It was a mob scene—in the stands, in the infield, on the track. The largest field of horses in Kentucky Derby history was sandwiched between roiling elements of the largest crowd ever to assemble for this most publicized and glamorous of horse races. Without that setting, the 100th running of the mile-and-a-quarter classic might have slipped into history as no more than a line of type to inform future historians that on May 4, 1974, John Olin's Cannonade, trained by Woody Stephens, ridden by Angel Cordero, won in the slow time of 2:04 over a fast track that certainly warranted a better clocking.
No, the race itself was not the thing, even though Cannonade richly deserved his victory over 22 rivals, including his more highly regarded stablemate, Judger. What made the centennial Derby an event to remember was the schmaltzy glitter that surrounded the occasion from start to finish and the unprecedented attention focused on Churchill Downs by the nation's one-day-a-year racing fans. A mob of 163,628 showed up in person, and one of them, Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, the party-loving kid sister of the Queen of England, summed it up between glasses of champagne in the Directors Room. "A lovely day of racing in the country," she said.
The princess was partly right. It was country, but American style; it is doubtful that Royal Ascot was ever like this. The clubhouse and grandstand were replete with extravagantly overdressed people, and the jammed infield was an orgy of youthful exuberance. Police were helpless to prevent the mob from breaking through barriers and crowding against the rails, and an effort to remove an army of stripped-to-the-waist youths from the top of one of the tote boards ended in abashed failure. Bands played, streakers streaked, one of them to the point of such exhaustion that she finished the day by jumping into an infield fountain, and nearly everyone had a good time. They thought so, at least, until they had to wake up Sunday morning and face the beginning of the second hundred years.
Some of the records, not necessarily those that pertain to the quality of the horses in the grab-bag field, may be hard to surpass. The crowd itself was larger by 29,152 than the previous high of 134,476 that turned up a year ago to watch the duel between Secretariat and Sham. Most tracks in the country would be glad to settle for a Saturday attendance of 29,152. And while the enormous throng may have been short of shoes and bras, it did have money, lots of it. During Derby Day's long 10-race card, these folks out for their day of country racing shoved $7,868,734 through the windows—almost a quarter of a million more than they had risked in 1973. In the Derby alone they bet $3,444,649, or $159,687 more than the record set in the Secretariat race.
May 12, 1974
Another record was broken when 23 horses went to the post, one more than in 1928 when Reigh Count proved he was the best of 22 starters. Many of the 23 should not have been at the party, including most of the 10 that Churchill Downs herded together to form the mutuel field for betting purposes. But a couple of these field horses actually won stakes this year—what 3-year-old hasn't?—and one of them, Hudson County, ran the race of his life on Saturday to help force the pace and then hung on to finish second, ahead of Agitate.
Despite the unprecedented number of entries, and in contrast to many previous Derbies, the backstretch atmosphere before the race was subdued. A year ago when Trainer Pancho Martin had Sham at one end of Barn 42, he spent altogether too much time taking verbal potshots at Trainer Lucien Laurin, who had Secretariat at the other end of the same barn. This time Pancho paid not a whit of attention to the fact that Judger, bred by the late Bull Hancock and purchased from his estate by his 24-year-old son Seth, was stabled in Secretariat's old stall, No. 21, or that Cannonade was situated in the stall right next to Judger.
"If there's a Secretariat in this race," Martin announced, "I've got him, and his name is Rube the Great. If he had racing room he would have won his division of the Wood Memorial by five lengths instead of by a head. And I have Accipiter running as an entry with him. I am filled with confidence. I am feeling very high."
So, by his own admission, but in a different way, was Martin's portly boss, Owner Sigmund Sommer, who looks a bit like Alfred Hitchcock.
"Are you nervous?" Sommer asked Woody Stephens when the two met in the paddock before the Derby.
"No, I'm not nervous this time," replied Woody.
"I'm not either," said Sommer, with what passes for a smile. "But I think I'm getting drunk."
Stephens really wasn't nervous, any more than Sommer was really drunk. All week he talked with the confidence of a man who truly believed that in Cannonade and Judger he had the two best horses. From the way he spoke, many got the idea that Stephens liked Judger, a son of Damascus, a little more than he did Cannonade, a son of Bold Bidder and a grandson of Bold Ruler, Secretariat's famous sire.
"I can't say which is better," he said, "because they're both good colts. I train them for different owners, and I do the best I can for both men. I'm perfectly delighted that I've got the favorites instead of a couple of 50-to-1 shots. And I have engaged the best jockeys I could to ride them. Laffit Pincay knows Judger, and Cordero can get Cannonade to relax. And Cannonade has won two races at Churchill Downs. The main point about my horses is that both of them are absolutely fit. They haven't missed a day of training, and in preparing for the Derby you simply cannot miss days and hope to play catch-up."
Young Hancock was brimming with optimism. He desperately wanted Judger to win Claiborne Farm's first Derby as a tribute to the memory of his father. Hancock was asked if he would be in his box after the race. Thinking of the victory stand, he grinned and said, "I hope not." Stephens, with two aces back to back, was doubly optimistic. Although he had given the public impression earlier that he thought Judger was probably the better of the two horses, he conveyed a different feeling to a few local horsemen that he confided in.
"Although I'd love to win this one for the Hancock family," Stephens said, "I was impressed by the way Cannonade won the Stepping Stone. He is coming up to the race just perfectly. I have a suspicion that Seth may be a very disappointed young man on Saturday night."
