Trainer Woody Stephens was lying in his hospital bed in Louisville last Saturday afternoon, convalescing from a serious bout with pneumonia compounded by emphysema and exhaustion, when he gave his wife, Lucille, her final instructions. Post time for the 57th running of the $54,500 Derby Trial stakes, the last major test for 3-year-olds pointing for this Saturday's Kentucky Derby, was only a few hours away at nearby Churchill Downs.
The 70-year-old trainer of Devil's Bag, the odds-on favorite for the Run for the Roses in the Agua Caliente Future Book and the short-priced favorite for the Trial, had been improving steadily since Stephens' hospitalization six days before. "He was kind of on his toes today," Lucille reported before the Trial. "He looked brighter, more like himself."
So now there Stephens was, in his hospital room, surrounded by six floral arrangements—none of them, incidentally, included roses—waiting to see Devil's Bag on television in the colt's final prep for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby Trial was to reveal whether the Bag, syndicated for $36 million after a 1983 season in which he was acclaimed as the second coming of Secretariat, was really back after his humiliating fourth-place finish in the nine-furlong Flamingo Stakes on March 3 and his meaningless 15-length victory over four wingless crows in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland on April 19.
As Lucille was about to leave his room on Saturday, Woody told her, "I want you to go to the races today. Don't worry about me. Go to the track and watch the race and come back and tell me what happened."
May 6, 1984
What happened was this: Devil's Bag, though he won the Trial by 2¼ lengths over a colt named Biloxi Indian, effectively removed himself from any serious consideration as a Kentucky Derby candidate. His time for the mile was 1:35⅗ extremely modest given the slickness of the racing surface, and Devil's Bag was able to do that only after jockey Eddie Maple lashed him eight times with the whip through the stretch. "I never had to hit him like that before," a subdued Maple said afterward.
What made the performance even more revealing was that Devil's Bag never really shook off Biloxi Indian, who only recently recovered from a virus and whose indulgences at the hay net inspired this from his trainer, Dianne Carpenter, on the eve of the Trial: "Frankly, I think he looks fat. Right now his whole life revolves around food...how to get it, how to keep it. He thinks about it all the time, and it shows in his massive build."
So a $36 million horse was under desperate pressure to beat a fat one going a flat mile at a moderate clip around one turn at Churchill Downs. To make matters worse, the Bag was veering out near the end, a sign he was either sore-legged or very tired. He certainly was tired, his nostrils blowing and flaring as he entered the winner's circle. "He blew like a train all the way back to the stable area," said Ron McKenzie, his exercise rider, who accompanied him to the barn. "He got tired today. Real tired."
Nor was this an unexpected turn. Two days before the Trial, in his final blowout for the race, Devil's Bag walked to the racetrack looking dull and unhappy, moving without bounce or verve. He worked a half mile in an extremely mediocre 48[3/5] seconds, and he came back to the barn puffing and blowing, a sign of a lack of fitness. His temporary trainer, Mike Griffin, said this was the result of his being inadvertently fed too much hay. This was true. Griffin is a good, conscientious horseman, but he had been thrust suddenly into the limelight, and surely Stephens' presence was missed around the barn. So the Bag came to the Trial off a poor workout, and he ran like a horse barely capable of going a mile, much less the Derby's mile and a quarter, and this off an easy first quarter in 23[2/5].
"If someone had really been buzzing along with that horse, putting pressure on him, he'd have had all he could do to beat Biloxi Indian," said Harold Rose, the trainer of the stretch-running Derby candidate Rexson's Hope. Stephens, who's expected to leave the hospital to saddle both Devil's Bag and Swale, his other Derby horse, saw enough on television to convince him. "Swale's the horse to beat now," Stephens said. "I believe he is."
There was speculation after the Trial that the Bag wouldn't run in the Derby—that Stephens would withdraw the colt rather than risk humiliating him—but the trainer said he intends to dress Devil's Bag up and send him to the dance. "Any horse that tries to run with him early will be in trouble," he said.
There will be plenty of that sort at the Downs on Derby Day, a lot of early speed in a wide-open race. There is no single dominating horse of the kind the Bag was supposed to be. Still, Devil's Bag is certainly the fastest of the bunch. And then there's the California filly Althea, a comely chestnut daughter of Alydar who won the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby on April 21 by seven lengths. The first filly ever to win the race, Althea beat 10 colts and looks as if she might just emulate Regret (1915) and Genuine Risk (1980) and become the third filly to win the Derby. And there's speed aplenty in Swale, Vanlandingham, Bear Hunt, He Is A Great Deal and Taylor's Special.
