Frank LaBoccetta didn't try to conceal the curious sense of disappointment he felt last Saturday. Curious, to be sure, because the 44-year-old trainer had just won the most important race of his career with Air Forbes Won in the $175,200 Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct racetrack, and at the moment he was celebrating with a glass of champagne. This was the colt's last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, the race LaBoccetta has been aiming for over the last few months, and LaBoccetta simply couldn't figure the way his horse had run.
Air Forbes Won bears a striking resemblance to his sire, the 1976 Wood and Derby winner Bold Forbes, and the colt had given signs that he had a measure of his sire's flash and fire on the racetrack. Unraced as a 2-year-old, Air Forbes Won broke his maiden in his first career start on March 4 at Aqueduct, winning by almost eight lengths, then trounced a field of allowance horses on March 20, winning by three. Two weeks later, in the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, he ran down Shimatoree, and won by more than three.
"This colt is just as important a Derby horse as Timely Writer," Lenny Hale, the New York racing secretary, said of Air Forbes Won after the Gotham. Thus many expected that the Wood, the colt's fourth lifetime start and his first race around two turns, would make him a leading figure at the big dance in Louisville. But it didn't happen. Air Forbes Won beat Shimatoree by a neck in the Wood, following a long, arduous battle against a high wind through the stretch, but it took him all of 1:51 to get the job done—very uninspired running time. Thus the performance left LaBoccetta slightly subdued.
"It did discourage me a little bit," he said. "I thought he would run better. I don't want to make excuses for him—I'm glad that he won—but I really thought he would run better. This is only his fourth start. Think about it. We're running a green horse. Then maybe we got too high on him...."
If so, LaBoccetta will find out for sure on Derby Day. The colt is expected to be one of perhaps 15 3-year-olds—including one filly, Cupecoy's Joy—to try the Derby's 1¼ miles. The central question, of course, is whether there is a 3-year-old in the land who can whip Timely Writer, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby and, at the moment, the prohibitive favorite for Churchill Downs. Trainer Dominic Imprescia has done a superb job in bringing the colt to the race, training and racing him with obvious confidence. "I believe that I have the best horse," Imprescia says. "He's a champ; no one's going to beat him this year."
So far, few are arguing the point. The class of '82, as it has revealed itself this winter, isn't a vintage one, not a 1957 or 1973, and there have been some keen disappointments. Stalwart, a West Coast colt who showed much promise, broke down. Star Gallant, touted in Florida as the second coming of Pegasus, had everything his own way in the Florida Derby until Timely Writer grabbed him by the throat and outran him to the line.
D'Accord, who bedazzled Kentuckians last fall with his 7½-length victory in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, is now being trained by his owner, Bertram Firestone, and has yet to win a race this year. After the colt folded in the stretch to finish third in the 1[1/16]-mile Calumet Purse on April 13 at Keeneland, Louisville Courier Journal columnist Billy Reed had shed row chuckling when he dubbed him D'Accordion. Firestone didn't laugh.
"I brought him up to his race [the Calumet] as good as a horse could be brought up to a race," said Firestone, who parted with Trainer LeRoy Jolley last fall. "If he runs a good race in the Blue Grass, I'll probably run him in the Derby. Anyway, it's not the end of the world. Win some, lose some."
There are perhaps three horses that have a reasonable chance to beat Timely Writer in the Kentucky Derby: Hostage, Muttering and El Baba. And there are a handful of others who have long-shot possibilities, including Gato Del Sol and Air Forbes Won. Of the principal contenders, the most intriguing is Hostage, the winner of the Arkansas Derby and a son of the great Nijinsky II out of a mare sired by Val de Loir, a French champion. "Hostage has got the best pedigree in the race," says John Nerud, the manager of Tartan Farm, which bred and owns Muttering.
Hostage also pulled off one of the neatest upsets of the winter when he whipped odds-on favorite El Baba, who had won eight of nine career starts (he finished second in his other race), in the Arkansas Derby on April 10. Hostage's trainer, Mike Freeman, was about the only witness at Oaklawn Park who expected the 15-to-1 shot to pull it off. Freeman had gone slowly with the colt as a 2-year-old, starting him five times, and after he broke his maiden on the turf at Belmont Park last September, Freeman did not start him this year until Feb. 26, when he finished second in an allowance race at Hialeah.
"I was elated with that race," Freeman says. So three weeks later, he wheeled Hostage back in another allowance race, at Gulfstream Park, and won by 2¼. Getting him ready for the Arkansas Derby, Freeman shipped the colt to Aiken, S.C., for a quick vacation. "Just for a change in climate," he says. "It was 80 degrees in Florida. In Aiken the highs were 60, 65. We hacked him around sandy roads. More the British way of training." That done, Freeman shipped him to Oaklawn Park, and on the Monday before the Arkansas Derby he drilled the colt three quarters of a mile in a heavy fog. Freeman caught Hostage in a sharp 1:12⅘ then called up to the clocker's booth to double-check the time.
"Did you catch my horse going three-quarters?" Mike asked.
"No," said the clocker. "What did you get him in?"
"Twelve and four," the trainer said.
"No way!" bellowed the incredulous clocker, who promptly hung up the phone. So the work never appeared in the Daily Racing Form. "That's one reason the horse went off at 15-1," Freeman said. "The guy just didn't believe me."
