The ever-fresh fascination of the 84-year-old Kentucky Derby has a lot to do with the fact that it has produced races of every possible variety, from easy victories by famed and short-priced favorites to tremendous upsets by unheralded long shots. It may be, though, that no previous running could quite match the combined excitement, suspense and confusion building up around the 85th version to be run at Churchill Downs next week.
The advance picture of the mile-and-a-quarter race has changed drastically in six months. Last fall, after his brilliant win in The Garden State, Christopher Chenery's First Landing was the darling of the experts. Then came the shocks of winter and spring races in California, Florida and New York. First Landing has won but two of his five 1959 starts, his most recent setback coming in last week's Wood Memorial when he finished behind Manassa Mauler, a 64-to-1 shot who is not even eligible for the Derby. In California the spotlight that was to have shone on Tomy Lee focused instead on a whole crew of new names and new faces and, when Tomy Lee regained his old form in Kentucky a week ago, so did other upstarts begin pointing their noses toward Churchill Downs with the frisky determination of young colts sniffing the sweetness of roses in the brisk April wind.
Never before has this prestigious American classic been so wide open. At last count, no fewer than 28 of the original 130 nominees could still possibly be going to the Derby starting gate next Saturday afternoon. Were you to give a lusty pull on the handle of the imaginary Derby slot machine pictured above, any one of the eight likely favorites could trip the lock on the jackpot vault. Some men of judgment would not be surprised if none of the eight got under the wire first. It is just this sort of frantic guesswork which could turn the 85th Kentucky Derby into one of the best ever.
What will also turn the next week into one of the most suspenseful weeks in all Derby history is the strong possibility that the popular star of this nationwide show may never make a stage appearance at all. The star's name: Silver Spoon, C. V. Whitney's wiry chestnut filly who runs with all the gritty determination of a tomboy chasing the next-door bully. In six starts Silver Spoon has never known defeat and, after beating the best of her own age and sex this winter in California, she defiantly stepped forward to trounce the best colts (all except Tomy Lee, who was not entered) in the mile-and-an-eighth Santa Anita Derby.
If ever a Derby had a sentimental—although by no means a purely logical—favorite, it is Silver Spoon who, if she accepts and conquers the immense challenge awaiting her at Louisville, will have written one of the most fantastic chapters in Derby history. How come? Well, fillies just don't beat colts, that's all. And when they do they don't do it at distances beyond a mile against the sort of colts who line up in the Kentucky Derby. The task is so tough that of the 913 Derby starters to date, only 28 have been fillies (the last filly starter was in 1945), and of these only one has ever won. That was in 1915 when Harry Payne Whitney's Regret, carrying 112 pounds, whipped a field of 15 colts carrying from 110 to 117 pounds.
Now, 44 years later, C. V. Whitney, only son of the late Harry Payne Whitney, has popped up with Silver Spoon and, if ever there was a challenge to cash in on the most unlikely father-son double in all the world of sport, that challenge is here and now. The decision on how to face this challenge, however, is not being reached by snap judgment by Owner Whitney and his 39-year-old trainer Bob Wheeler. There are valid arguments for and against running Silver Spoon (who, unlike Regret, would have to carry 121 pounds against the colts' 126 pounds) in the Derby, and Whitney intends to weigh all of them with the meticulous care of a Cape Canaveral supervisor before he orders the button pushed. He will even run Silver Spoon once at Churchill Downs—in this Saturday's Kentucky Oaks Prep, at six furlongs—to see how she adapts to the Downs racing surface after speedy Santa Anita.
On the pro side of the Should Silver Spoon Run debate are to be found the sentimentalists. They recall that Harry Payne Whitney, by sending Regret down to run in and win the 1915 Derby, became the sporting and inspirational force in elevating the Derby from a more or less local spectacle to the level of a national championship. How nice, say they, for his son, who in 12 previous tries has not won a Derby, to try and win it now with another filly.
Weighing in with the more practical point of view is a majority of experienced horsemen. Either a filly must be truly super to beat colts going a mile-and-a-quarter in early May, or the colts must be truly dismal. Silver Spoon, in beating Finnegan and Royal Orbit two months ago at Santa Anita, may not have beaten anything of top class. A large Derby field almost automatically ensures a rough-and-tough test of survival in which racing luck often plays a more important role than a contender's ability. Should Silver Spoon, with so many rich opportunities ahead in the filly and mare races, risk getting hurt by bigger and stronger horses in the Derby?
Next week Owner Whitney must make his decision. Results of final prep races may help him decide. So will Silver Spoon's own deportment. Fillies rarely mature as quickly as colts, and nature has provided another handicap: even for a filly with the best-regulated heat periods the schedule can vary, and although a filly can run at full effectiveness while in season, this condition can result in startling reversals of form.
The ultimate decision will revolve around two specific points: 1) If Whitney feels that Silver Spoon has the best possible chance of winning, should he risk her whole career for the sake of getting a line in racing's most exclusive record book and 2) should owners and trainers exercise their prerogatives to start a horse when and where they feel like it, or are they to yield to the pressure of public sentiment? In pondering his verdict, Whitney might like to have a thought on the subject from a young sage named Willie Shoemaker who has seen every good 3-year-old in the land. Said Willie last week, "If ever there was a chance to win a Derby with a filly, brother, it's now!"