The thing you need to know right now about the 116th Kentucky Derby is that while all the so-called glamour horses have been tripping over their reputations in Florida, a wondrous colt named Mister Frisky has popped up in California by way of Puerto Rico, with a 15-for-15 career record and a calendar that has a big circle around the first Saturday in May. His fans are already calling him the next Bold Forbes, after the Puerto Rican colt who won the 1976 Derby. He likes to run on the lead and he's trained by Laz Barrera, who brilliantly turned Bold Forbes, a front-running sprinter, into a classic distance winner.
Mister Frisky proved he is a legitimate Derby contender when he won the one-mile San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita by 2½ lengths last Saturday, his second U.S. victory since joining Barrera's stable in January. Trainers in Florida, who have been rolling their eyes and shaking their heads whenever Mister Frisky is mentioned, had better start taking him seriously, at least until one of them comes up with a decent runner.
Just consider what happened, also on Saturday, at Gulfstream Park, where the contenders were supposed to expose the pretenders in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes. Though 13 horses went to the post, it was expected to be a three-way race among Slavic, an impressive Gulfstream allowance-race winner; Rhythm, last year's juvenile champion, whose 3-year-old debut was a dismal seventh-place finish in the Feb. 10 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream; and a son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew named Yonder, who made a strong stretch run in the Hutcheson to finish second.
The Gulfstream fans sent Slavic off at 9-5, Rhythm at 5-2 and Yonder at 7-2, only to watch the three struggle home sixth, 10th and next to last, respectively, far behind 25-1 Shot Gun Scott, who won by a half-length in a slow 1:44[3/5].
The Fountain of Youth favorites weren't the only ones who stubbed their hooves at Gulfstream. Earlier in the day, the much ballyhooed Red Ransom, who won both his starts as a 2-year-old before being forced out of training with an injury, made his first start of the year in a seven-furlong allowance race. Ridden by Pat Day, Red Ransom went off as the 1-5 favorite but finished second to an undistinguished colt named Bright Again, eliciting several rounds of New York-style boos and catcalls for trainer Mack Miller and Day.
"I was afraid he might get beat," said Miller. "Six months is a long time to be away from the races." Miller said he might run Red Ransom in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes on March 17, a secondary feature on the Florida Derby card.
If so, that could force Day to make a tough decision. The Swale might also be Summer Squall's first start of the year. He's the impressive colt Day rode to five straight victories last year before Squall was injured and forced out of training. Summer Squall seemed to be recovering nicely, but then he bled from the nostrils after a Feb. 19 workout. That put him behind in his Derby prep schedule, and his trainer, Neil Howard, says, "We're not out of the Derby yet, but we've run out of leeway time."
Howard has plenty of company in that sweatbox. Indeed, all the Eastern-based horses have a long way to go in a short time to catch up with Mister Frisky.
His final Derby test will be the Santa Anita Derby, on April 7, the race that has produced the last four winners in Louisville. Jockey Gary Stevens, who has the mount on both Mister Frisky and Silver Ending, California's other top hopeful, will also have a tough choice to make if Silver Ending wins the March 18 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita.
Already Mister Frisky has renewed the spirits and revived the career of the 65-year-old Barrera. Since winning the 1978 Triple Crown with Affirmed, Barrera has had only one Derby starter, Paris Prince, who finished 10th in 1983. But now that he has another Derby contender, it's hard to tell who the real Mister Frisky is, the colt or his trainer.