The road ahead to the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby in May looks like a mass of potholes, swamps and detours on the way to mediocrity. Nowhere is there a single 3-year-old with the credentials to inspire dreams in his owner of one classic victory, let alone victory in all three—Derby, Preakness and Belmont—to duplicate Secretariat's 1973 Triple Crown. As they say around the backstretch, this year racing has come up empty. So far, at least.
Last week's running of the Fountain of Youth, one of four stakes races that Florida's Gulfstream Park puts on for 3-year-olds as preludes to the Florida Derby on March 4, was a case in point. It was won by a 43-to-1 shot named Green Gambados. Nor were favorites able to win the three earlier stakes, which were also won by outsiders at the remarkably long odds of 73 to 1, 34 to 1 and 27 to 1. It seems to be a long-shot year.
Last season's 2-year-olds were only fair to middling, to put it mildly, and of that unimpressive lot just half of the top dozen have made a start in 1974. Maybe wisely. At Santa Anita, Century's Envoy, who won all five of his races as the West's leading 2-year-old, made his 1974 debut in the San Vicente and distinguished himself by finishing last in a sluggish field of eight.
Certainly the 100th Derby deserves better than this, and one must hope it will be forthcoming. If there are no Secretariats, or even Shams, around, perhaps the glamour will come from unceasing close competition. Surely, too, some of those who have looked feeble to date will show striking improvement in the weeks ahead. And perhaps those that are still in the barns will surprise when they finally get to the starting gate. It should be remembered that last year Secretariat did not begin racing until March 17.
One optimistic view is that if all the colts take turns whipping one another, all may be potential champions. That happened in 1957, with Gen. Duke, Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Round Table and Iron Liege. Which is why, during this winter of discontent, there is always the chance that even if a man's horse finishes ninth one week, he may be in the money the next and go on to a startling performance in Louisville.
"There's nothing I'd rather do than win my first Kentucky Derby," says Laffit Pincay, the country's leading jockey. "I'm shopping around for a Derby mount. I know that this is the time when one colt may jump up and start running like a real champion. I'll keep looking." Pincay's shopping tour took him last week from his regular beat at Santa Anita to Gulfstream to ride Seth Hancock's Judger in the Fountain of Youth. "There are probably more good 3-year-olds in Florida than in California," said Pincay before the race, "and Judger may be one of the best. But I'll ride him today and again in the Florida Derby before I make a definite commitment."
Pincay's evaluation of Judger, a bay son of Damascus, may be on target. Running in a crowded field of 15 as part of a two-horse odds-on entry with Cannonade, Judger broke last and remained there for what seemed an eternity before uncorking his run at the half-mile pole. When Pincay let the throttle out, Judger responded like a rocket, passed 13 of his rivals as he dashed along the outside and missed overhauling Green Gambados by only three-quarters of a length. Two more strides in the mile-and-a-sixteenth race and Judger would have taken it all. His effort made him look like a pretty good bet for the mile-and-an-eighth Florida Derby.
"Give him a distance," said Trainer Woody Stephens, "and we might have something." But Stephens, experienced in such matters, added, "Remember, though, there are an awful lot of horses who finish fast at sprint distances and don't win who also finish fast around two turns and still don't win. I hope Judger isn't going to be one of those."
While Judger, a victim of bucked shins last season, may be a genuine classic prospect, Green Gambados is a bit of a mystery; no one even knows for sure what his name means. A year ago he was herded to the starting gate 16 times, winning only twice but finishing second six times. John Jacobs, who trains the big son of Swaps, said, "He had bad luck in his three previous races without actually having run badly. The longer distance today suited him, and I don't think he'll have trouble with any distance." Jacobs, now 39, has been training for 20 years and is gradually phasing himself out of the day-to-day track routine, most of which is currently on behalf of his brother-in-law, Lou Wolfson. "I told Lou I wanted to be more of an overseer than a trainer in 1974," says Jacobs, "but I said if I came up with something that looked good for the Derby, I'd stick around." So, while his relatives search for the meaning of the word Gambados, Jacobs will aim the colt at the Florida Derby and hope its performance there will give him reason to go north to Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
Most of the others in the Fountain of Youth ran as though they wanted no part of a classic distance. And that appraisal can be applied to some of those who skipped last week's test, such as Frankie Adams, the 27-to-1 winner of the Hutcheson, and Totheend, the winner of the Floridian at 34 to 1. Real Supreme, who won the Preview at 73 to 1, led the Fountain of Youth by as much as five lengths before fading at the eighth pole to finish 12th. If any of the also-rans has promise it might be John Galbreath's Little Current, who came from 14th to finish sixth, or Buck's Bid, who was fourth. As for Cannonade, probably the second-best 2-year-old a year ago, he was twice a victim of fate. The day before the race he was severely bumped by another horse during a morning workout, and during the Fountain of Youth itself he was roughed up in tight traffic at the 16th pole. He faded to ninth and, possibly, a stint in the repair shop.
The champion 2-year-old, Protagonist, who has not started since winning the Laurel Futurity last November, has been bothered with knee problems, and Trainer Johnny Campo does not seem absolutely certain when or where he will unveil Max Gluck's chestnut son of Prince John. Others, like Raise A Cup, Lothario, Lord Rebeau, Heir to the Line, Training Table, Pat McGroder and Who Duzzit have yet to show much. However, Eastern racing may have a sleeper in E. P. Taylor's Eastern Lord, a son of Nearctic.
Although he won Santa Anita's San Vicente, Triple Crown may not be all that his illustrious name implies. But the chestnut son of Hawaii is being well handled by Trainer Preston King and is a real fighter. So are some of the horses he beat, such as El Espanoleto and Century's Envoy. "He had trouble at the start," said Pincay of Century's Envoy, "and he hadn't raced since last July." Frank McMahon's Sea-Bird colt, Gold Standard, tried to savage another horse in the San Vicente—which isn't the best way to win races—and Fred Hooper's Wedge Shot, winner of last fall's Futurity at Belmont, tired badly in the stretch. A week later he came back and won impressively. The best of the West's 3-year-olds may be a son of Advocator named Agitate, another of Pincay's regular mounts. Johnny Longden has a potentially good one in Money Lender, as has Trainer Syl Veitch in Prince of Reason. Others—Free Up, Bold Erin, Ja Aglo, Ribot's Master, Destroyer, El Seetu, L'Amour Rullah—are winning or coming close to winning. Their seasons won't be a total loss.
Last spring and the spring before that, the racing world automatically rallied round the stars of Penny Tweedy's Meadow Stable, first Riva Ridge and then Secretariat. For a moment last summer it appeared that the blue and white colors might be in for a third smashing year. Riva's half-brother Capito and Secretariat's half-brother Capital Asset both won first starts. But instead of going on with them, Trainer Lucien Laurin sent the colts home to the farm for rest and further development. When they came back to the races recently at Gulfstream, it was a case of either too much rest or not enough development. Capito was bothered in his first start, though not enough to cause him to finish sixth. Four days later, Capital Asset did not have even that excuse. He had a clear shot at all the money on the turn for home but never got cranked up and finished fifth. Said Laurin wistfully, "You can't expect another Secretariat, you know. These two may be nice runners someday, but three champions in a row is a bit much."
So it is. Which is why this year almost every stable with a healthy 3-year-old in the barn thinks "he might be the one" for the 100th Derby.