Late in the afternoon of May 7, 1983, as Sunny's Halo was prancing into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, a member of one of the most prominent families of thoroughbred breeders in Canada—David S. Willmot, of King-haven Farms—could restrain himself no longer. Sunny's Halo, Canada's 2-year-old champion the year before, had just won the Kentucky Derby, and both the owner and the trainer of the colt were Willmot's countrymen. Yielding to a rush of national pride, Willmot pulled off his Jockey Club of Canada necktie, twirled it over his head like a lariat and began singing, "O Canada...."
"My Kentucky friends sat and scowled at me," Willmot recalls. "I said, 'Listen, you sons of bitches, I sang My Old Kentucky Home with you and now you can sing O Canada with me!' They were not impressed."
That was Willmot's first and only visit to the Derby, but he is clearly looking for an encore. Indeed, if last Saturday's running of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct sent any message at all, it was in the form of an advisory to Willmot's starchy Blue Grass pals: Bone up on the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem, mind your manners and get ready to duck when the man reaches for the knot in his tie.
Near the end of a three-month season of prep races that has left the Kentucky Derby picture murky at best, Willmot's dark bay colt Talkin Man, whom he owns in partnership with Helen Stollery, absolutely wrung out and spin-dried seven other 3-year-olds in the 1?-mile Wood. Talkin Man leisurely set the pace to the top of the stretch before bounding off in one crushing burst of speed to win as he pleased by 7� lengths. "Unbelievable," said jockey Shane Sellers, who was substituting for the colt's regular rider, Mike Smith. "I've never been on a horse like this before. It was sooo easy. This horse is a Porsche."
Talkin Man thus announced himself as a favorite for the May 6 Derby, and no one feels more charmed by what has happened than his trainer, Roger Attfield. "At the start of this year, I thought I might be at the Kentucky Derby," Attfield said after the Wood, "but I never thought I'd be one of the favorites."
Like Sunny's Halo in 1982, Talkin Man was named Canada's 2-year-old champion after winning three straight stakes at Woodbine Race Course, but when he runs at Churchill Downs next month, the colt will be Attfield's first entry in the 1�-mile Derby. And he appears to have the goods. Talkin Man has plenty of speed—he was in front at every pole save one in those three stakes at Woodbine—and he has a family tree abundantly ornamented with stayers. His sire, With Approval, won at distances up to 1� miles, and the pedigree of his dam, Pookette, is rich in distance-running blood.
"This horse is bred to go as far as they make races," Willmot said.
The last time Attfield, a normally restrained sort, shipped Talkin Man to Churchill Downs—for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last Nov. 5—he could not suppress his enthusiasm. Recalls Willmot: "The day before the Breeders' Cup, Roger looked like the cat who had swallowed the canary. He said, 'David, they're gonna have a ton of trouble beating this horse.' " Around the last turn, with Talkin Man pressing the pace, Attfield thought he had it won. Then they turned for home.
The trainer was aghast. "He looked like a drunken sailor," Attfield recalled on the eve of the Wood. "He was swerving all over the place."
Talkin Man drifted back to 10th and ultimately finished 16 lengths behind the winner, Timber Country. Attfield was bewildered, at least until a medical exam revealed that the colt had been suffering from a lung infection that had impaired his breathing. The trainer dispatched Talkin Man to Payson Park, a thoroughbred training center in Florida, and left him alone for 60 days. "He lost considerable weight," Attfield says. "I'd turn him out in this little pen, and he'd barely lift up his head." By early December, though, he had shaken the bug and began to regain the flesh he had lost. On Jan. 2, with his coffee-colored coat agleam again, Talkin Man hit the training track. Going slowly, Attfield aimed him at Churchill Downs through two prep races in New York—the one-mile Gotham Stakes on March 25 and last Saturday's Wood.