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For the first mile of last Saturday's big race at Gulf-stream Park the 23,906 fans had good reason to believe they were watching a thrilling, even Stephen contest. Then, in the last furlong, Jockey Bill Shoemaker whacked Rex Ellsworth's undefeated Candy Spots seven times. The first four whacks had no noticeable effect, so Shoe switched his whip for some left-handed slashes, and the big chestnut accelerated like a Ferrari. He pulled away to win the Florida Derby by an easy four and a half lengths over Sky Wonder, who had a neck margin over Cool Prince.
Candy Spots' time of l:50 3/5 was nothing to cheer about (and a far cry from Gen. Duke's track record of 1:46 4/5) but his race as a whole was highly impressive even though his opposition was not. This amazing animal has now won all six of his races and $336,812, with the Triple Crown classics and other rich opportunities still beckoning him. Also awaiting him for an engagement at Churchill Downs on May 4 is Captain Harry F. Guggenheim's Never Bend, who has won nine starts in 12 races and who was a noticeable absentee from the Florida Derby.
These two, Never Bend and Candy Spots, so different in many ways, rule this week as equal choices for the Kentucky Derby, and it seems hardly likely that this status will change in the five weeks remaining before they meet in Louisville. Other colts, of course, will make news between now and then. They have names like Ahoy, Bonjour, Jet Traffic, Outing Class, No Robbery, City Line, Chateaugay, In the Pocket and Top Gallant. Only a few observers of the winter racing scene (and I am not one of them) seriously believe that these or any other 3-year-olds in America will be ready on May 4 to beat either Never Bend or Candy Spots—and certainly not both of them.
In the days before the Florida Derby, Candy Spots' trainer, Mesh Tenney, who is Ellsworth's closest friend and racing partner, was acting as though he was trying to steal a page from Calumet Jimmy Jones's alibi booklet. Mesh moaned and groaned around Gulfstream's Barn T the way the Jones boys often do before they wrap up another easy $100,000 stakes. "This track is heavy and deep," said Mesh, "and horses aren't apt to run well over it first time out." Another complaint, and one which he had used with monotonous regularity before sending Candy Spots out to win the Santa Anita Derby, was that his horse "had been trained ragged and offbeat the whole winter," either because of California weather conditions or lack of racing opportunities.
On the day of the race Mesh admitted that he had worked his horse only three times in the last month instead of the five he preferred, and that this accounted for the way Candy Spots showed up in the Gulfstream paddock, both tucked up and in a sweat. Although the colt stands 16 hands 3 inches and weighs 1,125 pounds, he also looked underweight. There was the usual talk among the racing fraternity about Candy Spots' celebrated ankles. One writer had called them "boxing glove" ankles, meaning big and blown up. "It's remarkable to me," said Tenney, who did all the talking for his stable during Florida Derby week while Owner Ellsworth was riding the range in Arizona. "I don't see any 'boxing glove' ankles. You read a lot about that, but I don't do the writing and I don't try to influence the people who do. This horse's ankles are not too large. They are right for a coarse-boned, big-boned horse, and look to me like the kind of ankles that can stand a lot of wear and tear." (It is worth noting that a few years ago there was another horse who did all right on ankles that were not modeled on Miss America's. His name was Native Dancer.)
But no matter what people said about Candy Spots in Florida last week—too thin, too nervous, too this or too that—nobody could deny his running ability. Tenney and Shoemaker have teamed up so often in the last few profitable years that there is hardly any need for Mesh to give Shoe any rigid riding instructions. Just before he was hoisted aboard Candy Spots, Shoemaker squinted up at Tenney and said calmly, "I guess we'll lay back, eh?" Tenney squinted down at Shoe and said, equally calmly, "Yes, I guess that's the thing to do."
That's what they did, at first anyway. "My horse turned his head just as the gate opened," Shoe said later, "so, actually, it was a bad start for him. But then we got a break going into the first turn. I cut in to the rail and saved ground, getting by four or five horses outside of me. Then I wasn't worried."
For a while it appeared that he should have been worried. Gray Pet opened up a long lead up the backstretch, with Sky Gem second. But Shoemaker utilized some of Candy's marvelous acceleration powers around the turn, and suddenly, after breaking dead last and then speeding through on the inside of the clubhouse turn, he found himself third though still five lengths off Gray Pet. The pace was not killing: 23 1/5 for the first quarter and only :47 for the half mile. Shoemaker then encouraged Candy Spots to do something about it.
"I went to the lead at the three-eighths pole," Bill said, "but I didn't want to take too much of a hold on him because he was nearly pulling me out of the saddle. The trouble with this horse is that he can be lazy and likes to loaf on the lead. When I saw Sky Wonder coining to me I had to go to the whip, and then, of course, Candy picked right up and ran on. In fact he really took off in the last sixteenth."
When asked, as he always is these days, to compare Candy Spots as a young 3-year-old to another Ellsworth-Tenney colt named Swaps at the same stage of his career, Bill Shoemaker sticks to the facts only. "Swaps wasn't undefeated before going to Kentucky, was he? This colt is, so maybe you could say he's better. Certainly I've got no complaints with him yet." Mesh Tenney doesn't put it quite the same way. "I wouldn't want to compare the two right now," he says. "But I'll tell you this much. Before we won the Kentucky Derby with Swaps I felt we had a decent chance to dead-heat with both Nashua and Summer Tan. Now I say we have the same chance to be dead-heated with Never Bend."