If Saturday's running of the wood Memorial at Aqueduct racetrack is a harbinger of next month's Kentucky Derby, then the Run for the Roses will be one hell of a horse race. In midstretch on the muddy track, Gulch, with jockey Jose Santos rhythmically whipping him, slowly moved up on the leader, Gone West, and the two battled, step for step, neck and neck, all the way to the wire. The photo-finish sign flashed immediately, and while many of the 20,586 fans on hand were in doubt about the outcome of the race, at least one among them somehow knew that Gulch had won. Gulch's owner, the normally reserved and very proper Peter M. Brant, leaped out of his clubhouse box seat, threw his arms around trainer Leroy Jolley and shouted, "We did it! We got it done!" Then he cast his eyes toward the heavens and let out a loud "Whew!"
The win was a vindication for Gulch, who had finished third in the Gotham on April 4, beaten by 9½ lengths by the Woody Stephens-trained Gone West. But the real loser in Saturday's race was not Gone West, who was beaten by a head at the wire, but Capote, who despite a fourth place finish in the Gotham, had been sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the Wood. Last year's 2-year-old champion once again finished fourth, beaten by nearly eight lengths in a race that was supposed to show the world that Capote was not kaput, that his Gotham performance was just the "tightener" his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had hoped for.
"My plan has been to have him in the Gotham, to look good in the Wood and to try and win the Kentucky Derby," said Lukas before Saturday's race. "It's been a progressive plan. I think you'll see a marked, marked improvement in the Wood."
The 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood was an important step toward Churchill Downs for many of the eight entries because it went around two turns, like the Derby, and because all the horses carried 126 pounds, Derby weight. A decisive win by Capote would have reestablished him as the Louisville favorite and gotten the press off the back of Lukas, whose limited training schedule for Capote had been sharply criticized. It would also have cleared up a very murky Derby picture.
For the first three quarters of a mile, Lukas's plan seemed to be right on target. Capote, with Angel Cordero Jr. aboard, broke well and zipped straight to the front, galloping easily on the lead until the far turn, where he was passed by Gone West, who had been running third up the backstretch. Meanwhile, Santos was laying well off the pace with Gulch, hugging the rail and saving ground. "Gulch always indicated to me that he was a horse that wanted to make a late run," Jolley said of the colt, who was always on or near the lead in his best 2-year-old races. "If we were going to make him into a major 3-year-old competitor, he had to develop that style. Sometimes you look stupid trying to stick with something that isn't working, but in this case it finally worked out."
It Jolley well did. Gulch was sixth at the half-mile mark, fourth after three quarters, and second to Gone West by two and a half lengths at the top of the stretch. Then these two sons of Mr. Prospector went at it, with Gulch prevailing in 1:49 flat, a moderate clocking on a track that had yielded fast times all day. Shawklit Won, who ran uncharacteristically close to the lead, passed a tiring Capote to finish third.
After all the hooting and hollering, Brant, his emotions tightly under control again, stood in the winner's circle and soberly said, "The Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in America, and I'm just tickled to death to have a horse go there." He may in fact have two horses go there. If his other notable 3-year-old, Leo Castelli, who has yet to win a major race, scores in this week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, said Brant, "we'll load all our guns."
Speaking of loaded guns, the Lukas stable could send as many as six horses to Louisville, including Talinum, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes, and the now slightly tarnished star, Capote.
"I think he ran a creditable race," Lukas said after the Wood. "We were not trying to win the Wood," he repeated. "We're trying to win the Kentucky Derby." Aren't they all.
Stephens blasted Capote's performance in the Wood while hedging about the direction Gone West will go. "If Lukas goes to the Derby with this horse, he'll be last," Stephens said flatly. "If he goes, he's nuts."
As for Gone West, Woody said, "I can go to the Dwyer [on July 3 at Belmont] or the Derby. I didn't think Leroy could beat me here, but he did. I got nailed. But Gone West ran big. I have to think I have a chance at Churchill Downs."
While the Derby picture was in disarray in the North, the South produced the clear favorite for Louisville when Demons Begone cruised to an effortless 3½-length victory in the 51st running of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Lukas had sent two of his Derby hopefuls, Lookinforthebigone and Fast Forward, to double-team Demons Begone—but to no avail.
The colt, who remains undefeated as a 3-year-old, so frightened the competition that only five horses dared to go against him, including Ile de Jinsky, a maiden, for heaven's sake—the smallest field for the Arkansas Derby since World War II. At post time the odds on Demons Begone were 1-5, as short a price as you're likely to see on an Oaklawn Park horse.
He did not disappoint. On a hot, sunny afternoon Lookinforthebigone sprinted to the front, as expected, and set the pace till the top of the stretch, where jockey Pat Day unleashed the Demon. "I slapped him on the shoulder inside the eighth pole, but I never turned my stick up and hit him," said Day. "I think he had more gas left in the gas tank." Demons Begone's winning time of 1:47[3/5] was the second-fastest in Arkansas Derby history, just [4/5] of a second off Althea's 1984 clocking.
Demons Begone, trained by Phil Hauswald, is a homebred out of owner John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable. Anthony, an Arkansas timber baron, has had a number of successful horses—including Temperence Hill, Vanlandingham and Cox's Ridge—all named for places or persons related to his lumber business. But the Demon didn't rate that highly as a foal, so Anthony didn't reserve a special name for him. "When you've got 35 babies, you're attracted to the biggest and prettiest ones," said Anthony. "He wasn't one of them, so he didn't get named for a sawmill."
But last September, as a 2-year-old, the Demon showed he could cut it when he finished second to Gulch in the Belmont Futurity. In his 3-year-old debut, the one-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in March, he won by a monstrous eight lengths in 1:34⅗ the second-fastest mile ever run at the track. Three weeks later he won the 1[1/16]-mile Rebel by four widening lengths. Said Anthony of his once-nondescript colt, "They all begin to look pretty after they get to be winners."
Which only goes to show that pretty is as pretty does. Standing in the Oaklawn press box after the race, Anthony said, "If I were Wayne Lukas, I'd say, 'We'll blow the Derby field away and win by 20.' " Then, lowering his voice, he added, "But since I'm not, I'll just say that whoever comes to run against Demons Begone had better be prepared for a good race."
Gulch was looking mighty good to Jolley, too. After the Wood, the big bay colt was sent back to Belmont's Barn 26, Stall 13, the previous quarters of Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk, respective winners of the 1975 and 1980 Kentucky Derbies, both trained by Jolley.
"He was set up to run his best race today," said Gulch's trainer, who then looked on down that long road to Louisville. "Now if he can only do it again in two weeks...."