Shrouded by a mist quite appropriate to the occasion, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. Snow Chief broke away from his lead pony on the backstretch at Santa Anita Racetrack and began galloping slowly toward the ‚Öù pole.
It was early last Saturday morning, and the favorite to win the 112th running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday was about to go five furlongs, his last serious workout before being shipped to Louisville. Trainers and jockey agents flocked to the rail to watch the move, while the colt's assistant trainer, Fernando Alvarez, stood watching in the grandstand, stopwatch in hand. "We want him to go easy the first quarter, and then run as fast as he can the last three-eighths," Alvarez said.
Snow Chief is a small but very neatly balanced colt, reminiscent in size and style of Round Table, a horse celebrated for his economy of movement. Sweeping his forelegs low to the ground, Snow Chief, ridden by his regular jockey, Alex Solis, moved with the precision of a metronome, ticktocking through the opening 220 yards in 12 seconds and the quarter in 24.
"Now he goes," said Alvarez.
Suddenly, Solis took a hold of the colt and asked for more speed. Taking off, Snow Chief dashed through a third eighth in a sharp 11[3/5] seconds, then raced the final quarter in 22[4/5] for a five-furlong clocking of 58⅖ racehorse time. As the Chief sashayed off, several observers wanted to know how fast he had gone through his paces.
"Fifty-eight and two!" said jockey agent Rick Payne.
"Whew!" said one rider.
"They better put him on the plane to Louisville now," crowed Payne. "He's ready!"
"Just about perfect," his trainer, Mel Stute, agreed.
No doubt he is. But, at this juncture, Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a race perceived as through a mist, darkly. Snow Chief has won his last five starts, all stakes, and there are those who see him as such a sure thing that his defeat would set handicapping back 200 years. Hold your horses here for a while, though.
Spectacular Bid, in 1979, was the last true "cinch" to win the Kentucky Derby, but the Chief is no Bid, and the 1986 Derby could be one of the most competitive in years—a race in which one of two horses should win (Snow Chief or Badger Land); in which any of seven other horses could win without causing more than mild indigestion (Vernon Castle, Rampage, Broad Brush, Ferdinand, Wheatly Hall, Bold Arrangement or Mogambo); and in which a win by either of two others (Groovy or Wise Times) would merely confirm that the Kentucky Derby is the toughest horse race in America to handicap.
One Derby runner, Fobby Forbes, does have a puncher's chance, but should be eliminated solely on the basis of his name. At the risk of sounding elitist, one can argue compellingly that Derby winners with names like Count Fleet, Citation, Iron Liege, Majestic Prince and Secretariat should never have to share space on a Derby julep glass with a Fobby Forbes. Much of the rest of the Derby field is worth a look only through a telescope.
While Snow Chief is coming off that blistering workout and a string of victories in Florida and California, Badger Land, a son of the Preakness winner Codex, has lately been the most steadily improving 3-year-old in the land. He has raced against Snow Chief four times, and has finished behind him in every one of those races. But consider their last two starts together, the only times they have met at age three.
In the Camino Real Derby, at Bay Meadows on Feb. 2, Snow Chief beat Badger Land by 2½ lengths. The next time they hooked up, in the Florida Derby four weeks later, Snow Chief beat him by 1¾ lengths. Badger Land, a long-legged giant of a horse who developed late for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, appears to be catching up to his archrival and coming to hand. After the Florida Derby, while Snow Chief returned west to prepare for the Santa Anita Derby, Badger Land ran a race that signaled further improvement. He won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah in a track-record-breaking 1:46[1/5] for nine furlongs—sensational time by any standard.
Two weeks later, on the day before Snow Chief galloped to victory in the Santa Anita, going nine furlongs in 1:48⅗ Badger Land towroped his field at Hialeah, winning the Flamingo Stakes by four lengths in 1:47 over the same distance. It was an exceptional performance, perhaps the best of any 3-year-old this year.
All of which has led to the great argument among partisans of Snow Chief and Badger Land this spring. Those favoring Snow Chief say, "Hey, he's beaten Badger Land every time they've met, so what could possibly be new about the Kentucky Derby?" Says Stute: "Badger Land is going to be one of the horses to beat. I hope he is. We've beaten him four times already."
But Badger Land was a gangly, immature 2-year-old when Snow Chief beat him twice last year, and the argument can be pursuasively made that he has passed Snow Chief since their last meeting in the Florida Derby two months ago. "We're oh for 4 against him, yeah, but Badger Land has gotten better every time," says Jeff Lukas, an assistant to his father and a co-owner of the colt. "We're hoping we've passed him, but we have to prove it. We haven't beaten him yet, but we feel good about our chances. We wouldn't trade places with anybody at a mile and a quarter."
