In recent weeks headline writers in Northern California have been having a blast with a gray colt named Billy Ball, after the diamond style employed by Billy Martin during his term (1980-82) as manager of the Oakland A's. Billy Ball is the only undefeated stakes-winning colt with serious designs on the Kentucky Derby, and just take a gander at what has been appearing on Bay Area sports pages: MAJOR LEAGUE PROSPECT?; MOST VALUABLE RUNNER; BILLY BALL GEARS UP FOR THE MAJORS; DERBY FIELD MAY HAVE A BILLY BALL; BILLY BALL ROLLS TO EASY VICTORY. When the colt was vanned down the coast to Santa Anita in mid-March to train out of the Northern California rain, one paper ran this headline: RAIN DELAYS BALL GAME.
Billy Ball has won his four starts by a total of 22 lengths, but because of the horrible weather in the Bay Area, he has yet to compete on a fast track. He was un-raced as a 2-year-old and his maiden win came on Jan. 29 at Bay Meadows in the slop. He followed that with a 10-length victory in mud on Feb. 8 in the $38,350 Golden Bear Stakes at Golden Gate. In his third start, on Feb. 24, he caught a "good" track at Golden Gate and won by seven lengths. Three weeks ago he won the $50,350 Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate over a "dead" track following a frustrating 36-day layoff. Mediocre horses aren't capable of such achievements.
Billy Ball is as Bay Area as The Golden Gate Bridge, Nob Hill and Carol Doda. Bred in Pleasanton, Calif., he's owned by two garbage men, El Cerrito residents Lewis Figone and Richard Granzella, the proprietors of Bay View Refuse and Richmond Sanitation, respectively.
Figone is an old friend of Martin's. "We grew up together," Figone says, "and before that our mothers were very close friends. Billy went to Berkeley High School and I went to El Cerrito, but we were always together. When Billy managed the A's, I went to every home game. Last year I even made four road trips to watch the A's and be with Billy. I have 18 garbage trucks and my workday goes from 4:30 in the morning until one in the afternoon, odd hours, but they give me time to do things."
Martin, who's now in his third tour as the New York Yankees' manager, knows all about Billy Ball the colt, and loves to show pictures of him to friends. Martin saw Billy Ball break his maiden at Bay Meadows and was in the winner's circle after that victory. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner knows all about Billy Ball, too. What George doesn't learn from his manager about the horse he finds out from Figone.
"Each time Billy Ball wins I send a winner's circle photograph to Steinbrenner," says Figone. "He knows what it's about. He had a starter in the Kentucky Derby himself [Steve's Friend, fifth in Seattle Slew's 1977 Derby victory]. I wrote to him and asked, if the Yankees are four or five in front by May 7, whether he'd let Billy take the day off and go to the Kentucky Derby. The Yankees are scheduled to play in Minnesota that day, but if they're not four or five games in front, I'm not going to bring the subject up to Mr. Steinbrenner again." At week's end New York was 1½ games out of first place in the American League East, so Billy will really have to play some ball if Figone is to reissue his invitation.
Billy Ball has been a source of kidding between Steinbrenner and Martin. "I told Billy during spring training that he wasn't allowed to talk about the horse," Steinbrenner says. " 'Billy,' I said, 'winning at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate isn't Churchill Downs. You concentrate on baseball, I'll take care of the horses.' "
Billy Ball's chances of starting in the Derby are clouded by the money-earnings rule that restricts the Derby field to 20 starters, based on earnings. Billy Ball's bankroll is only $64,800; as of last weekend, there were at least 25 sound and eligible horses with earnings of more than $100,000.
Since it was first invoked in 1981, the money rule has been a source of confusion. The difficulty is that all earnings are counted, and horses run for very different kinds of purses. Many states have races restricted to horses bred or foaled in those states, with those eligible competing for highly inflated purses. The perfect example of such foolishness is the HITS Parade Invitational Derby held at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The race is for "Foals of 1980 auctioned off at the HITS Parade Invitational 2-year-olds In Training sale of March 1, 1982." That's a mighty restricted horse race and it carries a purse of $100,000. Last year's HITS Parade winner was Real Dare, who won a ton of money not only in that race but in other restricted events at the Fair Grounds. The $180,081 earned in those outings got Real Dare to Louisville with no problems whatsoever. But in the Derby, you couldn't find Real Dare with a search warrant. He finished dead last.
