The ending was devilishly fitting. The confusion of the spring came down to the final 300 yards of the one-mile Derby Trial at Churchill Downs last Saturday, the last major prep race leading to this Saturday's 1-mile Kentucky Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was giving his speedball. Total Departure, one final tightener before the Derby, while trainer Woody Stephens was using the Trial as the last calisthenic for his main Derby hope, Chumming, and for Caveat, a nice colt who had won three races on the grass but was still a maiden on the dirt.
"Caveat ran in the slop here last year and he finished third," Stephens said before the Trial, after torrential rains had ceased. "I wasn't pleased with his race. But you have to run him or train him, and I might as well run him." In this peculiar year, in which a lot of 3-year-olds have knocked and said hello but few have stayed for dinner, this was to be Chumming's announcement that he was indeed a Derby horse. And the same for Total Departure, and maybe Pax In Bello. But Caveat? Forget him.
Then there they were, pounding over the mud 300 yards from the wire, with Total Departure leading Pax In Bello by half a length, 102 to 1 shot Le Cou Cou chugging along in third, Chumming swimming for a life raft and, and...yes! Down the middle of the track, coming from somewhere to the east of Eden, Caveat began to gain on the leaders. Dead last down the backstretch, he was suddenly right there. He collared Total Departure in the final yards and won the race from him by a head. Thus Caveat broke his maiden on the dirt and gave notice that he was a Derby horse. Knock, knock. Hello. Join the gang.
Nine years before, Stephens had saddled Cannonade and won the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby. Now here he was at Churchill Downs again, with one of Cannonade's sons, Caveat. "This gives me a shot at the Derby, anyway," Stephens said. "I'm pretty sure he'll get the mile and a quarter. His daddy loved Churchill Downs. Maybe he does, too. But I still can't throw Chumming out. He just didn't run his race."
Such has been the way of this season's 3-year-olds, an unpretentious rack of fur coats with so far not an ermine among them. Or so, as April gave way to May, it seemed. While short on individual brilliance, the class of '83 offered the consolation of being deliciously competitive.
The Trial was the fourth straight Derby prep to end in a desperate photo finish. In the first division of the April 23 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Bounding Basque and Country Pine clung to each other through the last eighth before Basque won by a nose. Slew O' Gold beat Parfaitement by a neck in the Wood's second division, after another corking long drive. Five days later, in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Play Fellow beat Marfa by a nose. Then came the Trial. Lord knows the last time, if ever, that four such preliminaries were decided by a total of less than half a length.
This Kentucky Derby is as wide open as the gates of Churchill Downs will be on Saturday. The prospect is of a parimutuel banana split, with enough nuts and flavors to suit everyone with $2 to wager. There will be legitimate speed horses up front, in Total Departure, Parfaitement and Desert Wine; and horses that come from off the pace, in Marfa, Balboa Native, Play Fellow, Current Hope and Caveat. Chumming and Slew O' Gold have sufficient speed to lay close to the leaders. And the front-running winner of the Arkansas Derby on April 16, Sunny's Halo, has both the speed to take the lead and the patience to step aside and let the others hang out laundry.
"I think I have the best horse in the race," said David Cross Jr., Sunny's Halo's trainer. "He's a big, strong, macho s.o.b., all stud. And he's got two buttons on him, which is beautiful. He can go to the lead or he can come from off it."
Nonetheless, the trainer of the hour is the gifted California horseman, Lukas. Last fall, after the death of his superb 2-year-old filly, Landaluce, Lukas plunged into a horrendous slump. Distracted by grief, he temporarily lost touch with his horses. However, Lukas not only regained hold of his stable over the winter, but by early spring he was targeting three colts for the Kentucky Derby.
Not since 1946, when Maine Chance Farm ran Lord Boswell (fourth), Knockdown (fifth) and Perfect Bahram (ninth), has a trainer saddled a threesome for the Derby. But on the eve of the 109th running, Lukas has the favored entry of Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure.
Total Departure and Parfaitement, separately or between them, will surely set enough pace to keep the Derby honest from the git-go to at least the quarter pole on the turn for home. Though he gave a dead-game performance right to the wire in the Trial, it nonetheless remains questionable whether Total Departure—a son of the sprinter Greek Answer—will want much to do with the last two furlongs of the Derby.
