For Jockey Gary Stevens, still flecked with the dirt thrown back in his face on the far turn, the surpassing achievement he had just been a part of had only begun to sink in as he and trainer Randy Winick left the winner's circle at Santa Anita Park on Saturday afternoon.
"Do you realize what you just did?" asked Stevens, turning to Winick.
Puzzled, the trainer replied, "No, what do you mean?"
"You got this horse ready for the Santa Anita Derby off just one race and a few so-so works," said Stevens, one of the nation's leading riders. "That's something only a Hall of Fame trainer does."
Just 10 minutes earlier, at the close of a dingdong, hair-raising stretch duel with jockey Pat Day on Tabasco Cat, Stevens pushed and shoved his mount, a long-striding chestnut colt named Brocco, to a three-quarter-length victory in the 1?-mile Santa Anita Derby—the most important California prep race leading to the May 7 Kentucky Derby—and thus instantly reaffirmed the horse's status as one of the favorites to win the 120th running of the Louisville classic. "This race was our goal all winter long," Winick said. "The four weeks between now and the Kentucky Derby will be just perfect for him. He is peaking at just the right time."
Indeed Winick, the 44-year-old son of veteran conditioner Arnold Winick, finds himself in a position quite as enviable as that of any trainer headed for Churchill Downs. He is the caretaker of a Santa Anita Derby winner who will arrive in Louisville lightly raced, reasonably fresh and obviously improving; who has never run poorly (four victories and two seconds in his six races); and who has something of the alley fighter in him, with no fear of pitched battles in tight quarters and with a terrier's tenacity when put to a drive. "We finally got the colt we've been waiting for," Winick says.
For the past decade Winick has trained horses for Albert Broccoli—the producer of the James Bond film series—who bought Brocco as a 2-year-old in training, back when the colt was called Anytime Chris. "When I changed his name to Brocco, Randy asked, 'What kind of name is that?' " Broccoli says. "My wife said, 'You'll know when he starts to win what kind of name it is.' "
Winick knew what he had when he saddled Brocco for his first start last Aug. 28 at Del Mar and saw the horse win by nearly four lengths. Six weeks later, at Santa Anita, Brocco laughed at a bunch of allowance horses, winning by nearly nine, and 30 days after that, on Nov. 6, Brocco announced himself to all the world when he swooped like a pterodactyl around the final turn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and simply blew past the leaders in midstretch, drawing off in the final eighth of a mile to win by live.
He was at that moment the best 2-year-old colt in the land, and he probably would have been voted the champion juvenile colt had Winick retired him for the year. But the trainer and the horse were both on the muscle coming out of the Breeders' Cup—"He was a tough, fresh horse at the time," Winick says, "and I thought it would be a crime to put him on the shelf for three months"—so Winick dropped him into the $500,000 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 19. The colt got caught in traffic at the half-mile pole and fell three quarters of a length short of catching Valiant Nature at the wire. Thus Brocco, in a close vote, lost the Eclipse title to Dehere, who had won three stakes at Saratoga but was among the also-rans reeling in Brocco's wake at the Breeders' Cup.
Winick brought the colt to the Santa Anita Derby with one eye cocked toward Churchill Downs, heeding the late trainer Horatio Luro's celebrated admonition not to "squeeze the lemon" too hard, too soon. In fact, Brocco lolled around Southern California after the Hollywood Futurity. "He didn't see the racetrack for five weeks," Winick says. "He walked every day and grazed a lot. I knew the Kentucky Derby was down the road, and I wanted to give him a little breather." Cautiously, Winick started him galloping again in late January, then drilling him slowly in February, all the while aiming toward the 1[1/16]-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 20, the race Winick had chosen as the colt's only prep for the Santa Anita Derby.