With one exception, the last 10 Kentucky Derbies have provided surprises, thrills, grist for good talk. Canonero II came out of Caracas, Venezuela in 1971 to start things off by winning at Churchill Downs without benefit of a previous race in the U.S. Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed took care of '73, '77 and '78 in spectacular fashion. Riva Ridge won in 1972 by an impressive 3¾ lengths. Then there were the "Pleasure Years" of 1975-76, with Foolish Pleasure winning and Honest Pleasure losing to Bold Forbes. Some people tended to confuse the Pleasures, but the difference between the two horses, once one got to know them, was that Foolish was honest and Honest was foolish. Spectacular Bid had the trumps in 1979, and last May a chestnut princess named Genuine Risk became the first filly to win the race in 65 years. The forgotten Derby of the decade was run in 1974, Cannonade's year. Now in 1981 it's instructive to recall 1974, because what happened then may well happen on May 2.
Cannonade and his 22 opponents were the largest Derby field in history. Why were there so many entries? Because it was the 100th Derby, and owners were doing everything but pulling horses off the front of wagons to get in the race. After the cavalry-charge start of '74, conditions for the Derby were changed. Now a maximum of 20 horses may start, and in light of what happened to Cure the Blues in last Saturday's 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the sound off in the distance is that of thundering hoof-beats again. Cure the Blues wasn't just beaten in the Wood; he was humiliated. He lost to Pleasant Colony by eight lengths and Highland Blade by five, and over the last eighth of a mile Blues seemed to be looking around for a nice soft spot to sit down.
Cure the Blues had become the favorite for the Derby in recent weeks when Lord Avie, last season's 2-year-old champion, was injured. Cure the Blues had won all of his five starts as a 2-year-old by a remarkable average of 7½ lengths. Those races, however, had been in Maryland, and only his victory in the Laurel Futurity was over top company.
This spring Blues was slow getting to the races because of problems with his shoes. In late March he beat a mediocre field at Hialeah and then came to New York for his first major test, the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Cure the Blues ran a marvelous race, battling head-to-head with Proud Appeal in a scorching mile run in 1:33[3/5]. Blues gave Proud Appeal three pounds and lost by a desperate nose. Virtually everyone thought the Gotham would set Cure the Blues up perfectly for the Wood Memorial.
Blues trained and ate well; everything seemed to be going perfectly, and the opposition in the Wood didn't seem particularly strong. Unless one listened to The Fat Man. The Fat Man is Johnny Campo, the 43-year-old trainer of Pleasant Colony. He packs 250 pounds on a 5'7" frame and he even calls himself The Fat Man. Early last week Campo said, "The Fat Man will win the Wood Memorial. You can go to sleep on it. Pleasant Colony has worked up to the race perfectly. Bet your money."
Campo did. Obviously not too many joined him, because the colt went off at 12-1. When Pleasant Colony reached the finish line, Campo punched the air with his fist and hollered, "The Fat Man knew it! There was only one good horse in the race and Campo had him. Pleasant Colony will be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He won the Wood easin' up."
Cure the Blues not only lost the race badly, but he also acquired several good-sized gashes in his left hock. Chances are he struck himself while bending into the first turn. Owner Bert Firestone and trainer Leroy Jolley were at Blues' stall early the following morning examining the cuts. These two have been down that road toward Louisville often together and understand far better than most the vagaries of racing. Firestone took a good look at the cuts and said, "A couple are almost down to the bone, like they were made by the kind of cleaver you use to cut Swiss steak, I've seen every race Blues has run, and nearly every one of his workouts, and I think you have to throw this race out. I hope the cuts can be cured in time for the Derby."
Said Jolley: "He didn't live up to his expectations. He gave up very quickly, which isn't typical of him at all. Getting cut would be like a golfer walking down a fairway and hitting himself inadvertently with a club. It stings."
Plans for Cure the Blues still call for him to be shipped to Kentucky in the hope that the cuts will mend. The defeat in the Wood probably will cost him his role as favorite at Churchill Downs, but if he's not the favorite, who is?
According to the new rule, the 20 horses that may start the Derby must be the top money-earners among the record 432 nominated in February whose owners are still willing to send them to the post. At the head of the earnings list is Bold Ego, who has amassed $382,676 by winning 10 of 13 races, many of them in the Southwest last year, where he won at Sunland Park, Albuquerque and Ruidoso Downs. Bold Ego is a New Mexico-bred colt who this spring won the Rebel Handicap and Arkansas Derby. No New Mexico bred has ever been a Kentucky Derby champion, nor, for that matter, has an Arkansas Derby winner, but the winner of last year's Rebel and Arkansas Derby was Temperence Hill, who beat Genuine Risk and Codex in the Belmont Stakes and paid a whopping $108.80 for a $2 win bet. Bold Ego likes to run on the lead, and can relax while doing so. Unless those cuts were the real reason for Cure the Blues' defeat, that's a vital quality that Blues failed to exhibit in the Wood.
