February is the month to start looking in earnest for those unheralded colts that will make it into the classic 3-year-old races of spring. Years ago mid-February was considered far too early to race a Kentucky Derby candidate seriously, but tracks with winter racing and the large purses that can help offset the mounting costs of operating a stable have changed that. Eight of the last 10 Derby winners were running by this time of the year, and it might well prove true in 1977 as well.
There were four stakes for 3-year-olds last week. The results were rather bewildering, which is fine if you believe the more contenders that surface, the merrier. At Santa Anita, Elmendorf Farm's Text won the $40,350 Santa Catalina Stakes by six lengths without feeling the sting of Jockey Don Pierce's whip, while at Bowie, Md., Knightly Marvin circled his field at the top of the stretch to win the $27,800 W.P. Burch Stakes by half a length. Knightly Marvin, running in his first stake, was not among the 227 horses considered to be the top 2-year-olds of 1976 and, as the longest shot in the field of six, paid $56.40. The first 3-year-old race of significance at New York's Aqueduct was decided when the well-bred Catalan (by Quadrangle from the Princequillo mare Quilling) held on to win the $53,000 Lucky Draw. Like Knightly Marvin, Catalan was unranked in the Experimental Handicap weights, which are supposed to indicate the abilities of young horses. Last year it took Catalan 10 starts to win his first race, and the Lucky Draw was only his third victory in 20 outings.
The biggest 3-year-old news of the week, however, came out of Gulfstream Park in Florida, when Silver Series won the $34,350 Hutcheson Stakes by 3½ lengths. Silver Series at least appeared on the Experimental list, ranked as the 21st-best colt of his generation, although at 113 pounds, 13 pounds less than top-rated and undefeated Seattle Slew. Silver Series didn't get to a race until Oct. 19, 1976, three days after Seattle Slew had won the prestigious Champagne Stakes in his final outing of the season. In three starts as a 2-year-old Silver Series won twice and finished third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs to winner Run Dusty Run, one of the top colts around.
Silver Series is an unusual animal. His coat is a distinctive charcoal gray, he bares his teeth before a race and his mother, Cat Hat, was unraced and totally undistinguished—her first foal was born in 1969 and she failed to produce another until the Hutcheson winner five years later. But Silver Series is most distinctive because he is a Derby threat owned and trained by two black men, 43-year-old Dr. Archie R. Donaldson, a gynecologist from Nassau in the Bahamas, and 53-year-old Oscar Dishman Jr., a trainer for the past 16 years.
After the Hutcheson, Dishman was looking over potential Derby rivals, specifically Run Dusty Run. "I'm not taking anything away from Run Dusty Run." he said. "I just think we can beat him, and I aim to prove it. The one time we met, there were strange circumstances. Our horse was inexperienced. He had only two races up to that time and had won both, so we decided to run him in the Kentucky Jockey Club. Run Dusty Run had an entry mate named Bob's Dusty running with him and he opened up a big lead. We stalked him, and when the horses came into the stretch Bob's Dusty went way wide and we were on the lead. Silver Series doesn't like to be on the lead, he likes to run after horses. He slowed and we finished third. It was probably a matter of inexperience more than anything else."
Before the Hutcheson, Silver Series had been the hot favorite in the Floridian on Jan. 26, but lost to Nearly On Time. "We missed four days of training just before the race when the horse kicked his left rear ankle," says Dishman. "I thought he might have broken something, but two sets of X rays showed nothing. We ran him, and even though he missed those four days he still ran a good third. I thought then that he could win the Hutcheson."
The instructions from Dishman to Jockey Larry Snyder in the Hutcheson were to "get out of the gate and then ease him back, don't snatch him back. Lay off the leaders until about the top of the stretch, then let him roll." Snyder followed those orders to the letter, and Silver Series, although hard used in the stretch, was an easy winner.
Dr. Donaldson has been in racing only since 1967 and has raced only eight horses. Five of the eight, however, either won or placed in stakes, an outstanding record. Golden Don, his best horse, won $351,639 in 1973-74, and another, Dondougold, also won stakes and set three track records. "I'm fascinated by breeding horses," says Donaldson. "I spend about three hours a day studying breeding whenever I can. This horse's name? Well, we had such good luck with Dondougold and Golden Don that maybe the gold was all used up. So we went on the silver standard."
Dishman has been training winners around the smaller tracks in the East and Midwest since the early 1960s and has also raced at major tracks in Chicago. "In my early days I had a trainer's license but couldn't get horses to keep me going," he recalls. "I set up a chair in a barn and started to cut hair for people on the backstretch. I charged $1.25. That's what kept me going. Some days I'd cut 10 heads, on weekends 15 to 20. On bad days only three or four. I was just waiting around to get some pay horses."
Dishman and Dr. Donaldson may indeed have a big weekend horse with Silver Series. While the Hutcheson was only at seven furlongs, Dishman feels the colt can handle two turns and eventually make his way to Louisville.
Meanwhile, where were the rest of the 3-year-olds? "I find it odd that none of the top three 2-year-olds of last year—Seattle Slew, Run Dusty Run or Royal Ski—has been out so far," says Lynn Stone, president of Churchill Downs. "I don't know what to make of it."
Until two weeks ago all three were in Florida and at least two of them, Run Dusty Run and Royal Ski, seemed ready to start. Royal Ski, a $20,500 colt that won $309,704 for Boston Bruin Goalie Gerry Cheevers last year, was syndicated early this month for $2 million. He also developed a temperature and his first outing, in the Hutcheson, was postponed. Run Dusty Run went to Florida to get ready for the Hutcheson, too, but when Trainer Smiley Adams could not find a good prep race he shipped his colt back to the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. "It was an expensive trip," said Smiley, who then let fly with what was really on his mind, the frustration common to trainers who think their horses have been underrated.
In 1976 Run Dusty Run ran nine times, won six races, including four stakes, and earned $268,241. In the Arlington-Washington Futurity—the only time the two met—he beat Royal Ski by 1¾ lengths. Yet in the Experimental ratings, Royal Ski, who won five stakes, was voted equal to Run Dusty Run, while neither got the Eclipse Award as the top 2-year-old. Seattle Slew was voted the Eclipse Award despite running only three races, all at Belmont Park, and earning only $94,350.
"How could they give it to a horse that ran only three times?" asked Adams. "He won a maiden race, an allowance for non-winners of two, and one stake and earned less than $100,000. The thing is, if you're not racing in New York you're nothing. You just ain't got a shot. New York writers think that horses running in Louisiana, Kentucky and Illinois are nothing."
Billy Turner, the trainer of Seattle Slew, is unruffled by the criticism. "I didn't have anything to do with the voting," he said mildly. "Also, that's not worrying me now. Seattle Slew has just started training at Hialeah, and I hope to have him ready for the Flamingo on March 26. To get him there he will need at least one prep race. My plan is to run in the Flamingo and then go to New York for the Wood Memorial or maybe another race at Aqueduct. Seattle Slew has matured since last year. He's grown a little bit and he knows who he is." And any week now he may let his classmates in on the secret.