As the paintings on the preceding pages recall, last year's Kentucky Derby was made memorable by the presence of a spunky colt named Carry Back. He captivated racing fans by his come-from-way-behind style, and he won as the overwhelming sentimental favorite. This year's race has no such focus of interest. Nevertheless, because of the remarkably diversified talents in the field of 3-year-olds who meet this Saturday, the Derby should be one of the fine racing spectacles of our time.
This is, admittedly, strong advance billing for an event that until very recently appeared likely to be a contest among ailing, eccentric and mediocre colts. But the results of two races last week now offer the prospect of a stirring, gate-to-wire duel between two evenly matched horses, Sir Gaylord and Ridan; only rain or racing luck could provide a long-shot winner.
Because of its esteemed position on our racing calendar, the Derby should not be contested by horses with little or no chance to win. Unfortunately, it often is. This year, for example, before last week's Blue Grass and Stepping Stone, only eight horses had actually earned valid credentials for the Derby. Yet possibly twice that number may make it to the starting gate for the mile-and-a-quarter grind. The eight good ones are Sir Gaylord and his stablemate, the brilliant filly Cicada, Ridan, Sir Ribot, Decidedly, Sunrise County, Admiral's Voyage and Donut King. Add to this list Crimson Satan, though his excuses for losing are now wearing thinner than a second-hand kimono, and Royal attack. Clearly, the number of legitimate choices is limited.
The role of Derby favorite will almost certainly go to Sir Gaylord, who won last week's Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs—a seven-furlong prep—by nearly two lengths over Sir Ribot. Out of action since suffering an ankle injury at Hialeah after he won the Everglades, Sir Gaylord came within two-fifths of a second of the track record and was then officially timed over the Derby distance in 2:02 2/5. (But a horseman sitting beside Casey Hayes, who trains Sir Gaylord for Christopher T. Chenery, clocked the colt running out the mile in 1:34 3/5 and the mile and a quarter in 2:01 4/5.) For a horse that had not raced in over two months that was impressive, to say the least. Half an hour later, Trainer Hayes sent out Cicada in the Kentucky Oaks Prep, and she not only beat a field of 11 fillies but also Sir Gaylord's time by a fifth of a second.
All this took place two days after Ridan had won the Blue Grass at Keeneland, running just a fifth of a second slower than Round Table's track mark of 1:47 2/5 for the mile and an eighth. He beat Decidedly by four lengths and Crimson Satan by nearly nine. Immediately horsemen began to debate which of these performances was most meaningful.
I believe Ridan's was. By every standard, this superb performance by the big, rugged colt shows he is now 25% better than he was when he lost twice in a row to Sir Gaylord in Florida this winter. The improvement should be credited to his present jockey, Manuel Ycaza. With his strong hands, his fiery competitive instinct and his marvelous talent for tuning his own ability to that of his mount, Ycaza is made for a horse like Ridan.
"We can't ever get an exercise boy to ride him right," says Ridan's owner, Mrs. Moody Jolley. "He's too strong, and they can't hold him. Ycaza can—and did in the Blue Grass." Breaking on top, Manuel took Ridan back while the speed horses, Roman Line and Areopolis, cut out the early pace. When they folded, Ridan, who had been in third place, had the lead to himself. Ycaza pulled away in the stretch, thwarting the brief challenges of Decidedly and Crimson Satan. The latter made his big move going into the last turn and quickly gave up.
On that occasion, Ridan worked out the mile and a quarter in 2:01. Later, when Ycaza had decided to ride the colt in the Derby (he also was offered Donut King by Owner Verne Winchell), he was asked if Ridan had felt stronger in the Blue Grass Stakes than when he barely edged Cicada in the Florida Derby. "Well," said Manuel, with a glistening display of teeth, "today he was pulling away at the end." That alone should indicate how sharp Ridan is now.
Of course, Sir Gaylord was impressive in the Stepping Stone. In this six-horse race first Doc Jocoy and then Sir Ribot went to the front while Milo Valenzuela kept Sir Gaylord very near the pace. When they straightened for home, Sir Gaylord gradually wore down Sir Ribot and won going away. However, Valenzuela had to ride his horse all the way, and in the final sixteenth of a mile Sir Gaylord was noticeably trying to lug in to the rail. Milo had to hit him left-handed to keep him straight. This could have been caused by mere fatigue since Sir Gaylord had not raced since February 21. Or it could be his right front ankle is hurting again.
The filly is ready