When the horses were called to the post for last Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland race course—the last important prep for Saturday's Kentucky Derby—Roger Laurin, the trainer of Chief's Crown, heaved a sigh of relief and said, "I'm ready. Boy, am I ready. Let's go."
Chief's Crown was ready, too. Boy, was he ready. So was his jockey, Don MacBeth. As the gates slammed open for the $201,600 Blue Grass, MacBeth sneaked a quick look to his right, saw that Keith Allen had taken a tight hold on Banner Bob's reins, and sent Chief's Crown to the lead. Only three other horses had shown up to tackle Chief's Crown in the 1‚⅛-mile race, and of those, Banner Bob, a speedball, was considered the best. Banner Bob had gone right to the lead in most of his races, though in his last one, the Jim Beam Stakes at Latonia, he had come off the pace to win. Which strategy would he employ this time? "If it looked like everybody was going to sit back and nobody was going to set the pace, we decided that we would," Laurin said later.
So MacBeth sent the 3-10 favorite to the lead and kept him there. At the six-furlong mark, run in a moderate 1:12, Banner Bob made a brief move but failed to catch up. Chief's Crown dug in on the far turn, ran the last three-eighths of a mile in an impressive :35[3/5] and won by a whopping 5½ lengths.
MacBeth never hit his colt. He merely dangled the whip in front of him twice at the top of the stretch and hand-rode him to the finish. The final time of 1:47[3/5] was only one-fifth of a second off the track record, set by Round Table in 1957. Banner Bob wound up third, beaten a head by Floating Reserve, while Under Orders was a distant last, 17 lengths back. Chief's Crown's performance was so impressive that any doubts that might have existed about his ability were dissipated, and he reconfirmed his status as the heavy favorite for the Derby.
Buddy Sarner, Banner Bob's disappointed trainer, announced he would not send his horse to the Derby. "I know I'll be ducking Chief's Crown," he said. "I don't care who he's going to go against, he's going to whip them." Allen declared, "He's my pick to win the Derby."
Chief's Crown is a smallish bay colt with impressive breeding. He is from the first crop of horses sired by Danzig, a son of Northern Dancer, and his dam is Six Crowns, so named because she is the product of two Triple Crown winners, Secretariat (1973) and Chris Evert, winner of the New York filly Triple Crown in 1974.
The Chief has strong Canadian connections, among them the 35-year-old MacBeth, a jockey who loves to play hockey; Laurin, a native of Montreal; and Canadian-bred Northern Dancer, winner of the Derby in 1964. MacBeth played youth hockey in his native Red Deer, Alberta, but had to quit when he reached his teens. "I was starting to get too small," says the 5'2", 110-pound rider. But he didn't altogether abandon the sport. He and some other backstretchers from New York formed a hockey team, rented ice and played against some of the commercial league clubs on Long Island. Although he stopped playing last year because of the possibility of being injured, MacBeth says, "I'll be back."
This will be MacBeth's ninth Kentucky Derby. He has never won the race—his best finish was a third on Reinvested in 1982—but you can't blame him for liking Chief's Crown's chances. "It was a big finish for him," he said after the Blue Grass. "As a prep race for the Derby, it was nearly perfect. I wouldn't change a thing."
Up until Thursday's race, Laurin had been repeatedly criticized for his handling of Chief's Crown, the 2-year-old champion of 1984. After winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, the colt came down with a cough and was out of training for about 30 days. When Laurin put him back into training, the doubters came out of the woodwork. Some racetrackers said he ran as if he were sore. One New York newspaper said he had a knee injury, which was news to Laurin. Chief's Crown was trained too lightly, others said. "Training is a very individualistic thing," says Laurin. "You try to make the schedule fit the horse, and not the horse fit the schedule. What it comes down to is just knowing each horse."
In his first race of '85, the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream in March, Chief's Crown looked splendid after his long layoff. The Chief won that seven-furlong race by 3¼ lengths. Fine, but could he go a distance? His victory in his second race, the 1‚⅛-mile Flamingo, which he won by a length, was almost lost in the controversy that ensued. Chief's Crown was first disqualified by the track stewards, then reinstated by a special panel. And so it came down to the Blue Grass. Was Chief's Crown for real? He was indeed.
Back at the barn, long after the race had been run and the crowds had gone home, Laurin ducked away from the Chief, who attempted to put an affectionate bite on the trainer, and said, "Believe me, it's easy with a good horse. You can make plans with him. You can tune the Chief. He's like a Ferrari."