Perhaps it was snobbery, perhaps good sense, perhaps they are a ragtag lot that their owners are in no hurry to expose, but not one of the leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby—now-just nine Saturdays away—had appeared on a racetrack this season. And here it was the first of March. Finally, last week three of the top-ranked six made it to the gate. Not in 22 years, since Middleground in 1950, has a colt started his 3-year-old season this late and still managed to win the Derby. That is a statistic trainers might reflect on.
Horsemen had their reasons for this casual approach to the classic. Several owners claimed that Gulfstream Park, which replaced stately Hialeah as Florida's midwinter meeting, was a place not fit for man or beast. So through January and February, they stayed on the beach and their horses stayed in the barn. "I kept my record clean; I never went to Gulfstream," sang one prominent owner as Hialeah opened last Friday. In some quarters, appearing in the Gulfstream clubhouse was viewed as being a traitor to one's class. A Kentuckian who risked censure and went up to Hallandale anyway returned to report, "Honey, it's like going down to the depot when you're used to Grand Central Station." One wonders just how long it has been since this gentleman traveled to New York, but at least he made his point.
For years Gulfstream had sought Hialeah's earlier dates, which fell during the height of the tourist season and at a time when the best horses always raced. The track argued its case in court and finally got what it wanted. But after all that effort, the banner season it expected failed to develop. Attendance and handle hardly compared with past seasons at Hialeah; and during the entire 40-day Gulfstream meeting not a single horse ran in the colors of such major stables as Greentree, Darby Dan, Rokeby or Ogden Phipps. "Many trainers are in Florida but not running at Gulfstream," said Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form columnist. "There are two reasons. The track is too hard and therefore dangerous in comparison to Hialeah, and there is an understandable resentfulness over the change in dates between the two tracks." For 44 years Hialeah's midwinter meeting had provided an elegant respite for horsemen, much as Saratoga does in midsummer.
While many trainers were knocking Gulfstream, many more were busy doing the best they could there, and by meeting's end last Thursday a few of their colts had won new recognition. Though Lucien Laurin was keeping Riva Ridge, last season's undisputed 2-year-old champion and winner of seven of his nine races, in his barn at Hialeah, he brought to Gulfstream two worthy substitutes. The best seemed Spanish Riddle, a son of Ridan, who had thrived since shipping south from New York. He had won three in a row, scoring by such astonishing margins as eight and 13 lengths. Two of his victories had been in stakes, and he was the favorite in the $180,000 Florida Derby last week. Laurin also had a less-fancied starter, Upper Case, a bay by Round Table out of the Bold Ruler mare Bold Experience. When the field of 11 in the mile-and-one-eighth stake turned into the stretch, Upper Case, with Ron Turcotte riding, surprised almost everyone by barreling through a hole on the rail and rushing past his stablemate to win by a length.
Churchill Downs President Lynn Stone looked on awkwardly as the winning owner, Mrs. Penny Tweedy, and Laurin admitted they had neglected to pay $100 just two weeks before to nominate Upper Case for the Kentucky Derby. Was this an office mix-up or what? At first Laurin said, "Mrs. Tweedy believes that if she has one colt good enough for the Kentucky Derby [she owns Riva Ridge], she does not need two." But then Penny Tweedy went on to explain it wasn't quite that way: "It was my decision, and I suppose I'll be trying to live it down for a long time to come. But as a yearling on our farm, Upper Case was the star of his crop. Riva Ridge was just one of the others. Which is how things remained until they started racing. Then we knew Riva was something special. Upper Case seemed to be slower to develop, and on his breeding we thought that the Belmont Stakes and those fall distance races would suit him better. That's why I didn't nominate him for the Kentucky Derby."
Though the Florida Derby did not draw quality horses as it has in the past, the performance by Upper Case was good enough; Fountain of Youth winner Gentle Smoke finished third behind Spanish Riddle, and Calumet's Tarboosh was fourth. Laurin was asked how Upper Case compared with the still-to-start Riva Ridge. "I've got news for you," said the jovial ex-jockey. "Riva is 10 pounds better. I've never trained anything to compare with him. This is a long campaign, and I must be careful. I'll put three or four races into him before the Derby, and that should be enough. He has taken more time than I expected to fill out, but he's about 1,050 pounds now and I have no complaints. He's sound, and if all goes well I'll run him in the Hibiscus on March 22."
Two of the colts being touted as Riva's toughest competitors—Key to the Mint and Freetex—made their 1972 debuts in the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes the next day at Hialeah. But instead of running one-two or even one-anything, they ran fourth and nowhere. Key to the Mint was beaten in the race by 10½ lengths, and Freetex was pulled up at the top of the stretch after his jockey felt the colt take some bad steps. The race winner was Mrs. Wallace Gilroy's New Prospect, a Never Bend colt who has now won three of his four lifetime starts. In this, his first stakes appearance, he set a dazzling track record, 1:21⅖ and raced nearly all the way in front. Dick Fischer, his trainer, said the colt probably would skip next week's Flamingo. "It's time I taught him how to rate, to come from behind," Fischer explained. As for Key to the Mint, Trainer Elliott Burch believed the 1,200-pound bay might have lost some of his competitive spirit during his months of ease. The colt will probably wear blinkers in his next outing.
The one 3-year-old that lived up to his advance billing last week was Royal Owl, who coasted home with his ears cocked in the $54,850 San Jacinto Stakes at Santa Anita. He is trained by canny John Canty, the Irishman who has patched together last year's Kentucky Derby favorite Unconscious and brought him back to win the important Strub and San Antonio stakes this winter. Royal Owl is not fashionably bred, at least in classic terms. He is by Crazy Kid, once the world-record holder for six furlongs (1:07[4/5]). "He may not be bred well," his jockey Bill Shoemaker said recently,' 'but he runs like a freak horse." Royal Owl gave Shoemaker his 555th stakes victory. It had taken Shoe 23 years to break Eddie Arcaro's mark of 554 (set during a 31-year career). Royal Owl is the hottest Derby prospect in the West, the winner of seven straight. He has been beaten only once, in his first race in which he was checked. His competition in California appears minimal, at least until an injured colt of considerable promise named MacArthur Park returns to the racing scene.
So this is a different sort of season. For years U.S. horsemen have watched 3-year-olds of classic pretensions become lame and halt long before the first Saturday in May. Think back over 20 years at the colts that raced hell-for-leather through winter campaigns and never made it to Churchill Downs. Think of Graustark, Buckpasser, Turn-to, Gen. Duke. Remember Sir Gaylord and First Landing? Penny Tweedy does. Her father owned them, and they ran in the same blue-and-white block Meadow Stable silks she now uses. Sir Gaylord broke down the morning before the 1962 Kentucky Derby; he had been the heavy favorite. First Landing, the favorite in 1959, made it to the gate and managed to finish third, but he was taken out of training shortly thereafter. Which may be two excellent reasons for Riva Ridge—and all the rest of the 3-year-old crop—just to idle along. But until May 6, who's to know for sure.