Ah, Taylor's Special. That he is. This is a dutiful colt, ill-bred for the mile and a quarter at the Downs but an aggressive, free-moving sort who looks as if he runs for the simple fun of it. He won the Blue Grass at Keeneland two days before the Trial. Faced with nine furlongs, he cruised to the lead heading into the back-stretch, opened up four lengths on the far turn, then with his ears pricked cantered home cheerfully to win by 3¼ lengths over the stretch-running Silent King. Taylor's Special got a perfect trip; jockey Pat Day gave him a flawless ride and he was clocked in 1:52⅕ good time over a tiring track.
"I guess it surprised everybody that he went the distance," said William Mott, the colt's trainer. "He's modestly bred, on the female line especially; there are very few stakes horses in his pedigree there. He's bred like a sprinter and he ran like a sprinter last year. But he has learned this year how to carry his speed."
His pedigree certainly says git-go. The colt's sire, Hawkin's Special, was a genuine hummer. "Probably the fastest horse I ever put a bridle on," says trainer Jack Van Berg, who has won more races (between 4,200 and 4,300) than any other trainer who ever lived. "I mean, when you chirped to him and asked him to run, he'd put goose bumps on you. This was a fast horse."
After Mott got Taylor's Special last year, for months he regarded him as a sprinter. He had no idea that the colt wanted to go nine furlongs, and it wasn't until late last February, when he began to give Taylor's Special longer, stronger morning gallops, that he realized he had a whole lot of horse. "We started to lay into him," Mott said. "Two weeks later he was like a changed horse. He finished strong. He's the one who showed us." On March 10 Taylor's Special won the Louisiana Derby Trial at the Fair Grounds at 1[1/16] miles, on the lead all the way, and 15 days later he rolled to the front in the 1‚⅛-mile Louisiana Derby and won that by a length.
Up to now he has run as far as Mott has asked him to, and he finished in the Blue Grass as if 10 furlongs weren't beyond his reach. Mott has no illusions about that dreaded extra furlong of the Derby, the one the colt might not want to do. "I want to be realistic about this thing," he says. "There's a limit to what every horse can do. The way the Blue Grass set up, I think he could have run a mile and a quarter that day. But it's never the same situation. I'm sure the Derby will be a faster pace. I'm sure that Mr. Stephens will send Devil's Bag to the lead and make us catch him. If Devil's Bag doesn't make it, he has Swale coming off it. Woody has all the loaded cannons now."
Swale, who is a son of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, won the Florida Derby on March 31 in one of the best and gamest performances by a 3-year-old this year, disposing of Darn That Alarm before taking on and finally outgutting the star-crossed Dr. Carter through the stretch to win by three-quarters of a length. That performance made Swale the Derby favorite, but that was a status he enjoyed for only 17 days. On April 17 a wild hare named He Is A Great Deal scooted to the lead in the slop in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, widened it as he wished and came home laughing to beat Swale by eight. He Is A Great Deal loved the going.
"Swale was slippin' and slidin' every stride," says trainer Griffin. "He's a big, long-striding, gangly horse, and he couldn't handle the slop at all. It was like he was on ice. But he's been training real good since he came to Churchill Downs." So what did the Lexington mean? Well, one horse's ice is another's follies. So throw out the Lexington, thank you.
But that race set up He Is A Great Deal for a tumble, too. Waiting in the gate for the start of the Blue Grass, the colt spotted Rexson's Hope breaking through the barrier prematurely and he decided to try to crash it as well. In doing so, He Is A Great Deal mashed his nose on the steel gate and raised a welt, knocking himself silly. When the gate opened, he left it only half-conscious. "He just had a bad break," says trainer Bernard Flint. "He was like knocked out. He took a hell of a lick on the head." The gelding went to the lead after the first quarter, yielded to Taylor's Special before they went a half, then coughed it up and reeled home eighth, beaten by nearly 27 lengths.
At this writing Flint had yet to decide whether to put Deal in the Derby. "We could duck the big boys," he says. "He could go anywhere and run with the second stringers. The Illinois Derby. The Ohio Derby. But the Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in the world. I've learned a lot in two weeks. I've learned how elusive this race can be to a man who wants it."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has learned that, too, over the years. The Californian has had horses in the past three Derbys, and last year he had three-Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure-but the best Lukas has been able to do has been a third, with Partez, in 1981. This year he has entered not one filly but two-Althea and Life's Magic—the first filly entry in the history of the Derby. Althea is the muscle in the entry. She was voted the 1983 2-year-old filly champion (the Bag was juvenile champ among the colts), and, as mentioned, she ran brilliantly in the Arkansas Derby.
