Over the years Claiborne Farm, located on the outskirts of Paris, Ky., has been one of the most successful breeding establishments in American racing. Such distinguished visitors as the Phippses and Woodwards have bred classic winners at Claiborne; and Claiborne's master, Arthur (Bull) Hancock, has always insisted—even as he watched champions by the dozens romp through his lush Kentucky blue grass—that "I'd rather win a Kentucky Derby than all the rest of the races in the United States put together."
So would a lot of other owner-breeders, of course, but this season it appeared that Hancock had come up with his best hand in years, a quartet of 3-year-olds: Drone, Dike, Jay Ray and Blade. When Hialeah opened in mid-January, and well before Top Knight and Majestic Prince had made such heroic names for themselves, any of the Claiborne four stood a chance to fulfill Hancock's dream. Then Jay Ray lost the Louisiana Derby to the Phippses' King of the Castle, and Drone was sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury on the eve of the Florida Derby. Hancock grinned bravely and said he was reminded of an occasion during his youth when he tapped out at poker against some older—and more experienced—Kentucky players. One of them, pocketing Bull's allowance money, squinted over at him and said, "You're too young to die and too old to cry."
Last week at Aqueduct, Bull Hancock was neither dying nor crying. In fact he was laughing. First, Blade, the unbeaten son of Bold Ruler out of the Prince-quillo mare Monarchy, won his third straight race. An hour later Dike came from next to last in the nine-horse field and won the $58,000 one-mile Gotham. He was first by a neck over Ogden Phipps' 1-to-5 favorite Reviewer, who was in a dead heat with Rooney's Shield, eight lengths ahead of Kanumera. Suddenly things were looking much better for Bull, Trainer Lucien Laurin and Claiborne Farm.
Hancock and Laurin have always had a lot of confidence in Dike, a chestnut son of the French stallion Herbager and Bull's own champion racemare Delta, who is by Nasrullah. As a 2-year-old last season Dike won three of eight races and was second in two others, including a loss by only a head to King Emperor in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity. Then he went to Florida, where, as Bull puts it, "he ran miserably, just like his mother, who could never do anything right in Miami. I don't think she ever won there." Dike couldn't win, or get very close, in three starts at Hialeah, and just when everyone but Hancock and Laurin were giving up on him he came back North to Aqueduct and won a mile race by six lengths in 1:36 1/5. Last week, with one tremendous rush on the outside on the far turn—and over a sticky off track—Dike and his jockey, Jorge Velasquez, ticked off the same distance in a very good 1:34 4/5, which brought him $37,700 and increased his winnings to $131,064.
Blade won his six-furlong race in 1:10 4/5 and worked out another eighth in 1:23 4/5. He may yet get a chance to go to Kentucky and, of course, Dike definitely will if he runs back to his Gotham form in the April 19 nine-furlong Wood Memorial.
Reviewer, who still has never been worse than second in eight lifetime starts, was going a mile for the first time. Unless he did not like the footing, he had no excuse, having been a head in front at the eighth pole. His Derby plans will depend entirely on what he does in the Wood. The Phippses are not what one of their friends terms "Derby kind of people," so only a sensational win in the Wood would guarantee Reviewer a trip to Churchill Downs. The same applies to most of the others beaten in the Gotham.
The Derby's Big Three are still Top Knight, Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters, but Master Bull Hancock hopes Dike will make it the Big Four in the three weeks remaining before the big payoff in Louisville. He always has been an optimist.