Last Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct was supposed to produce a clear-cut favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Hoist The Flag, only candidate for superhorsedom among the 1971 three-year-olds, was out of things with a broken right hind leg and still weeks away from a final decision on the success or failure of emergency surgery. But Eastern Fleet, winner of the Florida Derby, was in the mile-and-an-eighth Wood, and so was Jim French, who had established the superiority of the Eastern colts by flying to California and knocking off Unconscious and other top Western horses in the Santa Anita Derby.
There was also Executioner, who had won the Flamingo and finished a closing second in the Florida Derby. Executioner's owner, Peter Kissel, had said his colt would not run in Kentucky, but even so his presence in the Wood would make it a better test. Then, too, Calumet was sending out the brilliant but erratic Bold and Able to run as an entry with Eastern Fleet, and Greentree had entered its highly promising Sit In The Corner, who seemed ready at last to take on the top colts. Finally, there was Good Behaving, running as a Johnny Campo-trained entry with Jim French. Good Behaving had not been nominated to the Kentucky Derby but had shown a rather distressing habit of beating Triple Crown eligibles.
And who won? Good Behaving, of course, thundering up from last place in the backstretch to finish a length ahead of Eastern Fleet, with Executioner a close third and Jim French fourth. Bold and Able faded after running on the lead for a while, and Sit In The Corner did nothing.
Meanwhile, at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco the same afternoon, Unconscious regained some of his lost prestige with an impressive victory in the California Derby, which helped muddle the Kentucky picture even more. The big question making the rounds was: Why wasn't Good Behaving nominated to the Derby before the Feb. 15 deadline? Trainer Campo said, "In February in Florida he didn't show us nothing, so we didn't think he was good enough to nominate him. What difference does it make? I was tickled to death about Jim French's race in the Wood, and he'll go down to Churchill Downs and win it for us anyway."
The "us" in this case does not include Good Behaving's owner, Neil Hellman, from Albany, N.Y., who doesn't really seem to care. "I've got eight horses in training and another five broodmares in Ocala," says Hellman, "and I don't know what everyone is so excited about the Derby for. As far as I'm concerned I'm a New Yorker, and I'd rather win the Belmont Stakes any day. Before that I want to win the Withers mile. My Gleaming Light was disqualified from the Withers two years ago, and I feel we have a rather personal vendetta to get that one back. Then we'll skip the Preakness and aim for the Belmont."
Peter Kissel's earlier announcement that for personal reasons he would not send Executioner to Kentucky, come what may, was reconfirmed. After the Wood—in which Executioner gave up the lead just after the eighth pole—his decision appeared to be a sound one. Some thought that the defection of Hoist The Flag might alter his plans, but even before the Wood Kissel had maintained, "Nobody has to believe me, but I know what I'm saying, and I know what I mean. Executioner will point for the Preakness, just as I said all along."
And Calumet Farm? Eastern Fleet certainly ran a creditable race in the Wood, and Trainer Reggie Cornell definitely plans to fly him to Louisville this week. "He'll go in the Derby," Cornell said, "and he'll win." The other Calumet entry in the Wood, Bold and Able, tired badly during the last furlong, which hardly indicates that he would relish the longer Derby distance. Calumet's Son Ange is staying in the East, and the stable's fourth Derby eligible, Gleaming, after running a disappointing fifth in an earlier race at Aqueduct last Saturday, will be restricted to turf races for the time being. "In fact," says Cornell, "I may send him to Hollywood Park this week on the same plane that drops Eastern Fleet off in Louisville."
It was no surprise that Unconscious won the California Derby by three lengths in race-record time of 1:47[1/5] (compared to Good Behaving's 1:49[4/5] at Aqueduct). Owner Arthur Seeligson and Trainer John Canty have thought all along that they had more than a useful runner in this son of Arc de Triomphe winner Prince Royal II, and they will definitely send Unconscious to Louisville. It would surprise nobody if Triple Bend, who was second in the California Derby, shows up at Churchill Downs, too, although none of the others from that race is likely to go East.
Meanwhile, at Keeneland, things were, getting cranked up for this week's Blue Grass, the nation's final nine-furlong Derby prep. Keeneland's seven-furlong Forerunner last Friday was supposed to tell something about the Blue Grass and possibly the Derby, but when it was won by a Greentree castoff called Going Straight—with the two favorites, Vegas Vic (third in the Santa Anita Derby) and Helio Rise (a stakes winner in New Orleans) fifth and seventh—the plot thinned. Earlier in the week Greentree's Dynastic, an impressive second to Executioner in the Flamingo, broke through the gate before the start of another minor race at Keeneland and in the mile-and-a-sixteenth event stopped in the stretch to finish a disappointing third behind Code of Honor and Royal Leverage. Greentree gave Dynastic some starting-gate lessons, a figure-eight noseband and a new jockey named Willie Shoemaker before sending him out in the Blue Grass to race Twist The Axe, Sole Mio, Northfields, Limit To Reason and several others who wandered in off the Russell Cave Pike.
Thus, confusion appears to be the theme of this year's Derby, and nowhere is it better personified than in Jim French, who is becoming something of a mystery horse. The tough little competitor has run nine times already this year and 21 times in his brief career. Always a factor but unable to beat the best Eastern colts at nine furlongs, he handled an unfamiliar track and a top California field with ease in his only trip across the Rockies. There was a report from Santa Anita that Jim French had been given Butazolidin (which is legal in California) before his victory there, but Campo said Saturday that the rumor was not true. Hedgingly, he added, "Wouldn't they have told me out there if I was doing anything wrong?"
After returning to New York (where Butazolidin is not allowed) Jim French still could not beat the two colts, Eastern Fleet and Executioner, who had defeated him over a distance in Florida. "That doesn't matter," says his jockey, Angel Cordero. "He won't have to stay up as close in the Derby as we had to in the Wood. He'll have a better finishing kick, and we will win."
Part of the story of Jim French is his ownership. The colt (a son of Graustark out of the Tom Fool mare Dinner Partner) was bred by Ralph Wilson, who also owns football's Buffalo Bills, and was foaled and raised at Leslie Combs' Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. Wilson raced Jim French for a while as a two-year-old and later, in a complicated bit of back-and-forth, sold him, bought back a part interest and finally sold out entirely to Frank J. Caldwell. Before the Wood, rumors were flying that Jim French was being carved up financially again. A bid of between $1 million and $2 million reportedly was made for a half interest in the colt, although there were supposed to be all sorts of what is known in the horse business as "if come" clauses, meaning that any contract would be binding only "if" Jim French fulfilled certain prerequisites—like winning the Kentucky Derby or one of the Triple Crown events, or earning a certain amount of purse money before his retirement. What he does in Kentucky is therefore important. Combs has obtained first refusal for the eventual syndication of Jim French as a sire at Spendthrift, but Combs' interest in the colt may slip considerably if Jim French fails his first "if come" task at Churchill Downs next week.