Although major winter racing officially began with Hialeah's Jan. 16 opening, it was not until last week that fans there and in California warmed to the task at hand: early evaluation of the 3-year-olds who are expected to start in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. And on both coasts the challenge was stiff.
At Hialeah, where cold and wet weather has contributed to a decrease of 6.5% in attendance and 4.8% in mutuel handle, the newly turned sophomores were out in force, not necessarily demonstrating classic-distance stamina but showing a classy turn of speed that is bound to promote Triple Crown speculation, a Hialeah trademark for 43 years. The highlight of the week, of course, was the season's first start for Sonny Werblin's 1969 2-year-old champion, Silent Screen, who wound up his last campaign with five straight victories and $397,966. Away from competition for three months, the son of Prince John and Prayer Bell, who cost Werblin $39,000 as a Saratoga yearling (and who is now insured for $1½ million), was up to the task, although not by much. Trailing George Lewis by two lengths at the 16th pole of the seven-furlong Bahamas, Silent Screen wore down the tiring leader in the last few yards to win by a head. It was a game performance and a credit to the patient training methods of Bowes Bond and to the cool riding ability of Jockey John Rotz.
Does this mean that Silent Screen should be even more of a Derby winter-book favorite? To some, maybe, but Werblin and Bond have been around horses long enough to realize that it's a tough job holding a maturing 3-year-old together during three months of demanding prep races. Immediately after The Bahamas, in which he covered the seven furlongs in a highly respectable 1:23 over a slightly dull track, Silent Screen managed to throw a scare into his people. "He nicked himself just a hair away from the tendon in his left hind leg," said Bond, "but thank goodness it didn't fill."
Silent Screen has grown into a medium-size chestnut of about 1,100 pounds and stands 15 hands 3 inches. "He is pliable to train and I wouldn't call him a delicate eater," says Bond. "But there's no question he's had his problems since arriving in Florida, and we've got to avoid any more of them." Although the colt's ankles at times look a little shopworn, Bond considers them sufficiently tight for the rigors ahead. "He doesn't need much work to get ready for his races," says Bond, "and at all costs we want to avoid overracing him."
Only 10 went to the post in The Bahamas and three wouldn't even have been in Florida had it not been for the delayed opening at Santa Anita. George Lewis, Insubordination and Protanto were all scheduled for West Coast racing this winter. George Lewis, sired by Envoy, an unraced son of Bold Ruler, won Hialeah's six-furlong Hibiscus in a snappy 1:09⅕ but even at that distance he was tiring at the finish. After The Bahamas he was shipped to Santa Anita, where the opposition, at least at the sprint distances, may not be as tough.
Insubordination, whose sire, Semi-Pro, is a full brother to Swaps, has now been beaten four straight by Silent Screen. The third invader from California last week was Charles Engelhard's Protanto, a runner-up to Forum in the Garden State and later the winner of the Remsen at Aqueduct. Trainer MacKenzie Miller first sent him to Buddy Hirsch at Santa Anita, then transferred him to Elliott Burch at Hialeah. A son of Native Dancer and a Tom Fool mare, Protanto has the potential to be a good one. After quickly discovering that the colt was something of a hell-raiser around the barn and disliked his morning works with a passion, Burch put him in The Bahamas, where he ran a steady and even seventh. "It was better than I thought he'd do," said Burch. "And he'll do better before long."
Burch himself has something in Owner Paul Mellon's barn that might also do better before long. He is a half brother to Arts and Letters named Bell Bird, by Sea-Bird. "Brothers seldom work out, you know," says Burch, "and I'm not selling myself on him yet. If it's a bad crop he might have a shot, but so far he doesn't move very well and he seldom seems to be trying very hard. We'll try him with blinkers from now on and hope for improvement."
There is another Sea-Bird at Hialeah who should be ready by Flamingo time. His name is Burd Alane, the $210,000 yearling purchase of Anne Ford Johnson's Watermill Farms. Shin trouble kept him away from the races last season, but he has won both his Hialeah starts thus far. More important, both of them were at the Flamingo distance of a mile and an eighth. "He is a smooth apple with a great disposition," says Trainer V. J. (Lefty) Nickerson, "but for $210,000 he should be a smooth apple."
Miami is loaded with other 3-year-olds of various talents, many destined to improve as they slowly come to hand. There is George Widener's Pontifex, a colt by Jaipur, who won last summer's Flash and Saratoga Special. The Phippses are represented by The Draftsman, somewhat of a disappointment thus far, by Irish Castle, last year's Hopeful winner, and by Brave Emperor. The Garden State champion, Forum, appears to be suffering from the jinx that has followed so many of its winners. Right after he got to Hialeah in the care of Trainer Gene Jacobs he stepped on a stone and bruised his right foreleg. Although he has come around satisfactorily in recent weeks, he still needs considerable time before getting to the races. Slow-starting High Echelon, winner of The Futurity and the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity last fall, beat only one horse in The Bahamas, but one never knows what to expect of a Hirsch Jacobs colt when the purses get richer. Among the others is an English-bred named Double Splash who has been turned over to a rookie trainer, Bill Boland, by English Owner David Sandeman. He won three of his five races in France last year and is by the former top English 2-year-old, Double Jump. "Double Splash will be pointed for the Kentucky Derby and the Derby alone," says Sandeman. "And if Double Splash fails, I'll be back again the following year with another outstanding contender, and again and again until I win."
That sort of optimism is welcome at Hialeah—and Churchill Downs.