Early last Saturday evening, three hours after he had won the 117th running of the Kentucky Derby, Strike the Gold stood at the door of his stall and gazed with yawning detachment at the commotion taking place down at the end of the barn.
There was the colt's veterinarian, Mark Cheney, bearing an open bottle of bourbon from one celebrant to the next as if it were an elixir. "Take a swig of this," Cheney said. "It's special." In the middle of the shedrow, B. Giles Brophy, one of the owners of Strike the Gold, looked suddenly overwhelmed as he beheld the massive blanket of roses hanging across a stablehand's shoulders. Opening his arms, Brophy pleaded, "What do we do with that? What's the lucky thing to do?" Trainer Nick Zito, meanwhile, stood quietly and celebrated the passing of the hex, the end of the genetic voodoo he had been railing against all week. "No more witchcraft," he said.
Not far away, Strike the Gold's groom, John Ginn, recalled how the colt not only had barely survived his birth but also had then grown into the toughest, most aggressive yearling in the fields of Calumet Farm, where he had been foaled, orphaned and raised. "You saw him out there today," Ginn said. "Ever since this colt was born, he has been a fighter."
To be sure, in the final half mile of one of the most unwieldly Kentucky Derbies in years, with the 16-horse field fanned out seven wide on the turn for home, no 3-year-old mustered more fight than Strike the Gold. Taking the high ground around the final bend in the 1¼-mile classic—a move that carried him out to the center of the racetrack—the striking chestnut son of Alydar swept to the lead coming to the eighth pole and then held off the late charge of Best Pal to win by 1¾ lengths. If Strike the Gold's final time of 2:03 was uninspiring (it was the third slowest running of the Derby on a fast track in the last 20 years), it was clearly enough to handle this bunch and to establish the Gold as this year's dominant 3-year-old.
May 12, 1991
It is a wonder Strike the Gold even made it to his 3-year-old year, much less to Churchill Downs in May. The colt was born a so-called dummy foal, a condition resulting from oxygen deprivation at the time of birth that often renders a newborn nearly comatose and can be fatal. "For three days we had him on oxygen and fed him by tubes through the nose," said Ginn. Strike the Gold survived, but when he was four months old, his dam, Majestic Gold, died of colic. So he was turned loose in a field with two other orphans of the farm before finally joining the other youngsters at Calumet.
"He was special from the git-go," said Ginn. "When he got to be a yearling, he'd race in the fields, and none of the others could catch him. He'd run along in front, and then he'd turn and whup on them. He'd come back all cut up from fighting."
When the head of Calumet Farm, J.T. Lundy, sent Strike the Gold to Zito in New York, Zito liked him right away, on appearance alone. "He looked just like Alydar," Zito says. "A spittin' image."
In Calumet's glory years—between 1941 and '68, it produced eight Kentucky Derby winners, more than any other breeding farm in history—it would have been unthinkable for Calumet to sell a promising 2-year-old. By '90, however, the farm faced acute financial difficulties, so Strike the Gold went on the block along with Calumet's other well-bred babies. Lundy offered the colt to Brophy in a package deal with seven other youngsters, but the price was way beyond Brophy's means. "A few million dollars," says Zito.
"That's too much money," says Brophy, a Wall Street securities trader and cattle breeder from New York City who spends $800,000 a year on horses. Rather than turn down the deal, Brophy took on two equal partners. One partner, Joseph Cornacchia, publishes games such as Pictionary. The other, William Condren, is involved in real estate and oil and gas drilling. Less than six months after they made the deal last September, the three men looked like geniuses.
Strike the Gold broke his maiden in his third and final start last year, winning a mile race on Nov. 15 at Aqueduct. For months Ginn had been telling friends and colleagues that Strike the Gold was his 1991 Kentucky Derby horse. He became even more convinced when that first victory came on the same day that Alydar, one of America's leading thoroughbred stallions, had to be destroyed after breaking a hind leg in a stall accident at Calumet. Racetrackers are a superstitious lot, and for those who knew what the Gold had been through, the timing of the two events was eerie. "We were all pretty somber that night while listening to the race results on the radio," says Ginn, who was at Calumet. "Then they announced that Strike the Gold had won in New York."
Alydar, who first earned fame and popularity by finishing a close second to Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races, had already sired one Kentucky Derby winner, Alysheba, who won in 1987, and Ginn became convinced that Strike the Gold would be another. Cheney and the others laughed at him when he first called Strike the Gold a Derby horse, but Ginn didn't care. He even bet $100 to win on the Gold, at odds of 80-1, with a Las Vegas winterbook.
