His friends and backers will be happy to know that Ring for Nurse is thoroughly enjoying his seaside vacation in Atlantic City. All he does is eat and sleep and look pretty for the folks who come by to take his picture or tickle his nose. He does not even have to go through any of those annoying workouts, but then he always loafs through them anyhow. Yes, it is a good life, and the results are spectacular: his body has filled out grandly, and his copper hide gleams like a bright new penny in the sunshine.
The last time the racing public saw Ring for Nurse was on Aug. 7 at New Jersey's Monmouth Park, when he crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of some of the nation's best 2-year-olds in the $112,580 Sapling Stakes. Besides being his fifth straight victory and his second in a stakes within five days, the Sapling raised Ring for Nurse's earnings to $126,258, or more than five times what his three owners had paid for him exactly two months before. That's not bad for a colt who lost his first three races by a total of 51 lengths. After the Sapling, his flabbergasted young trainer, Don Le Vine, decided this was a good time for everybody, the horse included, to take a nice, long rest and try to put the whole crazy chain of events into some kind of reasonable perspective. After all, there are people in racing today—good, sensible people, too—who think that Ring for Nurse may be the best 2-year-old in the country and quite possibly the winner of the 1970 Kentucky Derby.
Every time somebody mentions the Derby around his barn, Le Vine, who just had surgery for a chronic bleeding ulcer, rolls his eyes around and bites his nails and goes looking for wood to knock on. His state of mind is not helped any by the fact that one of his partners in the improbable triumvirate that owns Ring for Nurse—TV Sports Producer Frank Chirkinian—talks freely about winning the classic. Chirkinian directed the Derby coverage for CBS for six years and now is enchanted by the "irony," as he calls it, of going back to Louisville next May as the owner of a contender. "And, for God's sake, whatever you do," he told a colleague at CBS the other day, "when I walk into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs don't throw it up to the camera in the Goodyear blimp."
The third partner is Bob Levy, a balding, blustering young man who is the president of Atlantic City Race Course. Levy is known to his partners, with varying degrees of affection, as "that idiot," because his arm had to be twisted hard before he consented to buying a piece of Ring for Nurse. And even now he is unpersuaded that the colt is the next Man o' War.
September 21, 1969
"He's a freak, that's what he is," said Levy recently in his office, running his fingers through what used to be hair. "Truthfully, I thought we might win one race, then run him in some claiming race. I looked up his pedigree, and so far as I can see, there have been no stakes winners on the female side since 1934. [The dam, Big Benigna, is virtually anonymous, but the sire, Run for Nurse, is hardly that. His dam is a Count Fleet mare.] I've got to think that his pedigree will catch up with him sooner or later."
"That idiot!" chorused Le Vine and Chirkinian. Neither Chirkinian, for all his innocent optimism, nor Levy, for all his persistent pessimism, plays more than a peripheral role in the saga of Ring for Nurse. They put up most of the money to buy him, but Don Le Vine is the man who first saw the colt, who determined to race him or else and who brought him to his present position.
Le Vine, from Pittsburgh, had played football at Bethany College, then knocked around as a lifeguard and stockbroker before becoming a horseman and TV commentator. Until Ring for Nurse came along, though, he was best known as Princess Grace's brother-in-law (married to Lizanne Kelly), the guy who rattled teacups all up and down Philadelphia's Main Line when he quit a perfectly respectable business—stockbroking—to live and work with (shudder) those beasts.
The Ring for Nurse story began in Florida last January. He was the property of Kenny Noe Sr., an old horseman with a penchant for developing young horses, then selling them at a profit for himself and his owners. On Jan. 30 Ring for Nurse made his debut in a three-furlong dash at Hialeah, and he finished 11th, a full 21 lengths behind the winner. His next two starts, at the same distance and track, were hardly more promising. He was beaten 15 lengths in each, finishing 13th in one race and getting all the way up to 12th in the other. At this point the word was out that Noe was worried, understandably, that he would never be able to unload this dog.
Ring for Nurse next appeared at a different track (Gulfstream), with a different jockey (Mike Miceli), over a different distance (five furlongs). His workouts before the races were as atrocious as ever—a trait that Le Vine attributes simply to laziness—but, to the complete astonishment of everyone, he won and by six lengths. Among the fans that afternoon was Le Vine, and he was impressed enough to do some homework on Ring for Nurse.
"I went back and checked the records," said Le Vine, "and I found that this horse and one named Insubordination were the only colts who had been able to go five furlongs in 58 and change at Gulfstream. I became interested."
As the racing crowd picked up and began to move North, Kenny Noe was letting it be known that his new sensation—"I always knew he was a good horse," Kenny was saying—could be had for a cool $40,000.
At Garden State in New Jersey, almost every horseman on the grounds, including Le Vine, came around to Noe's barn to look the colt over, but the price tag scared them off. Also, Ring for Nurse was his usual miserable self in workouts. As Noe was biding his time, his barn caught fire and burned to the ground. Five of his horses ran back into their stalls and were burned to death. Ring for Nurse had sense enough to stay away, and he was the only one who came out of the tragedy unscathed. The months of April and May passed with a lot of old-fashioned horse bartering between Le Vine and Noe.
"I used to go over there four times a week to look at the colt," Le Vine recalled. "I decided I really wanted to buy him—I had tried to find a fault, but just couldn't do it. The trouble was, I didn't have the $40,000 and Kenny wouldn't budge.
"I called all my owners, and I called a lot of other people I knew, but it's a difficult thing to get people to put up that much money for a horse. Now I wanted this horse badly. I called Bob Levy but he wouldn't buy. I couldn't get anything, and I was sweating it out, because I was afraid I would go over there one day and he would be gone. The price came down to $35,000, and still nobody went. Then one Saturday morning at Monmouth he told me he would take $30,000 I ran off looking for a phone booth."
