They came dashing out through the portal leading from the box seats and through the old wooden clubhouse, holding on to each other and looking like Bonnie and Clyde leaving the racetrack money room. What they had actually just lifted, in broad daylight and from under the noses of 131,859 customers at Churchill Downs, was one sensational Kentucky Derby. Bert and Diana Firestone had waited too long for this occasion to let the winner's circle go unattended. So off they went.
"I don't believe it!" Bert cried.
Past the betting windows, through the Derby Lounge bar. Under the sign: Mint Juleps $3. Down the 11 steps. Past the Directors Room. Through a door. Down another flight of steps where Diana almost tripped over a chain draped across the stairway.
"Oh!" she gasped. Bert grabbed her elbow.
May 11, 1980
On they raced, as if the winner's circle were about to disappear. Down more steps, with Diana holding her straw hat and six of their seven children tagging behind. Through another door. On to the main floor of the clubhouse. Out a passageway to the tunnel leading to the racetrack. Big Ed McGrath, the bloodstock insurance man, met them there with a bearlike embrace.
Out another tunnel leading to the track, into the wild blue afternoon, then across the track itself, under the aluminum fence and finally reaching that small grassy place they had been racing to for the last few minutes—in fact, for the last few years. They had just won their first Kentucky Derby, after twice finishing second in the last five years, with a filly possessing bright brown eyes, long eyelashes, a golden coat and the name of Genuine Risk. After years of frustration, they had finally reached the one place in America where they wanted to be above any other.
"I knew it," said Diana. "I knew she could do it."
Genuine Risk won by a length, and the race was the easiest part. Her appearance at the starting gate, with Jockey Jacinto Vasquez wearing the distinctive green-and-white Firestone silks, was the culmination of a series of unlikely events that began when a 14-year-old boy fell for a horse. These events reached their most critical stage when trainer LeRoy Jolley agonized over whether to do what no owner and trainer had agreed to do since Silver Spoon went to the post in 1959: saddle a filly in the Derby. That the Firestones and Jolley decided to go ahead produced a Derby as moving for those involved in it as it was memorable for those who witnessed it.
Nearly two years ago, at the Fasig-Tipton summer yearling sale in Lexington, Ky., Bertram's son Matthew took a liking to a daughter of Exclusive Native, sire of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, out of Virtuous, who had been sired by Gallant Man, the record-breaking winner of the 1957 Belmont Stakes. In the years he had been accompanying his father to sales, Matthew had become a student of pedigree and conformation. After seeing the filly, he sought out his father. It was late and the sale was about to begin. "I found one I really like," Matthew said. "Can you come and look at her?" Firestone hesitated, telling him time was short and the yearling salesmen wouldn't show a horse at so late an hour. Unruffled, Matthew dashed to the barn. "They'll show her to us," he said on returning. Together they visited the filly. Firestone hadn't even marked her in his program, but he decided that he liked her, too. "Can I bid on her for you?" the boy asked. "You can go to $35,000," his father said.
That night, the last nod of Matthew's head signaled a bid of $32,000, and the filly was theirs. They aptly named her Genuine Risk, and she wasn't long coming to hand after Jolley started cranking her up last autumn. They figured they had something when, in her second start, she blew away a field of allowance fillies to win by more than seven lengths and then won the Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct by three. Firestone remembers Vasquez saying, as he dismounted, "This filly can beat the colts."
So even then, as far back as last November, the Firestones were thinking about the filly in the Derby. What so encouraged them was that no dominant colt had emerged. Moreover, Firestone, 48, a real-estate developer, had a highly resistant strain of Derby fever, one brought on by those two near-misses. Honest Pleasure finished second to Bold Forbes in 1976, but Jolley sensed that Firestone felt more frustrated last year, when his gifted General Assembly happened to come along in the year of Spectacular Bid. By the end of last season, filly or not, Genuine Risk also was the most promising Derby candidate in Firestone's barn.
Nor did anything occur last winter to discourage Firestone from harboring Derby dreams. The 3-year-old colts appeared to be an average bunch. And the filly was clearly her old self in her first start of 1980, on March 19, when she won a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream in 1:22[3/5]—good time. With six weeks to the Derby, she was on course. So she was entered in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 19, her first race against the colts. It was there on the eve of the Wood and in its aftermath, that problems surfaced. Jolley began to have reservations about the Derby plan, leaning now toward the rich filly races of the spring. Firestone, however, wasn't convinced.
Jolley, 42, is an old-school trainer, conservative by nature, who hasn't made it a practice to run fillies against colts and doesn't believe in taking what he considers unnecessary risks. And running fillies against colts was risky, especially in the Derby. As the world knows, the last and only other time a filly won the Derby was in 1915, and Regret was her name. "It's a risk that need not be taken," Jolley said. "So you don't do it."
Firestone, on the other hand, is instinctively more the gambler of the two. "The greater the risk," he says, "the greater the reward." The Firestone horses run under the colors of Catoctin Stud of Waterford, Va. The fillies race in Diana's name and the colts in Bert's.
In Genuine Risk's final prep for the Wood, a handicap race on April 5, the then-undefeated filly won going a flat mile, but she was in heat, the time was slow and Jolley felt she got little out of the race. So he played catch-up, working her harder than usual, to prepare for the Wood. Then he sent her out to meet Plugged Nickle, the Derby co-favorite, and the other boys. When she finished third, beaten a length and a half by Plugged Nickle in a slow 1:50⅘ Jolley was painfully disappointed. "She was a filly who had been undefeated, and I'm enough of a dreamer to think I can keep that going forever," he said. "If the race was won in 1:48 or even 1:49, I'd say, 'Well, that's the way it is.' But it wasn't, and the race was hard on her. Maybe I trained her too hard. She was puffing and blowing and tired."
