With the Kentucky Derby only four weeks away, the sound of starting gates slamming open at racetracks across the land was positively deafening last Saturday as three major Derby prep races were run in just over an hour. In the East, at precisely 4:37 p.m., in the 35th running of the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, a field of nine horses surged from the gate to see which of them could run the fastest mile. In the South, at 5:25 p.m., another nine horses hurtled onto the track at Gulfstream Park in the 1⅛-mile Florida Derby. Eighteen minutes later, on the West Coast, six thoroughbreds broke from the gate in the 1⅛-mile Santa Anita Derby.
The results of these three races were supposed to clarify the 3-year-old picture and establish a favorite for the Derby in Louisville. Instead, in a day of upsets, Gone West beat the 2-year-old champion, Capote, in the Gotham, while Cryptoclearance and Temperate Sil left odds-on favorites up the track at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, respectively. When the dust had settled, the Derby picture seemed about as clear as, well, mud.
Which brings us to the Gotham, a race run on a track listed as sloppy, although a more accurate description of the gluelike surface was "yucky." Of the three preps, the Gotham was perhaps the most intriguing, because it featured the long-awaited 1987 racing debut of Capote. The handsome, dark bay son of Seattle Slew hadn't raced since Nov. 1, when he had wired the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, a convincing win that established him as the Kentucky Derby winter-book favorite. By Saturday, though, the Las Vegas odds-makers had replaced him as the Derby favorite with Masterful Advocate—the impressive winner of three stakes in the past three months—for the very simple reason that Masterful Advocate had raced big this year, while Capote had stayed in his stall.
But Capote's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had announced after the Breeders' Cup that his colt would run in only two races before the Derby, and he stuck to his game plan, flying the colt in from California only three days before the Gotham. "It's a tough assignment, going against class competition after a long layoff," said Lukas. "That way, you can't go through the playoffs; you have to start at the championship level. I expect Capote to win because he's a champion. But I'm not going to cut my wrists if he doesn't."
Capote's main competition was expected to come from the Leroy Jolley-trained Gulch, who was 0 for 2 against Capote at Santa Anita last year. But Gulch had raced twice in 1987, winning the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct two weeks before, and he had the home-court advantage. Gulch had also won in the mud as a 2-year-old, which loomed as an edge on the sloppy Aqueduct strip on Saturday.
Then there was Woody Stephens's Gone West, whose two wins this year had been in allowance races. But Gone West was carrying 114 pounds, 9 fewer than Capote and Gulch. Besides, nobody with any brains ever throws out a Stephens horse, especially on an off track, where Woody has often worked wonders. Asked before the Gotham who was the horse to beat, Stephens promptly replied, "Me." He continued, "I like Leroy's horse, too." But in reference to Capote, he said, "I don't bet a horse that's been away five months."
It began to rain hard on Friday night in New York, and when sheets of rain were being whipped about by 40-mph winds just hours before the Gotham, it was clear that Capote had more than a long layoff to overcome; he hadn't even galloped over an off track in his career. Though the sun was out by race time, water was still standing on the track.
The Aqueduct bettors backed the champ just the same, sending Capote off as the 7-5 favorite, and for a while it looked as if he would take it. Jockey Pat Day sent the colt straight to the lead, sizzling through the first quarter in 22[2/5] seconds. But Robbie Davis on Gone West stuck to Capote like a sidecar, hanging just off his right flank. The speed duel was on, and by the half-mile mark Gone West had stuck a head in front. After six furlongs, run in a killing 1:08[1/5], Gone West had stretched his lead to two lengths. Capote held on to second place until the stretch, where he was passed by Shawklit Won and, finally, by Gulch. At the finish, the four-length lead Gone West had built in the stretch had shrunk to one. Shawklit Won was second, 8½ lengths in front of Gulch, who hung on for third by a head over the leg-weary Capote.
Still, Capote's race was no disgrace. He had come east and been done in by Gone West, but as Lukas led him off the track, a bettor shouted encouragingly, 'That's the last time we see Capote when he's not in front."
The owners of Gone West, Mr. and Mrs. James P. Mills of Middleburg, Va., who'd shelled out $1.9 million for the Mr. Prospector colt, seemed rather stunned by their horse's success. "Lovely horse, isn't he?" Mrs. Mills murmured in the winner's circle. "Rather a surprise." The septuagenarian Mr. Mills concurred. "I said to my wife before the "ace, 'Do you believe in miracles?' And she said, 'Sometimes, my dear.' "