A RUNNING MACHINE, A STRANGER TO DEFEAT
Rex Ellsworth's critical battle for leadership of U.S. racing will be won or lost in two minutes Saturday in Kentucky. The taciturn Arizona cowboy, who now calls California home, is out to whip the eastern horses owned by wealthy Jockey Club members with his powerful, oddly spattered chestnut, Candy Spots (see cover). Thousands of Westerners, remembering how the cowboy did it before with Swaps, have come to back him with their cheers and bets and to help crowd the infield and the old wooden stands at Louisville's Churchill Downs.
This will be the 89th Kentucky Derby, and Rex Ellsworth's challenge to the famous, tradition-wreathed eastern stables (SI, Feb. 25), is only one of its intriguing facets. It is the personalities and styles of the horses themselves that, finally, make a race interesting to watch—and to bet on. And this year's field combines all the qualities required for exciting competition. There are horses that like to break fast from the gate and then try to stay on top all the way; there are horses that take awhile to get started but can come on strong at the finish; and some of the best jockeys in the sport, with tactical notions of their own, will be handling the field.
As final workouts got under way at the Downs this week, the rival camps plotted strategy in secret and clocked the opposition with curiosity. Nearly everyone else discussed the chances of "the big three," Candy Spots, Never Bend and No Robbery. Not surprisingly, it is easy to come up with a convincing argument that any one of them will win. Rex Ellsworth's Candy Spots must be considered the "solid" horse in this Derby field. Big and strong, yet maneuverable, he has the acceleration power so necessary to avoid trouble. He will have been on the grounds just short of a month come Derby Day, and, for the first time all winter or spring, Mesh Tenney has been able to train him exactly as he wants to, and over the track on which he will run. "We've worked the exact schedule I planned since the Florida Derby," says Tenney. "A mile at Gulfstream [in 1:40[2/5]] before shipping to Louisville, three works at the Downs [seven-eighths in 1:24[2/5], another mile in 1:37[2/5] and another seven-eighths in 1:23[1/5]] and he'll get one more work, probably three-quarters, this week, making the perfect total of five. I've added a little more mash to his feed, and he's put on a little weight since Florida. He's never looked better or worked better since we first took him to the racetrack. If his best race so far was at Arlington last summer, I look for him to turn in an even better one this week."
Why didn't Candy Spots go in the Stepping Stone prep last week? "Well," says Tenney, "the timing of it, eight days before the Derby, didn't suit us, and he was working so well he didn't really need a race anyway. But more important than that, even though Candy Spots has a perfect disposition, I want to expose him to the paddock with a big crowd around him before he makes his first start here. If he had gone in the Stepping Stone on opening day he couldn't have had this experience. With this horse I want to leave nothing to chance."
Never Bend did go in the Stepping Stone and made it a winning race in the very good time of 1:22[2/5] against little opposition. "When [Manuel] Ycaza took him back a bit in his race at Keene-land the other day," said Trainer Stephens, "Never Bend didn't seem very happy about it. So he really needed this race to step him up. Like a lot of Nasrullah's colts, this one must be carefully ridden. You can't get him back in a rut, but on the other hand he has so much lick that you know he's not going to be too far off that pace."
And who's going to be on the pace? Why, Greentree Stable's No Robbery, of course, winner of the Wood Memorial just a week after he turned in the fastest mile (1:34) ever run by a 3-year-old in New York. No Robbery felt like running in the Wood, but he also felt like counting cars and noses from somewhere near the middle of the track at Aqueduct. This week Trainer John Gaver worked No Robbery around two turns with blinkers rather than send him in the one-mile Derby Trial. "This horse doesn't have to go on the lead," says Gaver. "It all depends on the way he wants to run. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to take him back either."
One of the late-developing threats in the field is Darby Dan Farm's Chateau-gay, a full brother of the good race mare Primonetta. He has won five of eight starts but had his first stakes victory only last week when he won the Blue Grass at Keeneland over a field that included none of the big three Derby choices. (The field was further reduced when Outing Class, a stablemate of No Robbery, came down with a cough, which automatically eliminated him from the Derby, too. Trainers of other Derby colts are hoping the coughing doesn't spread.)
Bonjour, owned by pretty Patrice Jacobs and trained by her famous father, Hirsch, was to prove in this week's Derby Trial just how seriously he must be taken. Among the other Derby horses, there is not much to say about those named: On My Honor, Royal Tower, Lemon Twist, Rajah Noor, Gray Pet, Devil It Is and Wild Card.
This should be a fast Derby. It seems certain that No Robbery will take the lead but, if he starts, Gray Pet will do his best to keep No Robbery company for the first mile. Never Bend will not be far away during any of this, for Ycaza cannot afford to wage a rating battle with a colt who wants to run. If Never Bend really wants to get into the fight he will take off after No Robbery, which is exactly what the rest of the field would love to see. "The more they mix in the early pace the merrier," says John Jacobs of the Bonjour camp. "We come from behind, so we'd love it that way."