In horse racing everyone loves a courageous front runner as much as boxing fans admire a cocky fighter whose attitude is, "Go ahead and hit me if you can." At Santa Anita last week a crowd of 47,088 discovered—and immediately fell in love with—a front-running, cocky Thoroughbred whose sensational performance in winning the Santa Anita Derby will send him east next month as an almost sure favorite to win another derby, the one at Churchill Downs.
The new darling of the West (although he is Kentucky-bred) is a chunky, rather than classic, colt named Four-and-Twenty. He is bred, as horsemen say, to be any sort, being by Blue Prince (a son of Princequillo) out of a mare named Sixpence II, who was once the best 2-year-old filly in Ireland and England and is a full sister to Ballydam, sire of the late Bally Ache. The name comes from the line in the old nursery rhyme: "Four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie."
Four-and-Twenty is about as dainty as Rocky Graziano in a grudge fight. But he's just about as exciting to watch. His colors are the purple and white of Canada's Alberta Ranches, Ltd., a nine-year-old stable owned by two wealthy sportsmen, Publisher G. Max Bell and Utilities Executive Frank McMahon.
In the saddling enclosure before the Santa Anita Derby a well-wisher said to Bell, "I see you're going into this with both barrels today, Max." The reference, of course, was to the Alberta entry of Flutterby and Four-and-Twenty. For a month now, the stretch-running Flutterby has been the big hope of Californians looking for the answer to Florida's Carry Back. He looked like the best western contender in years, especially after Johnny Longden rode him to victory in the San Felipe.
But a week before the Derby, 54-year-old Longden and his 30-year-old son Vance (the only trainer who boasts that he takes orders from his jockey) set railbirds on their ears by sending out Four-and-Twenty against a classy field in just his third start. He won in near-record time. "I knew then," said Father John, "that I'd have to ride him in the Santa Anita Derby instead of Flutterby. Why? Well, because this colt goes in there to run, and he doesn't care who's in with him. Flutterby can run when he wants to, but he can also say to hell with it if he doesn't want to run." The Longdens didn't pick any apprentice for Flutterby. They called on Eddie Arcaro. With a combined age of 99 in a young man's game, Longden and Arcaro made their appearance in the paddock more like guest stars on a Sophie Tucker show than two of the greatest riders in the sport And they very nearly made it a smashing one-two victory.
The strategy was for Four-and-Twenty, who has never done anything in his life but run from the gate as far and as fast as he can, to do exactly that. Flutterby was to lay off the pace, as usual, and come along in the stretch to overtake any tiring front runners, including his own stable-mate, if Four-and-Twenty faded.
It never happened. Four-and-Twenty blasted away from the gate and held his lead all the way. Rex Ellsworth's Olden Times was closest to him up the backstretch but, as Johnny Longden commented later, "I was never really worried about him." Flutterby waited to move as they rounded the far turn, but Four-and-Twenty didn't need his help. Turning for home, he faltered slightly, possibly because of the unaccustomed noise of a roaring crowd, and then settled down again under some Longden strong-arm work to win by nearly a length from the long shot, Ronnie's Ace. Flutterby finished a strong third.
It isn't likely that Four-and-Twenty is a flash in the pan. He's too good for that. In four starts he has never been beaten, but what makes his latest victory so impressive is that he was going a distance for the first time in his life and that he won his race against good company in exceptional time: 22[2/5], 45[2/5], 1:09[3/5], 1:35[2/5] and a final clocking of 1:48, the second fastest in Santa Anita Derby history. "He looks to me, in his action and way of going," added Johnny Longden, "a little like Swaps—and you know what he did."