When Gulfstream Park puts on its $137,800 Florida Derby, management is disappointed if the paying customer doesn't go home with the feeling that he has divided his day between the circus and the zoo. Cypress Garden water skiers cavort acrobatically on the infield lake, and a kiteflyer makes like an astronaut high above the blinking tote board. Bands tootle endlessly and the stands are awash with a specially concocted rum thirst-quencher known as a Derby Daiquiri.
Even before the rum takes its toll of the senses, Gulfstream traditionally opens Florida Derby Day with a few jockeys behaving idiotically aboard a variety of non-horses in special sprints. In past years, crowds have cast an unconvinced eye on "races" among elephants, camels, ostriches, reindeer, yaks, Brahma bulls, mules, miniature horses, llamas and zebras. Last week there were "wild" bears, three of them excruciatingly named Unbearable, Beri Beri and Barely Ready, all going a 16th of a mile for a purse of 100 pounds of honey. Unbearable won by 20 lengths, and there was also a blonde named Goldilocks who roamed the stands giving away little packages of Smuckers Clover Honey.
This shambles was at noon. Five hours—and seven claiming races—later Gulfstream got around to the 20th running of the 1‚⅛th-mile Florida Derby, the last big race of the Florida season for classic 3-year-olds. Hialeah's Flamingo on March 3 had been won by Peter Kissel's Executioner; the colt was generally expected to add the Florida Derby to his record and establish himself as one of the few serious challengers to Hoist The Flag, who is currently—if not prematurely—regarded as the unbeatable favorite for the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown.
As it turned out, Executioner was axed by Calumet Farm's Eastern Fleet, second choice in the betting. Eastern Fleet led every step of the way, Executioner was second every step of the way, and that's the way they went over the finish line—separated by barely three-quarters of a length. Twice Jockey Jacinto Vasquez had Executioner make a move at Eastern Fleet, and twice Eddie Maple, a 22-year-old from Carrollton, Ohio who was about to notch his first $100,000 stakes victory, let out a little throttle with Eastern Fleet; the issue never seemed in doubt.
Three lengths behind Executioner was Jim French, whose record suggests an affinity for third place, and eight lengths after him came Sole Mio, who might be fond of finishing fourth; then followed Limit To Reason and the rest of the field. The winner's time of 1:47[2/5] was extremely good, but not entirely unexpected. Eastern Fleet a week earlier had set a track record of 1:20[4/5] for seven furlongs.
So might this be the year of Calumet's comeback? Reggie Cornell, who took over the training of the devil's-red and blue silks last summer, thinks yes, maybe. He has four 3-year-olds nominated to the Kentucky Derby, although he is unlikely to start more than two of them. Son Ange spread a shoe in his last race and won't be galloping for at least another week, which virtually eliminates him, and Gleaming is to be restricted to grass races for the time being. But when it comes to discussing Eastern Fleet and Bold and Able, Cornell sounds like a watered-down version of Casey Stengel. Dig this: "When we came to Hialeah I thought Eastern Fleet was my best Triple Crown candidate, then I thought it was Bold and Able. Now Eastern Fleet is a great big overgrown kid who doesn't know anything about running yet. He's awkward and a bit dumb but he's a fighter and I like to run on the lead, but he doesn't have to. He can be rated. In fact, when he learns more, the fact that he is big and durable will make him very tough to beat. He runs now only when he wants to, but that's often the way with his breeding." (Eastern Fleet is by the speed star Fleet Nasrullah out of the Bull Lea mare Amoret, a full sister to Mark-Ye-Well.) "Bill Shoemaker has had a lot of experience with them and he told me that when a Fleet Nasrullah wants to run, let him run. If you take back on him too abruptly he'll dog it with you. Still, Bold and Able is as good as a horse can be right now, and he can run faster than Eastern Fleet any time. He's had shin trouble on and off this winter, and that's why we ran him on the turf instead of on this fast Gulfstream strip. Now we'll take both these colts to Keeneland and see if they can earn a ticket to Churchill Downs."
Baffling? But Reggie Cornell is a solid horseman who does not put horses where they do not belong, and if either of his favored colts shows up in Louisville on Derby Day it will not be for a tour of Churchill Downs' Kentucky Derby museum to look over the history of Calumet's seven previous Derby victories. Or eight, if you feel that Forward Pass was entitled to first money in the 1968 Butazolidin Derby that Peter Fuller's Dancer's Image did or did not win.
Recently, Cornell was toying with the idea of sending one of his charges to California for the Santa Anita Derby, but Mrs. Lucille Markey, Calumet's owner, who goes into a slow burn at the very mention of Butazolidin, got the message across that she would rather not have a horse of hers running in a state (California) where Bute is on the permissive medication list. Mrs. Markey had also had Kentucky on her states-I-will-not-race-in list since that 1968 affair (but last January she declared, "I never said I wouldn't ever race again in Kentucky. I just said I wouldn't race there until a decision was made one way or the other"). Now, with a couple of Derby prospects in her barn, she is ready to forget (if not forgive) and again grace Churchill Downs with Calumet's presence.
