You may get the feeling that you're looking at an old cowboy movie when you watch the 97th running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. There will be this huge posse of horses and riders going hell bent around the turns and up the straights on the old track at Churchill Downs in Louisville. More conspicuous for quantity than quality, the field is likely to number close to 20 and could tie the 1928 record of 22. A recurring nightmare is the possibility that entries will exceed the double starting gate's maximum capacity, in which case a nervous Derby management would have to decide whether to split the race into two sections, which would be sacrilegious, or start a few unfortunates from a point near the taxi stand on neighboring Central Avenue.
The overcrowded field is the result of an extraordinary departure of favorites and would-be favorites from the Derby roster. Hoist The Flag was injured (SI, April 12), and so were His Majesty and Droll Role. Good Behaving was not nominated for the race, Executioner is skipping it and Run The Gantlet and Salem are being saved for more favorable opportunities later on. Dynastic, Limit To Reason and Northfields, all of whom had their backers, were found wanting in their final tests and are out of it now.
But despite the absence of so many stars there is still going to be a Derby, a tumultuous, exciting one. It certainly will be the wildest-betting Derby in memory, mostly because of the large field and the absence of a clear-cut favorite, but partly because of the intrusion of New York City's off-track betting on Kentucky's big race and, in Louisville, a crackdown on local bookies that will bring more "play" money out to the betting windows at Churchill Downs. New York's operation, 800 miles away, will include exacta wagering (picking the first two finishers in order) and will make each horse in the race a separate betting interest. In Kentucky there will be no exacta on the Derby and only 12 betting choices, with the excess horses grouped in the "field" (Count Turf, the 1951 winner, was a field horse).
The Kentucky State Racing Commission has objected to New York's plans, but to no avail. Bettors have not objected; two separate betting pools on the Derby give them the delightful prospect of two sets of odds and the chance, if a telephone is handy, to lay off money from one city to the next. Sure, dad, just the way the bookies do it.
In Louisville, for example, Calumet Farm, a sentimental favorite in the blue-grass country, will draw more support for its Eastern Fleet and Bold and Able than it will in New York. In Louisville the two colts will be coupled in the betting, whereas in New York they won't, all of which means the odds in New York on these horses will be considerably higher. New Yorkers, on the other hand, will give more of a play to Jim French and his New York trainer Johnny Campo (page 34) while tending to overlook Impetuosity, Twist The Axe and List, all of whom have been racing well in Kentucky. The California-bred Unconscious would be the favorite if the Derby were being held at Hollywood Park, but he'll be something of a long shot in Louisville and even longer in New York.
Aside from the wagering possibilities, the highlight of the 97th running is the return of Calumet to the Derby scene, which it has avoided since the 1968 scandal involving Dancer's Image and Forward Pass. With Calumet is Trainer Reggie Cornell, who brought the glamorous but disappointing Silky Sullivan to the Derby in 1958. This time he has solid contenders in Eastern Fleet and Bold and Able. The trouble is, neither Cornell nor anyone else seems able to predict what either horse will do from one race to its next. Eastern Fleet finished ninth in the Flamingo but a few weeks later won the Florida Derby over substantially the same field and then finished a creditable second in the Wood. Bold and Able, erratic down south, skipped the big Florida races and ran a disappointing seventh in the Wood. So last Saturday at Churchill Downs, Bold and Able won the Stepping Stone by three lengths and Eastern Fleet was a distant sixth in a field of seven.
This sort of thing would upset most trainers, but Cornell shrugs it off. "It's nice to have two Derby horses in your barn," he says, and adds about Eastern Fleet, "If he doesn't break well, which is what happened in the Flamingo and in the Stepping Stone, he doesn't seem to give a damn. I thought he'd run better, but I'm not really disappointed."
The most impressive colt in the Stepping Stone was List, a chestnut son of the French stallion Herbager, who came from behind to finish second. He has won only twice in 20 lifetime starts, but he looks the distance type—and is bred for it—and the Derby is three-eighths of a mile longer than the Stepping Stone. None of the others in the race was impressive, and if they try the Derby they might just as well be going for a canter in the park. The same applies to all the other supernumeraries that do not belong in the Derby but will clutter up the field to such an extent that the ultimate winner is not likely to be the best horse but the horse with the best luck.
One colt that has already been given the advantage of luck is Impetuosity, who surprised everyone, including his trainer, George Poole, by winning last week's Blue Grass at Keeneland. The 46-year-old Eric Guerin, who won the 1947 Derby on Jet Pilot and lost in 1953 on Native Dancer—the Dancer's only defeat—guided Impetuosity through an almost impossibly small hole on the rail to defeat Twist The Axe, the other half of the Poole-trained entry. But it is unlikely that Impetuosity will be that fortunate two weeks in a row. Twist The Axe looked stronger and seems a better bet. Another Blue Grass also-ran, Sole Mio, has been running in hard luck all year. He comes from way out of it and to get away with that in a big field you need the breaks. Sole Mio has a chance in the Derby and so, probably, does Bold Reason, who was fifth in the Wood.
The busy Jim French is going to the Derby, of course, and after the things he has managed to do already this season he might very well win it. Trainer Campo elected to skip a race over the Churchill Downs strip in favor of keeping Jim French in New York until the last minute. Nobody should second-guess a trainer as successful as Campo, but not within memory has a Derby winner failed either to race once over the track or arrive far enough in advance to have at least one good work over it. Campo explained, "It's not that I wouldn't like to have a work there, but it's more important that I keep Jim French with my chief exercise boy, Albert Schwizer. I can't have them both away from me and the rest of the stable for all that time. We'll fly to Louisville Wednesday, walk Thursday and gallop Friday. On Saturday we'll see."
Another who'll see is Unconscious, the convincing winner of the California Derby. This chestnut is classically bred—he's by the Arc de Triomphe winner Prince Royal II (who is by the undefeated Ribot) out of a granddaughter of Epsom Derby winner Mahmoud. Unconscious suffers in reputation only because he has been beating an uncommonly poor lot of fellow Californians and because he lost to Jim French in the Santa Anita Derby. His trainer, John Canty, says, "I've never seen a colt improve so much in two months. I don't think Jim French will beat him again."
Who will win? It would be sentimentally appropriate if an old campaigner like Eric Guerin could get his second Derby victory 24 years after his first one—and 18 years after being blamed for Native Dancer's only losing race. But the Kentucky Derby is sentiment heavily flavored with reality. So the pick here is Unconscious, ridden by young Laffit Pincay Jr., who is in his first Derby. Close behind him we suggest you look for List, Twist The Axe and, naturally, Jim French. Johnny Campo does not get shut out too often.
TWIST THE AXE