A week or so ago traditionalists were shaking their heads in dismay over the possibility that this year's Kentucky Derby, the 100th running of America's most famous horse race, would have to be split into two divisions. More than three dozen horses still were slated to start, far too many for the track to cope with in one race. Then in the space of 48 hours, two colts trained by 60-year-old Woody Stephens, a Kentucky hard-boot from the little town of Midway, solved the problem. Brilliant victories by Judger in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Thursday and by Cannonade in the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs on Saturday sobered up owners dreaming of long-shot success. It seemed certain that when the centennial Derby went off, it would have no more than two dozen starters, and most of those should stay home.
Stephens, who has been around racetracks since 1929, has been on this pressure route before. "This is my fifth trip to the Derby," he says. "I've been fifth with Halt , fourth with Goyamo , third with Blue Man  and second with Never Bend . I reckon it's time I brought in a winner."
After the Blue Grass and the Stepping Stone, Stephens had a double-barreled weapon aimed at his opposition. Not only are Judger and Cannonade probably the two best colts in the still bulky field, but in Laffit Pincay and Angel Cordero, Stephens has two daring and capable riders, with cool heads to govern their skill. And neither has yet won a Derby, which makes them even more determined.
"I've got two of the best," says Stephens with a smile, "and don't forget, by using these two top jocks I keep them off other horses who might beat me."
Judger's victory in the nine-furlong Blue Grass was nothing less than smashing. Because of the large number of entries (14), the start was moved back to give the field more room to gain position on the run to the first turn. But this served to handicap come-from-behind performers like Judger, who would have a shorter stretch in which to overhaul the pacesetters. That's the way it appeared on paper. Somebody forgot to tell Judger and Pincay. Pincay, called the Pirate by his loyal California fans, dropped the son of Damascus so far behind that on the backstretch he had only one horse beaten. As is his habit, Judger got into gear rounding the far turn. In the past he usually made his big run on the outside, which kept him out of trouble but also caused him to lose ground as he swept around the field. In the Blue Grass, Pincay saved ground by keeping him along the rail. Then, when he made his move on the turn, the Pirate guided the big bay colt through two successive holes that appeared in front of him. Judger, suddenly on full throttle, shot through the openings to take the lead, and he went on to win by four lengths, which was eminently satisfying to Stephens and Owner Seth Hancock. Seth bought Judger for $90,000 in 1972 at the dispersal sale of stock belonging to his late father, A. B. (Bull) Hancock.
A couple of long shots named Big Latch and Gold and Myrrh were second and third in the Blue Grass, while John Galbreath's Little Current, winner of Hialeah's Everglades, was fourth. Little Current made a Judger-like run of his own but tired at the top of the stretch. Nevertheless, as Woody Stephens says, "Little Current will be right there on Derby Day, believe me."
Bushongo, winner of the Flamingo over both Judger and Cannonade, suffered an injury in the Blue Grass, and struggled home 11th, causing Trainer Downey Bonsal to cancel his Derby plans. Big Latch, Pondelli and Heavy Mayonnaise also came out of the race somewhat the worse for wear.
Two days later, misfortune struck other colts in the Stepping Stone. Only once has the winner of this seven-furlong test come back a week later to win the Derby (Majestic Prince in 1969). At the start, Destroyer, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, crashed against Accipiter and unseated the latter's jockey. For the rest of the race the riderless Accipiter weaved menacingly through the field, but despite protests from several losing jocks the patrol judges decided that the colt had done little damage to the chances of any horse, and certainly none to the leaders. Accipiter is still expected to start in the Derby as an entry with his stablemate, the highly regarded Rube the Great. As for Destroyer, he came back in distress and utterly exhausted, and his chances in the Derby appear minimal. Another casualty, not entirely unexpected, was the 1973 2-year-old champion, Protagonist. He had been last in his division of the Gotham on April 6 and had been plagued with leg trouble of one sort or another. This time he was last again, suffered a cut on his left rear leg and will not run on May 4.
The Stepping Stone in many ways seemed a duplicate of the Blue Grass. Cordero took Cannonade to the rear of the pack on the backstretch. Then, just as Pincay had done at Keeneland two days earlier, Cordero saved ground on the rail and waited for his best shot. After slipping between two rivals at the top of the long Churchill Downs stretch, he found Cannonade blocked by five more horses. Adroitly he veered to the outside and found another opening. Quickly through, Cannonade sped off to win by two lengths. Arkansas Derby winner J.R.'s Pet made a nice run from sixth to be second, while the game but weary Destroyer was third.
Not a great deal can be said for any of the others, including Raymond Guest's Irish-bred Sir Tristram, who had arrived in this country only a week earlier from his French training yard at Chantilly. "I just wanted to see what he could do with these horses and to have a little fun being part of the 100th Derby," said Guest, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, before the race. "He'll probably run last today [he was seventh of the 12 finishers], but this Stepping Stone is to have him learn a little and to see how he handles a dirt track after his previous races on French turf." Most of Sir Tristram's training has been on the deep sand of Chantilly, which has about as much resemblance to the hard strip at Churchill Downs as the Sahara Desert has to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The West Coast's leading Derby representative is the Meeken Stable's Agitate, who has lost only one of six races—to Destroyer in the Santa Anita Derby in late March. Pincay was Agitate's regular rider until he had to choose between the son of Advocator and the Stephens-trained Judger. He picked Judger. "Agitate is still green," says Pincay. "He'll be a better horse later in the year. I like Judger's breeding for the early classics. He seems to be improving at a faster rate, and right now when it counts most. Eastern horses coming to the Derby generally seem more fit than those from the West Coast. Maybe in California a good horse can win too easily. In the East there's more competition."
Among the fit ones is Rube the Great, who came East early from California to score successive victories in the Gotham and the Wood. Rube is a standout. Gold and Myrrh and J.R.'s Pet have ability, as do Buck's Bid, Sharp Gary, Hudson County, Flip Sal and Triple Crown. Granted, a win by any of these would be an upset, but it would be a minor one compared to a victory by Lexico, Set n' Go, Prove Lively, Bold Clarion, King of Rome, Crimson Ruler, Eric's Champ, Pat McGroder, Confederate Yankee, Ga Hai or Consigliori.
Maybe 24-year-old Seth Hancock, now the master of Claiborne Farm, put it best when asked what he thought of Judger's chances. He said, "Would you want to put up $7,500 to run against him?" It will cost each colt exactly that to pass the entry box and starting gate this week. I certainly wouldn't want to put up $7,500 to race against Judger. And with Cannonade running as an entry with him, I'd rather take the $7,500 and bet it on the pair of them. My guess is Judger will edge his stablemate and make Woody Stephens, the hardboot from Kentucky, doubly happy.