Although they aren't talking about it publicly, the folks who manage Churchill Downs are considering changing the money rule to a more sensible one, a point system under which participation in major races (graded stakes) and the length of a horse's races would be the main criteria for eligibility. As the rule stands now it eliminates developing 3-year-olds like Billy Ball, especially if they failed to race and win money at two. In the 108 previous runnings of the Kentucky Derby, only Apollo in 1882 ever won without having raced as a 2-year-old. Billy Ball didn't start last year because Figone does not believe in rushing his horses. "I had a bad experience with Frau, the first horse I ever owned," Figone says. "She won her first start as a 2-year-old in 1977 at Sportsman's Park on a disqualification and later placed in a stakes, but she was injured. Since then I've decided it's better not to race horses until they're developed."
Figone got Billy Ball when Virginia Campbell, a woman who had worked for Figone's father, became terminally ill. "When she got sick, she told her husband to make sure I got first chance to buy her three horses," says Figone. "I bought them all for $15,000. One was named Me and Virginia and she did well. Another wasn't named yet, so I called him Billy Martin, but he bowed a tendon, so I sold him for a riding pony after I'd changed his name to Rupert. I just didn't want a horse roaming around with Billy's name on it. The third horse was Rukann, and I bred her to Shady Fellow at Rancho Del Charro Stallion Station for $1,500. That produced Billy Ball."
Jockey J.R. Anderson, Billy's regular rider, believes the colt is capable of going a distance. "I rode a very good horse named Full Pocket," Anderson says, "and he won 27 races from 5 furlongs to 1[1/16] miles, and the two horses are so similar it's eerie. Calm, relaxed and all business. There's no doubt in my mind that Billy Ball can go 1¼ miles."
To get the opportunity to try the Derby distance, Billy Ball must either win or finish second in the April 23 California Derby, a $175,000 race originally worth $200,000. (A janitors' strike at Golden Gate has caused a drop in attendance and handle—and thus in purses.)
Figone and Granzella have never attended a Kentucky Derby, and Anderson, 36, hasn't had a Derby mount in his 17 years of riding. Billy Ball's trainer, 71-year-old Ross Brinson, who has been in the business for 50 years, got the closest to seeing a Derby of any of the Billy Ball crowd. Over the years Brinson has covered a lot of territory, moving across America in the cab of a truck with a couple of horses rolling along behind in a trailer. His life has taken him to tracks long since covered over by tumbleweed in Texas, Arizona and Arkansas. He remembers well the first and only time he went to Churchill Downs. "It was in nineteen and forty," he says. "Must have been a little after five in the morning on Derby Day. Got there early to pick up a horse and take it on to Fairmount Park. There was a young rider with me named Steve Brooks, and I said, 'Steve, you ever think about winning a Kentucky Derby?' He said, 'I think about it a lot, Mr. Brinson. Some day I'm going to do it.' Felt sorry about not being able to let him see that Derby—Gallahadion won it—but we had to get moving. We didn't have any money. We got down to $12 between us, when we started a horse in a race at Fairmount. The jock's fee was $10; I bet the other $2 on the horse and down he come. I sent Steve to cash the ticket and told him that half of it was his. He took $17 and bought a pair of riding boots and then brought me back the biggest part of the bet, $17.50. We slept in a hotel that night for the first time in a long time. Steve won his Kentucky Derby in 1949 on Ponder for Calumet Farm."
In 1947 Brinson trained a horse named Cover Up, who won the Hollywood Gold Cup one week and the Sunset Handicap a week later. "Billy Ball is the best horse I've had since then," he says.
If Billy Ball wins the California Derby, Brinson may well get a chance to see his first Kentucky Derby. Or, as the headline writers might put it: IT'S A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME.