At the gap in the fence in front of the grandstand, caught in a joyous pandemonium rarely witnessed even at the Kentucky Derby, jockey Bill Shoemaker rode a colt called Ferdinand past outstretched hands and snapping shutters toward the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
It had been 21 years since Shoemaker last made that trip, since that May afternoon in 1965 when Lucky Debonair carried him to his third and apparently final victory in the Derby. At age 54, in what he would call "the twilight of my career," in a sport abounding with so many younger and keener and hungrier riders, Shoemaker had no legitimate right to expect that he would ever make it there again. Coming to Saturday's Derby he had won more races (8,536) and tallied more stakes victories (941) than any rider in history, but he was widely perceived as a kind of relic from a racing age gone by, a man whose best afternoons at the track were far behind him.
But whoa! Stop right there. Reset your stopwatches. Turn back your clocks. In this 112th running of the Derby, one of the most wide-open and competitive in years, Shoemaker reached all the way back to the 1950s and '60s, to the decades when he dominated this sport with the lightest, sweetest pair of hands in the game. Giving Ferdinand, a $17.70 to $1 long shot, an absolutely flawless ride, Shoemaker finessed his way from dead last around and through a field of 15 other horses, artfully maneuvered the colt through a hole in traffic at the top of the homestretch, and then drove him home to win by 2¼ lengths over the English colt Bold Arrangement, who had three-quarters of a length on Broad Brush. Snow Chief, the $2.10 favorite, flattened out in the stretch to finish 11th, while the second choice, Badger Land, finished fifth after being slammed between horses at the break and forced to race wide on both turns.
Crossing the wire, not even the Shoe could quite believe that he had won. "What a feeling," he said. "I was half in shock!"
Up in the grandstand thousands were on their feet thundering applause in an ovation befitting the man and the moment. His lips pursed, his head down, Shoemaker angled Ferdinand through the gap in the fence to the winner's circle.
"The Shoe's in tears," said his wife, Cindy, as she followed him into the circle. "Look at him. He can't even smile." Cindy knew how much this meant to him. Three weeks earlier, at their home in San Marino, the Shoemakers had watched the telecast of the Masters golf tournament from Augusta. As Jack Nicklaus donned the green jacket, Shoemaker had told her, "This is the omen, Cindy. They thought he was washed up, finished, and he just won the Masters. If Nicklaus can win the Masters, I can win the Kentucky Derby."
Moving to the colt's side, following him as he walked in circles, Cindy looked up and whispered to her husband, "I love you, Bill."
If this was the most moving moment in Shoemaker's lifetime in the saddle, it was also among the most touching for the colt's 73-year-old trainer, Charles Whittingham. Whittingham has spent more than 50 years conditioning thoroughbreds, and for the last 30 he has been the dominant force in California racing. The Bald Eagle of the American turf has won more stakes races, nearly 450 at last count, than any trainer working today, but he had never won a Kentucky Derby. In fact, Ferdinand was the first horse Whittingham had saddled for the race since Divine Comedy ran ninth in 1960. Over the intervening years, Whittingham had vowed repeatedly never to enter the Derby again unless he thought he had a horse that could win it.
Ferdinand was the one. So while the aging rider was fighting to compose himself in the winner's circle, the aging trainer was struggling to get through the throng in the grandstand and out the tunnel to the racetrack. Crowds lined the tunnel and called his name—"You showed 'em, Charlie!"—while fellow trainers slapped his back as he made his way into the late afternoon sunlight.
"Congratulations, Charlie!" shouted Jack Van Berg, the trainer of the sixth-place finisher, Wheatly Hall, grabbing and clasping Whittingham's hand. "You did it."
Moving quickly out to the racetrack, Whittingham said, "After all the years.... It's a great day!"
For Whittingham and Shoemaker, who have been winning races together for upwards of 30 years, it was a day that vindicated their judgment, formed months ago, that this strikingly handsome chestnut son of the European champion Nijinsky II had the goods not only to get to the Derby and race competitively, but also to win it. Shoemaker was particularly buoyed by the colt's chances. On Saturday, just before dismounting from Ferdinand, Shoemaker glanced down at a writer in the crowd and said, "What did I tell you?"
