'HE WIN BIG—REAL BIG'
The tenant of Barn 17 at Louisville's Churchill Downs could hardly have been blamed if he had begged off running in the 86th Kentucky Derby because of a developing inferiority complex. All week long, as he gazed soulfully out of his stall, the beautiful chestnut 3-year-old named Venetian Way saw a continuous motorcade of newsmen and tourists heading for Barn 42, where the advance-billed stars of the show, Tompion and Bally Ache, hammed it up for their admirers.
Venetian Way had a few callers, but very few. The people he knew best were there constantly: 52-year-old Trainer Vic Sovinski and 73-year-old Owner Isaac Blumberg. As Saturday's Derby drew near, Sovinski startled a few listeners: "I wouldn't trade my chances in this race for the chances of either Tompion or Bally Ache."
Owner Blumberg startled even Trainer Sovinski. "I think," said Blumberg, a shy Lithuanian-American who dislikes any and all forms of publicity, "that I'll watch the race from the backstretch with the stable hands—or else go back to the hotel and see it on television."
"Oh, no," said Sovinski. "This is one time you've got to sit in a clubhouse box, because this time you're going to win the Kentucky Derby. Take my word for it."
Sovinski apparently gave his horse the same word. On Saturday, third-choice Venetian Way literally ran away from the highly esteemed favorites, and the 86th Derby was his with remarkable ease. The minute it was over he was being touted as the hottest prospect since Citation to go on and complete the classic triple crown by adding victories in the May 21 Preakness and June 11 Belmont Stakes.
In a sense, this Derby, run on a dull, cloudy and cold afternoon and over a track that was spotty and slick, was anticlimactic. The advance buildup was for a Bally Ache-Tompion stretch duel which never materialized. Venetian Way, who figured to be at best third in everybody's book, spoiled that prospect by leaving Tompion behind at the half-mile pole and overtaking Bally Ache on the stretch turn. Nothing that either of them could do after that was sufficient to threaten the winner's run to the wire. As they say around the barns, he win big—real big.
Tactically, the plan of the race was well known to all: Bally Ache would take the lead at the start and every other horse would have to catch him to beat him. The Bally Ache fan club had its own slogan: trying to beat Bally Ache would be like trying to lick a guy you can't even hit. He'd be off and running from the break, and no other horse would get close enough to him to run him into the ground.
The Tompion people figured their best chance was to stick close to Bally Ache and wear him down in the stretch where, finally, it would be proven that even Bally Ache's great courage wouldn't be sufficient to win at the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
For his part, Vic Sovinski was confident of beating Bally Ache over a distance under any circumstances, and he also figured that if his colt was as fit as Tompion there was a good chance of putting him away, too. There had been, it is true, some preliminary sparring over Venetian Way between Sovinski and Jockey Bill Hartack. A few days before the Derby, Hartack worked the colt too fast, according to Sovinski, and word quickly spread around the track that the two men were hardly on speaking terms any more.