Certainly Brophy and Zito were going to give Strike the Gold a better chance to win the Derby than they had given Thirty Six Red last year. Thirty Six Red was their first Derby horse, and they had elected to steer him toward Louisville through that perilous strait known as Aqueduct, where the last two major Derby preps, the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial, are run two weeks apart, and the nine-furlong Wood is only two weeks before the Derby. "Too close," says Brophy. "It's crazy, man."
It was for Thirty Six Red. He smoked through the Gotham mile in 1:33⅘ winning by 1¼ lengths, but then struggled to win the Wood by a head on April 21. The two efforts wrung him dry. He finished ninth in the Derby, beaten 22 lengths. "We overraced him," says Brophy. "The races were too close together. We butchered him."
"He did, not me," says Zito, leaving no doubt as to who had issued the New York marching orders.
No matter. Brophy and Zito would not make the same mistake with Strike the Gold. He started only four times leading up to the Derby, each start at least three weeks after the one before it. He finished third in an allowance race at Florida's Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26 in his first start of 1991. He then ran second, to Cahill Road, in another allowance race there on Feb. 23. Strike the Gold was finding himself, which became clear in the Florida Derby on March 16, when last year's 2-year-old champion colt Fly So Free struggled to beat him by a length. Both colts then headed for the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and Zito began sounding as if he were training Phar Lap.
"If he stays the way he is," said Zito, "it'll take two Fly So Frees to beat him in the Blue Grass. I don't mean any disrespect, but I know my horse." With Chris Antley up, Strike the Gold blew past Fly So Free in the final straight of the Blue Grass to win by three.
For the next three weeks, right up to Derby Day, all Zito seemed to hear was that Strike the Gold did not have enough stamina in his family tree to win at the Derby distance. Under a complex system called the Dosage Index, a formula that claims to measure the staying power in a horse's pedigree, Strike the Gold was assigned a Dosage Index of 9.00; since 1929 no horse had won the Kentucky Derby with a number that was higher than 4.00. Zito was asked about this endlessly, until the very mention of it drove him to distraction. On the day of the race, Zito weighed in with this opinion: "It's voodoo genetics! It's witchcraft, a hex on the sport. This is a good horse. Doesn't it count that he won the Blue Grass easily and could have won by more? Doesn't it matter that his sire is Alydar, who nearly won the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes? Explain that! You'll see. He'll get the Dosage between live and six o'clock today."
As if that wasn't enough, Antley also made life difficult for Zito. He was late showing up one morning last week to work the horse. "I told him, 'Be here at six o'clock,' " said Zito, in his New York City rasp. "There was no Antley. Fifteen minutes late. He's a great rider. He's fearless. He's like a young Angel Cordero. But he has no brains. The kid don't know how important this is. About the only thing I can do is kill him if he screws up."
By Derby Day, Zito looked like a man going to a hanging—his own. The pressure of the week seemed to have marked his face, which was drawn and strained. It became increasingly apparent that Zito was looking for something to hang on to, something to lift him. He finally found it when he sent out Thirty Six Red in the sixth race, the $57,900 Churchill Downs Handicap, at seven furlongs. Not wanting to leave Strike the Gold, Zito watched the race from the barn area on the back-stretch, a vantage point from which he could not see the finish line. As Thirty Six Red galloped back toward the unsaddling area, Zito ran onto the track and hollered to jockey Jerry Bailey, "How'd you do?"
Bailey raised his left fist and yelled back, "He run strong." Thirty Six Red had won by nearly three lengths.
"Awright!" said Zito. "A great omen. A great omen! You just wash this voodoo off. You wash that witchcraft away."
In the end the Derby vindicated all that Zito had been saying and all he believed about Strike the Gold, and it justified his faith in Antley. Going down the back-stretch, far behind the leaders, Antley was racing next to Quintana and Angel Cordero Jr., when Cordero looked over and yelled, "How you doin', poppie?"
"I'm doin' good, Angel," Antley hollered back.
"You got horse?" Cordero asked. Meaning, how much you got?
"I ain't set him down yet," said Antley.
And away the Gold went, moving with a bold rush on the turn and racing by the field as he drove through the upper stretch and down the straight. The rest was as easy as the weeks leading up to the race had been hard.
Back at the barn, the party began. Lewis Burrell Sr.—the father of rap star M.C. Hammer and a partner in Oaktown Stable, whose brilliant filly Lite Light had won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday—came by to join the celebration. Burrell had made a substantial offer to buy Strike the Gold before the Florida Derby. "We made a very strong offer," Burrell said. "We didn't offer a penny and a nail. Oaktown could have owned this horse today."
When she had been told of the offer, Brophy's wife, Gale, had broken down and cried. "This is our shot to win the Derby," she had protested. "You can't sell a dream."
Not when May is coming. Not when the dream's by Alydar.