Jolley's first thought on seeing her after the race was, "My God, what have I done to this filly?" To a national television audience Jolley said she wouldn't be going to Kentucky. Firestone, on the other hand, was pleased. He thought she had run well, and he wanted to leave open the Kentucky option. The next day, Sunday, the two men met at Aqueduct, and they agreed to continue pointing for the Derby if the filly recovered nicely from the Wood and if no horse looked overpowering in the Blue Grass at Keeneland the following Thursday.
They decided to attend that race together. If Jolley didn't really want to go to the Derby, the filly gave signals that she didn't want to either. She was fine on Sunday after the Wood but on Monday she seemed a bit dull to Jolley, off her feed and lacking her customary alertness. "My thoughts were concerned with her well-being," Jolley said.
Firestone was concerned, too. "I wouldn't go if I thought it would irreparably harm her," he said. On the same day, having read that Jolley didn't plan to go to Kentucky, Bill Rudy, Churchill Downs' director of publicity, called Firestone to ask if he still wanted his seat and room reservations. Rudy thought Firestone might want to run the filly in the Kentucky Oaks.
"We're 90% certain we're coming," Bert said.
"To the Oaks?" Rudy asked.
"No, to the Derby," said Bert.
Genuine Risk remained dull on Tuesday, so Jolley kept her in the barn on Wednesday. He not only thought that saving her for the filly races made more sense, he says, but he also feared the possibly destructive effects the Derby might have on her. Not robust, Genuine Risk is distinctly feminine in type, physically refined. While some trainers won't put a colt in the Derby because they believe it too early in the year to ask a 3-year-old to go a mile and a quarter, many wouldn't even consider entering a filly. Fillies tend to be more delicate and to suffer longer from the stresses of a race, thus the five-pound weight allowance sanctioned by the Jockey Club at this time of year. Fillies frequently beat the colts abroad and, in fact, have won four of the last eight runnings of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Europe's premier race.
But Angel Penna, the trainer of two of those fillies, San San and Allez France, points out that the Arc is in October, and by then a 3-year-old filly is becoming as mature as a 3-year-old colt. When horses are young 2-year-olds, Penna says, they are like young children, and, as children, girls are often able to beat boys in footraces. But by late summer, he says, the colts have passed the fillies and they remain stronger until the next fall, when the fillies catch up. So the fillies at Derby time are behind the colts in development. "I think the Kentucky Derby is a little too early for everybody, but especially for fillies," Penna says.
Jolley believes that. And he was concerned about Genuine Risk, more delicate than most. "More like Candice Bergen than Billie Jean King," he says. He also feared the Derby would be a cavalry charge of 20 horses, making the race even tougher for her, and that among the chargers would be Prince Valiant, the Blue Grass candidate he thought might emerge as the star. For all these reasons, then, Jolley didn't want to go. And then, suddenly, the whole picture changed.
The day was Thursday, April 24, Blue Grass Day. That morning for the first time since the Wood, Jolley sent Genuine Risk to the racetrack. She galloped strongly under Vasquez. "She damned near ran off with him," Jolley says. Physically, she had recovered from the Wood. He also watched the Blue Grass, watched as Prince Valiant struggled home last in a field of 11, and Rockhill Native won in a performance roughly comparable to Plugged Nickle's in the Wood. Jolley also figured that several also-rans in the Wood wouldn't be making the trip to Louisville, and he was right. Soon after the race, eight trainers announced they wouldn't be going, reducing the field to 12 horses. So Jolley was now training a filly who was fit again and facing a manageable Derby field that included two favorites who hadn't shown they wanted to go a mile and a quarter, one of whom had beaten her only a length and a half. "And she's bred to go the distance," Diana Firestone said.
So they were Derby-bound. Over the next few days Jolley grew more comfortable with the idea. In the week before the Derby he still expressed concern, but he was confident she could run with the colts. "You're not saying blindly, 'This is a great filly and I'm going to run her against Forego,' " he said one day. "You're going into a situation you've weighed very carefully. There's no big standout. She's alert, bright. I think she's got a hell of a shot, I really do."
So did Bert Firestone. "I wouldn't try for the Derby if I didn't think we had a good chance," he said. "I've run twice and been second twice. If there was a Secretariat or Spectacular Bid here, she wouldn't be. But here I give her a very good chance."
That was at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Two hours later, there was his filly swallowing Plugged Nickle and Rockhill Native, coming off the turn for home and holding off Rumbo in the last few jumps. Rockhill Native finished fifth after staying in the hunt most of the way, and Plugged Nickle, the co-favorite, came in seventh after fading in the stretch. After Rumbo was Jaklin Klugman and Super Moment. Genuine Risk's winning time of 2:02 was the ninth-fastest Derby ever run, and she bettered Spectacular Bid's 1979 time by two-fifths of a second. She also earned $250,550.
For Vasquez, the day was filled with memories. In 1975 he had teamed with Jolley to win the Derby with Foolish Pleasure. In July that year, Vasquez rode the great filly champion Ruffian in the match race at Belmont Park—against Foolish Pleasure. Ruffian was leading by half a length after 3½ furlongs when she broke down. She was destroyed the next day. "I won't compare Ruffian to Genuine Risk," he said. "I never will."
Later in the evening, there was a champagne party at the barn. Genuine Risk stood watching from the stall door. The Preakness will be run in two weeks, and Jolley was ruling nothing out, if nothing in. He said, "I'll tell you this; she's not nearly as tired now as she was after the Wood. We'll see. You have to play her like a violin."