As many as 20 3-year-olds, lots of them famous only in their own peaceful barns, are likely to go to the post at Churchill Downs next Saturday for what gives promise of being the most wide-open Kentucky Derby ever run. The setting will offer the dual stimulation of a cavalry charge and a wheel of fortune, and the bettor, owner, trainer or jockey who stands there at post time brimming with confidence is either an incurable optimist or a curable fool. This year, no matter who you draw in the office pool, don't throw away your number.
The reason for this exciting confusion is obvious: the winter and spring semi-classics that led up to this 96th Kentucky Derby failed to produce anything like an outstanding contender for a race in which all starters carry 126 pounds and run a mile and a quarter for the first time in their lives. Nor is it likely that the three remaining pre-Derby preps—this week's Blue Grass at Keeneland, the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs and next Tuesday's Derby Trial—will eliminate many hopefuls. On the contrary, unless all three of these races are won convincingly by wide margins and in very good time, the Derby field could top the 1928 record of 22 starters.
Four races last week were supposed to clear up some of the confusion, but they did little to get the job done. Silent Screen was beaten in the nine-furlong Wood Memorial by Personality, which means he either isn't yet the champion he was a year ago or that Personality is better over a distance. In Kentucky, Naskra, who is bred for distance, lost to a sprinter named Supreme Quality at seven furlongs but showed enough to gain new supporters. Earlier in the week at Keeneland, Protanto snapped out of a five-race losing streak to win a sprint impressively. And out at San Francisco's Golden Gate Fields. George Lewis won a two-length victory in the California Derby, running the mile and an eighth in 1:48[1/5] after his jockey, Bill Hartack, succeeded, at last, in rating him well. That victory earned George Lewis a Derby trip, and Hartack, who is looking for a record sixth Derby win, will have to make up his mind after he tests Dr. Behrman in the Blue Grass which of the two colts he will ride on May 2.
The 14-horse Wood Memorial might have been a fairer race had it been split into two divisions, but its finish was the most exciting since Nashua edged Summer Tan in 1955. Delaware Chief, ineligible for the Derby, took the lead, while Bill Shoemaker, subbing for the suspended John Rotz on Silent Screen, laid up snugly in second place. Eddie Belmonte had Personality up closer than usual in third place, while none of the other 11 had much to say about the outcome after some rough crowding in the clubhouse turn had sorted out the field. Delaware Chief, under Jean Cruguet, held on bravely as the trio turned for home, with Silent Screen going head and head with him and Personality coming on the outside to form a threesome that rolled the last eighth of a mile stride for stride. Just short of the wire, Personality seemed to pick up new energy and was drawing off as he crossed the finish. Less than a length separated him from third-place Delaware Chief.
"I think he'll go as far as horses have to go," said John Jacobs, who trains Personality and stablemate High Echelon for his mother. "I like the way Personality won. He hung on and was game all the way. Now he's got the message. He knows what he's supposed to do. He missed nearly all last season with spread sesamoids and suspensories, but my father [the late Hirsch Jacobs] always had hopes for him. He carried a photo of Personality in his wallet."
Hirsch Jacobs often called Personality "the best horse I've ever bred." So enamored of him was the elder Jacobs that in the spring of 1967 when he commissioned the eminent painter Richard Stone Reeves to do a portrait of the mare Affectionately he insisted that her 3-week-old suckling colt be included in the picture. That was Personality's first brush with publicity.
High Echelon was a slow starter, as usual, in the Wood and eventually came from 11th to finish sixth, although he was beaten barely four lengths for all the money. Last fall High Echelon won both the Belmont and Pimlico-Laurel Futurities, but he hasn't won since. "He's a difficult horse to train," says John Jacobs. "He only does what he has to do. He has problems with both knees and with his left shin, but we know he is capable of running a great race, and one of these days he's going to do it." High Echelon will probably run next in the Derby Trial, and after that the pair will run as an entry in the Derby. Hirsch Jacobs, the world's winningest trainer, started seven horses in the Derby from 1949 to 1967, but the best he could do was a third and two fourths. John would like to do something about that in memory of his father—and with his father's favorite horse—on May 2.
For the second time in two weeks Silent Screen did not disgrace himself, but neither did he win. He was, as Shoemaker points out, being ridden by an unfamiliar jockey, and he lost some ground on the first turn. After that, says Shoemaker, "He hung a bit in the last eighth. I hit him a couple of times, but he's not much of a whip horse." Trainer Bowes Bond and Owner Sonny Werblin want to give Silent Screen his big chance in the Derby, but they are faced with a dilemma. He may not go the distance, and he seems to lack some of the competitive instinct needed to put his opponents away once he catches them. "He seems to wait on horses," says Bond. "It may be that he needs blinkers. But it's late to be experimenting with things like that, isn't it?"
"No matter what," says Shoemaker, "he ran a good race and he's a nice colt. There's not much difference between him and Terlago, and the next time he'll be tough to beat." The next time, presumably Derby Day, will find Johnny Rotz back on Silent Screen and Shoemaker on Terlago, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and the best 3-year-old to race in the West this year. "Terlago's a tough little horse who can run," says Shoemaker, "and if the track comes up right he'll run good. But the one thing he doesn't like is mud, just can't handle it at all."
