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�-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�-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� furlongs.
"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 place."
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."