Virtually the worst thing that could be said about a racehorse in polite company is that it isn't worth a plugged nickel. The phrase comes from the days when cowboys would gather in saloons, have several drinks, toss a nickel into the air and plug it with a six-shooter, rendering it worthless. But there are plugged nickels and Plugged Nickles. Last Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park a 3-year-old so named won the $175,000 Florida Derby by six lengths to establish himself as one of the prime favorites for the Kentucky Derby. The margin of Plugged Nickle's victory was the biggest ever recorded in the 29-year-old race, which recently has been won by Spectacular Bid, Alydar and Honest Pleasure. Each of those went on to Louisville as the people's choice in America's most ballyhooed animal act. What Plugged Nickle also did at Gulfstream was run in very slow time, posing an important question: Does he look like a million merely because he is competing against five-and-dime horses?
Probably not. During the past two years, Plugged Nickle has run four times at distances of a mile or more, winning each outing more impressively than the last. He is trained by a master horseman named Thomas Joseph Kelly, a man who can bring a horse up to a race in perfect condition while remaining a perfect basket case himself. Kelly, who is 60, is nervous, sentimental, superstitious, thoughtful, witty and, at well-spaced times, a delight. Kelly also can break off a conversation and walk into a stall and muck it out just to get away from the questions. This year he has a brilliant stable of horses, including Colonel Moran, another Derby candidate, now stabled in New York.
Plugged Nickle's name comes from his breeding. He is by Key to the Mint out of Toll Booth, she by Buckpasser. "When we named the horse," says owner John Schiff, "I guess we were trying to disprove the old theory about plugged nickels." Schiff, 75, is chairman of the Wall Street banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Co., a member of the Jockey Club, onetime manager of the Yale swimming team, an Oxford master in philosophy, political science and economics, a former president of the Boy Scouts of America and the National Jewish Welfare Board, and the breeder of many excellent horses, including Hoist the Flag. He's also a rotten speller. "Let's just say that 'nickel' came out spelled 'nickle' due to a clerical error," he says.
Schiff has never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby despite the fact that he has owned thoroughbreds for nearly half a century. "I've been invited to the Derby several times by friends," he says, "but never have gone. Now maybe I'll get a chance to go. Do I think winning a Kentucky Derby will be easy? Do you know anything in life that is easy?"
Winning the Florida Derby was certainly easy for Plugged Nickle. He faced such modest competition that he could have sat down at the eighth pole, got up slowly and still won. Clearly his mind was not on his business through the early part of the stretch run. He looked around at the crowd and the lake in the infield and drifted out before returning to the matter at hand.
With the pace of the race woefully slow, Jockey Buck Thornburg pushed Plugged Nickle into the lead on the first turn and kept him in front for the rest of the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles. His time was 1:50⅕ well off the stakes record of 1:46[4/5] set in 1957 by Gen. Duke, but he was the easiest of winners.
"I thought somebody else would go out and set a fast pace. But it never happened," the 48-year-old Thornburg said. "Plugged Nickle could have run a lot faster, but Mr. Kelly had told me to keep him back off the lead but not to choke him down. When nobody wanted to go out in front, I just went and took the lead. The horse almost seemed to have it much too easy in the stretch...." The mount on Plugged Nickle, of course, represents a major opportunity for Thornburg, who has appeared in only one Kentucky Derby. That was in 1968 when he finished eighth on Trouble Brewing.
Within recent weeks, Plugged Nickle, officially a bay but really a striking chestnut, has emerged as the top 3-year-old—at least on the East Coast. However, his rise has been abetted by the fact that Tropical Park Derby and Flamingo winner Superbity—as well as several other Florida-based colts—has been injured. Plugged Nickle has been lightly raced, the Florida Derby being only the 10th start of his career and third race of 1980. He has every right to get better, and he will.
"Along the way I found out that this horse just doesn't like his races one on top of the other," says Kelly. "Now that we've won the Florida Derby, I'm shipping him back to New York to get out of the hot weather. While I can't say right now whether he'll run in the Wood Memorial [April 19 at Aqueduct] or the Blue Grass [at Keeneland April 24], I do know that he'll need another race before we go to Louisville."
The Wood appears to be the more likely. Kelly then could run Colonel Moran in the Blue Grass and perhaps emerge with two genuine Derby threats. That would not be an unalloyed pleasure. As the trainer of a public stable, which he runs with his son Larry, Tom Kelly must attempt to satisfy all his owners, and while Schiff is a longtime Kelly client, so too is Townsend Martin, the owner of Colonel Moran. The Colonel has won four of seven starts but looks to be more sprinter than stayer. The colt will run in this week's one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct, which should help Kelly refine his strategy.
Kelly has trained two previous Kentucky Derby starters, Globemaster, who finished sixth in 1961, and Sunrise County, who came in fifth in '62. He also trained Pet Bully, winner of the first running of the Woodward Stakes, in 1954, and has had many stakes winners since, the best-known being Noble Dancer II, the topflight grass horse of 1977-79.
"I was born in Pikesville, Maryland," Kelly says, "and everybody in racing knows that I ripped my grammar school graduation suit climbing over the fence to sneak into Pimlico. I was 13 at the time and got to rub horses. I always wanted to be around racetracks. Things have worked out well for me and for my family."
That they have. In 1979 Tom Kelly finished 14th among the nation's trainers with purse earnings of $1,277,433. With Plugged Nickle, the 4-year-old mare Misty Gallore and Colonel Moran racing splendidly this year, Kelly's purses have already passed $500,000, and the major money events lie ahead.
Plugged Nickle was the third-best 2-year-old of 1979, but he developed late, coming on to win the Laurel Futurity and the Remsen Stakes and to earn nearly $200,000. Even before he won the Florida Derby, his fifth victory in his last six starts, a lot of smart money had driven down Plugged Nickle's future-book Derby price from 12-1 to 3-1. It will go lower, especially after the startling results of Sunday's Santa Anita Derby. Codex, a 25-1 shot not even nominated for the Kentucky Derby, beat Rumbo by a neck and soundly defeated highly regarded Raise a Man (fifth) and The Carpenter (sixth). Jaklin Klugman, another topflight California horse, missed the race because of a virus.
Half an hour after the Florida Derby, Kelly was standing in the clubhouse at Gulfstream with an orchid in his hand. "This was the run for the orchids," he said, smiling. "Now I've got to think about running for the roses in Louisville. In this game you get to know how steep the ups and downs can be. I can sure as hell hope for the roses, but right now nobody can take the orchids from me."