Late of last Sunday afternoon, in the fading gray light inside
barn 89 at Santa Anita Park, a dark bay named Afternoon Deelites
came to the door of his stall and hung his neck over the webbing,
alternately trying to hustle a foot-long carrot from hotwalker
Pedro Esquibias and picking drowsily at the hayrack hanging
nearby. The colt was coming to the close of the longest day in his
short life as a racehorse.
``Today he got tired at the end of the race,'' said his groom,
Jesus Gonzalez. ``And he should be tired. He needed the race. It
was good for him. He's going to be fitter from now on. He's right
where we want him to be now. Right on top. Number 1!''
Nearly three hours earlier, after feeling the lash of jockey Kent
Desormeaux's whip through much of the homestretch, Afternoon
Deelites held off the late charge of last year's 2-year-old
champion, Timber Country, on the way to winning the 1-1/16-mile
San Felipe Stakes by a diminishing length. While the performance
affirmed Afternoon Deelites' status as the leading 3-year-old in
the land -- and as the favorite to win the 1-1/4-mile Kentucky
Derby on May 6 -- it lacked the flair and fire of his earlier
races, raised questions about his stamina and gave heart to
everyone out there with a Derby horse.
Few horses in recent memory have generated the hype that attended
Afternoon Deelites as he turned the corner, undefeated, into his
3-year-old season. Deelites had emerged late as a 2-year-old, not
making his first start until Oct. 23 at Santa Anita, where he won
his maiden race by a neck, but trainer Richard Mandella, sensing
what he had, kept turning the crank on the colt. On Nov. 13 at
Hollywood Park, Mandella wheeled him back into the Hollywood
Prevue Stakes, and Deelites raced to a three-length victory in a
rapid 1:20-4/5. Five weeks later, in the race that stamped him as
the leader of his generation, he bounded to a 6-1/2-length victory
in the Grade I Hollywood Futurity, easily beating Thunder Gulch,
who would later win the Florida Derby, and smoking over the 1-1/16
in 1:40-3/5. ``He was awesome,'' Mandella says.
Timber Country was ultimately voted the nation's champion
2-year-old, off victories in the Champagne Stakes and the
Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but a number of observers saw Afternoon
Deelites as the force of the future as well as the early Derby
favorite. In the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 12,
Deelites' first start this year, he merely embellished his
reputation, winning by three under wraps -- ``effortlessly,''
noted the Daily Racing Form.
If many envisioned the San Felipe as yet another cruise-control
performance for Afternoon Deelites, that scenario quickly changed
after Timber Country finished third in his first start of the
year, on March 4 in the San Rafael Stakes. The two colts had not
been expected to meet until the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby on
April 8, but now D. Wayne Lukas, Timber Country's trainer,
suddenly announced that he was heading first for the San Felipe.
``He needs the race,'' Lukas said of Timber Country. Lukas rarely
gives anything to an opponent, but in an uncharacteristic
flourish, he virtually conceded the San Felipe to Deelites, a
quicker and handier colt, better suited to the race's 8-1/2
``The conditions are not ideal for us, but we can still get what
we need,'' Lukas said on the eve of the race. ``Sunday is just a
scrimmage. The big game is in May at Churchill Downs.'' As for the
giant Timber Country, a long and leggy chestnut with the look and
style of a router, Lukas, a former basketball coach, said, ``He's
Shaquille O'Neal, in racehorse Nikes, slam-dunking all over the
Of course, Mandella would have preferred not to meet Timber
Country until the Santa Anita Derby. ``I'd rather have an easy
gallop,'' he said before the race, ``but I'm not running from
anyone.'' Afternoon Deelites came to the San Felipe with his sails
full, working in the mornings like a gust of wind. On March 8,
over an extremely slow and tiring Santa Anita track, he stunned
clockers when he breezed through a mile in 1:38-1/5. ``I've never
seen anything like it in my 15 years watching horses working in
Southern California,'' said former Daily Racing Form trackman Jon
White. ``I thought my watch was wrong.''
Mandella just shrugged and said with a wink, ``He keeps showin'
off. It's startin' to look like he can run.''
Indeed, by then it was not uncommon to hear horsemen uttering
Afternoon Deelites' name in the same breath as those of some
giants of the past. ``He's like a Spectacular Bid,'' said Doug
Peterson, who trained Seattle Slew as a 4-year-old in 1978.
``When Desormeaux asks him for that other gear, it's a dramatic
change the way he gets low to the ground.''
In fact, the crowds on Sunday bet Deelites as though he were the
Bid himself, sending him off at 3-10 and Timber at 2-1 in the
field of four. Desormeaux let the two front-runners, Score Quick
and Lake George, bounce along on the lead around the first turn
and down the backside while jockey Pat Day kept nudging Timber
Country to stay closer to the hunt. Heading toward the far turn,
Deelites pulled Desormeaux abreast of the leaders and then inched
to the lead around the turn. Banking for home, Deelites opened
daylight, with long-striding Timber Country giving chase on the
outside. Under pressure the favorite now found himself in an
unaccustomed struggle. Suddenly Desormeaux went to the whip,
hitting Deelites thrice lefthanded, then thrice righthanded, then
back to the left twice. Past the eighth pole, the favorite was two
in front and appearing to tire, but Timber Country could not catch
him. And then, with about 60 yards to go, Desormeaux folded into a
hand-ride, and Timber Country was nearly at Deelites' flank when
the wire flashed past.
Of course, if the San Felipe confused the Derby picture and
bewildered those who had expected so much more from Afternoon
Deelites, both Lukas and Mandella found reason for encouragement
in its running. ``He looked like he was in control of the
situation,'' Mandella said of Deelites. ``He didn't look like he
was used hard. He was not as overpowering as he had been with
other fields, but Timber Country's a little different horse. . . .
Hell, I'm glad I beat the champ.''
As for Lukas, he's itching for another fight, particularly the one
at Churchill Downs. ``The Kentucky Derby is 3/16 of a mile
farther than this one,'' Lukas said. ``I love my spot. And I
wouldn't switch places with anyone.''