- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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In fact, in a field composed largely of stretch-runners—including Risen Star, Private Terms and Brian's Time—Winning Colors really had this bunch at her mercy. Lukas's son, Jeff, whom the father credits with making the filly what she is today, told jockey Stevens in the saddling paddock before the race, "If someone gets crazy and wants to go, let 'em go. I'm confident she'll relax for you behind horses."
Wayne Lukas told Stevens to let her roll to the lead, as usual, but to wait until that three-eighths pole to set the hook: "If you've got a clear lead at the three-eighths and you've got a lot of horse, just put her in gear and go."
Lukas had read the race just right. The filly broke sharply out of Post 11, and in half a dozen strides she was in front. A big, leggy, free-running roan, she has a decidedly exuberant way of running that says "catch me if you can." No one really tried. From Post 17 on the far outside, jockey Pat Day steered Forty Niner cautiously inside. He chased the filly through her first quarter mile in 23 seconds, a respectable but not a gusty opener; Winning Colors appeared to be having the carefree fun of a kid leading a class to recess.
"She came away from the gate very relaxed," Stevens said. "It was just a nice, natural stride for her. She pretty much got things her own way all the way around there. That's the great thing about her. With the speed she's got, she's gonna get things her own way more times than not."
Day dropped Forty Niner a length behind going into the clubhouse turn and then, wanting no part of the filly early, let her go. Zip! Winning Colors opened two, then three lengths. Like most of the other jockeys in the hunt, Day was hoping that long shots Purdue King or Din's Dancer would go after her, but they never got close. "I could have pressed her around the first turn," said Day, "but I felt like it would have been suicidal if I had asked my colt to run to her. I guarantee I wouldn't have been there at the finish."
So there she was, hitting the back-stretch all by herself, with no one willing to play the fool by running at her. Stevens hit cruise control down the backside, racing through a half mile in an easy: 46[4/5] while stretching the lead to almost four lengths. "I didn't plan on letting her steal off that far," said Day, "but that filly just sprinted away from me."
Watching his horse run ahead alone, Wayne Lukas was ecstatic. After saddling Winning Colors, Lukas had ducked into the racing secretary's office to watch the Derby on television, and as the horses tooled down the backstretch, he was loudly exhorting his filly to switch her lead from left to right, to reduce the fatigue in her legs.
"Switch your leads, baby!" Lukas yelled at the screen. Obliging, his horse suddenly changed stride. Klein, meanwhile, was up in the box seats, bouncing and hollering. Winning Colors dashed to the half-mile pole alone, through six furlongs in a tepid 1:11[2/5]. Then Stevens saw the three-eighths pole and chirped. The filly raced through that fourth quarter in a sharp :24[3/5]. That was why no one could catch her, and that was where and how she won the Derby.
After waiting so long to give serious pursuit, coming off the turn for home Day finally began beating a tattoo on Forty Niner's rump, lefthanded. Inside the 16th pole, about 100 yards out, the filly began to tire; that sustained burst of speed through the fourth quarter left her wobbling in the final yards. She raced the last quarter in :26[1/5], waltz time, while Stevens whipped lefthanded, then scrubbed and pushed on her neck, then whipped again. He did everything but jump off. Leg-weary, Winning Colors was shortening stride and fading. Forty Niner cut the lead to three-quarters of a length, then half a length, then a neck.
Wayne Lukas stood pleading beneath the TV set. "Come on, Gary!" he yelled, his voice rising as the horses raced for the finish. "Stay with them, Gary! Come on! Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary!"