Half the fun of a Kentucky Derby is waiting for it, with suspense building up around one or two horses. Sometimes it's a question of whether the hero can come through; whether Secretariat, for example, could rebound from his defeat in the Wood Memorial to whip Sham and Angle Light. Sometimes it's the prospect of a two-horse duel: Eastern Nashua vs. Western Swaps, that sort of thing. Occasionally, there is an oddball challenger you can't help wondering about: surely you remember Silky Sullivan?
This year's Derby—the 101st running takes place Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Louisville—has turned into one of the best, at least as far as anticipation is concerned, even though there is no one outstanding star, odds-on against the field, or a bitter two-horse rivalry to be settled. What makes this Derby so fascinating to contemplate is that of the 15 or so colts expected to start, at least five, maybe six, have credentials so solid that victory by any of them would be no upset. It is a meeting of masters, so to speak.
Assuming there are no late withdrawals because of injury or illness, the field will include the winner of every late 1‚⅛-mile prep race leading up to the Derby. Foolish Pleasure captured both the Flamingo and the Wood. The Florida Derby went to Prince Thou Art. Avatar won the Santa Anita Derby, Diabolo the California Derby. Promised City came down in front in the Arkansas Derby, while Master Derby took both the Louisiana Derby and last week's Blue Grass Stakes. The only bright hopes missing are Circle Home, injured early, and Singh, injured late.
But the Kentucky Derby, at a mile and a quarter, is one-eighth of a mile longer than all these races and, as the owners of the 1,044 starters who did not win during the past 100 years have discovered, that extra eighth is often where shocked surprise replaces confidence, where defeat usurps victory. The owners and trainers who show up at Churchill Downs know they must have a colt who is fit and ready, who can take advantage of lucky breaks. And a jockey who won't suffer stage fright at the sight of the twin spires or the sound of My Old Kentucky Home.
Most of this year's owners really do think they have a chance to win, although a few, as has always been the case, came mostly to bask for a few days in the Louisville limelight, taking the customary bows at the many banquets and accepting the opportunity to luxuriate on Derby Day in a superior clubhouse box. They will go home with clippings for the old scrapbook and a racehorse so tired that he might not even win in Chicago this year. For the others, however, there is real hope.
It has hardly ever been fashionable to make a Louisiana Derby winner your Kentucky Derby selection. The last time this system paid off was in 1924 when Black Gold beat 18 foes at Churchill Downs. But after a lapse of 51 years, it might be time again. This year's candidate is Master Derby, and all he's done so far in 1975 is win five of his seven races—in fact, his last five in a row.
No fireworks went off around New Orleans after Master Derby's Louisiana Derby victory, for, as usual, the field was not star-studded. But then Trainer Smiley Adams brought the chestnut up to Keeneland, where he prepped for the Blue Grass Stakes with an easy five-length win on an off track. As he entered the Blue Grass field with such notables as the Darby Dan pair of Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place and the California star, Avatar, people began to take notice. The chestnut's sire was Dust Commander, something of a whiz on off tracks. It was raining hard last Thursday, Blue Grass day, and Keeneland hardboots knew what they were doing when they sent Master Derby off as the favorite on a track so wet that Mark Spitz could have beaten Man o' War on it. On this horribly rainy day, Master Derby held off long-shot Honey Mark to win by half a length in the good time of 1:49. Prince Thou Art was six lengths back, a neck in front of Avatar.
When Dust Commander won his Blue Grass five years ago, at 35 to 1, most people laughed it off on the customary grounds that "he caught his kind of off track on a lucky day." They stopped laughing nine days later at Louisville when Dust Commander came home first by five lengths (this time at 15 to 1) on an off track. His son, who races in the gold and red silks of Mrs. Robert E. Lehmann's Golden Chance Farm, may be even better than his dad. He's a tough fighter all the way and proved in the Blue Grass that he can lay up with the pace and still finish with a kick.
Five days before Master Derby did his number at Keeneland, Foolish Pleasure showed a Wood Memorial crowd at Aqueduct that his defeat in the Florida Derby was just a slip of the hoof. Obviously recovered from trouble in both his front feet, the 2-year-old champion of 1974 returned to the winner's circle in style. Breaking from the outside in the bulky 15-horse field, the big bay sprinted into good position at the first turn—he was outside only three horses there—and overtook pace-setting Bombay Duck in the last few strides to win by barely a head. His time was a nifty 1:48⅘ tying the stakes record set by his grandsire, Bold Ruler, in 1957.
"Considering that he'd only had two works in three weeks, and that he won on gameness and guts," said Trainer Le-Roy Jolley, "I'd say this was the best race Foolish Pleasure ever ran."
Wood Memorial day was also California Derby day at San Francisco's Golden Gate Fields, and what fans there discovered was that the West could count on two representatives in Louisville instead of one. All winter long at Santa Anita, Avatar, Fleet Velvet and Diabolo had made threatening gestures in one race or another, while George Navonod seemed to make a habit of finishing second. Then in the Santa Anita Derby, which Avatar won by a nose over Rock of Ages (with Diabolo third and George Navonod fourth) for his third win in a row, it seemed the question was settled, even if by only a nose. Avatar's owner, Arthur Seeligson, and his trainer, Tommy Doyle, bought tickets for Kentucky and signed on Bill Shoemaker to ride the colt, which was fine by Shoe, who had just been told by Diabolo's trainer, Sid Martin, that he had been sacked in favor of Laffit Pincay.
