Brian was looking for George, George was looking for Butch, Butch was looking for Richard so he could introduce him to George, and Richard, well, he was the little guy trying to pick his way through the crowd that had engulfed the winner's circle at Aqueduct.
In the pleasant pandemonium that descended on the circle after Saturday's running of the 1‚⅛-mile, $296,500 Wood Memorial, obviously the only one who knew where he was and where he was going was Eternal Prince, the smashing winner of the race, who had come and gone and was now looking for a warm mash dinner and a place to go to sleep.
"Where's George?" cried Brian Hurst, the majority owner of the colt who had just become a favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Hurst was trying to organize the group for a winner's-circle photo.
"There's George!" someone yelled. Sure enough, threading his way through the crowd was George Steinbrenner III, the principal owner of the New York Yankees and the new 37½% owner of Eternal Prince. "Come on, George, get in here!" Hurst said.
"Where's Butch?" said George. Butch is John (Butch) Lenzini, Eternal Prince's trainer. "Oh, there he is," said George. "He's over there hugging somebody. Butch is the only one who should be taking credit for this horse."
Finally, up walked Butch, looking around for Richard Migliore, Eternal Prince's jockey. Finding him, Butch said, "Richard, have you met George yet?" Richard and George shook hands.
At one point as he was being photographed, Hurst shouted, "We're going to be right here having our picture taken in Kentucky, too!"
That could happen. Under a superb ride by the 21-year-old Migliore, who sailed the colt to the lead at the start and then snugged him through a very slow first half mile in 48 seconds, Eternal Prince stole the Wood early. He ended up winning by 2¾ lengths over the stretch-running Florida Derby winner, the favored Proud Truth, with the much-ballyhooed winner of the Everglades Stakes, Rhoman Rule, trailing in third.
"The first half killed us," said John Veitch, the trainer of Proud Truth, who was seven lengths behind Eternal Prince at the half. "You can't give away that many lengths when the leader is running the first half in 48 seconds."
That slow early pace on an off track, in fact, transformed the Wood from the definitive Kentucky Derby prep it was supposed to be into a race that only muddied further-an already obscure Derby picture. The one truly emphatic Kentucky Derby performance on Saturday may have occurred in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. There, Eugene Klein's Tank's Prospect, who had run a dismal last in the Santa Anita Derby for trainer D. Wayne Lukas while suffering a minor respiratory problem, returned to form to win by six and a half lengths and become a horse to beat at Churchill Downs.
But the Wood clearly established Eternal Prince as this year's most solid and most dangerous front-runner among Derby 3-year-olds, confirming the value of the painful but useful lesson that Lenzini learned in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on March 23. For that race, Lenzini instructed Migliore to take the colt off the pace. "We tried to rate him," Butch said. "We tried to make him relax, and he didn't like it." Eternal Prince placed sixth, beaten 8½ lengths by Pancho Villa.
Before the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on April 6, Lenzini told Migliore to let the colt roll, and the son of Majestic Prince, the winner of the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, fairly blazed through the fastest Gotham fractions since Secretariat won the race on his way to the Triple Crown in 1973. The numbers were electric: half a mile in :44⅕ six furlongs in 1:08[2/5]! That left the six other Gotham starters sucking air as Eternal Prince won laughing by five. "Not many horses can run that fast and last, and he did," Lenzini said.
The Gotham not only earned the colt a shot at the Wood but also found him a new part owner in Steinbrenner, the shipbuilding Yankee boss who triples as a gentleman farmer and breeder in Florida. In January 1984, Hurst, a Richmond automobile wholesaler, purchased the 2-year-old Eternal Prince from Steinbrenner for $17,500 at a Hialeah sale. Steinbrenner had been among the first to lay eyes on the colt. "I saw him born," he says. "I'm at the farm a lot during foaling season. I used to see him outside in the paddock. My son Hank bred him and raised him."
Steinbrenner was at Garden State Park on the night of April 6, surrounded by his entourage. He had lost track of the colt after the sale and had no idea what had become of him. "Who the hell is this Eternal Prince?" he asked. Fearful of telling him, no one said a word. "All my people were sitting there," Steinbrenner says. "One guy finally said, 'Are you pulling my leg? You don't know about this horse?' I said, 'No. Why?' He said, 'You bred him.' "
Steinbrenner was stunned. "I bred him?" he said. There it was, right in the Daily Racing Form: "Bred by Kinsman Stud Farm."
Steinbrenner phoned Hurst and said, "I want to get back in on this horse." So Hurst let him back in for a sum reportedly around $750,000 for his 37½%. How does it feel, Steinbrenner was asked, to sell a horse for $17,500 and a year later buy a minority interest in him for a bundle? "It's the free enterprise system," George said.
Eternal Prince had the Wood field at his mercy, and the only question was how well he would handle a track that was drying out from a rain. He did just fine. The Wood undoubtedly did loads for Rhoman Rule, who did not like the going but obviously needed the race after a 35-day layoff. Proud Truth ran well, as usual, though he did indeed suffer from the slow early pace. He'll join Eternal Prince and Rhoman Rule at Louisville.
"This is easy, eh?" Hurst said in the winner's circle. In New York, perhaps so. But going that mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs never is.