At one time or another nearly every thoroughbred throws in a baffling race. There is no excuse, no explanation for the dismal showing. Such a performance can occur anytime, but when it happens 20 days before the Kentucky Derby, with a purse of $227,500 on the line, the failure is magnified and the alarm to those around the horse is understandable. On April 17, For The Moment entered the starting gate for the Hollywood Derby with a record that included no finish worse than second in 10 starts. The horse had trained perfectly for the race. Furthermore, he was Honest Pleasure's little brother and in the previous season had won the prestigious Cowdin and Belmont Futurity to stand close to the top of his generation.
But that afternoon at Hollywood Park For The Moment finished a wretched seventh, and the colt's owners (Gerald Robins, Tim Sams and Peter Fuller), his trainer (LeRoy Jolley) and jockey (Angel Cordero Jr.) still cannot explain why. The colt was well placed throughout and free of trouble. But they didn't give up on their horse, and because they didn't the 103rd Kentucky Derby could turn out to be something more than a canter for Seattle Slew.
Last Thursday, For The Moment won the $119,350 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, finding the burgoo-like going to his taste. Behind him were 10 Derby hopefuls. For The Moment broke swiftly, knocked off multiple-stakes winner Ruthie's Native handily and scored by nearly two lengths. "This was not like the Hollywood Derby," Cordero said. "This is another horse."
For The Moment certainly looked different as he stood in the Blue Grass walking ring. Jolley had equipped the colt with blinkers for the first time. "I had thought all along that For The Moment was a blinker horse," Jolley said after the Blue Grass, "but he had run so well without them that I didn't bother to use them. Why change equipment when things are going good, and until the Hollywood Derby the horse hadn't really run a bad race. Maybe he didn't like the track that day. I don't know. But it was the kind of race that indicated something should be done. Before the Blue Grass we worked him in blinkers, and it seemed to perk him up."
Blinkers keep an animal's concentration focused on the task ahead. In earlier times—and in Europe to this day—they were a last resort, only being put on horses that were rogues or fainthearted. In the U.S. they are no longer considered badges of bad conduct. In truth they often serve a good purpose—making a horse try harder—which For The Moment will certainly have to do to win this Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
He and Seattle Slew have met once, in the Champagne Stakes last fall at Belmont. The race was Slew's first stakes appearance and he outran For The Moment by nearly 10 lengths. "It was a mismatch," Jolley says. "I'm a big fan of Seattle Slew's; he might be a super horse. Still, I've got to try him again."
As part owner (12½%) of For The Moment, Boston's Peter Fuller returns with a Derby starter for the first time since 1968, the year his Dancer's Image won the race but lost the purse when Butazolidin was found in the colt's urinalysis. It took the state of Kentucky nearly two years to straighten out that mess and declare the second colt across the line, Forward Pass, the winner. Ironically, the state now allows horsemen to use Bute and it is no secret that it has aided Derby starters since.
Traditionally, the Derby draws a star-studded field of humans as well as horses, and this year there will be as many baseball celebrities in attendance as one can find in a courtroom. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn is expected, as are Hall of Famer Stan Musial, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner (who has an entry named Steve's Friend) and Charles O. Finley of the A's. As part of last week's trade that brought 20-game winner Mike Torrez to New York from Oakland, Steinbrenner threw in two box seats for Finley at the Derby and gave Charlie O. the right to lead Steve's Friend out of the winner's circle should the colt end up there.
If Finley wants his moment in the sun, he might well sign a deal with some other owners, like Golden Chance Farm, whose Run Dusty Run was second in the Blue Grass. The colt is a street fighter who has been to the races 14 times and finished first or second in 13 of them. Run Dusty is from the last U.S. crop of Dust Commander, the 1970 Derby winner, who is now at stud in Japan.
Western Wind is another colt to consider. He is improving and was third in the Blue Grass despite being in trouble much of the way. And last Saturday at Churchill Downs, one of the best-named of the 3-year-olds earned his way into the race by winning the one-mile Stepping Stone Purse. The colt is by Silver Screen from The Garden Club and is called Nostalgia.
Unfortunately for those who want a made-in-Hollywood finish, Steve Cauthen, the nation's sensational apprentice jockey, is without a Derby mount. So, too, is Willie Shoemaker, who is having a remarkable season at the age of 45. Until last weekend it seemed that Shoe would ride Habitony, a late closer who won the Santa Anita Derby by passing 13 horses in a spectacular quarter-mile burst, but Habitony will remain on the West Coast. Should anything happen to the other scheduled riders—suspensions or injuries—Cauthen or Shoemaker might still find a mount.
