On rare occasions a horse race comes along that truly takes the breath away. When such a race occurs, even the videotape replays tend to confirm and reinforce what was seen originally. Often such a race involves a horse that has gotten itself into serious traffic problems, then extricates itself and then either wins or fails gallantly. Young horses encountering trouble in major stakes races seldom win because they are usually as green as AstroTurf. With that in mind, try to imagine a 3-year-old with only one eye in the most perilous of situations: well inside with his "dead" eye closest to the rail.
The horse enters the stretch at Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, some 12 lengths behind the leader. A wall of horses lies ahead, stretched out across the track. Suddenly his jockey, Darrel McHargue, spots a crack of daylight and sends his mount, hoping to get through. But another horse, Speed Broker, begins to bear out and slams into the one-eyed horse on its blind side. For an instant it appears both will fall. The severe bump causes the one-eyed horse's head to twist wildly to the right. He's stopped.
But he isn't. He digs in. He gets furious. He hates every horse in the race and perhaps all those others that have ever run or eaten oats from a bucket or drunk water from a pail. In the last two jumps he wins the race by half a length.
The one-eyed horse's name is Cassaleria. Please remember it. Last Saturday he not only won the $139,700 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, but also might well have run the bravest race seen in this country in a decade. Cassaleria may not win this year's Kentucky Derby, or be named Horse of the Year come next December, but February belongs to him. Ron McAnally trains him and is one-fifth owner of the grotesquely named 20/20 Stable, whose one horse is Cassaleria. McAnally also happens to train the best horse in the world, John Henry. After viewing the films of the El Camino Real, he said, "I don't believe what he overcame. He looks to me like a Kentucky Derby horse, but there's a long way to go."
Indeed there is. But that's what's intriguing about any 3-year-old season—which horses, owners, trainers and jockeys get on the big wheel rolling toward Louisville, how long they can stay on it and which ones spin out along the way. Until very recently, a trip to Churchill Downs was earned in the Flamingo and Blue Grass Stakes, the Wood Memorial, and the Arkansas, Hollywood, Louisiana and Santa Anita Derbies. But in the past two years several rich and shiny new events have been added to the stepping-stone races. As yet many horsemen are still in the dark about them: the $75,000-added Bowie Stakes, the $100,000 H.I.T.S. Parade Derby at the Fair Grounds, the $100,000 San Rafael at Santa Anita, the El Camino Real at Bay Meadows, the $150,000 Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Latonia.
Saturday's inaugural El Camino Real drew a field of nine starters, including two of the top money-winning 2-year-olds of 1981, Cassaleria ($234,070) and Tropic Ruler ($374,440), otherwise known as the Arizona Traveler. As a 2-year-old Tropic Ruler roamed the land like Johnny Appleseed. He ran on nine different tracks, won 10 of 13 races and brought to light one of the best horsemen in the world, trainer Brooks Claridge. Claridge wears cowboy hats, talks slowly and says a lot while professing to say nothing whatsoever. Listen:
"How good is this horse?"
"Don't really know. I'm a country boy. I can't speak at dinners. I don't know language that well."
"In the Southwest they say you can train ivy to grow down a wall. Is that true?"
"Let me say only one thing. A man trains a horse and a man trains a man. They're nearly the same. If the horse is trained to the right pitch, so is the man. The man has trained both himself and the horse and the man is at the same pitch the horse is. The horse thinks it knows and the man knows, but the horse doesn't know what the man thinks he knows and the man doesn't know what the horse knows. So who knows?"
In the El Camino Real, Claridge's horse ran a fine race, finishing third behind Cassaleria and Crystal Star. You haven't seen the last of Tropic Ruler. He'll be back somewhere along the Triple Crown trail.
The El Camino Real was actually the second derby run this year, preceded by the $113,800 Tropical Park Derby at Calder on the first Saturday in January. The Florida race is a curious one, both because it is contested at the very beginning of the year—right after 2-year-olds become 3-year-olds—and because of the conditions at Calder. The track is sand on top of an artificial surface. Horses that like Calder really like it; those that don't really don't. Getting a true picture of a horse's ability to handle other tracks is difficult. Victorian Line, who won this year's Tropical by 10 lengths, has already been dismissed by some as a "Calder horse." That judgment may have been made too quickly.
Victorian Line has run 10 times at Calder, won seven races and been beaten by a neck and a nose in two others. Before he ever competed at Calder, however, he broke his maiden at Hialeah and was claimed from that race for $25,000 by trainer Newcomb Green for owner Don Aronow.
Aronow is best known for his success in another sport. In the late 1960s he was the U.S. offshore powerboat champion three times and the world champion twice. The 54-year-old Miamian first got into racing when his son Mike was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1970. "Mike was paralyzed from the waist down," Aronow says, "and we would get together in the hospital with the Daily Racing Form and handicap the races. We weren't too bad at it, either. Then I bought some horses. I like the action of the racetrack, the competition of it." Mike Aronow now trains horses at Aqueduct in New York.
In 1972 Aronow had another decent 3-year-old, named Get It. "He looked like he might go somewhere," Aronow says, "but he bowed a tendon. Racing is a very tough game and you have to learn to take the disappointment as best you can. When we won the Tropical Derby I walked out of the winner's circle with my trainer and I said, 'Newcomb, it's time to start getting serious about Victorian Line.' "
Actually, it's time to get serious about a number of 3-year-olds. Cassaleria, the one-eyed wonder, and Victorian Line, which may be more than a Calder horse, are only the first two derby winners on the road to the Derby.