As the old song put it, what a difference a day made—even in horse racing. Early on the morning of February 19 in Miami, following a downpour through most of the previous night, John W. Galbreath's undefeated Kentucky Derby favorite Graustark splashed and slipped through a workout at Hialeah in preparation for last week's Everglades and this week's $100,000 Flamingo. No one can say whether or not the off track was to be blamed, but during that work Graustark bruised his left hind heel. X rays disclosed no breaks or cracks, but the injury was serious enough to sideline him for the rest of the Florida season—a matter of six weeks—and, in the eyes of some, to jeopardize even his Derby chances.
This temporary absence of a fine horse has altered the whole appearance of the 3-year-old division. Most observers had been saying for weeks that you didn't have to look beyond Graustark, Ogden Phipps's Buckpasser and the Californian, Saber Mountain, to find the winner at Churchill Downs. While awaiting Graustark's return to action—probably at Keeneland in April—the same people now are searching on both coasts for Derby sleepers and long shots.
Least dismayed of anyone is John Galbreath himself. "The only way you can look at something like this," he says, "is that it may be a blessing in disguise. Now we have to let up on Graustark, and it may be just the right thing for him. The other way we would have gone on running him, and by Derby time his best races might have been behind him."
Yes, that is one way to look at it, and certainly the trend has been for more and more good horses to go after the big winter purses so strenuously that by Derby Day they have either broken down or passed their peak. One owner-trainer team that knows this only too well is the Bill Perry-Jim Maloney combination at Santa Anita. A year ago their Jacinto ran away with an exercise boy on the eve of the Santa Anita Derby. Jacinto was badly beaten by Lucky Debonair, had to skip the Kentucky Derby and then broke down prepping for the Preakness. This week Perry and Maloney may win the Santa Anita Derby with their lightly raced Boldnesian who, two weeks ago, in only the fourth start of his career, won by 10 lengths. Boldnesian, a son of Bold Ruler out of the champion race-mare Alanesian, will have to run just as brilliantly this week if he is to beat Saber Mountain, but Maloney is bringing him along slowly and with a championship clearly in mind. What championship? "Boldnesian isn't even nominated for the Kentucky Derby or Preakness," says Maloney, "we're aiming for the Belmont. Prepping for the Derby becomes too much of a rat race. We're not going to get caught up in the rat race this year."
With Boldnesian in it, the Santa Anita Derby looks like a better race than Hialeah's Flamingo. Last week less than a length separated the first four finishers in the mile-and-a-sixteenth San Felipe, and all four horses will be in the nine-furlong Derby. One has to be impressed by Saber Mountain not only because he is still unbeaten, but because he wins his races the hard way—after fighting his way out of trouble. In the 14-horse San Felipe field Bill Shoemaker broke Saber Mountain from the inside post and was right on the pace as they went into the far turn. But then, instead of putting the issue beyond doubt, Shoe decided to test his colt. In a daring demonstration of confidence not only in his mount but in his own race-riding ability, Shoemaker took Saber Mountain back to fifth place midway in the turn. In the stretch Shoe brought Saber Mountain to the outside and drove him furiously to win by a head over Exhibitionist.
The next day in Miami Shoe was on Buckpasser, who ran down the homestretch in the Everglades like a four-footed version of Jimmy Brown. Braulio Baeza took Stupendous to a three-length lead only to have Shoe and Buckpasser nail him at the quarter pole after a mile in a fast 1:34[3/5]. But the second Buckpasser poked his nose in front, he tried to pull himself up. Shoe whacked him right-handed, and Buckpasser lugged in sharply on Stupendous. Despite losing his stride, Stupendous hung on gamely and was beaten by a head. The time of 1:47[4/5] was only four-fifths off Bold Ruler's track record.
Trainer Eddie Neloy had a good answer for those who wondered why Buckpasser hadn't won by a greater margin. "How do we know how good Stupendous might be?" (Or, for that matter, how good another stablemate, Impressive, might be. Impressive, who has beaten Buckpasser, won easily at Pimlico on Saturday.)
Other good horses on both coasts may be important factors in the days ahead. In the Everglades, Illinois-bred Abe's Hope closed very strongly to be third, while in the San Felipe George Pope's Hill Clown did the same thing and was just a nose behind Exhibitionist. The latter, along with Understanding, is trained by Hirsch Jacobs, and both are improving rapidly. Baeza is going to ride Exhibitionist in the Santa Anita Derby, and this will hardly hurt his chances. Ada Rice's Advocator, who finished fourth in the San Felipe, is another developing colt.
If Graustark comes back to the races in April—and there is no reason to believe he won't—he may have to be a truly great horse to keep his five-race win streak intact.