Oh, yes. A full two months before, over drinks and dinner at a Southern California restaurant, Shoemaker had grown wistful as the evening grew long, and he had talked about how he had never won the Triple Crown—the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes—and how much he wanted to win it in his gloaming. Then he had announced, unequivocally, as reported last week in SI, that he would ride Ferdinand to victory at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
None of this talk surprised Whittingham. "Shoe really believed in the horse," the trainer said. "He knew what he could do."
Whittingham began to know it himself as long ago as last fall when he first ran the colt as a 2-year-old, a notable event in itself. Whittingham is a horseman with abiding patience, and thus he has never been one to ask too much of a young horse too soon, preferring to give 2-year-olds the time to develop and mature before putting pressure on them. "When they used to use horses just for riding or for work, they were at their prime at age seven," he says. "That's when they're mature."
Acting on this belief over the years, he has shied away from racing babies, and hence he has rarely had his horses ready to run in the 3-year-old classics. In fact, the vast majority of Whittingham's major stakes winners have been older horses.
With the astronomical prices being paid for stallions in the last several years, however, it has been increasingly difficult to pass up the spring classics, particularly the Derby. A victory in a Triple Crown race can inflate a well-bred colt's stud value so tremendously that it is worth the risk these days to put pressure on a youngster to get him ready in the spring. Ferdinand was sound and he certainly had the pedigree, so he was aimed for Churchill Downs beginning last fall. He won only one of four races in 1985, but last Dec. 15, in the rich Hollywood Futurity, he was third to a more seasoned Snow Chief, beaten 6½ lengths.
The colt was as green as alfalfa, but, Whittingham said, "he was improving all the time." On Jan. 4, in the Los Feliz Stakes at Santa Anita, Badger Land whipped him by a head, but 25 days later Ferdinand won the Santa Catalina Stakes by half a length. Variety Road then beat him by half a length in the San Rafael Stakes on Feb. 22, but only after Ferdinand had burst to the lead coming out of the turn, then loafed through the stretch, waiting for Variety Road to close the two-length lead. In his last start before Whittingham shipped him to Kentucky, he finished third to Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten seven lengths, but he couldn't get hold of the racetrack that day and took no interest in the hunt. "The track was too slick for him," said Whittingham. "A typical son of Nijinsky. They like a firm racetrack."
Ferdinand's speed and class come from the other side of the family as well. His dam is the Double Jay mare Banja Luka, who has an extraordinary six stakes winners among the nine foals she has produced, making her what is known in the breeding business as a "blue hen." Ferdinand was bred by his owners, Howard and Elizabeth Keck, who named the colt after a sculpture they call Ferdinand for the storybook bull that refused to fight. This Ferdinand, however, has plenty of lick in him.
At his Santa Anita barn one morning in March, Whittingham bellied up to the rangy colt's stall and looked at him admiringly. "He's got some length to him, don't he?" he said. "A good-sized horse. Good shoulder. When he makes a spurt, he really can run. He's bred good enough, and he looks the part. I think he's got a good chance."
By then there appeared to be about a dozen horses who had a shot to win this Derby, and soon they were descending upon Churchill Downs from all over—Snow Chief and Vernon Castle from California, Broad Brush and Mogambo from New York, Badger Land from Florida, and Rampage and Wheatly Hall from Arkansas. Bold Arrangement came from England by way of a short stop at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, where he attracted a lot of attention when he finished a fast-closing third in the Blue Grass Stakes.
There was an abundance of speed in the Derby to assure a fast early pace, with the likes of Groovy and Zabaleta there to smoke through the early fractions. But in the week before the race, none among them worked as brilliantly at Churchill Downs as Ferdinand.
On Tuesday, four days before the Derby, he worked with the filly Hidden Light, Whittingham's contender for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. With Shoemaker on Hidden Light and former jockey Larry Gilligan on Ferdinand, they broke off at the five-eighths pole, the colt spotting the filly three lengths at the start.
"When I asked him to run," said Gilligan, "he motored right to her. He finally beat her about half a length. Usually he gets to the front and pulls himself up, but he didn't here on Tuesday." Instead, running hard all the way, Ferdinand dashed the five-eighths in 58[3/5] seconds, a sparkling move.
After that performance Shoemaker was more confident than ever in the colt. "I don't know if it's the weather, or the racetrack or the fact that he's maturing, but he's been thriving down here," said the Shoe. "Badger Land's got a great shot—he's a big, strong horse. And Snow Chiefs the horse to beat because he has beaten just about everybody. But we're all hoping he can't get the mile and a quarter...."
And Ferdinand? As the son of a sire whose offspring have a decided preference for grass, there were lingering questions about his ability to race well enough on dirt to win a Derby. And there were concerns, too, about his maturity—specifically his tendency to ease up when he made the lead. And there were those, moreover, who wondered about Shoemaker himself, questioning the reflexes and athletic skills of a man his age. Whittingham never did.
"John Longden rode until he was 59 and did damn well," Whittingham said. "Bill's never had to worry about his weight, like other riders. You go play golf with him some day, and he'll make you throw away your clubs."
Through the years Shoemaker has consistently ridden some of Whittingham's best horses, and this time around the trainer handpicked the horse for him to ride for the roses.
"I got one here for you that might be a Derby horse," he told Shoemaker early last year, leading him to the colt's stall. "I'll save him for you. We might have some fun with this horse."
On Saturday, just before the real fun began, Whittingham gave his rider the terse instructions in the manual: "Get position and do the best you can."
Which is precisely what he did. As expected, Groovy and Zabaleta charged from the gate at full bore, with Groovy racing through the first quarter in 22[1/5] seconds, the half in a scorching 45[1/5]. Snow Chief, tracking only three lengths behind Groovy, was running too close to the kitchen and got singed by the heat. Behind them, Badger Land was also under intense pressure. Snow Chief had broken left out of the gate, slamming into Wheatly Hall, who bumped Badger Land and sent him staggering to the back of the pack. "I got killed out of the gate," said Badger Land's rider, Jorge Velasquez. "I was lucky not to go down." Badger Land never had a chance. Unable to maneuver inside to save ground, Velasquez had to take him six horses wide at the first turn and five wide through the second. He might as well have been running in the parking lot.
Shoemaker, meanwhile, was minding his own business from the moment he got pinched at the start and decided to ease the colt to the back of the pack through the first half mile.
"I wasn't in any hurry to rush up quick," Shoemaker said. "I thought, 'I'll just take my time and gradually pick up the field and try to save as much ground as I can.' " He was picking it up down the backstretch, and on the far turn he began his move, passing horses one by one on the outside. He lay fifth at the top of the stretch. Now, as they straightened for home. Shoemaker found a wall of horses racing in front of him.
Where to go—outside or in? "I had the choice," he said. Looking one way, then the other, he suddenly saw that hole open up on his left. Quickly he dropped Ferdinand into it, swinging over in front of Wheatly Hall. Now Shoemaker went to the whip. He was in front by a length at the eighth pole and in the closing yards, drew off to win in 2:02[4/5] for the 1¼ miles, 3[2/5] seconds off Secretariat's 1973 track mark.
The results of the race stand as a sort of equine endorsement of clean living: The first two horses to finish were the only ones in the Derby running without the aid of either of two drugs that are allowed in Kentucky—the anti-inflammatory Butazolidin, which eases soreness, and the diuretic Lasix, which helps curb bleeding. Said Whittingham of Ferdinand, "The horse is sound and there was no reason to use anything. When you have a headache, you take an aspirin. If you don't have a headache, you don't take one."
Shoemaker must have been feeling fine himself, even as he lapsed into mild shock. And so began the bedlam in the grandstand that led to the scene in the Churchill Downs winner's circle, tears and all. "Well, it's something I've never been able to do before," said Whittingham, whose wife, Peggy, was by his side as the gold Derby trophy was presented. "It's been 26 years since I was last here. I said I'd never come back until I thought I had a horse who could win the Derby, and here we are. After this, you have to say Bill's a bloody genius. He went right on with him. Didn't hesitate. He could be a Triple Crown winner. This is a good horse, a classic horse, and he's just learning how to run. I've been training horses 50-some years, and everywhere you go, when people find out what you do, the first thing they ask is, 'Ever win the Kentucky Derby?' I've made it now."
As for Shoemaker, there remains the quest for that elusive Triple Crown. Oh, it was wonderful winning his fourth Derby—"It's just a great feeling to be able to do that at this stage in my life, you know?"—and now, in his 38th year in the saddle, the 1986 Preakness and Belmont Stakes stand between the man who has won almost every race of consequence on the American turf and that final achievement. "Wouldn't that be somethin'?" said the Shoe.