It seems we were wrong indeed if we I really expected that last week's two most important races would clarify this week's Kentucky Derby. They mostly succeeded in adding more mud to the muddle. At Keeneland the 35-to-1 shot Dust Commander dragged himself through some wretched slop to win the mile-and-an-eighth Blue Grass in the poor time of 1:51⅕ beating, among others, Corn Off The Cob, Naskra, Protanto and Dr. Behrman. Two days later at Churchill Downs the hero of the Florida season, My Dad George, who is supposed to be a distance horse, beat sprinters at their own game in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone. He has now won his last three, including the Flamingo and Florida Derby, by a nose and two necks.
This week's one-mile Derby Trial, which was expected to bring together High Echelon, George Lewis and Native Royalty, rounded out four months of Derby buildup, the most confusing buildup of many years. The most appropriate summing-up was delivered by Jockey Bill Shoemaker: "Unless they're all outstanding—which is highly unlikely—this is a pretty ordinary bunch."
Ordinary or not, one of them is going to be world famous this Saturday after whipping his rivals at a mile and a quarter before 100,000 live fans and millions more on television. The question is—which one? To solve the riddle one must first attempt to eliminate some of those in an unwieldy field that may not fall far short of the record of 22 entries that was set in 1928. Even if they should start for one reason or another, I say "No chance" to the likes of Supreme Quality, Admiral's Shield, Villager, Fathom, Robin's Bug and Action Getter.
Questionable starters last week were Aggressively and Naskra. The former came down with a cough and a fever on Blue Grass day, missed several days' work and was scratched from the Derby. Naskra, who finished third, behind Dust Commander and Corn Off The Cob, threw a shoe and injured the wall of one hoof. Should he start, he would be at a disadvantage. Likewise, only if High Echelon and Native Royalty show great improvement in the trial can they be conceded any chance. An unknown quantity in this sort of competition is Holy Land, winner of three straight at Gulfstream against inferior runners.
Any of the remaining nine probables could win, although Dust Commander would have to get a muddy or sloppy track to do his best. He won the Blue Grass because of it and also because the others kindly gave him the rail, where he saved ground all the way. Corn Off The Cob had the lead at the eighth pole and may have lost because of the track. That goes for Naskra, too. Dr. Behrman, obviously not the worst of the 10 in the Blue Grass, still finished last in that slop, which was probably enough to convince Bill Hartack, who rode him, to stick with George Lewis in the Derby. Protanto, who came from ninth to fourth, finished the most impressively.
In the Stepping Stone, My Dad George came from last in the field of six to nail Santa Anita Derby winner Terlago in the last eighth. Both of them ran respectably on a fast track. George Lewis, winner of the California Derby, has responded to treatment for a minor infection, and his connections still believe he is a sprinter that can be rated.
My own opinion is that the 96th Derby will be won by the colt who shows the most improvement this week and not by one who attained a peak two weeks or a month ago. That brings it down to a choice among Personality, Silent Screen and Protanto. Less than a length separated the first two in the Wood Memorial, and both are coming up to this race perfectly. Protanto has won only once in seven races this year but, running without blinkers for a change in the Blue Grass, he proved at last that he's got the hang of things. Out on a limb, I'll say that Protanto, a son of Native Dancer and the Tom Fool mare Foolish One, will come on with a big stretch run to avenge his daddy's only defeat exactly 17 years ago to the very day, May 2.