But this Derby is by no means a two-horse race, and if Snow Chief and Badger Land start looking for a hole in the fence at the quarter pole, there are plenty of talented horses who might come bounding along to beat them.
There is Rampage, for one, who came charging off the pace to win the 1‚⅛-mile Arkansas Derby by a length and a half in 1:48⅕ fast time in the Oaklawn Park slop. "He's doin' good," says his trainer, Gary Thomas. "He can't wait to get out on the racetrack in the morning. All he wants to do is train."
The colt who finished second to Rampage in the Arkansas Derby, Wheatly Hall, also goes to Kentucky with his running shoes on. Handicapped by an improvident ride in the Arkansas, he went head and head for the lead and wound up tiring.
"This is a legitimate horse," says his trainer, Jack Van Berg. "He's only had four starts, and I'd like one more month to season him. But horses are like apples; they can spoil any day." Then, tapping the top of his shiny pate, Van Berg says, "I think bald-headed people should win the Derby." With a twinkle, he adds, "And not Charlie...."
That would be Charles Whittingham, of course, the Bald Eagle of the American turf and the winner of more stakes races than any trainer in history. Whittingham actually has a shot to win his first Kentucky Derby with a colt named Ferdinand. At age 73, Whittingham has been a dominant trainer in California for more than 30 years, but he takes his time with young horses, which may explain why he has yet to win the Derby. And Ferdinand's jockey is Bill Shoemaker, 54, the winningest rider of all time. The Shoe hasn't won a Derby since Lucky Debonair carried him home in 1965. With the team of Shoemaker and Whittingham on his side, the beautifully bred Ferdinand, a son of the great Nijinsky II, will surely be this year's sentimental choice.
"The only thing I haven't done is win the Triple Crown," the Shoe has said. "This is the horse. Could you imagine Charlie and me, two old codgers, winning the Kentucky Derby? Mark my words. This horse will win the Derby. Can you imagine that?"
Ferdinand has the ability. He won the Santa Catalina Stakes this year, was second in two other stakes and third in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten seven lengths by Snow Chief on a track he didn't like. "It was too slippery for him," Whittingham says. "We've got a very good chance if we get a good, firm track. I wouldn't bring a horse to the Derby unless he had a good chance."
Neither would Give Brittain, the man behind the most romantic, daring quest of all in the Derby. Brittain is the trainer of Bold Arrangement, one of last year's leading 2-year-olds in England and France, where they race exclusively on grass. Brittain is also the trainer who brought Pebbles from England last fall to win the $2 million Breeders' Cup turf race at Aqueduct.
"I learned with Pebbles that the travel was possible," Brittain says. "I thought it was about time we had a crack at the Kentucky Derby."
Last Thursday, in the colt's first start on the dirt. Bold Arrangement finished third in the 1‚⅛-mile Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, beaten a mere three-quarters of a length. Bold Arrangement was flying at the finish, though, and he certainly would have won the race if he'd had another 50 yards to run down the leaders. He'll have that extra furlong in the Derby.
"I'm absolutely delighted," Brittain said after the Blue Grass. "This horse can only learn by his race today. They've got us to beat with another furlong to go. We will win the Derby."
So will they all, dreamers to a man. Vernon Castle is long on pedigree—a son of Seattle Slew out of a Prince John mare—but short on seasoning. He has started only three times, but he looked smashing in winning his last start, the 1‚⅛-mile California Derby, in a fast 1:48 flat. Historically, horses do not win the Derby off so little racing experience, but Vernon Castle looks like Slew and runs boldly, throwing his forelegs out far in front of him. There is nothing mincing or crablike in the way he moves. His handlers are taking a long shot, granted, but how can you blame them? This colt could wind up the best of his generation, and they are hoping he comes of age late Saturday afternoon.
Broad Brush won the Wood Memorial, after finally outgaming the front-running Groovy, but he runs as if his mind is still on yesterday's breakfast, and he tends to pull himself up when he gets to the lead. If he does that at Churchill Downs, they will swallow him for dinner.
Wise Times also has an outside shot, off his last victory in the 1[1/16]-mile Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 12, and so does the swan-necked chestnut Mogambo, winner of the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and the best-looking horse at Churchill Downs. But the Derby is a horse race, not a horse show, and Mogambo will need more than a long neck to get him there.
Before the race, they will be singing My Old Kentucky Home. In the end, they will be humming On Wisconsin. As swift and honest a colt as Snow Chief is, this is Badger Land's year.