Most will start with Demons Begone on the basis of his record this year at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where he raced to three consecutive stakes victories in blistering times—the one-mile Southwest Stakes, by eight lengths, in 1:34[3/5]; the 1[1/16]-mile Rebel Stakes, by four, in 1:41[2/5]; and the 1⅛-mile Arkansas Derby, by 3½, in 1:47[3/5]. Demons' Arkansas performances are difficult to evaluate because the running surface there was as souped-up as a bobsled run, and his competition generally ranged in quality from thin to thinner. The colt's trainer, Phil Hauswald, understands the suspicions that bedevil the Demon, a son of the Preakness winner Elocutionist.
"He hasn't beaten that proven competition yet, but I don't know what I can do about that," Hauswald says. "Everybody knew where I was going to run. I ran right where I said I would. I haven't ducked anybody. Nobody seemed to want to come in and try him for the half-million-dollar race [the Arkansas Derby]. What can you do but take what comes to you?"
One thing is certain about Demons Begone: No one has more at stake in potential purses than his owner, John Ed Anthony. If the colt finishes first in the Kentucky Derby, which is worth more than $500,000 to the winner, the Demon will also take home a $1 million bonus for having won the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby as well. "It stands to be an awful big payday for this horse if he wins," says Hauswald. "Not to mention what the Derby is worth to a horse in syndication value."
Until Saturday, the same day that Talinum was injured, Hauswald figured that Temperate Sil was the colt to beat at the Derby. But that morning, trainer Charlie Whittingham confirmed that Sil had developed a respiratory virus and would scratch from the run for the roses.
Whittingham had won at Churchill Downs last year with Ferdinand, and he returned last week with the 55-year-old Bill Shoemaker, Ferdinand's rider, to try to duplicate that effort. This was to be a sentimental journey, two golden oldies trying to recapture the past. They had brought Temperate Sil to Louisville off a smashing victory in the Santa Anita Derby. The dappled gray son of Temperence Hill had earlier been defeated twice over off-tracks in California, but he caught a fast surface in the derby at Santa Anita and won by 5½ lengths, whipping the swift odds-on favorite, Masterful Advocate, who ran an uncharacteristically dull second, his first defeat of the year. And now, in one of the small ironies that lie along the road to the Kentucky Derby, Masterful Advocate will be going to the gate on Saturday and Temperate Sil will remain in his stall. Meanwhile, Shoemaker was left to look for a mount, which should be no problem for a rider who has already won four Derbies.
The 74-year-old Whittingham took his setback in stride and now says, gracefully, that he believed all along that Demons Begone was the horse of the hour. "You have to take Demons Begone because he's unbeaten all winter," says Whittingham. Pausing, he adds, "But it's a little easier to win in Hot Springs."
It was decidedly easier in Arkansas than it was in Florida, where most of the best 3-year-olds this winter banged heads in races that were most competitive and most searching. Perhaps the most revealing race of all was the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 4, in which three horses finished as if pulling the same chariot, within bobbing heads of one another.
Running on the outside that day, Cryptoclearance edged No More Flowers by a head in the last stride, with the ill-fated Talinum a nose behind in third. Any of the three could have won the race, which made the Kentucky Derby picture all the more baffling. What happened to Bet Twice, for instance, the odds-on favorite? Just 13 days earlier, on March 22, he had run to a handy 2½-length victory over No More Flowers. In the Florida Derby, No More Flowers beat him by four.
Bet Twice's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said the horse appeared "very dull" in the paddock. His jockey, Craig Perret, said that he was unusually sluggish in the post parade and ran an uninspired race, though he did have traffic problems. "When I first hit him and asked him inside the half-mile pole, he just didn't go anywhere," says Perret. "Usually, when you first ask him, he goes. This time he inched forward. I didn't have no horse." Throw away that lackluster performance, and Bet Twice is worthy of strong consideration in the Derby.
No need to throw anything away as far as Cryptoclearance is concerned. He was the most consistent 3-year-old in Florida this winter. Besides winning the Florida Derby, he won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah on Feb. 7, before Talinum shipped in from California to beat him by a desperate half a length in the Flamingo on Feb. 28. Both horses ran a solid race, and it set Crypto up for his victory in the Florida Derby.