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Two years ago the side of the kings, represented by the colt Tim Tarn, soundly thrashed the upstart but nonetheless tremendously popular commoner, Silky Sullivan. This year both factions have been notably reinforced, and when the large field roars from the starting gate over Louisville's heart-testing mile and a quarter it may turn out that the winner will take his crown and wreath of roses only by demonstrating the sheer class and courage of a genuine 3-year-old champion.
If controversy is the fuel which sustains enthusiasm in every Kentucky Derby, the 86th running got off to a flying start months ago. As the weeks before post time dwindled, the roster of the kings—so labeled because each colt was royally bred and also owned by men and women of wealth, social position and long-standing racing prestige—became menacingly stronger.
Lined up on this side, for example, is one already illustrious son of Tom Fool (who also sired Tim Tarn): Tompion, owned by C. V. Whitney, who is still looking for his first Kentucky Derby win after seeing his Eton blue silks go post-ward 13 times in 10 previous classics. Another equally promising Tom Fool colt, Weatherwise (owned by the Greentree Stable of the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, J. H. Whitney, and his sister Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson), was declared out of the Derby this week after suffering a bruise inside his left front foot. Weatherwise, who won in brilliant fashion at Keeneland recently, was attempting to become the first horse since Middleground (1950) to win the Derby without benefit of winter racing. Here, too, is Victoria Park, the property of Canada's "Mr. Racing," millionaire Industrialist Edward P. Taylor; the possible entry of Eagle Admiral and Divine Comedy, owned by the Llangollen Farm of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth (Liz) Person. Then comes the Calumet team of Hillsborough and Pied d'Or, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham's late-developing Never Give In and Mrs. Adele L. Rand's Bourbon Prince.
The opposition to this powerful task force is, however, no mere overgrown and undertrained Silky Sullivan. In fact, it is headed by an un-fashionably bred but fantastically capable piece of running machinery named Bally Ache, owned by a Toledo parts manufacturer, 39-year-old Leonard D. Fruchtman. Next is Venetian Way, a chestnut son of Royal Coinage who belongs to a 72-year-old Lithuanian-American named Isaac Blumberg, who started in this country as a butcher, switched to the junk business in Chicago and later made enough money with a machinery manufacturing company to enable him to retire to Miami Beach—where one of his hobbies has apparently become the naming of his horses after local highways (his last good colt before Venetian Way: Lincoln Road).
Other owners, of course, with reasons more apparent to themselves than to followers of form, may be expected to give the Derby the benefit of their patronage. And among the colts in this legion of hopefuls there may be such as Stephen, Yomolka, Fighting Hodge, Cuvier Relic, Tony Graff, El Zag, John William, Spring Broker and Henrijan. A win by any of these would go in the books alongside of the Derby's most recent long shot surprises—those of Count Turf ($31.20) in 1951 and Dark Star ($51.80) in 1953. A victory, however, by Leonard Fruchtman (who paid $2,500 for Bally Ache) or by Isaac Blumberg (who paid $10,500 for Venetian Way), would not surprise too many people, least of all Messrs. Fruchtman and Blumberg and their respective trainers, Jimmy Pitt and Vic Sovinski. Says Pitt of front-running Bally Ache, "They've still got to catch us to beat us." But, warns Sovinski, "Bally Ache will never beat Venetian Way again."
STRATEGY SEEMS OBVIOUS
All this typical prerace coffeehousing naturally brings up the subject of what kind of tactics will be employed at Churchill Downs next Saturday afternoon. On this point only one assumption seems safe: Jockey Bobby Ussery will put Bally Ache on the lead and try to keep him there. From that moment the chase will be on. If, approximately two minutes and two seconds later, Bally Ache is first under the wire he will join a very select group of colts who won their Derbies on the front end from flagfall to finish. Going back only a couple of decades, War Admiral fashioned this sort of victory in 1937, as did Johnstown in 1939, Count Fleet in 1943, Hoop Jr. in 1945, Jet Pilot in 1947, Hill Gail in 1952, Dark Star in 1953—and the last was Swaps in 1955.
There is a vast difference, however, between running on the lead well in hand and being in a continual drive to thwart off one challenge after another. And in the Kentucky Derby, where each competing jockey has an almost fanatical urge to win, it is too much to expect that Ussery will be allowed to lope Bally Ache around that first mile while every other jock takes back and waits for him to stop.
Some other colt, whether he be part of an entry or one of the outsiders who shouldn't be starting anyway, must run with him almost from the start. By doing so he will, of course, kill off his own chances, but he will almost surely spoil Bally Ache's, too. Leave Bally Ache to his own devices and he'll murder his field. In 1958 Lincoln Road nearly pulled it off. He went to the front at the start and had a two-length lead entering the stretch. Only a brilliant run by a champion like Tim Tarn, who finally nailed him by half a length, stopped Lincoln Road from winning at 47-to-1 odds. All the arguments about Bally Ache's ability to go a distance (he's won twice now at a mile and an eighth) can go out the window if some colt does not put the big question to him both quickly and often. Disbelievers of California form (they are a fast-disappearing breed today) said Swaps could not go a mile and a quarter. When Eddie Arcaro took back on Nashua (to keep his most serious eye on third-place Summer Tan) Willie Shoemaker let Swaps roll. Realizing he was watching the wrong horse as he hit the far turn, Arcaro put Nashua into a drive. But when he drew up to Swaps entering the stretch Shoemaker simply let out a notch with Swaps, who had been coasting up to then, and he won drawing away. It was one of his easiest victories, simplified no end by false theorizing that he would stop in the last eighth. Good horses don't stop in the last eighth—unless they are forced to by better horses.