In the decade since he inherited his mother's horses, New Jersey stockbroker Peter Kissel has operated October House Farm with far better than average success. Among his four homebred stakes winners was a game colt named Iron Ruler who, unhappily, taught Owner-Breeder Kissel a thing or two about finishing second in big races. As a 2-year-old Iron Ruler was second in the Champagne and second in the Garden State. The next season he was second in the Florida Derby, second in the Wood Memorial and second in the Arlington Classic. Even more frustratingly, Iron Ruler finished first in the Flamingo that year, only to be disqualified and set back to second for interfering with Wise Exchange, the official winner.
This season Kissel's wife Phyllis decided things would be different. On the day in January when October House Farm's Executioner, the grimly but fittingly named son of The Axe II, was to run in the Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah, Phyllis ducked into the track's gift shop and came out with a small box that she dropped into her husband's pocket. "It's a good-luck charm," she said. "Don't open it until after the race." After the race there was Executioner, winner by a nose, and there was Kissel looking into the box at a miniature china figure of a flamingo.
Last week at Hialeah, Kissel and his trainer, Eddie Yowell, finally got the big Flamingo they had been looking for, this one worth $100,750, after Executioner finished a head in front of Greentree's pace-setting Dynastic in 1:49[1/5] at the end of the mile-and-an-eighth test. It was-some kind of horse race, certainly a tribute to the gameness of Executioner, who had closed out the 1970 season by finishing second—naturally—to Run The Gantlet in the Garden State, but maybe even more of a tribute to Yowell, who deliberately kept his colt out of competition from the Hibiscus on Jan. 20 until the Flamingo on March 3. "Eddie did it all," said Kissel. "I told him we'd be either heroes or bums." The smiling Yowell said, "I didn't think we'd be bums because I know this colt pretty-well by now. He may not have been racing since Jan. 20, but he hasn't been sitting around doing nothing, either. I've been working him long and slow with an occasional fast three-quarters to keep his zip. The main thing was, I wanted a fresh horse because this colt runs best when he's fresh. I probably won't give him another race until the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 27. That's the way he is."
Most people expected the Flamingo to be a rerun on the Feb. 17 Everglades, in which His Majesty, a full brother to Graustark, got up just in time to take a head decision from Jim French, a son of Graustark. In that one Dynastic opened up six lengths but tired in the stretch. It was assumed that Dynastic would try the same thing again, and because he would be a fitter colt in his second attempt at running around two turns some thought the 10-to-1 shot might get away with it.
Sure enough, at the start there went Bobby Ussery and Dynastic away with such speed that they had a six-length lead midway up the backstretch. His Majesty was up closer this time, behind Executioner but never worse than fourth, and appeared to be in perfect position to make his move as the field left the half-mile pole. "I thought he had it for sure at that point," said His Majesty's owner, John Galbreath. "But, you know, in this game, just when you think you have something for sure, you get what amounts to a punch in the jaw." His Majesty didn't get a punch in the jaw, but what he did get was a chip fracture in his right foreleg, apparently just as the field was turning for home. As Jacinto Vasquez moved Executioner up and carved into Dynastic's lead on the final turn, Braulio Baeza succeeded in getting through on the rail with His Majesty. Had the colt not been injured, he might have taken the Flamingo, but instead he brushed against the rail, slowed down and finished sixth. He will undergo surgery and will not run again this year.
Dynastic, meanwhile, hung on magnificently and nearly made it all the way. "He didn't take the last turn too well," said Ussery. "I tapped him on the nose to keep him as close to the rail as possible because I knew that if His Majesty had it in him to catch me, that's where he'd try and come through. This colt is still a little rank, but he'll settle down with experience. I knew he was good, and now we all know he tries, too." Down the stretch, it was strictly between Dynastic and the pursuing Executioner. Less than 50 yards from the wire, after Executioner had taken a slight lead, Dynastic actually came on again to narrow the winning margin to a short head. Behind this pair, 3½ lengths back, came Jim French, running his sixth race in a little over two months, while behind him were Sole Mio and Twist The Axe. None of the others ran like Triple Crown contenders.
Even before the distressing injury to His Majesty, the Flamingo lost some of its rich plumage when Calumet Trainer Reggie Cornell decided not to start Bold and Able, a son of Bold Lad. Because of recurring shin trouble the colt had been a little behind in his training for most of the winter, and Cornell did not want to send him the mile and an eighth of the Flamingo without one prep race at a distance. When Cornell could not find anything suitable on the main track, he decided to have a whack at a mile and 1/16th on the turf. He was sorry he did, for not only did Bold and Able finish fourth (to the undistinguished Thorn, who paid an eye-popping $220.40), but he came back with ailing shins again. "If I was desperate I could still run Bold and Able in the Flamingo," Cornell said the day before the race, "but we're not that kind of a stable. There's a long season ahead, and I'm going to wait."
When Bold and Able does reenter the picture, he will still have Executioner to worry about and Dynastic, too, although the latter is headed for a brief freshener at Greentree's winter headquarters in Aiken, S.C. before going either to New York or Keeneland. Executioner has the credentials to carry his speed any distance you can name. His dam, Mae East, is a granddaughter of Pavot, and his sire, The Axe II, by Mahmoud, was a stakes winner in England at 2 and 3. He then came to the U.S., where he won nine stakes, including the mile-and-a-half Man O'War, and $393,391.
And some of Executioner's victims are likely to improve after their Flamingo efforts. Jim French could, although he may have peaked already, and both Sole Mio and Twist The Axe would appear to have better chances as the distances stretch out. Twist The Axe reared in the gate in the Flamingo, broke badly and found himself with too much ground to make up.
The 3-year-old season now shifts to Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Aqueduct. Among those at the New York track will be the 1970 2-year-old champion, Hoist The Flag, fresh off a phenomenal six-furlong workout in 1:10 on the Camden, S.C. training track. Also at Aqueduct will be Limit To Reason, Run The Gantlet and Your Excellency, which should make for some interesting racing. "Hoist The Flag is the colt we all have to beat if we're going to get anywhere," said Flamingo winner Kissel. "But it doesn't look like we'll get a chance at him until Kentucky—if all goes well for both horses."
The way Phyllis Kissel looks at it, all is going to go well for Executioner just as long as her husband carries his miniature china flamingo in his pocket on race days. "Yes, this is what did it," said Peter as he admired the figurine, which sells in Miami at three for $1.25. "This and Eddie Yowell. Eddie's got to be the greatest trainer in the world."
"Wait a minute," said Phyllis. "I've got another good-luck something myself. Don't you recognize this dress? The last time I wore it was Flamingo Day of 1968 when Iron Ruler won—only he didn't win."
"Never mind," said Peter. "The dress is wonderful, you're wonderful, Executioner is wonderful, Eddie Yowell is wonderful, and I don't think I've ever been so happy in my whole life."