When darkness fell at Hialeah racetrack last Saturday it was quiet in the stable area, except for the party going on under trainer Angel Penna's shed. Long after their workday had ended, grooms and hot-walkers and exercise riders were gathered under the lights of the barn, while just outside a handsome, dashing, young chestnut colt named Time for a Change was making brief circuits of the walking ring. He looked quite pleased with himself, thank you very much, as he stopped occasionally to take in the celebration going on around him. Suddenly jockey Jerry Bailey strode out of the darkness and into Penna's tack room, where the Argentine trainer was sitting on a director's chair, his legs crossed in front of him.
Penna looked up, growled gently and then laughed, extending his arms. "There's my boy!" Penna said. The two men embraced like circus bears.
"All right!" said one of the workers.
"Oh!" said Bailey. "What you did! What a job you did!"
Yes, what a job Penna had done. An hour and a half before he had saddled Time for a Change, Ogden Mills Phipps's 3-year-old son of Damascus, for the $365,000 Flamingo Stakes, he lifted Bailey aboard and sent them both out hunting for the brilliant, undefeated Devil's Bag, America's 1983 2-year-old champion and at that moment the odds-on favorite to win the '84 Kentucky Derby. Bailey and Change met Devil's Bag on the first turn, introducing themselves through a polite opening quarter mile in 23[2/5] seconds, then took him by the throat and bounced head and head with him through a spirited six furlongs in 1:09⅗ eyeball-to-eyeball. Coming off the turn for home, they found the Bag was empty, and Time for a Change went on to win this richest of Flamingos by a neck from stretch-running Dr. Carter, who surely would have won himself if the wire had been three more jumps ahead.
It was one of the most stunning surprises in recent racing history, for no 3-year-old since Secretariat, in 1973, had stirred the imagination more than Devil's Bag. The bay colt, who looks every bit a champion physically, had won as he pleased since he first came out of the gate last Aug. 20 at Saratoga and won by 7½ lengths. Coming to the Flamingo, he had won all six of his starts, and his veteran trainer, 70-year-old Woody Stephens, regarded him as the best horse he had ever trained. The game was so easy for Devil's Bag—perhaps, alas, too easy.
The Bag was, of course, the focus of attention at Hialeah, but it was the presence of Dr. Carter and Time for a Change that made this 55th running of the Flamingo the most important renewal since Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke, Iron Liege and Federal Hill raced one another breathless in 1957. Now in March of 1984 there was once again a Flamingo worthy of being called a winter Kentucky Derby, drawing to it the three leading lights of the 3-year-old division.
Stephens naturally figured he had the fastest gun in town. On Feb. 20, in the Bag's first race of the year, the Flamingo Prep, jockey Eddie Maple restrained him in second place the first quarter mile, trying to conserve his speed. When the rider chirped to him, the colt sailed grandly to the lead and ran off with a flourish to win by seven lengths, running seven-eighths of a mile in 1:21⅗ racehorse time even on Hialeah's fast surface. It was the first time the Bag had ever won coming off the pace. Approaching the Flamingo the colt didn't work sensationally, but Stephens figured he was in prime condition.
Devil's Bag was not only the glamour horse of the moment but also the most costly horse in training in the world. James P. Mills's colt had been syndicated over the winter for $36 million, so the pressure was on. But Stephens had been around too long to believe that Devil's Bag was a mortal lock in the Flamingo. He was heard to say such things as "If he doesn't get there, I'll go to the bar and at least I'll have won one or two Scotches."
And as he made his way to the paddock to saddle the horse for the Flamingo, he said, "I've learned that if you've done the best you can do, there's no use worrying anymore. I think I've done the best I can with this one. He had a good race over the track. He's relaxed. He has been working well. I don't think I've ever trained one better. He's ready; so am I."
So, too, was John Veitch, the trainer of Frances Genter's Dr. Carter. Veitch is only 38 years old, but he's been around. He trained three champions during a hitch at Calumet from 1976 to '82—Our Mims, Davona Dale and Before Dawn—as well as the magnificent Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races.
"I think Dr. Carter is better than Alydar," Veitch said. "I really do."
