For a while last Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, it looked as if the $500,000 Florida Derby had been scripted by MTV. Here was 3-year-old Dance Floor, owned by rap megastar Hammer and his family, charging for the lead in the stretch. And here was Hammer, so energized by the roar of the crowd that he seemed ready to rip off the jacket of his bright red suit and break into U Can't Touch This. And here was track announcer Ross Morton screaming, to the delight of rap fans everywhere, "It's Hammer time!"
But then, for one of the few times in his show-biz life, Hammer was upstaged. Instead of sweeping past the pace-setting Technology, Dance Floor did something that Hammer has never done onstage: He ran out of energy. So completely, in fact, that at the end of the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race, Technology, the surprising winner by 4½ lengths, was pulling away from Dance Floor almost as rapidly as Pistols and Roses, who was third by a neck, was gaining on Hammer's colt. Later, it was revealed that Dance Floor had suffered pulmonary bleeding from the nostrils, though Hammer didn't know that when he spoke with reporters afterward. "He ran a good race, especially since he broke from the Number 11 post," Hammer said. "Am I disappointed? No. I just love to win, that's all."
The victory by Technology, who was making his fifth career start but only his first slakes start, added yet another dimension to what has become the most confusing—and fascinating—Kentucky Derby picture in years. Arazi, the Derby favorite off his smashing 4¾-length win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last Nev. 2, is training in France and will make only one start, in a mile race on the grass on April 7 at Saint-Cloud in France, before being shipped to Louisville.
This unconventional approach to prep-ping for the Derby has resulted in a lot of skepticism among American trainers, many of whom wonder if Arazi will be able to come back from the double knee surgery he underwent after the Breeders' Cup. "You can't rule Arazi out," Technology's trainer, Sonny Hine, says, "but I've got to believe, coming off the knee surgery, he won't be the same."
If not, then Technology deserves serious consideration, as do Dance Floor, who was the 4-5 favorite in the Florida Derby off a rousing win three weeks earlier in the Fountain of Youth; A.P. Indy, the California-based colt who figures to be the favorite in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby; D.J. Cat, who ran his record to 4 for 4 with a gritty win in last Saturday's seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream; and Bertrando, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up who won the San Felipe stakes last Sunday at Santa Anita.
Even if Dance Floor doesn't make it to Churchill Downs. Hammer, whose real name is Stanley Burrell—of the Oakland, Calif., Burrells—will have another dance floor in Louisville on Derby weekend. Hammer has signed on for a Derby Eve concert at Freedom Hall that will enable him to work off a little steam and earn some walking-around money for Derby Day.
But it would be even better if Dance Floor overcomes his bleeding problem and makes the Derby field. A Churchill Downs representative shuddered last Saturday when told that such a celebrated personage planned to bring an entourage of 80 to 100 to the Derby. Yet it will be worth the hassle.
Hammer is a boon to horse racing, an industry which hasn't done a very good job of finding places for blacks other than walking hots or mucking out stalls. It would have been easier to understand if Hammer had become involved in, say, baseball, where as an Oakland A's batboy he was thought to resemble Hank (the Hammer) Aaron and was therefore given his nickname. Or pro football, where last season Hammer became a sort of celebrity groupie for the Atlanta Falcons.
So why racing? Mostly because Hammer's father, Lewis Burrell Sr., has loved the game for years. Last year the Burrells got a taste of life at the top with their superb filly Lite Light, whose string of big wins included the Kentucky Oaks. Later in the year they bought Dance Floor as part of a reported $430,000, three-horse package. The other colts were named Rap Master and Hammer Man.
Altogether, Oaktown Stable (which includes Hammer, his father and his brothers, Louis and Chris) has 21 horses in training, most of them with trainers D. Wayne Lukas, who's in charge of Dance Floor, and Jerry Hollendorfer, who has Lite Light. "Lukas still thinks that Rap Master may be better than Dance Floor," says Chris Burrell, who has taken over much of the Oaktown operation so his father and brother can concentrate on helping Hammer with the music business.
Unlike the time he caused a flap at Belmont Park when he took off his jacket—he was shirtless under it—Hammer came to the Florida Derby wearing a relatively subdued red suit, white shirt and a multi-hued tie. And he bounced into the walking ring to shrieks of "Awww right!" and "Go, Ham-mer, go!"
The race set up as a sort of musical duel between Dance Floor, representing rap, and Pistols and Roses, whose name derives from the heavy-metal group Guns N' Roses. But befitting a son of Time for a Change, Technology introduced a new beat to the Kentucky Derby dance. Such a late bloomer that he wasn't even put in the first batch of Triple Crown nominees (owner Scott Savin now says he'll cough up the $4,500 necessary to make him a late nominee), Technology lay second to the honest pace set by Waki Warrior, moved with Dance Floor in the far turn and had so much left that he required only minimal whipping down the stretch. "He's not overraced," jockey Jerry Bailey said afterward. "And he hasn't reached his potential yet." Technology and Dance Floor could hook up again in the April 11 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland race course, depending upon the seriousness of Dance Floor's bleeding problem and whether he is, to borrow the title of another Hammer hit, too legit to quit.
Sometime after Hammer's bodyguards had politely muscled him through the crowd and away from the track, it became apparent that the biggest winner of the day was seven-year-old Tammy Savin. It was nice that her dad's colt won the Florida Derby. But she also got Hammer's autograph before the race.
Anybody want to bet on which prize she'll remember longer?