Stepping into the winner's circle at Aqueduct last Saturday, followed by 15 more or less ecstatic owners, trainer Sidney Watters Jr. allowed himself one deep breath, followed by two quiet sighs of relief. "We got one anyway," said the gentlemanly jumping-horse trainer from Monkton, Md., sighing once. Then again. "And that's enough."
In this exasperatingly unpredictable year for 3-year-olds, one in which the best of the crop may turn out to be a filly, Watters had good reason to be grateful. The mile-and-an-eighth Wood Memorial, last major New York prep before the Kentucky Derby, was run in two divisions, and Watters saddled the favorite in each division, both sons of Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Wood.
In the first, after being bet down to 8-5, Slewpy, a dark bay colt by the 1977 Triple Crown winner, lost interest coming off the turn for home and ended up fifth, beaten 10 lengths by the winner, Bounding Basque, who might grow up to be a nice horse if he learns to keep his mind on his business. For Watters and Equus Equity Stable, a 17-member partnership that owns 15 sons and daughters of Seattle Slew, that left Slew O' Gold to save the day in the second division.
Save it he did. The crowd of 33,212 made Slew O' Gold the 6-5 choice, and he won the race in the trenches, beating Parfaitement by only a neck after a long, whiplashing, show-me-what-you-got stretch fight that had the grandstand rocking as the two colts rolled. Neither division was won in real racehorse time. Bounding Basque needed 1:51[2/5] and Slew O' Gold 1:51 to get the nine furlongs, both far off the Wood record of 1:47[2/5] set by Bold Forbes in 1976.
Asked for whom the Wood had been named, the Daily Racing Form's estimable New York chart-caller, Jack Wilson, said, "I don't know why it's called the Wood, but after seeing those horses today, I know why it's called a memorial."
That aside, what the Wood did was fourfold: a) It thrust three improving colts—Slew O' Gold, Bounding Basque and Parfaitement—onto the already foggy moors of the Derby scene; b) turned all attention to the April 28 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as The One Big Race expected to single out and identify, finally, the strongest Derby contender; c) suggested once again that Churchill Downs' method of limiting the size of the Derby field, by mere money won rather than by a more equitable system based on merit, needs revising; and d) coming two weeks before the Derby, reinforced the notion that the best 3-year-old in the land may be Princess Rooney, a filly.
Ah, Princess Rooney. Frank Gomez, her trainer, has said repeatedly that he has absolutely no intention of running his light-boned lass against the linebackers at Churchill Downs. But how can he resist the temptation now? On the same day that the colts at Aqueduct could not shade 1:50 in the Wood, the Princess was down at Keeneland winning the 1[1/16]-mile Ashland Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 9½ lengths in a credible—considering the slop—1:45[2/5]. She can fly.
The best guess is that Gomez will be closely watching the Blue Grass, in which the Santa Anita Derby winner, Marfa, will be strutting his stuff against the best colts from both coasts. What happens in the Blue Grass will undoubtedly have a bearing on what Gomez decides to do with Princess Rooney.
Should Gomez opt for the Derby rather than the Kentucky Oaks for fillies the day before, chances are Princess Rooney will not be facing either High Honors or Country Pine, two impeccably bred Wood Memorial horses who won't be at Louisville because they haven't earned enough money to qualify for the Derby. Lou Rondinello trains both horses for Dan Galbreath, and he has brought them along patiently. Rondinello is known affectionately on the backstretch as Fifty-Two Lou, a reference to the fact that he tends to work horses slowly. A half-mile workout in 52 seconds, you know, is a really quiet affair. Fifty-Two Lou asked very little of his colts last year. High Honors started three times, winning $16,200, and Country Pine twice, winning only $10,200. Don't push a good thing. Give a horse time to grow up.
In the Wood, Country Pine ran his eyeballs out in the first division and just got beat by Bounding Basque. High Honors finished a flying third in the second division, beaten less than a length by Slew O' Gold, whose winning purse of $101,700 made him eligible for the Derby. The consolation prizes—$37,026 for Country Pine and $20,340 for High Honors—surely didn't boost their earnings enough to get them to Churchill Downs. The irony, of course, is this: Rondinello is being punished for his patience, a certifiable virtue among horse trainers, punished for not pushing his colts to earn more money when they were very young.
Watters now has two Derby eligibles, Slewpy and Slew O' Gold, but for now only Slew O' Gold is sure to run. Slewpy doesn't want to go a mile and a quarter, or so it appears. "I don't know whether he'll race or not," Watters said. "He has never run good at Aqueduct. Slew O' Gold will ship to Louisville on Monday. He gets better after every race."
So does Bounding Basque. But last week his connections were still hedging about the Derby. "Let's see how he comes out of this," said owner Jacques D. Wimpfheimer.
Bounding Basque still races awfully green, even with blinkers added, gawking about like a tourist in Hong Kong. "This is the first time he went around two turns," said his trainer, Woody Sedlacek. "He was looking all over. He'll stand on the racetrack for a half an hour and look at everything: trains, tractors, whatever's around."
There will be plenty to see at Churchill Downs. Like 140,000 people and 20 horses. And yes, somewhere in front of him, perhaps a filly at the finish.