Dominic Imprescia, fairly skillfully disguised as an orchid in his lavender coat and mauve tie, wended his way through knots of horseplayers at Gulfstream Park last Saturday en route to the winner's circle. People grabbed his hand and said, "You showed 'em, Dominic!" and "Way to go, Dom!" And he nodded his thank yous and shook every hand.
To observe Imprescia was to see a moment of irony as vivid as the lavender coat. Just five years ago the trainer's license was suspended for two years on charges that horses under his care at Suffolk Downs had been hopped, and during that time he was barred from every track in America. Couldn't even get near a winner's circle. Now here he was, accepting plaudits as the trainer of Timely Writer, who had just won the $250,000 Florida Derby and, in so doing, had reinforced his position as the very solid favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
"I love it, I love it!" Imprescia said, heading toward the circle. "He did it easy. Beautiful, beautiful!"
That the race was something of a disappointment had less to do with the way it was run than in the way it finally came up. All week long, there was the expectation that this Florida Derby would be the most exciting renewal of the race since 1957, when the brilliant Gen. Duke smoked Bold Ruler like a salmon, then had him for dinner. This time the winner was to come from among two extremely fast horses, Distinctive Pro and Star Gallant, and the stretch-running Timely Writer. Star Gallant was undefeated in four starts, had numbed clockers with his dazzling works and had his trainer, Lennie Imperio, circling Fantasy Island.
"I think he's as good as Seattle Slew," Imperio said. "That's my opinion. Tomorrow we find out."
In his last start, the mile and a sixteenth Fountain of Youth on March 22 at Gulfstream, Star Gallant had beaten Distinctive Pro by four lengths, but only after Jorge Velasquez, Pro's jockey, had taken back and allowed Star Gallant to set a leisurely pace. Of course, at that rate he was also uncatchable. Trainer Jimmy Croll was so furious with Velasquez that he replaced him with Craig Perret. The pace in the Florida Derby would be fast and honest, and at the far turn the race would be on.
Timely Writer figured to benefit from any such speed on the lead. But then the scenario fell apart. On the morning of the race, Croll announced that Distinctive Pro had a splint on his left front cannon bone, and so the trainer scratched him. That left Star Gallant as the only real speed horse.
"I'd have liked to see Distinctive Pro in there," Imprescia said. "It would make for a truer pace."
But Imprescia clearly was unworried. Just as clearly, he knew how to bring Timely Writer into a race. The colt had won the 1‚⅛-mile Flamingo Stakes on March 6, and Imprescia brought him to that race off only one prep, a seven-furlong affair in which Jockey Jeff Fell saw he was hopelessly beaten and didn't abuse the horse. Timely Writer finished sixth. After Timely Writer won the Flamingo by 3¼ lengths, Imprescia worked him a crisp five-eighths in :59⅖ then nine days later sent him seven-eighths in 1:26[1/5]. That was nice, and that was it.
"I know my horse," he says.
Dominic Imprescia has known horses for most of his 64 years. He was born in Fitchburg, Mass., the son of a Sicilian immigrant who laid track for the Boston and Maine. When Dominic was 10, he started riding horses at a neighboring stable, and by the time he was 20, he owned a stable of his own.
He was the chief steward on a World War II troop ship and after the war he went into the used-car business in Fitchburg. A year later he got into racing as an owner. He ended up with five horses, but for the first year and a half he never won a race. "So I took them over," he says. For the next 12 years, he held down two jobs.
"Seven days a week I worked," he says. "You get up at five in the morning and go to the racetrack, then at 10 in the morning you go to the car lot. I used to stay open till nine at night. But I loved to sell cars. It was a good business, with money in it." In 1960 he sold the lot, opened a public stable, and was soon training 25 to 30 claiming horses around the tough New England circuit.