The livest wire in the Lukas entry is Marfa, a gray son of 1975 Derby winner Foolish Pleasure—in his day a fast horse of uncommon game-ness. No colt in this Derby has shown more enthusiasm for his job than Marfa. "He's a horse that needs very little work," Lukas says. "He puts too much into it every morning. You try to unwind him, not wind him up."
Marfa goes after everything with gusto, even other horses. A kind of shedrow bully, he's also belligerent in the heat of battle. "He's not a mean horse," Lukas says. "He's gentle in his stall. But Marfa is like an overactive kid. Once in a while he needs his ass whipped. But he respects that and he straightens right out. A bully he can be, but not mean. He can aggravate you, that's for sure. He aggravates me. It's a funny thing about athletes and horses. When you channel that and put it in the right direction, it works in your favor. A timid athlete and a timid horse never do much."
Timid Marfa isn't. During the post parade of the March 16 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita, he took exception lo his handlers. "He had a personality conflict with the pony and the pony girl." Lukas recalls. "She got to jerking on him and he went to chewing on the pony, and the pony went to chewing on him. When he got to the gate, he was flat mad." Marfa finished fourth.
In his next start, the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Latonia, he ran up alongside Noble Home in the stretch, nosed over and tried to bite him. Marfa's jockey, Jorge Velasquez, pulled him off in time, but had to check him sharply. When the colt got to running again, though, he won by eight. In the Santa Anita Derby, Velasquez hit him lefthanded turning for home, and Marfa tried to lug in again, but not as badly. He won off by three.
In the rain-swept Blue Grass, running over a chocolate mousse, he got into trouble again. Velasquez neglected to whip him on the port side and didn't swing him wide enough at the last turn. As Marfa swept to the leaders, he bore in, first brushing Desert Wine, then cutting him off and subsequently cutting off Copelan. "I had to pull him up twice," Velasquez said. He shrugged and added jokingly, "I guess I need a bigger whip." Before all that foolishness, Marfa looked as if he'd win the Blue Grass by three. As it turned out, he finally locked horns with Play Fellow in the drive and just missed by a nose. The stewards dropped Marfa back to fourth, but the race suggested that he would be the horse to beat at the Downs. "If he runs straight, he'll win the Derby," Velasquez says.
Even so, Marfa is going to have to reach way down to beat the three other solid Derby contenders—Sunny's Halo, Play Fellow and Caveat—and even then he may still have to deal with Parfaitement. Chumming, Slew O' Gold, Pax In Bello or even his own stablemate, Balboa Native. It doesn't appear that he'll have to make a run at the undefeated filly Princess Rooney, who may be the best of the whole bunch but whose trainer, Frank Gomez, says she'll take on fillies in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. She should beat them easily.
Sunny's Halo, a son of Halo, a good grass horse who liked to go a distance, is certainly the most enigmatic colt in this Derby. Off his front-running triumph in the Arkansas, he might also be the best. But no winner of that Derby has ever won the big cigar in Louisville, so Cross is bucking history in bringing Sunny's Halo to Churchill Downs by way of Hot Springs.
"You hear a lot of people talking about that," says handicapper Andrew Beyer, the racing columnist for The Washington Post, "but in terms of the Derby, that's not as valid as the question: 'How many horses have won the Derby with only two prep races behind them?' "
Not many. Sunny's Halo won five of 11 races last year, but his biggest outings were in Canada, against weak fields, and he was plagued with a wrenched ankle and then bucked shins. He raced poorly in his last two 1982 races in the U.S., so Cross spent a long slow winter with him at Hollywood Park, alternately swimming the colt in a pool and sending him out on gallops. With his eye on Kentucky, Cross shipped Sunny's Halo to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. He won the Rebel Handicap by three on March 26.
Three weeks later, in perhaps the most definitive performance by a 3-year-old, he carried 126 pounds, Kentucky Derby weight, and won the Arkansas Derby, whipping Caveat by four lengths, in 1:49[2/5] for the nine furlongs. "It wouldn't have mattered how far they were going," Cross says. "He was going to win anyway. He would have won going a mile and a quarter."
