The people who operate Churchill Downs want the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby to be something very special, and it's beginning to look as if they're going to get their wish. There may be so many horses in the race that they'll have to start them in rows Indy-style, and before sunset in Louisville on May 4 the 100th Derby may be better known as the first equine demolition derby. Look what has happened in Florida this winter. There have been 11 stakes races for the supposedly elite thoroughbreds heading for Louisville, and they have been won by 11 different colts. This unprecedented display of inconsistency reached its peak at Hialeah last Saturday when Mrs. Marion duPont Scott's 9-to-1 Bushongo scored a 2-length upset victory in the $128,800 Flamingo, the track's mile-and-an-eighth showcase race for 3-year-olds.
That isn't all. Hasty Flyer at 10 to 1 was second, while the favorites, the odds-on entry of Judger and Cannonade, struggled home third and seventh with nary an excuse between them. Shocking enough for one day, but the surprises weren't over yet. Moments after accepting the Flamingo Cup, Mrs. Scott's trainer, Frank A. (Downey) Bonsai, calmly announced that Bushongo would probably skip the Derby and aim instead for the May 18 Preakness in his home state of Maryland.
"I didn't even want to run in the Flamingo," said Bonsai, who in recent years has won such stakes as the Washington, D.C International and the United Nations Handicap with Bushongo's sire, Mongo. "But when Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form told me that Citation ran 20 times as a 3-year-old in 1948, I thought Bushongo was probably entitled to his fifth start of the season. He had run pretty greenly in most of his races, but when he was second to Little Current in the Everglades, he was bumped by Hasty Flyer and he was guilty of a bit of swerving of his own. I figured if I could get him to run straight and have a horse to run at through the stretch, he might be able to beat any horse in Florida."
Equipped with blinkers in the Flamingo, Bushongo did exactly what Bonsai and Jockey Don MacBeth hoped he would. And this time Hasty Flyer, instead of hindering Bushongo, actually helped him by taking over a slow pace from the start and providing the stretch target for Bushongo to overhaul just inside the eighth pole. From there on it was a picnic to the wire, which the winner reached in the mediocre time of 1:49.
Hasty Flyer finished a length in front of Judger, who, instead of coming from his customary dead-last position, this time plodded along evenly in seventh place in the 10-horse field. Jockey Laffit Pincay, who had committed himself before the Flamingo to ride Judger in both the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby, said optimistically that he was not overly concerned about the loss. He pointed out that although the track was listed as fast, it was really pretty much on the dead side, and added, hopefully, "The race will do him a lot of good. He'll be fine."
Come-from-behind horses usually suffer in races where there is a slow pace, and when Hasty Flyer dawdled through the first half mile in :47[2/5] and the mile in 1:36⅖ things began to look ominous for Judger, Cannonade and Little Current, all of whom like to do their real running down the stretch to catch tired or stopping horses. This time the cards were stacked against them but were dealt perfectly for Bushongo, who tracked Hasty Flyer faithfully all the way in second place until MacBeth put him on the lead for good, right after the pair passed the eighth pole head and head. In the Kentucky Derby, of course, there is almost always a fast pace by some hell-bent-for-leather sprinter, and the beaten come-from-behinders in the Flamingo can be expected to find the game in Louisville more to their liking.
As for Mrs. Scott and Downey Bonsal, their game has always been a conservative one, their views of racing far different from those of most horsemen today. They look upon the horse as an animal and an individual instead of a machine. Mrs. Scott, one of the outstanding figures in steeplechasing in America (she won the English Grand National with Battleship in 1938), passed up the Flamingo to be at her private course in Camden, S.C., where she played hostess to the Carolina Cup, known in some circles as the South's largest outdoor cocktail party and fashion show. Bonsal, a refugee from the fox-hunting fields of Maryland, also gained fame over the sticks, and both he and his son Frank have ridden the winners of the Maryland Hunt Cup timber race. "I've been training for Mrs. Scott on and off for 40 years," he says. "I probably wouldn't be training for anyone at all right now were it not for her great loyalty to me. We had a lot of years together with horses such as Mongo, Saratoga, Nala and many more.
"I have always been conservative in my approach to racing and so has Mrs. Scott. Bushongo is far more placid than his sire, Mongo, not as high-strung. He doesn't like his races too close together. And I'm not crazy about sending him a mile and a quarter in the Kentucky Derby that early in the year when there are so many opportunities later on. When I told Mrs. Scott that I thought we should run Bushongo in the Flamingo, she agreed with me, but only on the condition that, win or lose, he get a brief rest afterwards."
Bonsal, who acquired the nickname Downey during his hunting and steeple-chasing days, when even the best riders spent considerable time bouncing down onto the turf, clearly didn't do any bouncing on his head. And when he makes up his mind, nothing is likely to change it. In 1969 he brought Ack Ack to Louisville for Captain Harry F. Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable. Ack Ack won the Derby Trial and broke the track record for a mile. Did that set him up perfectly for the Derby itself? No, it didn't. Bonsal, with Guggenheim's approval, figured the mile-and-a-quarter Derby was a bit too much and a bit too soon, and he shipped Ack Ack back to Belmont Park, leaving a memorable Derby to be disputed between Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters.
A few weeks before the Flamingo, Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang, was cruising the Hialeah backstretch distributing nomination blanks for the upcoming Preakness. Downey Bonsai stopped him and said, "Hey, Chick, don't bother to take any more entries. I got the winner right here." And he pointed at the handsome son of Mongo and the Relic mare Pervinca. Pimlico's gain may be Churchill Downs' loss.
Meanwhile, with another month to go and testing races still to come at Aqueduct, Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, Golden Gate Fields and Churchill Downs itself, no colt is likely to emerge as a clear favorite until the bettors begin pouring their money through the pari-mutuel windows at Louisville. Californians in the crowd will give uneasy support to Destroyer, who last Sunday, barely 24 hours after Bushongo's victory in the Flamingo, scored an even bigger upset by winning the Santa Anita Derby over such well-publicized colts as Aloha Mood, Agitate and Triple Crown. Destroyer paid $89.80, highest payoff in the 37-year history of the event. His owner, a former United Press International writer named Kenneth Opstein, took his horse home to Omaha, and from there will ship to Kentucky.
Agitate, lightly raced but highly regarded, went off the even-money favorite. He lagged well behind until the last turn and then rallied strongly to finish third, half a length behind Aloha Mood. Disappointing, but good enough for those who believe in him. After all, somebody has to win that race on May 4.