Just minutes after he had won the $265,000 Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah last Saturday—in a performance that emphatically vindicated his methods and judgment as the trainer of Chief's Crown—Roger Laurin glanced at the infield tote board in this moment of triumph and sagged perceptibly, his face turning ashen. The inquiry sign had flashed on the board and the colt's number was blinking.
"That's the only way they'll beat him!" Laurin snapped as he stalked away. "Take his number down. You never win easy. The horse wins but there is always something. I just can't believe this!"
Nor could almost anyone else who had witnessed this 56th running of the 1‚⅛-mile Flamingo, traditionally a major prep leading to the 1-mile Kentucky Derby in May. Laurin had just pulled off" perhaps the neatest training job of the year. He had brought Chiefs Crown, America's 2-year-old champion last year, to the Flamingo with only one prep race, a seven-furlong sprint at Gulfstream about a month earlier, which he had won easily. The colt, recently syndicated as a stud prospect for $20 million, had been laid up for two weeks in January with a virus, and some people doubted whether there was enough time for Laurin to prepare him for Churchill Downs.
Despite the doubters, he certainly had Chiefs Crown fit on Saturday. "An amazing performance," said veteran Derby trainer LeRoy Jolley.
Of course, Laurin was right: The only way they could beat him was to disqualify him—and that is precisely what the three Hialeah stewards did. In an act of surprising folly, they placed Chiefs Crown second, moved the second-place finisher, Proud Truth, to first, and thus spawned a controversy of a kind not seen at Hialeah since the celebrated Chicken Flamingo of 1966, when management, fearing a heavy minus pool, made Buck-passer's Flamingo a betless exhibition and then looked ridiculous when Buck-passer nearly got beat.
On Saturday, the brouhaha centered on the final 30 yards of the race. There was Chief's Crown, who had led at every pole of the race under Don MacBeth, still in front by a length and a half as the wire loomed. Behind him, and just to the outside, jockey Jorge Velasquez was pumping and driving on the favorite, Proud Truth, and just outside of him rode jockey Eddie Maple, whipping on the third choice, Stephan's Odyssey, who was trying to lug in. MacBeth had been whipping righthanded in the stretch, but inside the eighth pole he switched his whip to his left—"Don't ask me," MacBeth said, "I don't know why"—and as he lashed from the left, Chiefs Crown ran away from the stick, drifting right, in front of Proud Truth.
"The five horse [Chiefs Crown] didn't maintain a straight course and that merited a disqualification," said steward Joseph Anderson. "The rule says he must maintain a straight course until perfectly clear. The problem was caused by the five coming out."
"MacBeth using the lefthanded stick caused the problem," said steward Peter Gacicia.
MacBeth argued that he was perfectly clear when he came over onto Proud Truth's path, and indeed he appeared to be a length and a half in front. "The crux of the situation is that I was clear of that horse," MacBeth said. "I know I was clear of him. I can't change what they decided. I do know that my horse was the best horse. I don't think he cut Proud Truth out of the race in any form. When all is said and done, I am to blame for hitting him lefthanded. What can I say? Pm sick about it."
The stewards found themselves under almost immediate attack. Woody Stephens, the trainer of Stephan's Odyssey, contended that Chiefs Crown bothered no horse in the race and that his number should not have come down; instead, he argued to the stewards that Proud Truth came over and bothered his horse and should have been dropped to third. There were moments when the whole imbroglio appeared to get out of hand. In the company of his trainer, the owner of Stephan's Odyssey, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, paid an angry call on the stewards and was overheard berating them in a loud voice.
"I love this game, but this is an outrage!" de Kwiatkowski said. "This is ludicrous. The arrogance of the stewards!"
On the eve of the race, there was considerable hope that the Flamingo would bring some clarity to a murky 3-year-old picture in the East, but the ambiguous outcome left it murkier than ever. What it did manage to establish was that Chiefs Crown, Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey are not far apart in terms of ability, and that Laurin knew exactly what his colt needed to get him ready for the Flamingo.
In the week before the race, Hialeah was rife with speculation that there was something physically wrong with Chiefs Crown, most of it fueled by the lightness of his training regimen and by the apparent breathing problems he'd had in his final workout on March 25, when he dashed six furlongs in 1:11[3/5] and then galloped out very slowly afterward.
"The last eighth of a mile he sounded like one of his lungs was going to explode," one veteran trainer said. "I never heard anything like it."
John Veitch, the trainer of Proud Truth, the winner of the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes this year, considered Stephan's Odyssey the colt to beat. Stephan's Odyssey had finished sixth in the March 2 Florida Derby, beaten 4¼ lengths, but since then he had overcome some minor physical problems and looked the part of a racehorse. Of Chiefs Crown, Veitch said, "I'm not worried about him at all."
The one advantage Chiefs Crown had—on paper, at least—was that he was the only horse in the race with speed. In fact, Chiefs Crown used that speed to take a slow, easy lead, waltzing a half in :48⅘ then three-quarters in 1:12⅖ with the stretch-running Proud Truth just behind him. Chiefs Crown had enough gas left to open 2½ lengths midway through the homestretch. Then, the trouble began inside the 16th pole, and with it the bitter disappointment and cries for justice that ensued.
"The race didn't prove anything," said Veitch. Chiefs Crown finished first by a length, in 1:48[2/5] for the nine furlongs, with Proud Truth a neck in front of Stephan's Odyssey. Stephens and Veitch are taking their horses to New York, perhaps to make a race of it against Rhoman Rule, winner of the Everglades, in the April 20 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Laurin says he is not certain just what he will be doing with Chiefs Crown, except to say he is bound for Churchill Downs.
"I thought he ran a super race today," Laurin said. "He proved he's the best horse. They weren't catching me at the end. A mile and a half or a mile and a quarter, I have no compunctions about this horse. The way he ran today, that's him. He'll go like that forever."