Until last week the country could boast of two winter racing centers that were both exquisitely beautiful and highly prestigious. Santa Anita, below the imposing San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, and Hialeah, among tall, stately palms that have somehow survived the bulldozers on the outskirts of Miami, were designed, built and managed by men of vision who felt that racing fans should be allowed to bet on horses in a setting as luxurious and tasteful as possible.
Thoroughbreds from every leading stable vied for the rich purses of the winter season and, more often than not, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events gave advance notice of his classic potential by winning one or more of the traditional stakes that highlight the Santa Anita and Hialeah meetings. Horsemen from coast to coast gave their blessings to the two well-run plants, often by literally begging for stall space, and similar acceptance was granted by the social and glitter set, whose presence on big stakes days became important enough to be recorded on Sunday society pages, with pictures yet.
That was the happy scene for two U.S. tracks going into last week. And then there was one.
Within two days both tracks staged their respective pi�ces de r�sistance for 3-year-olds—the glamour division that runs the Triple Crown route. In California a crowd of 56,624 bet $790,511 on the 29th Santa Anita Derby and watched Bill Perry's Boldnesian upset undefeated Saber Mountain by two lengths in the respectable time of 1:48 2/5 for the mile-and-an-eighth. The bettors agreed: California will send a worthy representative (even if, like Saber Mountain, he is a Kentucky-bred) to Churchill Downs on May 7. The crowd was wrong. Boldnesian was one of two horses in the field of 12 who were not nominated for the Kentucky Derby. That was regrettable, but not by comparison with what took place in Florida.
At Hialeah a bitter and booing audience of 30,011 could not bet one legal penny on or against Ogden Phipps's 1965 2-year-old champion Buckpasser, as he nosed out Abe's Hope in the Flamingo to remain a narrow Kentucky Derby favorite. This shocking—and possibly even illegal—set of circumstances came about when Hialeah's top brass ( Eugene Mori, p�re et fils, and Vice-President Walter Donovan) decided that since Buckpasser and his stablemate, Stupendous, were odds-on favorites to take it all in the Flamingo, as they had done the previous week in the Everglades, the resulting minus pool would be more than the track could bear. So, in brazen disregard of the sporting traditions that once gave Hialeah its class, and with regard only for their own profit-and-loss columns, it was decreed that the Flamingo was to be run as a betless exhibition. And if the track owners made sure they were not going to lose money on the Flamingo, they also made sure they would pick up a few dollars elsewhere. They added another—an 11th—race to the card.
"The decision was made reluctantly," said Gene Mori Jr. the day before the Flamingo, "but we might lose between $50,000 and $100,000 if we permitted betting." Even when Mori Sr., on the day after what Red Smith called "The Pink Chicken," said, "Our decision was wrong," his much-too-late admission could not remedy the unhappy facts. Class at Hialeah had nose-dived to oblivion. The sport and its traditions (for instance, win betting was allowed on the Kentucky Derby in 1948 when the Calumet Farm entry of Citation and Coal-town was a prohibitive favorite in a six-horse field) suffered a loss of prestige. The conduct of racing in Florida, as currently sanctioned by the state's patsy racing commission, is in dire need of some strong character-building. But this time Hialeah got a million dollars' worth of publicity in one day—all of it bad.
What was good was the Flamingo itself. Buckpasser ran such a phenomenally weird race that, for a brief moment, the sour audience forgot to boo the management and gasped in disbelief as the son of Tom Fool turned in the most spectacular lunging finish since Nashua nipped Summer Tan in the 1955 Wood Memorial. Turn for Home and Stupendous led in the early stages, with Buckpasser in third place. Stupendous got to the front but then simply quit near the head of the stretch, apparently leaving the race to Buckpasser. It was a situation that nobody really wanted. Bill Shoemaker did not want Buckpasser to go to the front that early because of his tendency to loaf once he gets there, and Abe's Hope, who likes to run from way out of it, abruptly came up from eighth in a big move which for him was really premature. And yet, once this awkward situation was forced upon them, Buckpasser suddenly was out in front and, just as suddenly, Abe's Hope was flying by on the outside to open up nearly two lengths.
Eddie Neloy, Buckpasser's trainer, shouted up the track, "Hold on for second, Shoe," figuring all was lost. Neloy said later, "Inside the eighth pole we were two lengths out of it, and we were still one length out with 70 yards to go. I absolutely gave up on him."
"So did I, just about," admitted Shoe, "but to come on again the way he did he must have tremendous ability and courage." The crowd wanted to cheer, but resumed booing when the photo showed that Buckpasser and not Abe's Hope had put his nose across the line first. No smiling politicians appeared on the scene to present the Flamingo trophy to Owner Phipps; instead the task fell to Bing Crosby, who laughed back at the snarlers and crooned, "I guess Bob Hope must have hired this crowd."
But if Buckpasser was, finally, the best in the Flamingo, he can hardly afford to run the same way against a really top horse. "He'd never win a Kentucky Derby like this," said one voice of experience. "His also-rans today are just average horses. If Graustark went by him while he was loafing there'd be five lengths of daylight, not two, and Buckpasser would never make that up."