But those who prefer to play jockeys, not horses, will find Cordero on For The Moment, the best bet to upset Jean Cruguet on Seattle Slew. The Puerto Rican rider has taken two of the last three Derbies. This time he is a rival of Trainer Laz Barrera, who last year gave him a leg up on Bold Forbes (whom the jockey dubbed the "Puerto Rican Rolls-Royce"). On Saturday, Barrera will saddle Affiliate, who ran second in the Hollywood Derby. For those who like long-priced Latin entries there is another colt to be considered in the Derby—Papelote. So far the gray has looked more like a 1948 Ford than a Rolls, having failed to win in nine starts.
The odds on any colt winning the Run for the Roses are exceedingly long. Figuring them by the number of 3-year-olds registered, the odds this year are 27,793 to 1. Nevertheless, at week's end the Churchill Downs Race Book in Las Vegas was offering Seattle Slew at 1 to 5, meaning that a successful $2 bet on Slew would pay a 40¢ profit. Indeed, the colt is so strong a favorite that in Vegas no place or show bets are being accepted on him. Should the same odds be reflected at Churchill Downs, Slew could be the shortest-priced Derby winner ever. Triple Crown victors Count Fleet and Citation paid $2.80 and share the record for the lowest Derby payoff. Secretariat returned $5. Fifteen of 28 odds-on favorites have won Derbies, but five of the last eight have failed.
Seattle Slew may indeed be an extraordinary thoroughbred, deserving of all the money and praise being bestowed on him. Or he may be just a good horse facing weak opposition. The day that For The Moment ran so poorly in the Hollywood Derby, Trainer Charlie Whittingham gave his opinion about judging classic colts before the Triple Crown races. Whittingham has handled more than 270 stakes winners and has led the nation in earnings for five of the past seven years. "Racetrackers do the same thing every spring," he said. "It's in their blood. Come April they declare, 'This is a bad bunch of 3-year-olds.' It's part of the knocking game. But by the end of the season the same people are saying, 'Those horses weren't nearly as bad as everybody thought. Look what they did.' "
What Seattle Slew has to do next Saturday is handle the tight, confining paddock at the Downs without getting stirred up, then go onto the track and face that cacophony of yelling people and blaring bands, and finally drive through the eerie "Wall of Noise" at the top of the stretch caused by the shouting masses. And, oh yes, he has to prove that he can run a mile and a quarter with harassment every step of the way. The undefeated Slew has had fewer starts (six) than any of the other certain runners in the race, and a tactic that has been used against him before—that of opposing jockeys screaming at him during the course of a race—is certain to be employed again. But if you come home in front at 27,793 to 1, you've got to be something very special—and if you come out rolling a seven, you are more than just lucky.
WHAT'S A HORSE TO DO WHILE WAITING FOR SEATTLE SLEW?
Ruthie's Native (14 to 1) is pony-sized and brown. He had four victories early in the season but has not been the cat's meow since stepping on a nail.
Sir Sir (40 to 1) was unlucky at birth. His dam stepped on his right hind ankle, deforming it. He's always scrubbed. "At least the rest of him can look beautiful," his groom says.
For The Moment (15 to 1) would lie down on the job, given the chance. He may be Slew's toughest foe, but his trainer says, "There's no great accomplishment in finishing second."
He eats, he sleeps, he's scrubbed and grazed. And chances are he's somebody's pet, for to have a Derby colt is the next thing to Nirvana for most owners
Affiliate (25 to 1) used to have tiny holes in his blinkers so he could see his foes. He did not see them well enough, so the holes were enlarged.
Papelote (50 to 1) is the Latin long shot, whose name means "big piece of paper." Even his handlers expect him to be blown away.
Giboulee (8 to 1) is Canadian-bred and also has a fitting name. A loose translation of the French is "ice storm." The colt has a frigid personality.
Nostalgia (40 to 1) made hearts flutter with a win in the Stepping Stone. The colt is "sound as a bell of brass," his trainer says, which recommends him.
Coined Silver (15 to 1) is not money in the bank but a sterling prospect for a creditable Derby finish. He hankers for dandelions, offered here by Trainer Timmy Poole.
Steve's Friend (10 to 1) is owned by Yankee boss George Steinbrenner, but Charlie Finley claims he'll lead the horse from the winner's circle if the occasion should arise.