The big gray colt began telling him that late last year, after twice finishing second to Devil's Bag, in the Cowdin and Champagne stakes at Belmont, and third to Swale, another colt trained by Stephens, in the Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands. The real telling began in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 12, in which Dr. Carter bounded off the pace to win by 5½ lengths in 1:49 for the 1‚⅛ miles, sensational time over a dull, tiring surface. More than one New York handicapper said that this was as commanding a performance as any made by Devil's Bag all year. Veitch was more than heartened by it.
"The Remsen first showed me he had a brilliant future ahead of him," the trainer said.
Dr. Carter spent the winter at Hialeah, and Veitch brought him along slowly, with careful attention to a potentially bad ankle. On Feb. 22, two days after the Bag's Flamingo Prep, jockey Jorge Velasquez and Dr. Carter won the Dan Chappel Handicap by 17 lengths and tied the Hialeah track record of 1:40[3/5] for 1[1/16] miles.
"That race proved to me he was a considerably better 3-year-old than he was a 2-year-old," Veitch says. "I loved that race. I really loved it. Jorge didn't ask him to run. He moved his hands once. That was it. I was amazed he ran as fast as he did. He's a better racehorse now than he was last year—bigger, stronger, tougher, more experienced, more professional. If he runs the same race in the Flamingo, he'll win."
Penna, for his part, thought he might have an edge because the Bag and Dr. Carter had had only one race this year. Time for a Change had had three, all at Hialeah, so he had an advantage in seasoning, in sharpness, in familiarity with the track. "Devil's Bag is not 100 percent fit," said Penna. "Dr. Carter is not 100 percent. The Flamingo is the beginning of the road, not the end of the road. This race is too much, too soon, but I'm in a better position."
Ironically, among the criticisms of Time for a Change was that he was gutless. A speedball who apparently liked to run loose and unchallenged on the lead, Penna's colt, some said, would burp the bit and quit when Devil's Bag stretched his neck on the turn for home. That reputation perhaps stemmed in part from his performance last Aug. 21: After winning his first race by 10, Change left the gate awkwardly in the Hopeful Stakes and, though he was the odds-on favorite, got swallowed up in traffic and finished 11th, beaten 14½ lengths. That was his last start of the year.
"He started coughing a couple of days later," Penna says. "We lost September and October."
When Penna brought Change back at Hialeah, he was still very green. On Jan. 17, he came in second in an allowance race, beaten a head. Two weeks later in another allowance race, Time for a Change snatched the lead early and scored by four. Eleven days later, in the $50,000 Everglades Stakes, he opened up a 2½-length lead but won by only half a length. That gave him three races around two turns at Hialeah. Devil's Bag hadn't been around two turns in his life.
"I have a fifty-fifty chance to win," said Penna.
Stephens, however, openly doubted the gameness of both Dr. Carter and Time for a Change. If either tried to hook the Bag, the trainer believed his colt would chew him up and spit him out. What wasn't known was what Devil's Bag would do if a fast and dead-game horse hooked him hard and didn't let go. It hadn't happened so far. It had all been so easy. Secretariat was back and living in Stall 48, Barn M, at Hialeah.
On the opposite side of that barn Dr. Carter was stabled, and a rivalry developed between the two camps. One morning a Stephens man paraded a sign saying THE DEVIL HAS DR. CARTER'S BAG AND HE CAN'T OPERATE.
It was thus that the three colts came to the Flamingo. The only discordant notes were struck by Hialeah's management. There were, at most, only five horses with any reason to be in the race, but a field of only five would have meant that New York's Off-Track Betting system wouldn't have been able to book triples—because for those kinds of wagers OTB requires at least eight horses in a field. Hialeah's cut of the exotic betting pools in New York could amount to as much as $40,000, so the track management filled out the field by guaranteeing $5,000 to each of the last three finishers. The race was thus cheapened by the sudden addition of High Alexander, Heir to the Throne and Masterful, none of whom had a snowball's chance in Florida of getting the distance.
"I think it's a disgrace," said Veitch. "It's ridiculous. It's one thing for somebody with a bad horse to go into a race of his own free will; a person has that right. But it's another thing to pay someone to go in. It's like going to a heavyweight championship fight and having six dwarfs fighting at the same time to make things interesting."
To make matters worse, after swelling the field to eight with those hired camels, Hialeah then canceled show betting on the race, a move reminiscent of the notorious "Chicken Flamingo" of 1966, when the mighty Buckpasser was such an overwhelming favorite in a nine-horse field that management didn't allow any betting at all.
