The move was quick and awesome. Alydar, with Jockey Jorge Velasquez showing patience and confidence, was gliding along in sixth place, free of trouble and not very far from the horses in front of him. Then, with a little more than half a mile remaining in the 49th running of Hialeah's Flamingo Stakes, he took off. By the time the field reached the top of the stretch Alydar had put them all away. Sailing along to win by 4½ lengths, he established himself as a strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby—and also as one of the best horses Calumet Farm has ever owned.
Alydar runs well from behind, and his best moves normally are made in the final furlong. Sometimes his late rushes work and he looks like a champion. Other times he makes his run too late and just fails to get up at the wire. Last year when he was beaten that way people wondered if he was a good horse or just another runner afflicted with what racetrackers call "seconditis."
The Flamingo usually provides the Derby with not only its betting favorite, but also often with the winner. It is a race seldom won cheaply, and horses normally don't run off by themselves. Alydar's winning margin last Saturday was impressive in comparison with even the best previous Flamingo winners. Seattle Slew won the 1977 Flamingo by four lengths, and in the last 28 years only Never Bend, Hold Your Peace and Honest Pleasure won by bigger margins than Alydar. In the 48 previous runnings of the Flamingo, only Honest Pleasure's 1:46[4/5] was better than Alydar's and Bold Ruler's 1:47 for the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles.
For two weeks the race had been building up as a match between Alydar and Believe It, with the other six starters in secondary roles. As 2-year-olds, Believe It and Alydar had met three times, with Alydar winning twice. Believe It's victory came in the Remsen Stakes at the close of the season. Each had started once this year at Hialeah and won a seven-furlong race in exactly the same time. People who saw both races felt that Believe It's win was more impressive because Alydar had run as usual, dawdling until he felt the time was right and then coming on to win.
In recent years 3-year-old racing has been dominated by horses that run in front and stretch out their victories. Seattle Slew was a perfect example, as were Foolish Pleasure, Honest Pleasure and Bold Forbes. Alydar and his come-from-behind style are more reminiscent of Needles and Carry Back, two former Flamingo winners, if not as dramatic as Silky Sullivan.
Last week, those who had watched Alydar suddenly found themselves looking at a new horse. Before the Flamingo, the Calumet colt had appeared half asleep each time the gate opened. "He just doesn't seem to break well," Trainer John Veitch said, "but it isn't the kind of a flaw that you worry about. We haven't spent a great deal of time trying to correct it. It's his style, but not a style that should continue. Alydar doesn't look like a big horse, but he is. He's a perfect athlete—compact and with all the things in the right places."
Alydar was extremely nervous as he approached the starting gate for the Flamingo, and three assistant starters had to help load him. But in contrast to his previous 11 starts, Alydar got away from the gate in good style and then settled back to sixth place, letting the speed take over the track. At no time did he throw his head around as he has done so often.
Slap Jack led with quick fractions, and Believe It was never far away. With more than a quarter of a mile remaining, Believe It and Alydar hooked up for an instant, but just an instant as Alydar went by Believe It so quickly that Believe It looked like a horse painted on the rail.
Hialeah drew its biggest Flamingo crowd in nine years to see the matchup, and the 28,019 bet nearly $430,000, but they bet very carefully. Alydar went off as the 9-to-10 favorite, and Believe It was bet down to 11 to 10. The rest of the field was given little chance, with third choice Junction going off at 8 to 1 and the long shot, Noon Time Spender, priced at 59 to 1.
Before the race Veitch was asked to size up his competition. "Believe It is the horse to beat," he said, "and I think we can beat him. Alydar can run the last eighth of a mile in 11 seconds, and there aren't too many around that can do that. If any horse can run the last eighth faster than Alydar, then the other horse should win. I've felt all along that Alydar is a better horse than Believe It, and now we'll find out if I'm right. Last year Alydar was the second-best 2-year-old to Affirmed. Between the end of a 2-year-old season and the start of the 3-year-old year, horses can grow quite a bit and mature. I think that has been the case with Alydar. He's grown about an inch and put on some weight. I think a couple of things might happen with him and I hope I'm right about them. As the distances stretch out he should get better. Better and stronger."
Calumet has won eight Kentucky Derbies but the Panamanian Jorge Velasquez none. Year in, year out he ranks among the top race riders in the country in both winners ridden and money won. When it comes to publicity, however, Velasquez gets virtually none. Last Saturday he made up for some of that neglect. Although Hialeah has been operating for 51 years, nobody had ever won five races on a single afternoon's card. Not Arcaro, Hartack or Atkinson. But Velasquez achieved it by winning five consecutive races, which enabled him to take the track's jockey championship by one winner over Jeff Fell.
