All morning long, as his horses marched to and from the track at Hialeah, trainer Melvin (Sunshine) Calvert had puttered after them in his turquoise golf cart, known around the barns as the Sunshine Mobile Express. For hours he wended his way between the sheds and palms and paddock fences, finally coming to a stop at 9:15 just outside his barn. Calvert put his feet up on the dash, like a golfer waiting for his foursome to tee off, and lit up a Kool.
It was a Saturday, four days before he would saddle his shining chestnut colt, Superbity, for the 51st running of the Flamingo Stakes. Behind him, the colt was standing in the doorway of his stall and indulging in a favorite pastime, hustling groom Don Rudolf and other soft touches for sugar cubes. Calvert is usually the softest touch of all. But now he was in his golf cart counting the days, waiting for the Flamingo to see what kind of horse he had. "I'm not the type who jumps up and down and says, 'We're going to the Derby,' if a horse runs two or three good races. I like a horse to show me. That's just the way I am. I don't know if Superbity is much horse or not right now. I know he's a nice horse. We'll see how much horse he is in the next month or so."
Presently, at the wheel of his veterinary van, Dr. William O. Reed pulled off the road and came to a stop in front of the Sunshine Mobile Express. Reed had stood Superbity's sire, Groshawk, at his Mare Haven Farm in Ocala, Fla. until last year, when he sold him to George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees.
"How's he doing?" asked Reed, referring to Superbity.
March 17, 1980
"He's acting good, doing good, eating good. Now we just pray," Calvert said, touching his hands prayerfully together under his chin and looking up to the sky, his voice filled with mock solemnity and his pale blue eyes blinking. "Lord, let the best horse win," Calvert said. Then, with a wink, he added, "as long as he's mine."
Last Wednesday the best horse indeed was his in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Flamingo, and there was no need for divine intervention to get Superbity home. After tracking the pacesetter, Colonel Moran, to the second turn, Superbity ran by him and won off by himself. Yet it is probably best to heed Calvert's advice and reserve judgment on his horse—as well as all the other 3-year-olds in the country—until the Triple Crown races begin at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. For years the Flamingo has been among Florida's premier stakes races for 3-year-olds, and this year's edition was supposed to establish a line on those currently working in Florida. What the race unequivocally revealed was this: on a deep, tiring surface that recently had been awash with rain, Superbity was many lengths the best colt on the first Wednesday in March at Hialeah, probably even better than his six-length margin of victory would lead one to believe. More generally, the Flamingo also gave off signals that the 1980 colts may be among the most mediocre to come to the track in years. So far there is no indication that any of them can go a final eighth of a mile, even in a middle-distance race, in racehorse time. Mendel never said it was easier to breed a good racehorse than a pea, but this crop seems to express more eloquently than any in recent years the inexactitude of the so-called science of breeding blooded horses.
That puts the 1980 3-year-olds in sharp contrast to the generations of the last several years. Indeed, the 1970s were so deep in talent that many experts regard it as the greatest decade in the history of the sport, perhaps surpassing the 1940s, when Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation won Triple Crowns. There were three Triple Crown winners in the '70s, and each performed in a singular way—Secretariat beating Sham and smashing records in two Triple Crown races in 1973; Seattle Slew winning the series in 1977 while still undefeated; and Affirmed beating back his tenacious foil, Alydar, in the 1978 Triple Crown. In the classics, at least, these extraordinary years culminated in 1979, with Spectacular Bid. Though he lost the Belmont Stakes, and with it the Triple Crown, Bid dominated his generation as surely as Secretariat and Slew and Alydar and Affirmed dominated theirs. "The last 10 years we've seen some of the greatest horses in the history of racing, and it has spoiled us," says trainer LeRoy Jolley, whose Foolish Pleasure won the 1975 Derby.
It is still far too early to make a definitive judgment on the present crop, because there may still be an unraced Kelso or Stage Door Johnny in it, but for now 1980 appears to be one of those years when the leading 3-year-olds will take turns in the winner's circle. The most promising colts in both California and New York are largely untested, and the Flamingo did little to clarify matters in Florida.
This unsettled situation doesn't concern the unflappable Calvert. He'll just keep steering his golf cart among the shedrows as he readies his horse for the spring classics. Calvert is 67 years old and has been pointing horses toward racetracks for 48 of them, beginning when he started riding in 1932. He is 4'11" and 105 pounds, about five pounds over his riding weight. Hardly anyone calls him Melvin. He has gone by Sunshine since 1933, when he was nearing the end of a profitable year as an apprentice rider. At one point in '33 he had $9,000 saved in a bank. But the bank failed. Then someone stole $1,500 he had stashed in his room—he had sworn off banks altogether, an oath he would honor for 20 years—and soon after that someone swiped his new Plymouth, a $630 car. "I was laughing about it in the jock's room one day," says Calvert, "and a journeyman rider, Tex Anderson, said, 'If you can laugh about that, your name should be Sunshine.' "
Calvert gave up riding in 1945, after two serious falls, and started training in 1946. He has had some fine horses. He trained Rough 'n Tumble, a fast colt best known as the sire of Dr. Fager and My Dear Girl, the 2-year-old filly champ of 1959 whom Calvert trained for Frances Genter, the Florida-based breeder and owner. As a broodmare My Dear Girl has continued to enhance the fortunes of Genter's stable and Calvert's career. She is the dam of In Reality, a very able son of Intentionally, as well as of the present star of the barn, Superbity.
His mock pleas to the Almighty notwithstanding, Calvert liked his horse's chances in the Flamingo. Facing him were three hopes and a prayer. The hopes were Rockhill Native, the game but inconsistent 2-year-old champion; an unseasoned but promising Greentree colt named Prince Valiant; and Colonel Moran, a bullet who had won his last start by 10 and was breaking on the rail. The prayer was Koluctoo Bay, a colt who has a bone chip in one knee and a right hock so crooked that from the rear, when he walks, he looks as if he will strike his left leg with his right. Superbity, starting from the outside post with Jacinto Vasquez up, had to get position and save ground, but get it he did. After clearing the field, he swept over toward the rail. Colonel Moran was his. Superbity tracked him to the far turn, through a sizzling half in :45⅘ and then went after him. When the Colonel saw Superbity coming, he thought it over and spit out his bit. Prince Valiant went through the motions, all of them slow, to finish ninth. Rockhill Native was a disappointing third, unable to resist poor Koluctoo Bay, who came out of the race with sore front legs. Superbity ran the last eighth in 14⅕ waltz time, and yet won it drawing away. The final time was 1:51⅕ the slowest Flamingo in 30 years. "I wouldn't give a damn if it took him till dark, as long as he was in front at the end of it," Calvert said later.
Desite the poor clocking, the Flamingo seemed to heighten interest in the March 29 Florida Derby. Three of last season's more promising 2-year-olds, Gold Stage, the son of a good young sire, Mr. Prospector, Execution's Reason and Plugged Nickel, should meet Superbity in that one, also at a mile and ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ.
So there is reason to hope, if not for the coming of a Spectacular Bid, at least for a race in which the winner will finish in respectable time. In the meantime Calvert has Superbity sound and still fresh, and an added attraction. My Dear Girl is 23 now, old for a broodmare, but she's still producing foals for Genter's stable. In the broodmare barn at Tartan Farm, an hour and a half after her son won the Flamingo, My Dear Girl celebrated the triumph in the only way she knows how. On hearing the good news, Calvert rubbed his hands together outside the barn at Hialeah and said, "She laid down, grunted once and foaled a filly by Mr. Prospector!"