"It was just one of those [races] we all hope to get as trainers," Lukas says. "It was a fantastic race, absolutely a super performance. You had to marvel at the way she ran." The way she ran was fast. A beautiful speciman, solidly built and nicely balanced with a head resembling Alydar's, Althea ran to her looks at Oaklawn Park. She took the lead early, out-legged everything that made a pass at her, then left them all groggy in the stretch to win by seven, racing the nine panels in a sensational 1:46[4/5] to equal the track record. The track was blindingly fast this spring, so fast that it's difficult to fathom exactly what race times mean at Oaklawn, but there's no question that she's more than merely competitive in this field of Kentucky Derby colts.
"Althea is getting awfully good," Lukas says. "I think that the Arkansas Derby pointed out the significance of her ability."
Amen to that.
That leaves those two other horses with some lick, Vanlandingham and Bear Hunt, and a few stretch runners named Joe: Silent King, Gate Dancer, Pine Circle, At The Threshold. Vanlandingham lifted eyebrows at Oaklawn Park this winter when he won an allowance race by 10 lengths and then came back to take the Rebel Handicap, but he got sick on the eve of his most important prep, Althea's Arkansas Derby, forcing trainer Claude (Shug) McGaughey III to keep him in the barn. That Vanlandingham missed his most crucial prep and that McGaughey persisted in bringing him to the Kentucky Derby off so recent an illness has lifted more brows.
"I think most people think I'm crazy trying to do what I'm doing," says McGaughey. Anyway, the colt was sick only a short time, McGaughey says, and missed only four days of training. Since he got over whatever bug it was that was bothering him, Vanlandingham has been kicking his heels higher every day. "The more I've done with him, the better he's gotten," says McGaughey. "And the better he's gotten, the more eager he is. I think I'll get close to enough training in him."
But close to enough is never close enough in the Kentucky Derby. A horse must be absolutely dead fit to win that race. McGaughey is probably closer with Pine Circle, a son of Cox's Ridge who replaced Vanlandingham in the Arkansas Derby. Though he lacked room to maneuver during some jousting. Pine Circle jumped up to finish a surprising second to Althea. He's bred to get 10 furlongs, for he is out of a mare by Gallant Man, the best long-distance runner of his generation.
"I think he should be better off in the Kentucky Derby than in the Arkansas Derby," says McGaughey. "Pine Circle wants to run that far. People might think I'm crazy, but I believe he'll do well if the speed sets up the race as well as it should."
Speed up front, the more the better, is what trainer Grover (Bud) Delp and owner Harry Meyerhoff will be counting on. Five years ago they brought the great Spectacular Bid to town and won the Derby. This year they are fetching Silent King. He's no Bid, but he has a shot, what with all those speed horses churning and making butter of each other on the front end. This little chestnut colt drops so far out of it early that it looks as if the field were pulling him along by a towline. In the Blue Grass, Silent King was more than 20 lengths behind the leader going down the backstretch. When jockey Bill Shoemaker finally asked him to join the parade, he seemed to lower himself a notch and take off, circling horses with a rush around the turn. Silent King's charge fell way short of Taylor's Special, but it gave Delp hope.
"The way the race developed, it turned out to the advantage of the winner," says Delp. Loose on the lead, Day was able to get Taylor's Special to relax. "But it won't be that way in the Kentucky Derby," says Delp. "Horses get excited running in the Derby. They'll be carrying the mail."
And come the homestretch, horses like Silent King and Gate Dancer should be collecting it. Gate Dancer is the sleeper of the Derby. While he has ability, he also has a tendency to run up alongside horses and lean on them. So there is this possible scenario: Althea has shaken off all front-runners at the eighth pole when Gate Dancer drives up next to her, as if about to take the lead, then suddenly hears the crowd on the right, veers left and starts leaning on her, pushing the filly toward the rail. You can't miss Gate Dancer. He'll be the one wearing a strange purple hood with earmuffs. Trainer Van Berg outfits him with those to muffle the crowd noise. With the enormous number of people that show up at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, you can mute the noise, but you can't shut it out entirely.
Van Berg is certain Gate Dancer can go the distance. Throughout the 1‚⅛ miles of the Arkansas Derby, in which Gate Dancer finished third behind Althea and Pine Circle, beaten seven lengths, he ran wide on both turns. "Four horses wide the whole way," Van Berg says. "I know he can go a mile and a quarter because he already did it."
Gate Dancer is but one piece of a Derby puzzle that has grown more and more exasperating to figure since the bottom fell out of the Bag at Hialeah. The heart leans toward Althea, that daughter of America's darling, Alydar, but the head says Woody is right. Swale's the one.