It was a day to drown in mint juleps, not drink them. At exactly 4:33 p.m. last Saturday a gutsy little colt named Northern Dancer fought his way across the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the 90th running of the Kentucky Derby and prove to Thoroughbred breeders from Chino, Calif. to Ocala, Fla. what they feared all year: the best 3-year-old racehorse in the country—at least for this day and this race—is not from this country at all. Owned by the Canadian Croesus, E.P. Taylor, trained by that sly and genial old refugee from an Argentine horse farm, Horatio Luro, and ridden by Bill Hartack, the thinking man's jockey, Northern Dancer set the Bluegrass industry back several furlongs and at least a dozen years.
Never before had Kentucky-bred horses been so humiliated. Behind the Canadian came a long string of outlanders, led by the 6-to-5 betting favorite, Hill Rise ( California), The Scoundrel ( California), Roman Brother ( Florida) and Quadrangle ( Virginia). Mr. Brick, the best of the Kentuckians and an honest horse who has been running second and third to first one, then another of this same cast all winter and spring, finally found himself overpowered by sheer numbers and settled for sixth. What may also have discouraged Mr. Brick was that this was certainly the fastest Derby ever run (two minutes flat) and perhaps the best.
It was a horse race that had everything. The buildup and prerace suspense were enormous. The four favorites in the field of 12 were all in the hands of superb trainers. The jockeys, after a season of hopping from the saddle of one contender to another, understood their own mounts and the others as never before. Fans, as well as owners and breeders, had regional rooting interests spanning a continent and crossing at least one international border. And the Louisville spectators themselves came from all over to watch the best 3-year-olds in America competing at a testing distance on a testing racetrack. (They bet more than $2 million on the Derby for the first time.) Nobody could have asked for a better combination of circumstances, and the horse race lived up to the circumstances.
Northern Dancer's victory was not easily earned, and it does not prove that he is the 3-year-old champion. On this particular day he was the best, was ridden the best and undoubtedly benefited the most from racing luck that so often helps determine the outcome of such classics as the Kentucky Derby as well as the first race at Fonner Park, Neb.
On Tuesday of Derby week, Hill Rise, loser of the first two races of his life last summer at the age of 2 but winner of eight straight since, was very impressive in winning the one-mile Derby Trial. Many knowledgeable horsemen were ready to proclaim him a superhorse, following in the footsteps of fellow Californian Swaps. While Owner George Pope—whose Decidedly, trained by Luro, set the old Derby record of 2:00[2/5] in 1962—and Trainer Bill Finnegan were naturally delighted with this performance, a few skeptics on the grounds timidly suggested that Hill Rise might have run his real race in the Trial instead of saving it for the Derby.
Horatio Luro didn't exactly share this opinion, yet rarely has he displayed so much confidence in his own horse as he did in the final few days before the Dancer's biggest test. "He was confident that Decidedly could beat Ridan two years ago," said Burnett Robinson, who is married to Luro's stepdaughter, Cary. "But this time he's more confident than ever. I never saw him like this before." So certain was Luro, in fact, that in discussing the race a few evenings before Derby Day he said that the winning horse would have to run the last of the five quarters in 24 seconds flat, and that the winning time would be exactly two minutes. His broad grin left no doubt as to which horse he had in mind.
"Hill Rise ran a million-dollar race in the Trial," said Luro, "but it didn't scare me. People train horses differently, and who is to say which method is right or wrong? When my horse is going a mile and a quarter for the first time, I do not want him to race four or five days before. I want him fresh and full of energy. I think it is the only way."
On Saturday Northern Dancer was fresh and fairly popping with energy. "I think he got more sleep last night than I did," said Luro. When the Dancer came into the paddock, sporting handsome colored bandages to protect his legs before the race, he was only slightly less well-dressed than Luro himself. But his coat was magnificent, and he never looked more fit. Earlier, Luro had dropped in to see Hartack in the jockeys' room to discuss ways of beating Hill Rise. "I told him he would have plenty of horse in his hands," the Se�or recalled afterwards, "but I warned him not to let this horse get away from him early in the race. If Northern Dancer was used too much early in the race, he would never be able to run that last quarter in 24 seconds—which I absolutely knew he would have to do to win."
The Hill Rise camp was surrounded by California supporters all day. Pope and his wife Patsy are both superstitious about such things as lucky clothes. Pope's friends insist he owns only two outfits to begin with and that one of them is an ensemble of gray flannels and a light-tan gabardine coat that he wore when he led Decidedly into the winner's circle in 1962. Pope wore the same ensemble last Saturday, and Patsy had a new good-luck charm, a bracelet depicting Hill Rise's four stakes victories last winter. "It came from Don Pierce," she said sheepishly, "who rode him in all those races. The awful thing is that it arrived the same day we told him Willie Shoemaker was to replace him on Hill Rise."
The race itself was a triumph of planning and riding by Luro and Hartack. At the start Mr. Brick, the inside horse, ridden by Milo Valenzuela, was supposed to have been taken back and saved for a late run with the favorites. But, as Milo said later, "My horse just charged out of the gate, and I had to go to the front. I couldn't take back, but what made it bad for me was that Royal Shuck went with me, and he hooked right into me for three-quarters of a mile. That took a lot out of Mr. Brick." What this meant in the overall strategy was that Mr. Brick ran a good mile and then the last quarter was too much for him. It also meant that all riders in the race were forced to stay closer to the pace than some would have liked.