A California horse that could spring a real surprise is George Lewis, particularly if Hartack elects to ride him. After a record built strictly as a sprinter, and a good one, he was a come-from-behind winner at nine furlongs in the California Derby. So it is conceivable that he could be stretched out another eighth of a mile.
The stars of the Florida season were My Dad George and Corn Off The Cob, who finished one-two, inches apart, in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby. The way they ended up those stakes—with comparatively slow last quarters—suggests that neither is a genuine mile-and-a-quarter horse, but nobody can argue that they be denied a chance to find out. In fact, no colt at the moment is more deserving than My Dad George, the only 3-year-old in the country to have won two of the $100,000 events. Without a race since the March 28 Florida Derby, My Dad George has been shipped by Trainer Buddy McManus straight to Churchill Downs, where this week, in the Stepping Stone, he probably will face Terlago. Neither McManus nor Owner Raymond Curtis, a retired theatrical producer, has ever seen a Derby. But My Dad George's sire, Dark Star, rocked the joint 17 years ago when he dealt Native Dancer his lone defeat.
Corn Off The Cob, so named because the children of Owners Ted and Pat Gary liked to eat their corn that way, came back from his Flamingo defeat to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes over Naskra before running into My Dad George again. But like his conqueror, he is a tenacious fighter who does not give in easily. And in Arnold Winick he has an excellent trainer.
Two other recent Florida winners aiming for Churchill Downs are Cassie Red and Holy Land. The former would appear to be better suited for shorter distances, while Holy Land, owned by Mrs. J. Simpson Dean Jr., has won all three of his 1970 starts but against secondary opposition and has yet to run more than a mile and a sixteenth.
The Blue Grass is the last distance prep for the Derby, and this week it will bring together a field of considerable talent, including Naskra, winner of the Everglades. By Nasram out of Iskra by Le Haar, Naskra has an abundance of stamina in his veins. In Keeneland's Forerunner Purse last week he made up nearly five lengths while covering the last furlong in 12 seconds to finish second to Supreme Quality. The performance delighted not only his owners, Richard Hersch, Peter Jacobs and Harry Gordon, but also Trainer Phil Johnson and Naskra's regular rider, Braulio Baeza. "He will improve off this race," said Baeza. "At least he should improve. If he doesn't we're in trouble. Maybe we're in trouble anyway, but I wouldn't change mounts now, even if I could." If Naskra has a major weakness it is his curious tendency to come up with a fever on the eve of major races. It cost him starts in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby. If a colt gets hot flashes before a stakes at Hialeah, what might he develop on Kentucky Derby Day?
One colt at Keeneland who has indicated he might like a distance is Mary Fisher's Hard Work. He's not as good as last fall, but he's coming back strong. And Hard Work has the advantage of running his best on Kentucky tracks.
George Pope's Aggressively, the third California-based representative on the scene, has a Kentucky heritage. Both his sire, Decidedly, and his grand-sire, Determine, won the Derby. More important, Aggressively was a fast-finishing third behind Terlago and George Lewis in the Santa Anita Derby. He has not impressed too many people at Keeneland because, as his acting trainer Don Richardson says, "He just won't work much. He's kind of a rogue and raises hell all the time. Still, he runs in the afternoon, which is when it counts." Pope, a northern California rancher and shipping executive, had a Derby near-miss with Hill Rise to go with Decidedly's victory and is a realist when it comes to this race. "As far as I'm concerned," he said not long ago, "I wouldn't send a colt to Kentucky for the Derby if I didn't think he would finish in the first four."
Another fast closer was Dr. Behrman in the Florida Derby. This son of Hail to Reason seems to be improving every day under the handling of Trainer Jimmy Conway, who won the 1963 Derby with Chateaugay. "This colt doesn't need much racing," says Conway. "Besides, he has one ugly-looking ankle, which has somehow managed to stay under control. He's not as good right now as Chateaugay was at this time, but I feel he's a natural distance horse, maybe more so than some of those who beat him in Florida."
When, and if, he ever puts his mind on his work, another tough horse to beat could be Protanto, Charlie Engelhard's $150,000 son of Native Dancer and the Tom Fool mare Foolish One. On looks alone Protanto, a big 16 hands two inches and about 1,050 pounds, is already a Derby winner, but it's not a horse show they're running at the Downs. "Most Native Dancers are prone to be sulky," says Trainer MacKenzie Miller. "And this is a phlegmatic horse, which he gets from Tom Fool. He doesn't like the whip; in fact he sours from it. But in his last race he ran much better. This horse has ability, I know it. But when will he really show us how much ability he's hiding?"
It may all come down to something former Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones said recently about the Derby. "Horses develop in amazing ways at this time of year—and unexpectedly, too. I remember when we had Ponder during the winter of 1949. He couldn't beat a stable pony. In the Derby Trial he must have got beat 100 yards by Olympia. But in the paddock on Derby Day, just five days later, mind you, he started to get little beads of perspiration, and he was excited and all that. A guy standing there said to me, 'Look at him, Jimmy. You're going to win this damn thing." I didn't think we could possibly be better than third. But Ponder was just one of those colts who was destined to be 100% ready at 4:30 p.m. that Saturday afternoon—and not one minute before. He won by three lengths at 16 to 1."
This could be the same kind of year. Go to the paddock and look for the perspiration. If you can't, you'll have to just sweat out this Derby.