sailed by Cruguet and won easily by two lengths. Arts and Letters barely held off Beau Brummel, who had come up from way out of it. Fast Hilarious hung on surprisingly to be fourth, while behind him, in order, came Rooney's Shield, Dike, Traffic Mark, Rule of Reason, Sail Lark, Twogundan, Beau of the West and Trade Wagon.
Running down to the winner's circle, Metcalf looked at the tote board and yipped, "He really hung up some time, didn't he!" Metcalf was right. Only Bold Ruler, who set a track record of 1:47 in 1957, has won this race in faster time than Top Knight's 1:47 4/5.
Metcalf, a middle-fiftyish horseman, has been training on and off for 25 years for Steve Wilson, who is critically ill with lateral sclerosis in the Miami Heart Institute. Quite naturally Metcalf thinks Top Knight is one of the best horses he has ever seen. And he's sensitive about the knocks he constantly hears on his colt. "He may be a little odd looking," Ray concedes. "He has one thick tendon which he was born with but which has never bothered him. Some wise guys spread rumors that it has bowed. Nobody particularly liked him—until he started putting those $100,000 purses in the bank." Top Knight has in fact earned $430,121 by winning six of his 12 starts including last year's Hopeful, Futurity and The Champagne, in addition to the Flamingo. He is a chestnut son of Vertex, who has already sired one Kentucky Derby winner (Lucky Debonair), and a mare by Summer Tan named Ran-Tan. The only thing wrong with Summer Tan was that he had the misfortune to come to the races in the same crop with Nashua and Swaps.
As for Arts and Letters, it wouldn't surprise anyone who saw the Flamingo if Cruguet were replaced as the regular rider for this Ribot colt. On the Ribots the rider must wait before making the proper move, a quality that immediately brings to mind Willie Shoemaker. Shoe has no definite commitment to any 3-year-old on either coast. With Bill Hartack firmly anchored on unbeaten Majestic Prince, Willie has been talent scouting at Santa Anita on such winners as Tell and Inverness Drive and Race the Wind. (The latter ran fourth behind Governors Party last Friday, in a 1:36 3/5 mile, which is not very much of a recommendation.)
"From riding Tom Rolfe [another son of Ribot] so much," said Shoe, "I do know something about how the Ribots run. They usually come from off the pace and you've got to time your move just right. That in itself takes a little experience. I've never seen Arts and Letters, but if he's as good as some people seem to think he is, I'd like to try him. If we suit each other maybe we could go all the way together."