"Alydar is the champ," Velasquez says. "I've thought so for quite some time. When the distances get longer he'll get better. The Flamingo was an excellent race for him. He got the lead when he wanted to and then started to slow down at the end once he knew things were safe. I had to get after him a bit with the whip, but only a bit. This is my Derby horse. I guess this is the one I've waited for, and I've waited for a long time."
When Velasquez brought Alydar to the winner's enclosure in the infield, a huge roar went up from the crowd, and Velasquez, who seldom shows emotion, whirled his whip in great circles above his head. Once, twice, three times. "There have been a lot of wins," he said shortly afterward, "and a lot of stakes wins. But I don't remember any that I liked more than this. There's a special feeling about having a good 3-year-old."
A jockey with Velasquez' talent usually goes where the money is, and in March and April the big money is paid out in California and New York. In 1978, however, Velasquez is going to stay in Florida so that he doesn't get too far away from Alydar, who will start next in the April 1 Florida Derby before moving on to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes and then to Churchill Downs for the Derby.
On the surface, it appeared that Alydar smothered Believe It and that Believe It may not be of Derby caliber, but there seemed to be reasons to throw out this race. Trainer Woody Stephens offered no excuses for Believe It's performance (fourth place behind Noon Time Spender and Dr. Valeri) except to say that it was just too bad to be true. Eddie Maple, Believe It's rider, said, "His race was no good. He got beat too far [5½ lengths]. He did run a little rank early, but I don't think that was the reason for his defeat. He wasn't blowing hard and he wasn't tiring at the end of the race. We did slip a little on the turn for home, with the winner a length off us. But there is no real excuse."
Stephens wants Believe It to run against Alydar again. Unlike Alydar, Believe It's only race this winter had been in a betless exhibition in which he beat only two other horses and won without much competition. Believe It's race in the Flamingo had all the earmarks of a horse running "short"; he appeared to need the outing and should improve off the race.
As for Veitch, he said, "There are two things to be concerned about. The first, of course, is Affirmed. He was voted the champion 2-year-old of last year. He hasn't been able to get to the races yet, but he still was the champion, and I have only the highest regard for him. The second thing is to keep Alydar sound and keep his mind about his business."
The theory that Affirmed will have to get to the races quickly if he is to be considered a strong hope for Kentucky is discounted by Stephens. "A lot of people think it's getting late in regard to running in the Derby," Believe It's trainer says. "If you go back to last year, though, Seattle Slew's Flamingo wasn't run until March 26. Before that he had only one race, and then only one more after the Flamingo before he started in the Derby. In most cases a trainer doesn't want too many races before the Triple Crown. A horse can't dance every dance. There is a lot of time left for other horses to come out and prove that they are runners. Early March is no time to start to panic."
Among the visitors to the paddock before the Flamingo was Jimmy Jones, the former Calumet trainer who retired 14 years ago. As he watched Alydar and stablemate Hugable Tom, who was to finish last in the race, being paraded in the walking ring, Jones moved in close. "It's a remarkable thing to see Calumet Farm run an entry in a big stake again," he said. "During the big days of Calumet we always somehow got lucky and could throw a good two-horse entry in the big races. Citation and Coaltown were the most famous, but we had others. One year  we sent both Gen. Duke and Iron Liege to the Derby and Gen. Duke was injured the day before the race. I thought Gen. Duke was one of the best horses Calumet ever had, but he never got to run in the Derby. We won the thing with Iron Liege, and he beat good horses like Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table. Calumet Farm coming back with a Derby candidate after all these years is just delightful."
After the Flamingo, John Veitch excused himself from a knot of reporters and placed a phone call to Admiral and Mrs. Gene Markey, Calumet's owners, who named their colt Alydar because Lucille Markey called her friend Aly Khan Aly, darling. Admiral Markey answered the phone. "Did you see the race on television, sir?" Veitch asked. "Good. Congratulations, sir. He ran a fine race and he's about where we want him to be at this stage of things. Thank you, sir. Yes, I'm quite happy. I just hope we can stay lucky for a little longer."
Late last week the nominations for the Kentucky Derby were closed and they numbered 319—the largest entry list in the history of the race. But Alydar's performance in the Flamingo has scared a lot of owners out of running their horses against him. The Derby now has an early favorite and, as so often in the past, he comes from Calumet Farm. Citation would like that.