Trainer Laz Barrera leaned against a door in the directors' room at Churchill Downs last Saturday evening some two hours after winning the 102nd Kentucky Derby with Bold Forbes. He took a telegram from his 16-year-old son Larry and read it over and over. The wire had been sent from Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. just after Bold Forbes had passed under the finish line; it said simply, "My man," and it was signed "Bill."
Sixteen years ago Barrera had arrived at Hollywood Park from Mexico as the owner, trainer, groom, hotwalker and one-man band for a cheap thoroughbred named Destructor. After just one win, Destructor was claimed from Barrera, leaving him horseless and penniless. When things looked bleakest, a trainer named Bill Winfrey loaned Barrera eight runners to get started again. Winfrey had experienced good times and bad during his own career. The good ones had come in the late 1940s and early 1950s when Winfrey handled a shedrow of champions for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt; the real bad day had come when undefeated Native Dancer lost the 1953 Derby to Dark Star. Barrera held the wire in trembling hands. "I am so proud of this," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. "This means so much to me. Oh, how long this road has been."
Not since Native Dancer lost that Derby 24 years ago has there been such an upset at Churchill Downs. Bold Forbes beat Honest Pleasure by a widening length to take the winner's prize of $165,200, and in so doing beat a 2-to-5 favorite (the shortest choice since Citation in 1948), with $1,049,461 riding on his back—more money than had ever been bet on a Derby starter. It was the best day any U.S. trainer has had, for Barrera also won the $125,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park with Life's Hope and the $50,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct with Due Diligence. "My wife Cha-Cha was too nervous to come to the Derby," Barrera said. "She is at home. She's been crying for two hours. My daughter Blanche is so happy they cannot get her to stop dancing."
Until three weeks ago, Barrera, 52, had won a lot of races in a lot of places but never one worth $100,000. "It seemed that a jinx was working against my father," his 22-year-old son Albert said. "Everyone knew he was an excellent trainer but even he grew superstitious when $100,000 races came up. He put Bold Forbes in the Wood Memorial on April 17 in the hopes that the colt would run a good enough race to earn a trip to Kentucky. We started to kid my father about the Wood being a $100,000 race and he didn't like it at all. When Bold Forbes won the race we were so happy. It was a breakthrough and my father finally had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. All along he thought the colt might be able to beat Honest Pleasure."
May 9, 1976
It was a Derby bound to evoke controversy, the debate being about the ride Braulio Baeza gave Honest Pleasure. Bold Forbes and the favorite ran in the first two positions all the way; the last time that had been done was in 1914 by Old Rosebud and Hodge. Some believed Angel Cordero had outfoxed Baeza by setting a fast pace, then slowing it deliberately. Was Baeza tricked as he fell behind by as many as five lengths down the backstretch? Who put the handcuff's on jockeys riding the other seven starters? Who were the other seven starters?
Well, four of them had never won a stakes race. Only three in the field had won a $100,000 race and they finished in the win, place and show spots, with Arkansas Derby winner Elocutionist getting to the finish line 3¼ lengths behind Honest Pleasure. Between Bold Forbes and last-place finisher Bidson were just 16¾ lengths, which made one wonder further if this was not a poor Derby field. Bold Forbes' time of 2:01[3/5] did not approach Secretariat's track record of 1:59⅖ but Secretariat belonged in a different league.
What Cordero had Bold Forbes do was remarkable in its own fashion. His mile and a quarter in 2:01[3/5] over a dull track is the fastest time ever posted by a wire-to-wire winner. (Twenty Derbies have been won in this manner.) Some of the horses who went wire to wire in slower times were legitimate champions: Count Fleet (2:04[2/5]), Regret (2:05[2/5]) and Jet Pilot (2:06[4/5]). The first was a Triple Crown winner, Regret was the only filly ever to win the race and Jet Pilot was one of the swiftest horses ever entered.
In the hours preceding the Derby a banner was carried through the infield at Churchill Downs. On it was a drawing of Bold Forbes and the message: "Beware, Braulio, the Angel has a bold surprise." People expressed all sorts of ideas about how the race would be run. The most probable seemed to be that Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure would come out of the gate nostril to nostril and go at each other until one cracked. Honest Pleasure's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said, "The course of the race, perhaps the outcome, will be determined by the first turn."
Coming into the Derby, Honest Pleasure had a record of nine straight wins, and the chartmakers of the Racing Form had shown him on the lead 92% of the way in these races. Bold Forbes was uncommonly swift, too, breaking from the gate like a quarter horse. There was no doubt that Jolley's problem was developing a strategy to cope with Bold Forbes' speed.
