Call him Little Dynamite. Or Third Best. His real name, however, is Golden Act and he can run. Particularly at the end of races, when it often counts the most. Last Saturday Golden Act won the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and moved on to Louisville to be readied for the Kentucky Derby. By now virtually everyone figures that this year's Triple Crown races belong to either the East's Spectacular Bid or the West's Flying Paster. But if there is an upset, Golden Act is quite capable of pulling it off.
Golden Act? Well, in 1975 a stallion named Gummo was bred to a mare named Golden Shore in Solvang, Calif. The result was a small racehorse that was bred to "stay," to run on dirt and relish long distances. Gummo, now 17 years old, wasn't all that bad a runner himself. He was named for Gummo Marx, least publicized of the five Marx Brothers. After a short tour in vaudeville—he sang, he danced and he did a German-accent routine—Gummo went into the dress business and functioned as an agent for Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo.
Now old Gummo—the horse, not the Marx—may turn out to be the dominant sire of 1979, an act that doesn't exactly send the Kentucky horse-breeding establishment into paroxysms of laughter. In fact, Kentucky breeders abhor Gummo. Not only is he a Californian, and thus "unfashionable" by Kentucky standards, Gummo is also the sire of Flying Paster, who last week concluded his own pre-Derby preparations by running off with the Hollywood Derby by 10 lengths, his best race yet. Gummo thus has two of the three leading candidates for the 1979 Triple Crown, a feat so rare that track historians had to search all the way back to 1948, when Bull Lea's sons. Citation and Coaltown, ran 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, to find anything like it.
Granted, the Arkansas Derby has never produced a Kentucky Derby winner, and it might seem an odd place to go looking for a horse that can beat Spectacular Bid. But in 1972 the purse for the Arkansas Derby was upped from $50,000 to $100,000, and since then colts who have won the race have been a factor in Triple Crown events. That year No Le Hace won at Oaklawn Park and finished a game second to Riva Ridge in Louisville. Four years later Elocutionist finished third behind Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure in the Kentucky Derby, before beating both of them to win the Preakness.
April 23, 1979
This year the Arkansas Derby was worth $178,800 and brought together 10 runners who, quite frankly, didn't appear ready to compete with either Spectacular Bid or Flying Paster at this time. Some of them already had, with no great success. Calumet Farm's Rivalero had tried Spectacular Bid in February and lost by 10½ lengths; Greentree Stable's Strike The Main had run against Bid in the Flamingo in March and was beaten by 12 lengths.
Golden Act took on Flying Paster once as a 2-year-old and lost by five lengths. But the Golden Act of 1979 is a far different racehorse from the Golden Act of 1978. This year he has run four times and won three races. Four weeks before the Arkansas Derby, Golden Act ran in the Louisiana Derby and won with a strong closing burst. "The Fair Grounds has a long stretch, and that's what my horse needs," says Golden Act's young trainer, Loren Rettele. "His best run comes at the end of races and he loves a long piece of ground. The stretch at Oaklawn isn't as long as the one at Fair Grounds, but it's still long enough for Golden Act to do what he does best. Some people might look at the Kentucky Derby and say, 'Heck, if only one of the two horses, either Spectacular Bid or Flying Paster, were going to run, it would be worth a try, but with two of them it's a pretty bad idea.' I think it's a good idea; they could knock each other off and a horse with a closing punch could catch both of them in the stretch."
At Oaklawn, Golden Act, under 126 pounds, had to give away 11 pounds to Strike The Main. He also ran into a lot of trouble during the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race. He was wide on the first turn, dawdled down the backstretch and then came about eight horses wide turning for home. He also jumped over tractor tracks and shied at some shadows. But while Golden Act won by only a neck, he was pulling away at the finish. His time was 1:50, which was 1[1/5] seconds off the track record. The second horse was Ryehill Farm's Smarten, an improving runner trained by Woody Stephens. Smarten will go in this week's Wood Memorial in New York, and a clearer assessment of the worth of Golden Act's Arkansas Derby victory can be made after evaluating Smarten's showing against the likes of General Assembly, Screen King, Czaravich and Picturesque.
