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Getting beat is a bore, and two of the most bored people in all horse racing this year must have been Zelda and Ben Cohen. They own a strong, good-looking 3-year-old colt named Hail to All who won the Hibiscus at Hialeah back in February, making Jockey Johnny Sellers, Trainer Eddie Yowell and Cohen, who is the secretary-treasurer of Pimlico Race Course, quite happy.
After that, Hail to All ran on some auspicious occasions, like the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and there was always a moment when it seemed he might win. Instead, he would finish second or third or even fifth, and the Cohens, good sports to the end, would bravely watch somebody else march down to the winner's circle to collect cups and checks and things, and they were very unhappy, and, if bored, excusably so. But last week Hail to All made it up to all. On Memorial Day, as a kind of $86,905 warmup, he took the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park. And then, on Saturday at Aqueduct, he ran one of the least boring races in years, surging to the front in the final quarter mile of a furious four-horse stretch fight to win the 97th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Hail to All's success seemed to be a matter of getting the right man on his back and the right shades on his eyes. Like many a disgruntled owner hoping any change will help, Ben Cohen benched Jockey Sellers before the Kentucky Derby in favor of Manuel Ycaza. Never worse than third under Sellers, Hail to All finished fifth in the Derby. Back to work came Sellers.
"I felt real bad about being taken off the colt for the Derby," said Sellers, "but there was nothing much I could do about it, was there? The thing that annoyed me most was that I knew this was a really good horse, much better than he had yet showed us. He often seemed to have a wandering mind, and he'd mess around, both in his works and in his races. It seemed he never gave his very best."
In the Preakness the pair finished third once again, behind Tom Rolfe and Dapper Dan, but Hail to All was hit in the eye at the start of that race—possibly by a shoe lost by Tom Rolfe—which might have both hurt and slowed him. The eye was swollen shut for two days after the race.
For the Jersey Derby, Trainer Yowell decided to try blinkers on Hail to All in the hope that it would help the colt keep his mind on what he was doing—and maybe even protect him from flying horseshoes. The result was a length-and-a-half win over an indifferent field, a performance that did not impress most insiders but did impress Sellers. "I don't care what they say about him," the jockey said, "he showed what he could do. He rates himself and he knows how to relax. Not once did he goof around. I have all the confidence in the world that he will be able to go a mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes."
There were, of course, some unconcealed guffaws when this word reached Aqueduct, where the Belmont—last of the Triple Crown races—has to be contested until the new Belmont track opens for business in 1968. The reason for the horsy laughs was that the Belmont, in the eyes of most experts, was to be a family affair; family, in that Tom Rolfe and Dapper Dan—who had battled each other so magnificently in the Derby and Preakness—are both sons of the Italian champion Ribot. And family, too, in that their respective owners, Raymond Guest and Ogden Phipps, are cousins. Hail to All was a logical and legitimate third choice, which is where the Phippses and the Guests and New York's racing traditionalists figured he would surely wind up.
Not so the Cohens and the hundreds of far less traditionally minded Baltimore fans who showed up to root home the Florida-bred and Maryland-owned Hail to All. "I would have liked to have won the Derby or the Preakness," Ben Cohen said to Zelda before the race, "but everybody knows the Belmont Stakes is the prestige race to win from a breeder's standpoint. It is the big one. I'd love to settle matters by winning the Belmont."
Hail to All did settle matters, in a race that was remarkable not only for its excitement but for the fact that it was so absolutely truly run—run exactly according to plan. No loser had the hint of an alibi or excuse. Beaten in the stretch were Tom Rolfe, by a short neck, pacesetter First Family and Dapper Dan. To defeat one of the sons of Ribot is one thing, but to beat two of them, at the classic distance of a mile and a half, is a rare accomplishment at a time when the Italian stallion is fast building a reputation for stamina in his progeny. Just the day before the Belmont, a Ribot filly, Jimmy Brady's Long Look, won the Epsom Oaks at the same demanding distance.
Pace obviously plays a most important role in any Belmont, and inasmuch as all three favorites prefer to lay off the pace rather than to set it, there was a natural question before the Belmont of who possibly might take the lead and, just as naturally, of who might try to get out in front and steal the whole thing. Dapper Dan's trainer, Bill Winfrey, took care of that problem by entering Dan's stablemate, Bold Bidder, and signing cagey Braulio Baeza for the specific purpose of speeding the field about its business.