Meanwhile, Barrera was doing his planning. A week before the race he borrowed a chart book that gave the positions of every horse in the course of the Derby's 101 runnings. Barrera found that 60% of the winners of the classic were either first or second at the head of the stretch. "When Cordero arrives," Barrera said early in Derby Week, "we will discuss strategy, but we are not going to tell anyone what we plan. Don't be silly. You don't sell a gun to somebody so they can turn around and kill you."
Barrera had brought Bold Forbes up to the Derby with a series of two-mile gallops rather than fast workouts. A lot of people were confused by this training program, but what Laz was trying to do was give his horse some stamina. "It's a long way around," the trainer said, "and you do not want your horse to be looking for a chair to sit in at the top of the stretch."
Barrera is effusive and eloquent, even in broken English. One morning he was asked how Bold Forbes would do in mud, and he said that he watched the weather reports every night on television no matter where he was. In certain cities he did not trust television weathermen. Louisville was such a city. "Every weatherman in Louisville, he want no rain," Barrera said. Laz didn't either. The instructions he gave to Cordero were to get to the lead early and let Honest Pleasure try to go with Bold Forbes if that was what Jolley wanted his horse to do.
Cordero has great affection for the owner of Bold Forbes, E. Rodriguez Tizol, a Puerto Rican banker who gave Angel his first mount as a jockey in Puerto Rico 16 years ago. Rodriguez had wanted desperately to see Bold Forbes run in the Wood and in fact had gotten on a plane in San Juan to fly to New York. But before the flight departed the elderly owner was stricken with another in a long series of heart seizures. "How I wish Mr. Rodriguez could be in Kentucky for the Derby," Cordero said. But Cordero's feelings for Barrera are just as genuine, because it was Laz who gave Angel his first mount in the U.S.
All week long Latins visited Barn 41 on the backstretch to see Bold Forbes—aging senators from San Juan came and people who had emigrated from Barrera's hometown in Cuba. He welcomed all and said one morning, "It would be hard for some people to understand this, but Latins feel deeply for this horse. All the Spanish people love this horse. He is little, only 15.2 hands high, but when Cordero is on him he looks like the biggest horse in the world to Latin people. He has a big heart. He don' need no Dr. Barnard."
As the horses left the paddock to go onto the track Cordero patted Bold Forbes. "I'm going to give you a Derby ride," the jockey whispered, "you better give me a Derby run." Although nobody knew it at the time Cordero was already in a good position because every other jockey in the race was under specific orders to hold back and wait for Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure to kill each other off.
Baeza's instructions were to stay behind Bold Forbes and then run him down when the best time arose. It probably arose on the very first turn when Honest Pleasure was alongside Bold Forbes. The favorite seemed willing to fight for the lead but Baeza put him in second place and let Cordero shoot ahead to a five-length lead. At the quarter pole it looked as if Baeza had Cordero measured, but Honest Pleasure lost ground on the turn. Again at the sixteenth pole Baeza got to within a neck of Bold Forbes, but wasn't quick enough to pass him.
The fractions for the quarters were 22⅖ 23⅖ 24⅗ 25⅕ 26. Thus Cordero made every quarter slower after a tremendous first one and the stamina that Barrera had put into Bold Forbes was sufficient.
After the race LeRoy Jolley sat on a tack box in his barn and said, "We ran a good race and got beaten. Braulio followed the instructions. There are no excuses." Others disagree. Baeza admitted later that this wasn't his best ride and that he waited too long to attack Bold Forbes. Baeza also hinted that lingering wisps from a green smoke bomb thrown on the track from the infield might have caused Honest Pleasure to hesitate momentarily during the stretch run.
The Derby over, Laz Barrera and his sons started through the crowd toward the winner's circle. On the way they were stopped by a female gate guard who pushed a night stick into Barrera's stomach. "I won the Derby," Barrera hollered. "Let me get to my horse." The woman was not going to move. Albert Barrera gave the woman a hug and gently moved her aside, calling to his father, "Run." When father and sons finally got to the infield, they warmly hugged their jockey and friends.
Controversial Derbies tend to grow in importance with the passage of time, and this one is almost certain to. Between the time Bold Forbes won and 10:30 the next morning there were already interesting developments. Barrera candidly admitted that Bold Forbes had been treated with Butazolidin, an analgesic used on horses that are hurting. This medication is allowed in the first two-thirds of the Triple Crown but not in the last race, the Belmont Stakes, held in New York. Just eight years ago when Butazolidin also was barred in Kentucky, Dancer's Image lost his Derby because traces of it turned up in the postrace tests.
Also on Sunday morning Bert Firestone, the owner of Honest Pleasure, indicated that something he didn't particularly care for had happened in his horse's stall before the race. He would not amplify on this but did say, "It wouldn't happen in New York or Maryland. And yes, indeed, we will be at the Preakness." The date is May 15.