The finest judges of bloodstock were there—traders and hardboots, trainers for the duPonts and Mellons, shrewd agents from London, Dublin and Paris, Japanese horsemen, even Arabs, it was said. In that summer of 1974 they came to the yearling sales in Lexington and Saratoga looking for a winner of a Derby, for a Triple Crown horse. They spent $100,000 or more on each of 21 promising colts—and they missed him.
Traditionally, these sales draw the thoroughbred world's attention and a ton of its money. In 1974 the auctions also drew Esteban Rodriguez Tizol, 72, a retired auto dealer and banker from Santurce, Puerto Rico. Rodriguez wanted to buy a few claimers to run at El Comandante in his homeland. He purchased 10 yearlings, none a match in beauty or breeding for the glossy young horses that were bringing top bids. Nine of Rodriguez' purchases are still stabled in Puerto Rico, and these turned out pretty much as the old man hoped—they are cheap platers. The 10th yearling, named Bold Forbes, was the prize that the big buyers sought, the Derby winner.
Bold Forbes brought just $15,200 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale. About 700 buyers attended the auction, which was held in a tent during a thunderstorm. The young horses were neighing, lunging, alarmed by the wind and lightning. Many were unruly as they entered the ring, and indeed some of the buyers believed the tent might collapse. Only 46 horses were catalogued, and so small was Bold Forbes that his consignor, Lee Eaton, thought about withdrawing him to hurry things up.
That same summer Bert and Diana Firestone bought seven yearlings. In their lot they managed to get the Derby runner-up and 2-year-old champion, Honest Pleasure, as well as classy Optimistic Gal, who won the Kentucky Oaks on Derby eve and is regarded as the best filly of her age in the U.S. In 48 hours they purchased two champions, something no owners in memory had accomplished.
Bert Firestone and his trainer, LeRoy Jolley, examined Honest Pleasure before the Saratoga sale. Neither found a flaw. The Firestone ceiling was $50,000, but Jolley figured Honest Pleasure would bring at least $75,000. "I was prepared to go that high," Jolley says, "but I'm not sure if Mr. Firestone was." The question became academic when Firestone bid $45,000 and no one went higher. Optimistic Gal cost $55,000, but Firestone will spend more on fillies because they have potential as broodmares.
The Rodriguez and Firestone purchases went unnoticed; far higher-priced animals were capturing the headlines that July and August. In Lexington, a Raise a Native colt topped the sales at $625,000, earning the name Kentucky Gold. He has won little since—$1,500 for finishing third in a maiden race at Hollywood Park. His trainer, Charlie Whittingham, says the colt hasn't shown that he isn't going to develop into a runner. But then, he hasn't shown that he is. "Oh, he'll get better when he fills out and when he's running more distance," Whittingham says. Hopefully.
Leslie Combs II, who bred and sold Kentucky Gold, shies from discussion of the colt and quickly diverts critics by pointing out that the yearling that brought the next-highest price at the Lexington auction, $330,000, "can't beat a fat man." Lou Goldfine, who trains this colt, named Whirlawhile, does not assess him so bluntly. "By April of his 2-year-old year, Whirlawhile had developed a stifle problem," Goldfine says. "I took my time. He had good running action and a nice stride. One day at Monmouth he had a workout that showed me he'd be something. The rider came back and said, 'Hey, this colt can run.' It was the last I saw of his potential.
"He's awkward, like a big kid in the Little League. Now he's down at Spendthrift Farm. He has a little calcification in his forelegs. They punched holes in the bones to stimulate circulation. He still has the body of a great horse, but to be truthful, some of them never make it back. Some, by the time they get to racing, have so many ailments you get a race out of them and—pop!—that's it."
A colt that might have brought a higher bid than either Kentucky Gold or Whirlawhile is a son of Tom Rolfe and the fine race mare Shuvee. He was sold for $350,000 at Saratoga, but he might have cost considerably more had he not been the second horse to come into the sales ring after the auction had been interrupted by President Nixon's resignation speech. Expecting the best, the colt's new owner, Sigmund Sommer, named him Tom Swift. "He's an absolute steal," Sommer proclaimed triumphantly, signing the sales slip. "My trainer doesn't know I got him. I'll tell him tomorrow morning. He'll scream, but then after a while he'll say, 'Well, let's go and take a look at the horse.' "
What Trainer Frank Martin saw was a tiny colt with a cut on his ankle. The horse grew slowly, and as a 2-year-old in training, he refused to exert himself. In July he bucked shins and in September he was fired, a process in which a hot iron is applied to a horse's legs to toughen them. Tom Swift was decidedly slow in getting to the post. He made his first start two weeks ago, finishing seventh in a maiden race at Aqueduct. Lifetime earnings: $Zip. "He's got common sense, and he tries," Martin says, sizing up the most expensive horse he's ever had in training as if he were meant to pull a plow.
Others who bought colts for six-figure sums at the midsummer sales tell similar tales of woe. Ten of the 21 colts went to U.S. trainers and eight of these have gotten to the post; they have won just seven events among them, and a total of $50,990 in 26 starts.
Foreigners, lured by the knowledge that four of the previous seven Epsom Derby winners were North American-bred, took away the rest of the high-priced colts. These horsemen spent wisely, at least by comparison. Though most purse money in Ireland and England is paltry, a horse that wins a European classic is worth millions as a stallion. Of the 11 super colts shipped overseas, four are listed as contenders in the June 2 Epsom Derby, and for them surely there is still considerable hope. The best of the group is Far North, by Northern Dancer, who cost $250,000 at Saratoga. The others are Take Your Place ($125,000), Over to You ($1 15,000) and Sir Wimborne ($100,000).
Meanwhile, the Triple Crown fields in the U.S. are filled with bargain-priced animals—the ill-bred, the crooked, the small. Among the Derby starters, On the Sly cost $6,000, Inca Roca $6,000, Amano $12,200, Elocutionist $15,000. Bid-son, who finished last in the classic, brought a respectable $38,000.
More than 27,000 thoroughbreds were born in 1973, yet if the Derby is any indication, the Triple Crown will be a series of match races between two colts—Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure—that as yearling's left something to be desired. They were the needles in the haystack just 22 months ago.