Such moves may or may not be decisive when the entire cast gathers in Louisville this Saturday, but it paid off for Martin and Owner Frank McMahon in San Francisco. Diabolo, a son of Damascus, went forth under Pincay in the California Derby and broke Noor's 25-year-old track record as he coasted home 4½ lengths ahead of George Navonod in the sensational time of 1:46[3/5]. No other Derby prep has ever been swifter, not even the glittering 1957 Florida Derby, in which Gen. Duke beat Bold Ruler in 1:46⅘ which at the time was a world record.
Shoemaker, back for his 19th Derby ride (he has won three times), may help Avatar in the Derby, but he is the first to admit he was not much help to him in his fourth-place finish in the sloppy Blue Grass. "It was the kind of ride that gets jocks fired," he joked to Owner Seeligson. But it was not all Shoe's fault. Avatar had his head turned and practically down to the ground when the gates opened, and was immediately pinched back, probably losing three or four lengths. He got into a lot of traffic jams after that, and after making a good move into the far turn he didn't have much left in the stretch. "It amounted to a good work, and not much more," said Seeligson, who thinks he has the better of the two California colts—and maybe the best of all Derby hopefuls.
When Darby Dan Farms owner John Galbreath flew into Lexington on the morning of the Blue Grass, the rain was a dismal reminder of the Blue Grass nine years earlier. His Derby horse that April was the sensational Graustark. Graustark was beaten in the slop by Abe's Hope that afternoon, was injured and never raced again. "I hate to think of it," Galbreath said last week, as the rains and wind lashed at the Keeneland track, "but we're here to run, and run we will. These two colts of ours, Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place, need a nine-furlong race if they are to make the Derby, and a nine-furlong race is what they'll get. The track is the same for all of them, so we won't back out."
As expected, the Galbreath pair ran back in the pack for most of the race. Sylvan Place never did much more than that, finishing sixth in the nine-horse field. Prince Thou Art did better as he moved briskly through the stretch to take third. Jockey Braulio Baeza never abused him, and the colt probably did just about what Trainer Lou Rondinello expected. Neither of the Darby Dan colts had been working impressively at Keeneland, although times can be deceiving. Two days before the Blue Grass, Prince Thou Art was clocked in 51 seconds for a half mile, which is awful. But the son of Hail to Reason ran the last furlong in 11[3/5] seconds, which is excellent. As Galbreath and Rondinello both know, that kind of late move is exactly what you want in a route horse who is being pointed not so much for the Blue Grass as for the Derby.
Of the other colts who may get to the post Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, there cannot be too much optimism. Round Stake, trained by Allen Jerkens for Hobeau Farm, could make it. If so, he'll get some betting support, mostly because Jerkens, who has never had a Derby starter, is famous for pulling off big upsets. "I've never had a horse good enough to go to the Derby before this," says Jerkens, "but Round Stake still has to show me an awful lot more before I'd start him."
The Arkansas Derby winner, Promised City, does not appear to belong in top company, and the same can be said for Media, Bold Chapeau and Gatch. Honey Mark, second in the Blue Grass, is not going to want the Derby's extra distance, and neither will Bombay Duck, who was all out in losing to Foolish Pleasure in the Wood.
All in all, predicting the result of the first race of the Derby's second century is no easy exercise, but let's try. Master Derby, who may well be the favorite, will have his best chance on an off track. I was wrong in thinking his sire, Dust Commander, could not win at 10 furlongs on any kind of track. Foolish Pleasure, champion that he is with 10 victories in 11 starts, and blessed with being the grandson of Bold Ruler and the son of a Tom Fool mare, may be at his very best at a mile and an eighth. What he did in the Wood was very impressive, particularly in view of his layoff, but one must wonder how much that desperately hard race took out of him.
Diabolo is a son of Damascus, himself a classic winner and already a top sire. Putting blinkers on him in the California Derby obviously helped, and having Pincay aboard will move any horse up any time. But you wonder exactly how good those two Western representatives are. Avatar, one of the two sons of Grau-stark in the Derby (Sylvan Place is the other), beat Diabolo decisively in the Santa Anita Derby, but his fourth-place performance in the muddy Blue Grass was not a fair comparison of Eastern and Western runners. Still, if Avatar is the best from the West, what is Diabolo? He is, some say, not very "honest," which means he is fully capable of running his best one day and dogging it the next time out. Can even Pincay and blinkers correct this?
Prince Thou Art is by Hail to Reason, who has already sired one Derby winner in Proud Clarion. The Prince's mother is the former champion mare Primonetta, whose brother (Chateau-gay) and sire (Swaps) both won Derbies. In his two seasons of racing, Prince Thou Art has not had the outstanding record (only three wins in 11 races) enjoyed by Foolish Pleasure and some of the others but he has been brought up to this race with super care and management. "I thought if we caught Foolish Pleasure it would be at a longer distance," said Trainer Rondinello after his upset victory in the Florida Derby. "To do it at a mile and an eighth was a little bit of a surprise, since he likes to come from behind.
"But doing that in a small field is one thing. We'll have to see what happens when he tries to come from behind in a Derby-size field. That's the way he runs, and nothing can change it."
And nothing can change my belief that the combination of breeding, Rondinello, Baeza and Prince Thou Art—with a little bit of luck thrown in—will bring Darby Dan its third Derby winner in 101 years. Some people have gone that long without even one.