The 1‚⅛-mile Wood Memorial usually yields a fairly good indication of what to expect in the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Since the first Wood in 1925, seven of its winners have gone on to take the Derby, 10 the Preakness and 11 the Belmont. Of the nine Triple Crown winners, three prefaced their climb to greatness with a victory in the Wood, although one of those who did not was Secretariat. Last April he stunned everyone by finishing third to Angle Light and Sham. One who won't this year is Secretariat's promising half brother, Capital Asset, who last week upset his supporters by finishing dead last in the first division of the Wood, beaten 37 lengths by a 9-to-l shot named Flip Sal.
The 50th running of the Wood drew so many entries that for the fourth time in its illustrious history the race had to be split into two parts. Flip Sal may prove only to be one of those colts—there have been a lot of them this year—that have a brief moment of glory before unsaddling in the paddocks of obscurity. But Rube the Great, the inelegantly named son of Bold Lad, won the second division with Csonka-like authority, repeating his victory of two weeks earlier in a division of the Gotham. Finishing first two successive races is a rare feat for a 1974 3-year-old, and by doing it Rube the Great threw a real challenge at the Derby hopefuls waiting to run in the Blue Grass at Keeneland and in the Stepping Stone and Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.
As a group, the 22 runners in the Wood's two divisions lacked the quality of such Blue Grass contenders as Bushongo, Judger and Cannonade, not to mention Agitate, the highly regarded winner of last Saturday's California Derby. Nonetheless, the competition served a useful purpose in helping to reduce the number of colts who will bow, curtsy and stumble around in front of Princess Margaret, Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford and the vast eye of television at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. There is no doubt that the Derby field will be massive, possibly larger than the record 22-colt squadron that charged past the stands in Reigh Count's Derby in 1928. Flip Sal's long-shot victory did little to discourage such a big field. But Rube the Great's performance, which was both faster and more impressive than Flip Sal's, did. A 3-to-2 favorite, he received a heady, nervy ride from Jockey Miguel Rivera, who took the colt from a pinched-off position in fourth place at the head of the stretch and bulled his way through horses to win. There was an official inquiry, of course, but the stewards decided that whatever rudeness Rivera and Rube had committed, it was not of sufficient magnitude to disqualify them.
Rube the Great's margin was only a head, but considering the trouble he had, it was a pretty good showing. Owner Sigmund Sommer and Trainer Pancho Martin acquired him last fall, along with another Derby eligible, Accipiter, and the filly Tourniquette, in a package deal for $200,000. Rube earned $69,660 in the Wood to raise his winnings to $134,810, and he will run as an entry in the Derby with Accipiter, if the latter starts.
A year ago Sommer and Martin's Derby horse was the redoubtable Sham, the best 3-year-old in California, who broke the old Derby record and still lost to Secretariat. This winter Rube ran at Santa Anita and won two of seven races, but he spent a good deal of time trying to catch up to Triple Crown, who finished second to Flip Sal last Saturday, Aloha Mood, who was last in the California Derby, Destroyer and Agitate. "He didn't care for that hard track out there," says Martin, "but back here in the East he shows me he may be as good as Sham. And that wouldn't be bad, eh?"
Whereas Sommer and Martin are used to winner's circles, Flip Sal's owner, Salvatore Tusano, a 41-year-old insurance executive from Syosset, N.Y., was playing in a new kind of ball game. Two years ago he went to the Keeneland sales and for $21,500 bought the gray son of Drone, a young stallion who once was such a promising prospect that his trainer, Lucien Laurin, says, "Except for Secretariat, Drone was the best horse I ever trained. Who knows what he would have done if he hadn't broken down before the 1969 Derby?"
Flip Sal was 15th and last in the Fountain of Youth, eighth in the Bay Shore and sixth in the Gotham, but Trainer Steve DiMauro kept insisting, "This is a nice colt, and in this kind of year he's got as good a Derby chance as most of the other colts around."
Maybe so, but Flip Sal's winning time in the Wood, 1:51⅖ was bettered by claiming horses in the day's first race. "That's all right," chirped the happy Tufano. "I'm floating on air. I've never been to a Kentucky Derby, and I've always said I'd never go until I could go with a Derby horse. Now we'll go."
Whether Flip Sal is a true Derby horse is debatable, and that goes for a lot of the others who will be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs. But there are a few, like Rube the Great, who are beginning to look pretty solid. The favored Triple Crown, given a more sensible ride, might have won Flip Sal's half of the Wood instead of finishing second. And Agitate, the California hope, continues to improve. When Jockey Bill Shoemaker guided the son of Advocator to victory in the California Derby, it was Agitate's fifth win in six starts, all this year. Shoe was prompted into comparisons of Agitate with Swaps and Tomy Lee, both of whom Shoemaker took to the winner's circle in Louisville. "He's a good horse," said Shoemaker, which listeners took to mean that Agitate was less than great, but Shoe added, meaningfully, "and, as far as we can tell, there are no great horses in the Derby."
Agitate is owned by John Meehan and Paula Kent, who have been partners in a cosmetics firm for 14 years and partners in marriage for one. After the California Derby, Mrs. Meehan said, "We planned to buy Sonny and Cher's house—it has 30 rooms and they're asking $1.5 million for it—if Agitate won his next two races. Well, the California Derby was one. The Kentucky Derby is the other. I'm convinced we're going to buy that home."