Peter Kissel appears to have more firmly anchored convictions. The fact that Executioner closed the gap on Eastern Fleet in the final yards of the Florida Derby prompted some to think that Kissel's colt might be a better prospect than Eastern Fleet at a mile-and-a-quarter, the Kentucky Derby distance. But on the night before the race, Kissel told his friends, "Win, lose or draw, we will not run Executioner at Churchill Downs. He has done everything we've asked of him this year, or almost everything, but Trainer Eddie Yowell and I have decided to skip the Derby. Some people will say we are simply ducking Hoist The Flag. Not at all. We'll probably go to New York and meet him in the Wood Memorial and then train on for the Preakness. What we are doing is making an early decision and sticking to it. I believe that more people get involved with the Kentucky Derby than any other race in the country. They bet the future book [in which a bet is lost if the horse is scratched] and if you have one of the favorites, as we have in Executioner, I believe it is only right to announce your plans early—if you know them."
Kissel did not care to mention his own experience at that scandal-ridden 1968 Derby. His Iron Ruler had finished second to Forward Pass in the Florida Derby and was third choice in the betting at Churchill Downs. Yet when Iron Ruler came to the paddock on Derby Day (he and the disputed winner, Dancer's Image, shared the same barn) the colt was a listless shadow of his normal self, and he ran the only poor race of his distinguished career, finishing 12th in a field of 14. Kissel will have nothing to do with speculation about doping, but he now seems equally determined that the star of his stable will have nothing to do with Churchill Downs.
With Executioner no longer a candidate for Kentucky, the Louisville scene looks slightly altered. But one aspect of the 3-year-old picture that does not waver is the attitude of most owners and trainers toward head-to-head encounters with Hoist The Flag. "He is in a class by himself," says Jim Maloney. "He does it all so easily," adds Elliott Burch. This weekend Hoist The Flag goes in the Gotham at Aqueduct, and if somebody were to put up a few Confederate bills and a bag of old bottle tops for a rival mile to be run past the Altoona exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you couldn't find an entry box large enough. It is the year of the runaway, by Hoist The Flag and away from him.
Some of the running away took place before the Florida Derby. After being soundly beaten by the Flag in the Bay Shore on March 20, Brookmeade Stable's Limit To Reason and the John Campo-trained Jim French skipped out of New York as fast as they could to cash in on last week's Gulfstream race. "If they scratch Executioner, I'm a cinch," cracked the talkative Camp. "Then I'll ship to Los Angeles a day or two later and run in the Santa Anita Derby, and there I really am a cinch." Jim French, even though he was not a factor in the Florida Derby, earned $13,780 for third place, while Limit To Reason picked up $4,134 for finishing fifth.
The impulse was contagious. Executioner looked too tough for some Florida-based horses, who skipped the Gulfstream race in the hope of finding easier pickings in the Louisiana Derby at New Orleans' Fair Grounds. One such was John Olin's Northfields, a son of Northern Dancer, who came home a winner and $38,550 richer. Locally owned List was second, but in third and fourth places were two more refugees from Florida, Will Hays and Twist The Axe.
There are nearly three dozen nominees for this week's Gotham, but Hoist The Flag is expected to scare off all but a handful who will be running for second and third moneys. Simultaneously, in California the Santa Anita Derby will be contested at a mile and an eighth. Arthur Seeligson's Unconscious is the logical favorite and should win, but if he gives way to a late stretch runner it could be Crimson Clem or Triple Bend or (if Johnny Campo is right) Jim French. It doesn't really matter. The races for the next month are primarily to find out who might be second to Hoist The Flag at Louisville on May 1. Calumet is certainly a possibility. It has a history of being first and sometimes second, too, in the Derby, and it has often had luck with a strong bench. In 1957, when the Derby had its finest crop of 3-year-olds in decades, the race was supposed to be between Calumet's Gen. Duke and Wheatley Stable's Bold Ruler. But Gen. Duke came down with a hoof injury, and Trainer Jimmy Jones had to scratch him the morning of the race. Calumet sadly fell back on its little-considered second-stringer Iron Liege, and all Iron Liege did that afternoon was to become the only horse ever to beat Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler in the same race.
So, Hoist The Flag notwithstanding, maybe it is to be a Calumet year again. The stable's racing fortunes at Churchill Downs in the past seemed to tie in with what went on first in the Florida Derby. Gen. Duke's 1957 experience was one example. In 1958 Tim Tarn won both races. Ten years later Forward Pass won the Florida race before going on to tangle with Dancer's Image, Butazolidin, racing stewards and the courts of law.
No one is advised to bet against the Flag, but it won't hurt to keep an eye on the devil's-red and blue.