Although it is only a $25,000-added event on an annual calendar of about 40 races each worth $100,000, the Everglades at Hialeah occupies a position of singular importance. It is the first stakes event of the winter season in which Kentucky Derby nominees are tested at the mile-and-an-eighth distance, just one furlong shorter than the Derby itself. In its 19 runnings prior to last week, Everglades winners included Citation, Gen. Duke, Tim Tarn, First Landing, Carry Back, Sir Gaylord and Roman Brother, while others finishing in the money who later laid claim to more lasting fame included Bold Ruler, Iron Liege, Sherluck and Decidedly.
In other words, if you were fishing around seriously in mid-February for a horse who would later win the Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont, you could do a good deal worse than use the nine-furlong Everglades as a yardstick. It doesn't always work out, of course. A year ago Lou Wolfson sent out Roman Brother to win this race over Mr. Brick and Journalist, and none of these three went on to win any of the Triple Crown classics. Nonetheless, before Roman Brother finished his 3-year-old year he had won $680,000 and such races as the Jersey Derby, the American Derby, the New Hampshire Sweepstakes and the Discovery.
In last week's 20th running of the Everglades, Wolfson and Trainer Burley Parke put Apprentice Jockey Mike Venezia into the stable's flamingo pink-and-white-and-black silks, threw him up on their chestnut gelding, Sparkling Johnny, and then sat back hoping they had another Roman Brother on their hands. Thanks in great part to a skillful ride by Venezia, Sparkling Johnny won the race all right, but his three-and-a-quarter-length victory over a 32-to-1 shot named Naturalist (who was claimed two months ago for $8,500) failed to stir up much Derby fever around Hialeah. And it could hardly have thrown much fear into the Santa Anita-based owners of Jacinto, Isle of Greece or Lucky Debonair.
The 11 horses in the Everglades did not include either Hail to All (an impressive winner of the Hibiscus two days later) or Native Charger or, for that matter, recent winner Connecticut Hall, a half brother to Quadrangle with whom Elliott Burch hopes to surprise in this June's Belmont. I suspect that Hail to All is the solid horse for the March 3 Flamingo. I believe, also, after watching tired horses stagger back from the Everglades, that a number of Hialeah horsemen really cranked up their colts in a hurry to go nine furlongs once they discovered that Sadair and Bold Lad would not be in action here. This abnormal acceleration may have damaged quite a few racing prospects.
Flag Raiser set the early pace, covering the first six furlongs in a fast 1:10[2/5] on the dead Hialeah strip. After that it was no wonder that the next quarter was run in 26[2/5], the final quarter in just over 27 seconds, the last eighth in a lethargic 14[1/5]. "Good horses," said veteran Chart-Caller Bud Lyon, "just don't run that bad."
Maybe so, but maybe there still is hope for some of those in the Everglades. E. P. Taylor's Victory Myth was closing fast at the finish to be fourth; Dapper Dan will improve; and Calumet Farm's Reverse, a one-run colt, may not have liked being hurried into position so quickly last week. As for Sparkling Johnny, who is by Misty Flight out of the Count Fleet mare Sparkle, a few people—but very few—are taking him seriously as a Derby contender. "He was just another horse before now," says Owner Wolfson. "Now he may be another good horse." Wolfson could well have added that Sparkling Johnny is now the only 3-year-old in the country to have won a stake at a mile and an eighth. It will be a distinction for a while anyway.