The first person Le Vine called early that Saturday morning, June 7, was Levy. He asked Levy to put up $15,000 and go half with him. "First Bobby wanted to know why Kenny had dropped the price," Le Vine said. "He was suspicious; he said something was probably wrong with him. He hemmed and hawed around, and finally he said he would put up $10,000 if I could get someone to go the other third. I hung up before he could change his mind."
Now Le Vine had another problem. Who else would be sporting enough to put up a quick $10,000 for a racehorse, sight unseen? Why, Frank Chirkinian, of course. "He just popped into my mind," Le Vine said. "We had a horse before, and I knew Frank had the dough, and I knew he swings."
It was 7 a.m. when the phone rang in Chirkinian's motel room in Chicago, where he had gone on business. Chirkinian may swing, but not at 7 a.m. "I was kinda awake," he says, "but when Don mentioned $10,000 that woke me up. I had to admire any guy who would call me up in the middle of the night and ask for $10,000. So I said O.K. He hung up and I went back to bed, and I thought, 'Hey, that was kind of impetuous,' and then I went back to sleep."
Almost before Chirkinian's head hit the pillow in Chicago, Le Vine was back at Noe's barn. "I told him my man wouldn't put up more than $25,000," Le Vine said, "and then I walked away and stayed away for about a half hour. Then I arranged to bump into him again."
They haggled a while longer, and finally Noe, who by this time was probably chiefly concerned with getting Le Vine out of his hair, agreed to sell for $25,000. "I had the check made out so quick you wouldn't believe it," Le Vine said, "and my groom already was on the way over to Kenny's barn with a halter."
The only thing wrong was that there was no money in the bank to cover Le Vine's check. He called Levy back, explained the situation and coerced Levy into wiring the full amount—$25,000—to cover the check.
Ring for Nurse was not exactly an instant success for Le Vine. Once he worked five furlongs in 1:06, which is terribly slow. Then he worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:20, which is even worse. Nobody could understand why Le Vine did not leap off the grandstand roof. "This horse can get himself ready with slow works," he said. "Sure, he's lazy, but this is what I love. He knows what's going on. He relaxes in his stall, but when he gets in a race—bang—he will be beautiful."
Nevertheless, Levy was dumfounded when Le Vine told him that Ring for Nurse would run in an allowance race on June 21 at Monmouth. "You're out of your mind," exploded Levy. "If you want my advice, take him to Liberty Bell and run him against some cheap claimers."
Well, Ring for Nurse won the allowance race by 3½ lengths. Then he did go to Liberty Bell, but instead of running against claimers the colt was entered in the Dragoon Stakes on June 28. He won by a neck and set a track record. The partners were delirious with joy, and Levy figured that now would be a good time to unload his share for $10,000. That brought Le Vine storming into Levy's office for a lively conversation that ended with Le Vine saying, "And furthermore, Bobby, I don't want you ever to speak to me again."
"Hey, Don," said Levy, "who do you like in the double today?"
Levy finally decided not to sell his interest, but that was of less concern to Le Vine than the problem of where next to run Ring for Nurse. As Le Vine figured it, there was a choice between the Kindergarten, a $59,000 race at Liberty Bell on Saturday, Aug. 2, or the Sapling at Monmouth the following Thursday.
"The horse looked real good and a $35,000 purse seemed like a lot of money," said Le Vine, "so I thought I'd be real cute. I decided to take a shot at the Kindergarten because all the big guns were going in the Sapling."
Ring for Nurse won the Kindergarten by eight lengths. Somebody offered the partners $100,000 for their colt, but Chirkinian, who by now was feeling like C. V. Whitney, said, "We're frankly planning on going to the Kentucky Derby, and that's why we're not interested in any big profit right now."
The plan was to give the colt a rest after the Kindergarten, so Chirkinian almost choked on his drink Wednesday night, Aug. 6, when the news came that Le Vine had entered Ring for Nurse in the Sapling the next day. "I thought maybe Don should go back to being a stockbroker," he said.
But Le Vine knew what he was doing. "On the Sunday after the Kindergarten he looked like a fresh horse," he said. "He was really on the muscle, like a tiger, shining like bright copper. I called in two vets and we had a consultation. He galloped Wednesday morning and looked good. I went over and quietly put his name in the entry box."
The Sapling field included what so far had been the best 2-year-olds in the country—Insubordination, Irish Castle, Rollicking. Many of the top jockeys—Baeza, Ycaza, Belmonte—came in for the race. Surely, faced with this kind of competition, Ring for Nurse and Mike Miceli were in over their heads. At the start, Ring for Nurse broke quickly, but Miceli took him back. On the stretch turn, Rollicking forced him to the far outside, but Ring for Nurse came on under the whip to win.
On the elevator ride from the clubhouse to the winner's circle, Chirkinian did his best to calm his partners down. "Now, for God's sake," he said, "let's walk to the winner's circle with a modicum of dignity."
Yes, said everyone, that's the thing. Dignity. Show a little class.
"So, of course," said Chirkinian later, "when the doors opened it looked like a cavalry charge out of there."
The Red Brick Stable has received at least one feeler for Ring for Nurse for a quarter of a million dollars. Both Le Vine and Chirkinian say they are too involved to sell now, but Levy still may sell his share—for $75,000. The colt will go back into training later this fall, says Le Vine, but he may not race again until the Florida season this winter.
"I want to take my time with him," said Le Vine recently as he watched Ring for Nurse being walked near his barn.
At that moment the colt turned, and the sunshine caught his gleaming coat just the right way.
"You know," said Le Vine, with a smile, "he does sort of look like Majestic prince, doesn't he?"