Second on the money list ($367,192) is Well Decorated, trained by Eugene Jacobs. Early in the morning after the Wood, Jacobs was in the clocker's shed at Belmont Park wearing a look of consternation. "I really don't know quite what anybody can make out of this year's Derby," he said. "My horse is doing just fine and will run in the Blue Grass. But that race yesterday will cause many others to take a shot. There are a lot of horses based in Kentucky who now might want to run in the Derby but won't be able to get in because they don't have the earnings. Actually, the situation has been confusing for quite a while."
To say the least. Probably never in the history of classic racing have so many changes been made among owners, trainers and jockeys. Consider Tap Shoes, the third-highest earner ($307,676) on the eligible list. He's certain to be one of the Derby favorites if he runs well in either the Blue Grass Stakes or the Stepping Stone this week. Last year Trainer Howie Tesher brought Tap Shoes along to the point where he was considered one of the top three youngsters in the country—along with Lord Avie and Cure the Blues. Then one morning Tesher picked up the Daily Racing Form and found out he was no longer Tap Shoes' trainer (see box, page 36).
Campo took over the training of Pleasant Colony only 30 days before the Wood, and in his last two races Pleasant Colony had been ridden by Vince Bracciale Jr. and Jeff Fell. Fell has been the jockey on Proud Appeal in seven of his eight races (six wins), and Proud Appeal's earnings are in comfortable shape ($221, 417). The Gotham winner could be one of the legitimate favorites for the Derby. That, however, may not be in the horse's favor. Within recent years a myth has evolved about Derby favorites. The race is now a huge television vehicle, and it has become fashionable to focus on one horse in the East and one in the West, building around those two so that when they meet the confrontation has been hyped to the level of When Worlds Collide. You may have gotten the impression that the really big favorite always emerges from the collision. The truth of the matter is that at any racetrack over the course of a normal meeting, favorites lose 66% of the time. In the last 30 years only 10 Derby favorites have won; 66% have lost.
But this year was supposed to be different in one major regard: all the "best" 3-year-olds were supposedly in the East, while the West had only "manes and tails." Instead of having just a couple of horses in this Derby, as some think they should have, Californians could have as many as six starters. Four of them run far off the pace and might just overtake a recent trend. In the last 17 Derbies the eventual winner was either first or second at the top of the stretch.
Flying Nashua has been the most publicized of the four Californians that like life in the slow lane. He does have a fine late wallop, but has run only four races and is still as green as a pool table. Unless he does well in Saturday's Stepping Stone, he might also have a slight problem with his earnings—now $79,250, a figure that placed him 22nd among the possible Derby starters at week's end.
Outside northern California and the state of Washington little attention has been paid Always A Cinch, because until recently he rarely was. But he's one of eight hopefuls with earnings in excess of $200,000. His biggest win was by 12 lengths over Hoedown's Day in the $150,000 California Derby on March 7.
And then there's the peculiar case of Johnlee n' Harold. That colt has earned $157,200 and has been the most consistent of the California-based Derby possibles. He is owned by a man named Michael Blake, or another named Harold Smith, a/k/a Ross Fields, or perhaps The Tooth Fairy. Johnlee n' Harold won the California Breeders' Champion Stakes and the San Rafael. Some California officials believe Johnlee n' Harold shouldn't have been allowed to run in California because of his questionable ownership. But the California Horse Racing Board said the opposite. On Monday, Kentucky officials voted that the horse couldn't race in that state, although an appeal could conceivably overturn the decision. Last week the colt's trainer, Hal King, had said, "Johnlee n' Harold is a survivor. He'll get by." We'll see.
The two most recent pre-Churchill Downs Derbies were the Santa Anita and the Illinois. The Santa Anita was won by Splendid Spruce, a horse that until the Santa Anita, hadn't won a stakes in his two-year career. But the $180,600 he earned by beating a field of 12 other starters sent him on his way to Louisville in a hurry.
Not long after Pleasant Colony won last Saturday's Wood, the $155,500 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park produced the perfect mob scene for a Kentucky Derby year such as this. On Thursday, 21 horses were entered in the Illinois Derby, but only the top 13 money-earners were permitted to start because 21 horses couldn't get around the small track. Paristo came off the pace to win by half a length. Bless Paristo, for of the eight Derbies held around the country leading up to the big one, he's the only horse to have won two. (He previously had won the Tampa Bay.) Paristo has one slight problem. He wasn't one of the 432 horses nominated to run at Churchill Downs.
To me, what it all comes down to is this: Cure the Blues or clear the air.