Shocked and depressed by the news that Hoist The Flag, overwhelming early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, had shattered his leg in a training accident, racing last week nimbly turned its attention to the problem of discovering The Flag's likely successor.
Johnny Campo, the outstanding New York trainer, shipped his much-worked Jim French to Santa Anita to test Unconscious, who had won the San Felipe two weeks earlier and seemed clearly the best in the West, in the Santa Anita Derby. When Campo was last at Santa Anita four years ago he was an assistant trainer to the renowned Eddie Neloy and the personal attendant of Ogden Phipps' Buckpasser. Last week, plump and grinning, he made it back to Santa Anita—and before the 95° day had cooled off Johnny was a hero. Early in the afternoon word came from New York that the Campo-trained Good Behaving had won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and a purse of $34,080. Late in the afternoon Jim French, who has had more flying time this winter than a Pan-Am captain (on three successive Saturdays he raced in New York, Florida and California), left Unconscious a length and three quarters behind to win another $88,400.
So it was a great day for Campo, but in view of Jim French's steady but unspectacular record this season against the Eastern 3-year-olds his victory says quite a bit about the caliber of the California runners. At Gulfstream Park a week earlier, before Jim French finished third behind Eastern Fleet and Executioner in the Florida Derby, Campo was asked why he was taking the colt on such short notice to Santa Anita. He replied bluntly, "Because I'm a cinch out there, that's why."
Last Saturday, after he had proved his point, he leaned back in his chair at the head of the press table, his hands resting comfortably on a belly that hasn't missed many oats. Naturally, the battery of California writers wanted to know why Campo had decided to bring Jim French to Santa Anita. "I need the money," he cracked. Then, in a devastating afterthought, "No, I came because there's nothing out here, nothing. I knew Good Behaving couldn't miss winning the Gotham, so why do I want to run one-two at Aqueduct when I can make more money this way? The good horses from the West come East and they usually don't do so hot. If you have a good horse in the East you're crazy not to take him West and beat what they got out there. That's all there is to it. Any more questions?"
Despite Campo's coup and the victory the same day of Twist The Axe in the Arkansas Derby, the prime topic last week was still Hoist The Flag.
"What an unpredictable sport this is, and what a dreadful shame," said Mrs. Jimmy Kilroe, wife of the Santa Anita racing secretary. "Hoist The Flag represented the right combination in every way: good breeding, managed perfectly, not overraced, well rested over the winter. Everything was just perfect for him to become a super hero—which American racing desperately needs."
His owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Clark Jr. of Middleburg, Va., and his trainer, Sidney Watters, brought the colt, a son of Tom Rolfe and the War Admiral mare Wavy Navy, along slowly. Watters ran Hoist The Flag only four times last year, skipped the Florida season this winter to let the horse rest in Camden, S.C. and raced him only twice this spring. He won by 15 lengths at Bowie and by seven lengths in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct, which he took with consummate ease over good horses. "We never really set him down and let him run," mused Watters after the accident. "There's no telling how fast he might have been." Jean Cruguet, his rider, said, "The only way he could have been beaten was if he fell down."
A week ago Wednesday morning at Belmont Park, Watters was planning to work Hoist The Flag on the main track in preparation for the Gotham, one of two final prep races for the colt before the May 1 Kentucky Derby. After conferring with Cruguet it was decided to shift to the Belmont training track, which seemed less "dead." Somewhere, probably about a sixteenth of a mile after Hoist The Flag completed an easy five-furlong work, the colt put his right hind foot down wrong, and suddenly, as though struck by lightning, he suffered a shattered pastern and a fractured cannon bone. "He stopped so suddenly," said Cruguet, "I knew something awful was wrong." Within minutes, so did everyone else at Belmont.
Watters, standing up the track, ran toward the colt as Cruguet dismounted. The track horse ambulance came, and Hoist The Flag, standing on three legs, was driven back to the barn. Watters hurriedly called Dr. Mark Gerard, and as a protective splint was applied and X rays taken he put in a sad phone call to Middleburg. The Clarks immediately left for New York. Meanwhile, phone calls were made to two other prominent veterinarians, Dr. Jacques Jenny of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Donald Delahanty of the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. The Clarks arrived at Stall 14 Barn 38 as Dr. Jenny was studying the X rays. The pastern is the last segment of the leg, just above his hoof, and in a running horse it bears a tremendous amount of strain. It was fragmented. After seeing the X ray Alfred Vanderbilt, chairman of the New York Racing Association, said, "It looked like a hammer had shattered an ice cube." It was obvious that Hoist The Flag would never race again. Mrs. Clark (the horse is hers, rather than her husband's) had to decide whether to have the animal destroyed or submit it to an operation that might restore the leg sufficiently for it to bear the colt's active weight. The Flag's potential value at stud was still enormous.
Dr. Jenny said he thought the horse could be saved. Mrs. Clark said, "I don't want to do anything that's cruel to him." Dr. Jenny suggested they wait a few minutes more until Dr. Delahanty arrived. When Delahanty agreed with Jenny the horse was taken from the barn and vanned a short distance to a veterinary hospital just across the road from the racetrack. There he underwent a six-hour operation. The cannon bone was not too badly broken and was put back together with a pin. But the pastern had to be completely rebuilt.
Hoist The Flag came out of the operation well, his leg encased in a huge metal and fiber-glass cast. Although for the first few days the colt was unable to figure out how to lie down, he seemed comfortable enough. The great danger was that the rebuilt pastern would fail to knit and that gangrene might develop. It would be several weeks before anyone could tell for certain whether the operation was a success.
If he survives, Hoist The Flag's value may diminish only slightly, since he will be in great demand as a stud. He retires undefeated in six races (although he was disqualified in one), is splendidly bred and was greatly admired for his speed and competitiveness. True, he never won beyond a mile in his brief career, and his admirers were unhappily premature in calling him another Citation or Man o'War, but he was good. If he had made it to the Gotham and had run his first seven furlongs at the same speed as he had in the Bay Shore, he could have run the last furlong in 15 seconds—laughably slow time—and still finished ahead of Good Behaving.
The Clarks had him insured for $500,000, which in these days of high finance in racing may have been a bit on the low side. They had received several offers for him, one for $2 million ($1.5 million down, the other $500,000 later). A rumor spread that the offer was really for $4 million, which could be another case of racetrack arithmetic, although a major commercial breeder conceivably might value the horse at that amount.
If he dies the Clarks will collect their half million, although they neither need nor want it. Twenty years ago Your Host suffered a leg injury and his owner elected (as was his privilege) to take the $250,000 insurance and have the colt destroyed. Lloyds of London paid the insurance but decided to save the animal. He recovered, stood at stud for a year under Lloyds' management and then was sold for $140,000. Your Host will remain in the record books for all time as the sire of the five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso. That's the way racing goes.
As for this year's Kentucky Derby picture, the frosting on the cake may have melted a bit with the injuries to Hoist The Flag and His Majesty and the defection of Executioner (SI, April 5), but Eastern Fleet and Bold and Able are still around. So is the gutty little Jim French, who at Santa Anita got through on the inside to win after having had to check twice on the last turn. And, as Campo says, "Jim French is still learning. A couple of months ago he never would have gone through a hole to get to the lead. If he's a nice boy I might rest him for the Kentucky Derby. But if he's bad I'll have to run the son of a bitch again. Me, I never make up my mind what I'm going to do until a day or two before I do it."