Imprescia became one of the leading trainers on the circuit—Rockingham Park, Suffolk Downs, Narragansett. The purses were low, the horses often bad-legged and the living wasn't easy. It is a circuit, like many others, in which trainers and jockeys have been known to look for an edge and take a shot. Imprescia denies he ever did, but in 1976 a urine specimen taken from Towers Image, a $4,000 claimer trained by Imprescia, revealed the presence of an amphetamine. He was suspended for 90 days.
In April 1977, testing on two horses under Imprescia's care—Payne Quelu and Safe Journey—was positive for apomorphine, another stimulant. The Massachusetts commission suspended him for two years. "They were trying to make an example out of me," he protests, "because I was leading trainer, maybe."
He was reinstated on July 5, 1979. Two years later, in a stroke of luck of the kind he had never known in all the years he had trained horses, Imprescia began conditioning Timely Writer for Francis and Peter Martin, a pair of Boston meat suppliers for whom Imprescia had trained before the suspension. They stuck with him, and now this gifted beast has rewarded them all.
"Anybody in this business dreams of a Derby horse," says Imprescia. "They come once in a lifetime."
So far as the 3-year-olds of 1982 are concerned, the bay son of Staff Writer showed more clearly than ever on Saturday that he's the pick of the litter. Not that others don't aspire. The same day, the outrageously named Air Forbes Won came off the favored Shimatoree's scorching pace—three-quarters of a mile in 1:08[3/5]—to win the mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct by 3¼ lengths. The son of 1976 Kentucky Derby winner Bold Forbes had to battle 40-mph gusts for his first stakes victory.
The next day, Muttering nosed out Prince Spellbound to win the 1‚⅛-mile Santa Anita Derby in a sparkling 1:47[3/5]. If you haven't heard of Muttering, not to worry. The Santa Anita Derby was only his second start of the year, and gave him four victories in nine starts. One of his losses occurred last August at Del Mar. "What happened there," says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "is that when he was in the gate one of the assistant starters leaned over and bit him on the ear to try and quiet him down. But it didn't work and it bothered him so much that he kept twisting his head around."
In the 107 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, no roan-colored horse has ever won, and not only is Muttering a roan, but a roan by Drone." Nevertheless, he should be a solid second choice behind Timely Writer.
For all the fuss made over Star Gallant in the last few weeks, he simply didn't have enough resources to get the job done in the Florida Derby. With Distinctive Pro out of it, Star Gallant had the early run of the show, and Sandy Hawley rode him perfectly. Down the backstretch, with Our Escapade tracking him and Laser Light right there, Star Gallant appeared to be coasting, but he was only five lengths ahead of Timely Writer. Going into the far turn, Star Gallant was in front by two, but then Fell let out a notch and Timely Writer began to roll. Imprescia loved it.
"The kid's got a good head on him," he said. "They were going slow so he moved sooner than we wanted to."
Star Gallant came off the turn for home still in front, but Timely Writer was already reeling him in. He was making that one sustained run of his, the one the jockey himself describes as "One fell swoop on the turn." Quickly, he ranged outside of Laser Light and galloped past him into third, then loped up alongside Our Escapade and nodded hello and goodby. Timely Writer hooked Star Gallant coming to the eighth pole, and the two ran together for a few jumps.
But then Fell whipped his mount once, righthanded. The colt drew away, with the rider merely waving the stick in front of his right eye. Timely Writer opened two lengths at the wire, finishing the nine furlongs in a ho-hum 1:49[3/5]. But Fell said, "It was his easiest victory." It brought the colt's earnings to $518,311.
After Imprescia's long hike to the winner's circle, the trainer said, "He sure can run. He's going to do it over and over again." The plan is to do it over again in either the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, on April 22, or the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, on April 24.
A couple of hours after the Florida Derby, Imprescia's son, Dominic Jr., his assistant trainer, and the colt's exercise rider, Ambrose Pascucci, were hosting a beer party in front of Timely Writer's stall. "He's the champ," Dominic Jr. said. "No one's going to beat him this year. Solid as iron. As long as he keeps the way he is now, he should win the Triple Crown." That could very well be, whether or not anyone else chomps on one of Muttering's ears.