Forty-two years ago next month, a record 22 horses lined up at Churchill Downs for the 54th Kentucky Derby won by Reigh Count. The way things are going this year, it would be no surprise if 50 showed up in Louisville on May 2. After last week's one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct, every one of the 193 Derby nominees might be considered qualified for the starting gate at the 96th Derby.
What happened was that Calumet Farm's non-Derby eligible Sunny Tim, a double stakes winner at the meeting, went off as the 13-to-10 favorite in the field of eight and proceeded to stagger home fifth, beaten three lengths by Native Royalty, a colt he had licked by four lengths just two weeks before. Also ahead of Sunny Tim in this rather startling mile was Delaware Chief, a colt that had distinguished himself by finishing 10th in the Feb. 26 San Jacinto at Santa Anita. The third horse in the Gotham was Sonny Werblin's Silent Screen, making his first start since his defeat in the Flamingo, while fourth was Mrs. Ethel D. Jacobs' Personality. A crazy season? Consider this: the last time Native Royalty and Silent Screen met, Native Royalty finished 39 lengths to the rear!
Well, it may not all be quite as silly as it sounds, but the Gotham was just one more of the winter and spring races demonstrating that the 3-year-old division has no clear leader. A year ago this week, only four horses were seriously considered as Derby winners. They were Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Dike and Top Knight, and they finished one-two-three-five. This week close to three dozen colts can be put in the category of hopefuls for the big race and a dozen have a good chance of winning.
Before the Gotham, Sunny Tim's trainer, Downey Bonsai, said his colt's only chance after breaking out of the No. 3 stall would be to get outside, which is the one place where he seems interested in running. But he never got to the outside and never did run much.
Even more interest centered around Silent Screen and his flamboyant owner, whose list of 24 guests at the race included Johnny Carson, Robert Sarnoff and Toots Shor. "If he's his old self," Werblin said, "he should win from this bunch." Silent Screen, it turned out, was very nearly his old self, but inside the 16th pole he became a somewhat tired old self. This was understandable, considering that he had been away from the races since March 3 and was giving away weight to every horse in the field except High Echelon, who finished sixth.
As expected, Delaware Chief shot to the lead under Braulio Baeza. Silent Screen and Jockey Johnny Rotz went right after him, while Native Royalty, who had come away from the gate badly, trailed. Silent Screen moved to within a head of Delaware Chief on the turn for home but after that never did look like a winner. Instead it was Native Royalty, swinging to the outside under a fine ride by Angel Cordero, who just got up in the last couple of strides to beat Delaware Chief by a head. Silent Screen was only three-quarters of a length behind Delaware Chief. "I think his race, considering everything, was pretty darn good," said Rotz later. "Don't forget that he was carrying his Derby weight of 126 pounds, and both horses that beat him were in with 114. As tired as he was, he would have won this race at equal weights—and they'll all be carrying 126 in the Wood Memorial and Derby."
Trainer Bower Bond intends to put Silent Screen in the Wood on April 18, pointing out: "He may not have run a great race, but he certainly ran a good one. He came from Florida by van because of the air-traffic problems and got in only one good work in New York. He had never run on this track before, but he didn't seem to mind it."
And what about the winner? Obviously this son of Raise A Native and the Nasrullah mare Queen Nasra is not a bad sort. He was homebred by Lou Wolfson and was included in the group of 36 horses that Wolfson sold to his sons Gary, Martin and Stephen a year ago. Gary Wolfson, representing his brothers and their Happy Valley Farm, agreed with Trainer Jim Davis after the Gotham that Native Royalty would either go in the Wood or be shipped out to Keeneland for the April 23 Blue Grass Stakes. "But we are definitely pointing for the Derby," said Gary as he beamed approvingly at the colt who had won his first stakes victory. It probably won't be his last.
Not all the better eastern Derby nominees showed up for the Gotham, and among those who missed it but will probably go in the Wood are Burd Alane, Parasol Pete and, perhaps. Stop Time. The Flamingo and Florida Derby winner, My Dad George, is going directly to Churchill Downs, while Dr. Behrman, who was a fast-closing fourth in the Florida Derby, is aiming for the Blue Grass along with Naskra, winner of the Everglades. Santa Anita Derby winner Terlago is heading for Kentucky, as is third-place finisher Aggressively.
Other California-based nominees, such as George Lewis, Cool Hand and Plenty Old, may yet wind up at Churchill Downs but will probably take a final test in the $100,000 California Derby on April 18 at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco. There they will run into a colt named Seven Hunters who beat Terlago, Aggressively and Cool Hand in the mud at Bay Meadows last December over a mile and 1/16.
When all of these gather in Kentucky, they will meet colts already stabled at Keeneland and prepping for the Blue Grass. Dark horses have popped out of the Keeneland meeting before, and this time around it could be Jackal, Special Secret or even Joe Namath. Proud Clarion came from nowhere in 1967 and won the Derby for John Galbreath. The same stable, Darby Dan, could do it again with Out of the Mist.
Then, of course, there's old favorite Protanto, Charlie Engelhard's son of Native Dancer and the Tom Fool mare Foolish One. Last fall Protanto won the Remsen by five lengths, but since that moment of glory he has run in five stakes and finished sixth twice and seventh three times. During this period he's been trained by three experts—Buddy Hirsch, Elliott Burch and MacKenzie Miller Today all three would probably agree with one veteran horseman who watched Protanto run a dismal sixth in the Flamingo and said, "He's big and strong and looks as though he should be a real runner. But he reminds me of a great big old lazy fighter that you have to get mad. When you jerk the stool out from under him, you have to hit him in the butt with a wet towel and yell, 'Get mad and fight!' "
If all these runners get mad and fight at Churchill Downs on the afternoon of May 2 it will be quite a scene. But that's the kind of 3-year-old season this has been.