At 12:30 a.m. last Saturday, in the darkness of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, trainer Richard W. Small loaded his promising 3-year-old, Broad Brush, into a van and headed north toward New York City. His nocturnal destination was Aqueduct Racetrack, where later that day Broad Brush would face six other horses in the 1‚⅛-mile, $347,500 Wood Memorial—a race billed as one of the final tests for major 3-year-olds racing toward the Kentucky Derby. It was a curious time for such a journey, Small admits, but then this is a curious horse. Imagine a 40-year-old man who once served as a Green Beret in Vietnam leading a gifted if idiosyncratic racehorse into an empty six-horse van after the witching hour of midnight, then taking the wheel himself to drive the colt about 200 miles to compete only 17 hours later with the best 3-year-olds on the East Coast? Does this racehorse ever sleep?
"Oh, yeah," Small says. "He relaxed and slept and did just fine. We travel at night to avoid traffic. Anyway, he loves to go riding in the van. At Pimlico, I put him in the van a couple of times a week, just to drive him around. I drive him around and he looks out the window. He loves it."
"He gets bored standing in his stall all day," says one of Small's stablehands, Heather Leaf. "He's got so much personality. Sometimes Dick takes him to the bank."
To the bank? "Why do you take him to the bank?" Small is asked. "Does he have his own checking account?"
April 27, 1986
"No," says Small, "but he's the one who keeps my checks from bouncing."
The colt certainly kept Small healthy in the Wood, which once again raised the question Small and the colt's owner, Robert E. Meyerhoff, have been asking themselves and each other for some time now. That is, whether or not to make a run at the Derby. Broad Brush appeared to earn the trip. After tracking the front-running Groovy through the first seven furlongs of the Wood, he pounced on the leader near the quarter pole, opened up a length with 220 yards to go, then held off a belated charge by Mogambo to win by a diminishing half-length. Broad Brush thus made himself the most enigmatic of potential contenders for the Derby.
The Wood made it clearer than ever that the two early Derby favorites—Snow Chief, the easy winner of the Santa Anita Derby, and Badger Land, the improving winner of the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah—are simply the two most dominant 3-year-olds in America and that one or the other should win in Kentucky. That is how it looks on paper, anyway. But paper is very thin and it doesn't necessarily provide an accurate forecast of what will happen when a field of 3-year-olds runs a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.
The Derby has a history almost endless in its inventive surprises. Dark Star edged the undefeated Native Dancer in 1953. Swaps upset favored Nashua in 1955. Chateaugay bumped off unbeaten Candy Spots in 1963. Proud Clarion defeated the great Damascus in 1967. Canonero II flew up from Venezuela and came out of nowhere to win in 1971. The speedball Bold Forbes hung on to bury Honest Pleasure in 1976. The sweet-faced filly Genuine Risk whipped all the colts in 1980. And Sunny's Halo came out of the Arkansas Derby, of all places, to win in 1983. And on and on.
So Broad Brush cannot be ignored. He keeps going to the bank, both in Dick Small's van and on the racetrack, yet Small has no real clue as to how good his colt may be. Going into the Wood, Broad Brush had won six of eight races, but three of his four stakes victories had come on the modest Maryland circuit. He had made one foray into Kentucky, where he won the Jim Beam Stakes on March 22 at Latonia. Bush league and bourbon on the Ohio River: "Let's all have a party and watch the horses run."
Small watched Broad Brush win the Jim Beam by two lengths, but only after the colt had grabbed the lead, slowed down as if to wait for company, then pulled away again to win by daylight. That was typical of the horse, a loafer on the lead. "I thought he was going to be swamped by other horses at the finish," Small said. "He got to goofing off. It didn't look like he'd be on the board. One horse got to his girth. Then suddenly he pulled away...."
That performance in the Jim Beam was kind of freaky, and it left Small wondering. Last week. Small could have taken Broad Brush to run in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby or to the $252,200 Garden State Stakes, soft touches, but he chose instead to enter the Wood because the competition was stiffer and he wanted to find out how good a horse he had. At Aqueduct, Broad Brush would face not only Mogambo, the winner of the April 5 Gotham Stakes, but also Tasso, last year's 2-year-old champion colt.
What he found was that Broad Brush had enough for the Wood, even with all his idiosyncrasies. But enough for the Derby? Who knows? The Wood was unpleasantly nebulous in its outcome. Tasso ended up hurting himself, rapping his left hind leg, thus making his status uncertain for the Derby, while Mogambo closed ground in the final yards to finish second. After Broad Brush had gotten the lead, he started gawking again. He finished in a moderate 1:50⅗ with a final furlong in 14[2/5] seconds, very slow time, and it made Small ponder his options.
"He gets to the front and doesn't do his best," Small said. "I don't know what we're going to do about that. It's very difficult. He's immature mentally.... You couldn't call this a smashing performance. It was a fast track and not a fast race. He was playing around when he won. Conceivably, he could be a real special horse. We just don't know. We've never gotten to the bottom of him."
Small does know that with two fast and classy favorites, Snow Chief and Badger Land, racing for the wire in the Kentucky Derby, Broad Brush would have no time to gawk. If he does take his horse to Churchill Downs, at the end of that mile and a quarter he will finally know what kind of colt he has.