In the Arkansas Derby, Hostage tracked the pace-setting Advance Man to the far turn, blew past him to take the lead nearing the three-quarter pole, opened up three lengths in midstretch and ended up winning by two lengths from El Baba.
Freeman made his professional reputation in the late 1960s when he trained champion Shuvee to win the Triple Crown for fillies in New York, then beat the colts twice with her, in 1970 and 1971, in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Hostage will be the first horse Freeman saddles for the Kentucky Derby, and he likes his chances. Hostage beat a nice colt to get where he is now.
"I think El Baba is a helluva horse," Freeman says. "We got nine pounds from him in Arkansas and that could have made a difference. There's not a 3-year-old in the country with his form. Very consistent. I have great respect for him. For Timely Writer, too. I saw his two races [the Flamingo and Florida Derby] and I was very impressed. And Muttering won the Santa Anita Derby and ran like a bulldog."
Muttering came from the same outfit that entertained us with Codex, the colt who won the controversial 1980 Preakness Stakes over Genuine Risk, the filly who had just won the Kentucky Derby. Muttering will also be one of the best-bred horses in the Derby, a race in which breeding tends to be a deciding factor more often than not. The colt's pedigree is Pan-American.
Several years ago, Nerud was trying to sell a stud prospect named Country Doctor, a son of Dr. Fager, to a South American breeder. Nerud wanted $15,000. The South American balked at the price, offering instead to pay for the stud with a broodmare.
"Send me a mare you think is worth $15,000," Nerud told him. He was shipped a mare named Malvine. Nerud bred her to Drone, a gray horse that the late Bull Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm, called the fastest horse he ever owned. To that cover, Malvine produced a roan colt that Tartan Farm called Muttering.
When Muttering won the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, Nerud was tickled. "It was a grand race," he says. "Prince Spellbound ran to Muttering, but he couldn't get by him. This is a nice racehorse. But to win a race like the Kentucky Derby is very difficult to do. There's an awful lot of luck involved in it. I do think that Muttering is the best 3-year-old from the West Coast. The question is: Does he have as much class as Timely Writer? We don't know."
But know we will soon enough. As we will know, too, about Gato Del Sol, Spanish for "Cat of the Sun," who finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby—beaten by 3¼ lengths—and has been training in Kentucky for the Derby. And Cassaleria, the one-eyed colt, who had traffic problems in two of his last three races (he got boxed in during the San Felipe at Santa Anita, finishing third but beaten by only three-quarters of a length, and he was brushed and ran wide in the Santa Anita Derby, in which he was sixth), then crossed the line third in last Saturday's California Derby, a length and a half behind the 40-to-1 shot winner, Rockwall. And Royal Roberto, who got beaten by just half a length by Linkage in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland on April 15.
If the backstretch at Churchill Downs has its share of first-time Derby trainers in 1982, there is also the prospect that it will have its veterans, too. Trainer Lucien Laurin, who won the Derby 10 years ago with Riva Ridge and the Triple Crown a year later with Secretariat, was living in semiretirement at the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, Fla., when he started puttering around with Stage Reviewer. He'd bred the colt himself, and his wife owns him. Laurin's son Roger almost ended up training him.
"I knew before I ran him last year that he was a nice colt," Lucien says. "I told Roger, 'Take him for me.' But he said he had enough to do. He told me, 'Why don't you fool around with him? It'll do you good to get out of Ocean Reef.' So I took him." Stage Reviewer showed some ability last year, winning two of four at Calder Race Course, and two more this year before he jumped up and ran second in the Tampa Derby. In the Calumet Purse, he caught D'Accord and Call to Arms inside the 16th pole and drew off to win by a length.
Next morning, Lucien Laurin was fidgeting as Trainer Herb Stevens pressed him: "You've got to run the horse in the Blue Grass, Lucien. You've got to give him the chance." Out of retirement, and just tinkering around, Laurin may have stumbled into the Kentucky Derby. "I don't know," he says. "We'll see how he does. But he is a nice colt. I told Roger...." Roger laughs. His dad had been living a lot in the past, he says, talking about what had been but was no more. "It's nice to see him involved in something that is happening now," Roger says.
As is Frank LaBoccetta, a former brickmason who gave up his trade in 1968 to begin apprenticing as a trainer under Walter Kelley. Three years later LaBoccetta was on his own, and Air Forbes Won is the horse he has been waiting for since he began. He gets up at three in the morning these days because he can't sleep. "I can hardly wait to get to the barn to see him," he says. "I don't live far away and I go back and forth, from home to barn, to see him all the time." This is it, you see; this is Frank LaBoccetta's big horse, his Derby horse.
The Wood was a bit discouraging, but that was yesterday. In this game, the Kentucky Derby always means tomorrow. Everyone is down there to take a shot at Timely Writer: Laurin with the horse he's been fooling with; Nerud with the son of the mare he traded the stud prospect for; Freeman with the colt whose work the clocker at Oaklawn wouldn't believe; and LaBoccetta with the colt who looks like Bold Forbes.
Ed Anchel, who manufactures car stereos, showed up at the Keeneland summer yearling sale two years ago ready to pay $100,000 for Air Forbes Won. The colt was the fourth yearling led into the ring. "People hadn't settled in their seats," Anchel says. "I got him for $50,000. I said, 'Did we miss something? Does he have four legs?' "
Yes, he does. And now they're in Louisville, as ready as LaBoccetta can make them to get a mile and a quarter.