The outsiders were never in it, leaving the real racing to the big three. And magnificent racing it was, from the flag to the wire, one that turned the Devil's Bag-is-invincible scenario upside down.
The Flamingo covers nine furlongs, and the most notable occurrence in Saturday's race was that Devil's Bag was interested in only the first seven. Breaking from Post 7, the Bag went to the lead heading for the first turn, with Maple glancing quickly to his left as he cut over to the rail, looking to get closer to the wood. Dr. Carter was right behind him, Velasquez steadying him as they made the turn. When Bailey swung Time for a Change to the outside, he noticed that his colt was remarkably relaxed, the first time he had ever been so while following another horse.
The late-afternoon sun was shining on Hialeah, and through that first quarter in :23[2/5] it looked like a pleasant walk on the beach for three old friends. Then they wheeled into the backstretch, and the mood of the race was suddenly different. Time for a Change ran right up next to Devil's Bag on the backside, while on their left Velasquez kept the Doc on the inside, ready to join them. They did the second quarter in :23. Things were beginning to get serious.
Any moment now, the Hialeah crowd assumed, Maple was going to ask the Bag the question, and the colt was going to cruise off into the lead and leave these pretenders in his shadow, his ears pricked. But Maple sat cool. So did Bailey. As they neared the far turn, Velasquez clucked to the Doc and he rushed up inside of the Bag, looking as though he wanted the lead or a share of it.
"I wanted Maple to see me," Velasquez said later. "I wanted a fast pace. But it was a little tight when I got up in there."
In an instant, as Velasquez steadied Dr. Carter, Devil's Bag and Time for a Change took off, leaving Velasquez four lengths behind as they made the turn. The Bag and Change raced in a head-bobbing duel around the turn toward the stretch. Velasquez started hustling Dr. Carter, whom he had taken outside after the Doc had been pinched by the Bag. Maple asked Devil's Bag for more speed. The colt failed to respond. Maple hand-rode him harder, asking him again.
"Coming to the stretch, I said to him, 'You big mother! Don't choke on me now!' " said Maple afterward.
The Bag choked. "There was nothing," Maple said.
In a trice Dr. Carter swept past Devil's Bag on the outside and began a run at Time for a Change. The Bag faded despite Maple's vigorous urging. For an instant it seemed that Dr. Carter was going to spit the bit, but he kept coming, and through the final yards gained slowly on Change, but time and ground ran out. Time for a Change won in 1:47 for the nine furlongs, snappy time, just [1/5] second off Honest Pleasure's 1976 Flamingo record. Devil's Bag reeled home in fourth, behind Rexson's Hope, beaten nearly seven lengths.
The aftermath was predictable. There was Stephens, having that Scotch or two at the bar and wondering what had happened. "Time for a Change is a game horse, dead game," he said quietly. "I thought I could shake that horse loose going into the turn, but I couldn't. My horse has always gotten loose. He has never had anybody grab him. He got grabbed today, and maybe he didn't like it." Later, Stephens blamed himself for the defeat. "I might not have trained him right," he said. "I babied him a little bit. I trained him very sharp last summer, and he ran sharp. This year I might have been too easy with him. He got so relaxed with me this winter, he might have said, 'Hell, I'll run relaxed.' "
Veitch was elated, though he regretted that Dr. Carter had lost several lengths on the backstretch when he was squeezed by the Bag. "That stopped my horse's momentum," said Veitch, "while at the same time they asked their horses to run. It was bad racing luck. I think it got Dr. Carter beat. Still, I'm very pleased. Time for a Change won't beat me again. I'd rather have Dr. Carter than any other 3-year-old in America. The farther they go, the more he'll like it."
Quaffing champagne at the winner's barn, Bailey said of Time for a Change, "This horse is getting better. He's learning so much every time."
And now Penna has accomplished the first half of his own special dream. In 1974, Penna trained the great filly Allez France to win the world's most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, outside Paris. Two years earlier, San San, another Penna filly, had also won the Arc.
"I want to be the first trainer ever to win the Arc de Triomphe and the Kentucky Derby," Penna said.
Well, he's heading toward Churchill Downs with plenty of Change.