A yellow and black cat of questionable origin and uncertain age sits inside the rear clubhouse gate at Hialeah every morning, causing trainers walking from the stable area to the track either to skirt it or pause and be given the right of way. Trainers going good call it "Cat Lucky."
At 8:20 a.m. last Friday, John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, walked up to the cat, squatted beside it and said, "Thanks, Lucky. It's been a good winter. Make sure you're here tomorrow at the same time."
By 8:15 the next morning the cat was there, and Veitch went up to it again, rubbed its head and stroked its sides while saying, "Thanks, Lucky. If it goes good today we're going to Kentucky on Monday. I'd take you with us, but there are too many people here who still need you. See you next year."
With or without Lucky's assistance, Alydar ran the best race of his career that afternoon at Gulfstream Park, winning the $150,000 Florida Derby in 1:47, a fifth of a second off the track record for 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles, and the fastest time since Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke won the race in 1957, that marvelous year of Gen. Duke, Bold Ruler, Round Table, Gallant Man and Iron Liege. Alydar cruised handily past the finish line two lengths in front of Believe It, and Believe It ran an excellent race, one described by his rider, Eddie Maple, as "a generous, all-out effort." Added Maple, "Films may make it look like we got by Alydar in the stretch, but we never did. We got head to head with him, that's all. It was no match. Believe It didn't quit, Alydar just went on. He is one hell of a racehorse."
Although there were seven starters in the race, it was really a match between Alydar and Believe It. When the field came onto the track for the post parade, however, the crowd had decided that it was a mismatch: Alydar was 1 to 9 and Believe It 7 to 1. Eventually, Alydar went off at 20¬¨¬®¬¨¢ on the dollar and Believe It at $3.60 to $1. Everyone assumed that Believe It, a disappointing fourth behind Alydar in the Flamingo a month earlier, would scoot to the front and that Alydar would have to catch him. Instead, a slow early pace found Alydar running second, ahead of Believe It, and taking over the lead at the end of six furlongs in a slow 1:11[1/5]. Coming to the stretch turn, Believe It hustled up to challenge Alydar, and the two matched strides for about a sixteenth of a mile before Alydar drew off with astonishing strength. His Florida Derby win, following his equally powerful victory in the Flamingo, did nothing to discourage the Alydar camp in its hopes for the Triple Crown.
Two hours after the race Alydar had been vanned back to Hialeah and stood in Stall 2, Barn AA on the backstretch, where Veitch had yanked a bale of Washington hay up onto a rack. "We go to Kentucky now," Veitch said, "and 10 bales of this hay go with him. That should be enough to get him through the Derby. We only use Washington hay for him. We've tried other hay and it gives him a slight colic. The proper hay for a horse is more important than any forms of vitamins or supplements."
In addition to being an expert on the dietary habits of horseflesh, the 32-year-old Veitch is bright, pragmatic, witty, thorough and sensitive. His father Sylvester was a trainer and, he says, "If it hadn't been for him I'd be working on the racetrack as either a stall mucker or a night watchman. He trained for the best of owners, the Whitneys and Wideners, so I got to look at racing from the best of angles. By the time I was five or six years old I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Some people go on the racetrack to hustle or win a bet or scuffle around trying to make money by claiming or selling horses. I came on the racetrack to train horses like Alydar. There is a certain feeling one gets about being around a horse like Alydar or Our Mims [Calumet's outstanding filly] which cannot be bought. A good horse, when seen up close, transmits something to you that no other animal can. He shows you strength and valor and heart and beauty."
Veitch was a college football halfback at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. "I had swivel hips and the heart of a chicken," he says. "But I got a letter and was injured a lot. Before that, I went to military school at McDonogh in Baltimore with several other racetrack kids. I ran away from school so many times that I used to get put down in the boiler room when I came back. Bad guy. I was searching for something, and it took me a while to realize that what I truly wanted was all I knew, the racetrack.
"Now I'm getting the biggest chance of all, the opportunity to take a good run at the Kentucky Derby with a very good racehorse. I believe this is what I was meant to do, and I don't fear it. We could get beat, but I've been beaten before in big races. How many trainers ever get a chance to even start a horse in the Derby? How many trainers get a horse like Alydar? I'm lucky, but I know that five weeks from now I've also got to be ready. We've both got to be ready, Alydar and Veitch. And we will be."
There are problems that come with training a good horse, however, and last week Veitch was faced with two big ones. Clyde Sparks, Alydar's groom, was walking a 2-year-old outside the Calumet barn when a stray goat crossed in front, causing the young horse to spook, rear up and kick Sparks with two hellish blows, breaking four ribs. Sparks went to the hospital but got out in time to be at Gulf-stream for the Florida Derby.
In a subsequent incident, Alydar's regular rider, Jorge Velasquez, was slammed against the inside of the Gulfstream starting gate five days before the big race. He injured a hip and was brought back to riding form in slow, delicate stages. He rode one race Friday and took but two mounts before being hoisted up on Alydar Saturday. After riding a perfect race, Velasquez walked slowly from the winner's circle. His wife Margarita supported him because he was limping noticeably. "I feel O.K.," he said. "Not great, just O.K."
It was the only negative moment of the day for Calumet.