Those are the only two starts Sunny's Halo has had this year, raising questions about his conditioning. "All that horse has to do," says Cross, "is come up empty in the Kentucky Derby and you know people are going to say, 'Why didn't he go in the Blue Grass? Or the Wood? Or the Derby Trial?' Well, I know the horse. I know how to train the horse. Three weeks between races is beautiful. He's a fit horse."
"Right now, to me, he could be the favorite," says Stephens. "Both his races were big in Hot Springs. If he doesn't have to have the lead, he'll be all right."
"He doesn't have to," says Cross. "He has those two buttons."
Play Fellow has only one button, but it worked to get him home in the Blue Grass for his first stakes victory. Trainer Harvey Vanier raced the colt lightly last year to give him a chance to get his legs. "He was growthy, underdeveloped," says Vanier. Play Fellow had won two allowance races at Gulfstream Park this winter, after finishing second in another, when Vanier put him in the 1‚⅛-mile Everglades Stakes on March 19 at Hialeah. It was the colt's first time around two turns and he finished third, beaten half a length after closing with a rush. "Raced awful green," says Vanier.
Two weeks later, in the Flamingo at Hialeah, Play Fellow took the worst of it, finishing 10th but beaten only 3¾ lengths. First his jockey, Jean Cruguet, lost a stirrup at the gate, then the colt hit the rail on the first turn, and he got stopped at the bend for home. "I hate to make excuses, but he had a rough trip," Vanier says. In the Blue Grass, Play Fellow had clear sailing; he scooted along the rail to get the lead racing to the stretch, and, while Marfa was ducking into Desert Wine, won in that long drive.
The Blue Grass was a race that Vanier and his longtime assistant, Russell McCabe, had been wanting to win forever. "We've been waiting 80 years," McCabe says. "I've been waiting 40 and Harvey's been waiting 40. That's 80, isn't it? We're hometown boys." A couple of hours after the Blue Grass, seeing Vanier being interviewed on TV, McCabe laughed and said, "Look at him on TV. If he walked down Fifth Avenue wearing $10,000 worth of clothes, I could pick him out by the way he walks. He's country."
Play Fellow, a son of the route-running On The Sly, is a legitimate Derby contender. So is Slew O' Gold, the richly-bred son of the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. But Slew O' Gold has started only seven times—the Wood was his first stakes win—and again the question is whether he's far enough along to get the job done.
The third horse in the Lukas-trained entry, Balboa Native, has as good a chance as any of the outside choices. After three races in California, of which he won one in allowance company, Lukas sent him out to win the 1‚⅛-mile Louisiana Derby. Balboa Native came back 20 days later and finished seventh in the Arkansas Derby, beaten 10¾ lengths by Sunny's Halo, but Lukas figures that the Louisiana race, coupled with the shipping to Arkansas, might have dulled him.
Lukas didn't bring Balboa Native to Kentucky just to see the sights and smell the clover. "Could be the surprise horse," the trainer says. "He's got all the pluses going for him in the Derby. We know he can run that far. The [long] stretch is conducive to his style. The pace will be very legitimate. No one will be loping along on an easy lead. And he's sound and he's strong and he's dead fit."
Parfaitement is a puzzle. He won five of six last year at Keystone Race Track in Pennsylvania, but he has raced only three times in 1983, opening his campaign with a 5¾-length victory in the Woodstock Stakes in Canada on April 2. Thirteen days later he beat older horses at Aqueduct. Off just that, Parfaitement ran his eyeballs out in the Wood. "The Wood was good for him," trainer Bill Boniface says. "I think he'll really profit from it. He wouldn't have blown out a match after his first start in Canada. This time a horse [Slew O' Gold] hooked him and he had to use himself." Like Sunny's Halo, Parfaitement is a son of Halo and bred to go a distance.
Pax In Bello won $243,923 last year, and in his last start beat Chumming in the 1‚⅛-mile Remsen at Aqueduct, but the Derby Trial, in which he finished third, was only his third race this year. The rule is that a horse has to be in top condition to win the Kentucky Derby, and the doubts that linger about several of this year's contenders stem simply from how little they've done.
If there was ever a year for the rules to be suspended, however, this is it. So the pick here is Sunny's Halo.