Golden Act gave Oaklawn's 58,104 fans their second straight day of excitement. On Friday, a crowd of 52,368 turned out for the $169,550 Oaklawn Handicap, which went to Greentree's San Juan Hill by a nose over Alydar, who carried 127 pounds and conceded 13 to the winner.
Shortly before the running of the Arkansas Derby, Bob Phipps, a builder and one of the owners of Golden Act, was seated in the lobby of the Holiday Inn at Lake Hamilton, some 10 minutes from Oaklawn. "I suppose that anybody that ever played football would like to play in the Rose Bowl," he said. "Well, every man that owns a racehorse should want to run in the Kentucky Derby, and I darn well do. Maybe it's just the little boy in me. I've never even seen a Kentucky Derby in person, but if Golden Act wins here, we'll be in Kentucky."
Phipps owns Golden Act in partnership with Bill Oldknow, who owns movie theaters, and the two have had good luck together. "We race a lot in northern California," said Phipps, "and one of the biggest kicks I get out of the sport is the fans. When I come out of Golden Gate, I'll climb onto a bus and ride into San Francisco with them just so I can hear them talk. They're marvelous. They are the greatest and funniest losers in the world—nothing went right today, but there's always tomorrow."
As Phipps talked, Golden Act's jockey, Sandy Hawley, hobbled into the lobby on a crutch. Hawley had injured his left foot in an accident at Hollywood Park on Thursday when his mount left the starting gate, and had barely been out of his Hot Springs hotel room in two days. Phipps walked over to Hawley and asked how he was.
Hawley said, "I'm fine. But what I'm going to do is take myself off my other mounts today and ride only Golden Act. I really don't need the crutch. If Golden Act runs back to his race in the Louisiana Derby, he'll win the Arkansas Derby and we can go on to Kentucky."
Hawley, 30, is a brilliant race rider, one who gets every yard from his mounts, yet has never ridden in a Kentucky Derby. "The right horse just never came along up until now," he said. "Golden Act is a strange one; when he gets in front of other horses he doesn't exert himself. But Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are the same way. Golden Act should love Churchill Downs."
When Golden Act threw his finishing punch at Oaklawn, it was a knockout. It was also the kind of blow that may alter the thinking of those associated with the two Derby favorites, because they now must assume that Golden Act will be driving at them strongly in the last eighth of a mile in Louisville. "Golden Act is bred to run from 1¼ to 1½ miles," Old-know says. "Those should be his best distances. I know it seems strange to have two sons of Gummo contending for the Kentucky Derby, but something that might seem even stranger is that Ben Ridder [the owner of Flying Paster], Bob Phipps and I are close friends. Both Ridder and I got interested in Gummo because Gummo sired Ancient Title and he won more than $1 million."
Gummo now stands at Cardiff Stud Farm in Solvang. He once ran against Bold Bidder, the sire of Spectacular Bid. The race was at Hawthorne Park in 1965, and Bold Bidder beat Gummo by a nose in a very roughly run race in which Gummo, the chart says, "was getting to the winner" at the end. To find Gummo today, one heads northwest 140 miles from Los Angeles and up into the Santa Ynez Mountains, passing signs that say BUELLTON: HOME OF SPLIT PEA SOUP, and SOLVANG: DANISH CAPITAL OF AMERICA. There are other signs, as well: CAUTION: THERE MAY BE RATTLESNAKES IN THIS AREA.
Not long ago, one could buy a stud service to Gummo for $1,000. As recently as last year his fee was only $7,500, but old Gummo's services are now virtually impossible to come by. With Ancient Title behind him and Flying Paster and Golden Act doing so well, Gummo, who is virtually unknown outside the state of California, may well become the only sire ever to produce three runners that earned $1 million apiece. Flying Paster already has won $717,060 and Golden Act has earned $372,250.
Every morning, Gummo stands in his paddock and listens to the traffic go by on Route 246. His head is held high, his bearing is proud. He has stamped both Flying Paster and Golden Act with a rather distinctive mark: a small white star on the forehead. Right now, that mark seems just perfect.