There was a little problem in the winner's circle at Florida's Gulfstream Park last Saturday. After Fly So Free had delivered a smashing six-length victory in the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes, he refused to pose for the photographers. The 3-year-old colt tossed his head, pawed the ground and pranced about until Jim Raftery, the veteran track photographer, told trainer Scotty Schulhofer to turn the horse away from the noisy crowd in the grandstand and point him toward the track. That did the trick. The big chestnut colt finally settled down, and everybody got to take their snaps.
"Citation was like that," Raftery told Schulhofer. "He wouldn't stand still in the winner's circle, so you had to turn him around the other way."
"Well, let's just hope he can run like Citation," said Schulhofer, 64, a big grin spreading across his leathery face.
Of course, it was far too soon to put Fly So Free in the same category with the immortal who swept the Triple Crown for Calumet Farm in 1948. Nevertheless, his resounding win before a sun-baked crowd of 17,240 firmly established Fly So Free as the horse to beat in the 117th Kentucky Derby on May 4.
A Kentucky-bred son of the stallion Time for a Change, Fly So Free went into the Fountain of Youth as the 2-5 favorite. Last year's 2-year-old champion colt by virtue of his three-length victory in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, Fly So Free opened this year's Triple Crown campaign with a gutsy, come-from-behind win in Gulfstream's Feb. 2 Hutcheson Stakes, his fifth victory in seven career starts.
But the Fountain of Youth posed a new set of challenges for the colt. It was Fly So Free's first race around two turns, and he drew the No. 1 post position, meaning that he could easily get trapped in traffic on the rail. He also had to carry the high weight of 122 pounds, giving away from three to 10 pounds to his nine rivals in the best field of 3-year-old thoroughbreds assembled so far this year.
"I thought if they were ever going to get him, this might be the time," said Schulhofer. After stalking a swift early pace of :22[3/5] for a quarter of a mile and :45[4/5] for the half, jockey Jose Santos urged Fly So Free into the lead on the far turn. But at the top of the stretch, instead of drawing away, Fly So Free appeared to lose his concentration for a few strides, allowing Moment of True, a long shot who was in second place, to close some ground and create the illusion of a challenge.
"When he heard that other horse coming, I hit him five or six times with the whip, and he took off," Santos said. "This horse is unbelievable. He can do anything he wants to do."
Moment of True held on for second, a length and a quarter ahead of Subordinated Debt. Oregon, who is just one of the 27 Kentucky Derby nominees of training magnate D. Wayne Lukas, was four lengths back in fourth place. The highly regarded Hansel, who was making his first start since winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 22, finished fifth. The winning time, a pedestrian 1:44⅕ is misleading because of the easy way Fly So Free won the race. Even Schulhofer seemed amazed.
"This is a real good horse," he said. "He's got some charisma about him. Just like today, he played around at the top of the stretch and still won by six. How many horses can do that?"
Gray-haired, bespectacled and taciturn, Schulhofer is a former steeplechase rider who has enjoyed modest success as a trainer. His only other Kentucky Derby horse was Cryptoclearance, who finished fourth in 1987. Last year Schulhofer had two promising early contenders, Slavic and Senor Pete, but they both fizzled out before Derby day. This year, he has Fly So Free and two other good colts, Scan and Cahill Road, who should rank high in anybody's Derby ratings.
Last November, Schulhofer shipped Scan, who won last year's Cowdin and Remsen stakes in New York, out to California. The move was intended to help Schulhofer get a good line on the West Coast competition, which is formidable, while at the same time keeping Scan and Fly So Free apart until the Kentucky Derby. Although Scan, a son of Mr. Prospector, was only third in his first start, the Feb. 10 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, he figures to be a factor against big guns like Excavate, Whadjathink, Best Pal and the other leading California-based 3-year-olds.
As for Cahill Road, whose breeding is outstanding—he's a full brother to Unbridled, the winner of last year's Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic—he also raced to victory last Saturday at Gulf-stream, beating seven colts to win a 1[1/16]-mile allowance race by nearly two lengths on the Fountain of Youth card.
When the races were over, Schulhofer pondered his two colts' performances and said, "I've always thought that Cahill Road might be the only horse that has a shot at Fly So Free."
Still, Fly So Free looks more and more like the most solid Kentucky Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Interestingly, Spectacular Bid was also the last 2-year-old champion colt to win the Derby. Is there a jinx? Schulhofer scoffs at that kind of talk, maybe because he has Tommy Valando in his corner.
The 68-year-old Valando, owner of Fly So Free, made his fortune in the entertainment business. In the early 1950s, he published such hit songs as Young at Heart, Wheel of Fortune, Cross Over the Bridge and Beyond the Reef. When it became apparent that rock was taking over the pop marketplace, Valando shifted his attention to Broadway, publishing the music for Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Godspell, A Little Night Music, Zorba and Sweeney Todd.
His interest in horses began when he got a taste of the action on a visit to venerable Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York. One thing led to another, and in the early 1980s, he bought into some horse partnerships put together by Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable in Aiken, S.C.
Eventually, Valando decided to go out on his own "because I like to be the guy who moves my own checkers." In 1989, he and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased two yearlings at the Keeneland sales in Lexington for a total of $120,000. One of them was Fly So Free, for which Valando paid $80,000, a fortuitous turn of events that Elizabeth likens to the time Tommy called Columbia Records and recommended that they use this kid singer his wife had heard to record the song My Coloring Book. Her name was Streisand.
Last Saturday afternoon, it seemed only fitting that the man who had pursued and convinced Frank Sinatra to sing Young at Heart in the early 1950s should be smiling so broadly after winning a race called the Fountain of Youth.
"It's very similar to opening night on Broadway," said Valando, "the nervousness, the uncertainty. Those songs were thrills, but nothing like this."
Between now and the first Saturday in May, maybe he can teach his temperamental star how to take a curtain call in the winner's circle. Fly So Free better get used to it, because it looks as if Tommy Valando has another hit on his hands.