The rest of the trainers around the barn area were more hopeful than confident. All, that is, except Jimmy Jimenez, who brought in Agitate after a victory in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. "It could be that the best horse won't show himself until Saturday," he said. "From what I've seen I think I've got just as good a chance as anyone. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
He and the others at Louisville went ahead and trained as best they could, some by remote control, some with a slight resentment that their charges were being overlooked. Skip Shapoff, a Louisville boy come home again, expressed surprise that the press had all but neglected his Hudson County, who had never been out of the money in eight starts. Tony Bardaro bemoaned the fact that Buck's Bid had had bad luck in his recent races. He found some solace in the fact that his colt had drawn the extreme outside post position; he would be loaded in the starting gate last and would not have to wait around long for the start. J.D. Foster, who trained Consigliori, could at least be thankful that Churchill Downs gave him a stall. At Keeneland last month, when no stalls were available to him, Foster trained his colt between rows of corn and tobacco at a nearby farm. Joe DiAngelo did not have that problem with Sharp Gary, a son of Carry Back, but he did have to contend with some backseat training advice from Jack Price, Carry Back's owner. The unluckiest fellow was Lou Rondinello, Little Current's trainer. On Tuesday of Derby week, Rondinello was taken to the hospital for a kidney stone operation. The astute Rondinello asked Stephens to supervise his horse's training. "I just checked his foreman," Stephens said, "and told the man to go ahead and keep on doing what he had been. Everything seemed O.K. over there."
At the stall of Raymond Guest's Sir Tristram, recently arrived from Europe, everything was so O.K. that even Jockey Bill ("Don't call me Willie") Hartack was speaking to the turf writers. He came out regularly to school the son of Sir Ivor from the American starting gate. One day, after riding another of Guest's horses in a one-mile flat race at a nearby Lexington hunt meeting, a race in which he finished second, Hartack returned to Churchill Downs and jokingly remarked, "As they say in England, I had a merry go at it."
This merriment carried over to Derby Day itself: When Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon showed up, camera buffs and Louisville society alike acted as though they had never seen anyone more regal than Bob Hope and Eric Sevareid, both of whom were also on display. The royal couple, along with Churchill Downs President Lynn Stone, his wife Becky and Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford and his wife, marched across the track and up through the judges' pagoda to seats on an adjacent tote board unoccupied by invaders from the infield. They all stood respectfully while bands tootled through God Save the Queen and The Star-Spangled Banner. Then (sob!) there was My Old Kentucky Home, and when the tears dried there were the 23 Derby starters making their way to the starting gate at the head of the stretch for the latest version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Post position in the big field was expected to be a factor, and it was. For example, Bill Shoemaker on Agitate drew post No. 1, the inside spot, which meant that Shoe had to go for quick, early position or face the prospect of being squeezed hopelessly behind at the very start. Cannonade was next to Agitate in No. 2, which made some people nervous, possibly including Woody Stephens, for it meant that the high-strung Cannonade would have to wait a long time in the gate before the rest of the horses were loaded in and the latch sprung.
"Cannonade is a little fussy," Stephens said, "but Cordero will be able to relax him and he'll get to the position he has to get to." Judger drew post No. 22, far to the outside, and Stephens said, "That's fine by me, because Judger will lay back anyway. Being a come-from-behind horse, he shouldn't be bothered too much by the traffic. He won't start to run much until the half-mile pole."
As it turned out, poor Judger didn't run much, period. But, oh, how Cannonade did. Not blazingly fast, but beautifully, which must have brought cheer to his 81-year-old owner, John Olin, confined to his St. Louis home with a heart ailment.
Triple Crown, who had raced with distinction in California this winter, went out fast, followed by Hudson County, Sir Tristram and Destroyer. Cannonade settled halfway back in the field, while Judger, as expected, ran along in last place with Little Current. Cordero, who inherited the mount on Cannonade when Stephens decided that the colt's regular jockey, Pete Anderson, had not been riding enough to tackle the Derby, took the smooth-running bay along the rail to save ground. "I was in tight for a while," Cordero said later, "but it wasn't too bad. I made up ground from the five-eighths pole to the three-eighths pole by going inside, in between and around. It was quick, you know."
And it was quick. Before the field had gone the full mile back to the head of the stretch, Triple Crown was finished. So, for that matter, were Sir Tristram and Destroyer. Judger, who was bounced around back in the thick of the rough race, made a mild effort after the half-mile pole, but the only significant move was Cordero's as he skillfully wove his way through horses, avoiding trouble and taking advantage of every break. Turning for home in a full drive, Cannonade blasted outside Hudson County and Triple Crown and inside Destroyer to shoot off to a four-length lead by the time he reached the eighth pole. Hudson County closed a little, but nobody was going to catch Cannonade on this day. Agitate, who had been pinched back and knocked about more than once during the long, hazardous trip, gave it a try, and it was good enough to get him third money. Hudson County, who had never been worse than third all the way round, displayed amazing stamina for a colt supposed to be only a sprinter, and hung on to second place, 2¼ lengths behind the winner. J.R.'s Pet was fourth and Little Current fifth, followed by Destroyer, Buck's Bid and Judger, in eighth place. "Judger got in a lot of trouble back there," said Pincay, "but he ran a fine race, considering." Of the winner, Woody Stephens said, "Cordero had a lot of horse going for him, and he handled him unbelievably."
Cordero said, "It was a beautiful trip." Then he added, "When you decide you are going to be a jockey, you know that eventually you'll get to ride your first race. Then you hope that some day you'll get your first winner. But the Kentucky Derby—that's something you only dream about."
With the winner's share of the $326,500 gross purse a hefty $274,000 and the jockey's cut 10% of that, Angel Cordero's dream is $27,400 richer today. Owner Olin, who is almost as old as the Derby itself and who was represented in the winner's circle by his stepdaughter, Mrs. Eugene Williams, can look forward to the Preakness and the Belmont and the possibility that his first Derby winner might succeed Secretariat to the Triple Crown. The cheerful Cordero grinned at the idea. "He's sure got a better chance for it than any of the others," the jockey said.