Three days before last week's Florida Derby at Gulf-stream Park, Ohio sportsman John Galbreath picked up the telephone in his Miami house and called his contract jockey, Braulio Baeza, in New York. Word had reached him that Baeza, who had suffered two broken ribs in a fall at Aqueduct on March 22, was ready to go back to work and that, barring further discomfort, the brilliant Darby Dan Farm rider (page 45) might accept the mount on Abe's Mope in the Florida Derby. Galbreath, who has a horse of his own named Graustark (the Kentucky Derby favorite) for Baeza to ride this season, was understandably worried. "For heaven's sake, Braulio," he pleaded into the plume. "I don't want you taking any chances. Don't ride any horses until you feel 100% recovered, and when you do ride again, watch what you're doing. Above all, don't get set down. Remember, there are some mighty important races coming up."
For Baeza, every $100,000 horse race is an important one—whether he is riding for Galbreath, John Doe or, in fact, for Robert Byfield and Joe Bartell. These two frustrated owners of Abe's Hope had watched their game colt lose a desperate stretch duel by a nose to Buckpasser in the now-famous betless Flamingo a month ago. When the horse's regular rider, apprentice Earlie Fires, was suspended last week, the colt's polo-playing trainer. Del Carroll, summoned Baeza. And, sore ribs or no sore ribs, Braulio responded. Appearing for duty with nearly half of his slender torso tightly taped, the Panamanian rode brilliantly—but, alas, carelessly.
In a pulsating, frantic finish that converted a race between a bunch of secondary contenders for the Triple Crown into a thrilling contest—one worthy of any Derby Baeza dune Abe's Mope to victory by a neck Over Williamston Kid, who, in turn, had barely a nose margin over Bold and Brave. Three-quarters of a length behind the Wheatley color-bearer came Sky Guy, a length in front of the favorite, Kauai King. It was a line, tight finish; but few of the 25,341 observers realized that for the last eighth of a mile the race had devolved into a meaningless rough-house, with an assortment of leg-weary horses slamming into each other.
Bold and Brave was on hand as deputy for Buckpasser, whose recent quartercrack will force him to miss the Kentucky Derby as well. Trainer Eddie Neloy knew he probably was not saddling a fully equipped first-String sub, and as he accepted condolences on behalf of Buckpasser he quipped, "This game is like golf. Every shot makes somebody happy."
Bold and Brave's shot in the Florida Derby did not carry far enough. As expected, he took the lead under Bill Shoemaker, and led by as much as five lengths on the backstretch. But, turning for home, weariness overtook the son of Bold Ruler, and the chase was on. Shoemaker clung to the inside, while just behind him Don Brumfield was trying in vain to slip through with Kauai King. On the outside of Shoe was Sky Guy, who had run a consistently steady race, while next to him, driving, was Abe's Hope. On the outside of all of them, well clear of trouble, was the 90-to-1 shot Williamston Kid, under Robert Louis Stevenson.
Leaving the eighth pole, Abe's Hope ducked in and bumped sharply against Sky Guy, knocking him off stride. The five horses drove furiously on to the wire, but just before Abe's Hope reached it he came in again, and again slammed against Sky Guy. As he did, Kauai King, who had fought his way into contention virtually on Bold and Brave's Hanks, bore out. The two colts, Abe's Hope and Kauai King, put a perfect squeeze on Sky Guy and eliminated him completely from what surely would have been a second-place finish.
While this hit-or-miss game was going on, the far outside horse, Williamston Kid, had an unimpeded run into second place. But this long shot was about to benefit from the errors of others. Jim Combest on Sky Guy had no alternative but to claim foul against Baeza and Abe's Hope, and the claim was upheld. This moved Williamston Kid into the winner's circle (for the first time since last October in Chicago, when he beat Abe's Hope in the Juvenile at Hawthorne), and sent Bold and Brave from third to second. The offended Sky Guy went from fourth to third. Abe's Hope came down to fourth.
Baeza's case would normally have come before the stewards on Monday and he could have expected a five-day suspension, beginning on the Tuesday. But Braulio has an important date with John Galbreath and Graustark at Keeneland this Saturday, so he went to the stewards and requested an immediate hearing. The stewards found him guilty and gave him his live days. Sore ribs, hurt feelings and the loss of $8,340 in purse money notwithstanding, Baeza will be in Darby Dan silks this Saturday, the day his suspension ends. John Galbreath breathed a mighty sigh of relief.
If the result of the Florida race was supposed to bring the Kentucky Derby picture into clearer focus, something went drastically wrong. Abe's Hope probably was the best horse, but he has still officially won only one of eight starts this year. And not too much can be said for any of the others. The time for the mile and an eighth was a very poor 1:50 3/5. Yet, because of the close finish, there will be a bunch of happy owners strutting proudly about for the next month, clinging to the hope that in four weeks a mediocre racehorse can be transformed into a Kentucky Derby champion.
Take the Williamston Kid faction, for example. The colt is co-owned by Trainer Jim Bartlett and Paul F. Ternes, president of Standard Steel Treating Co. in Detroit. They have had a 10-year partnership that has yielded a lot of fun but little profit. "Two years ago," said Jim Bartlett after winning the Florida Derby, "I was talking on the phone to my breeder friend E.K. Thomas in Paris, Ky. I'd had a little luck with sons of Piet, and Thomas told me he had a Piet yearling. He said the price was $5,000 and if the colt wasn't just like he described him to me, all I had to do was send him back and the deal was off. I liked what I heard and bought him for $5,000 sight unseen." Co-owner Ternes smiled through this explanation and joined Bartlett in a happy cry of "On to the Kentucky Derby."