Graustark hurt his shins when he won the Arch Ward Stakes for Boo at Arlington Park on August 6 last year. This is a fairly routine ailment for young horses, and Gentry gave him ample time to recover. In December he resumed training the colt in Florida with the Kentucky Derby as his main objective.
The months that followed were a brutal test of both the horse and the trainer. Graustark seldom got a breather. Most horses are trained by combinations of a few fast workouts, some gallops at varying speeds and some days of merely walking around the barn. As people awaited the debut of his heralded colt, Gentry stepped up the schedule of workouts and all but eliminated the rest periods.
When Graustark came out for his first start at Hialeah on January 18, a clocker reported that he had worked or galloped on the racetrack for 45 mornings straight. He was as finely trained as a horse can be for this unimportant race, and he won by five lengths. After the race Gentry obviously was sensitive to the criticism he had been receiving. "He needed those fast works to get in shape," Boo said. "Now we're off on the right foot. I can relax with him."
But he never did relax. The most seasoned trainers have been shaken by the pressures of the arduous pre-Derby period. The excitable Gentry became increasingly distraught. He stormed away when someone attempted to check a rumor that the colt was hurt. He avoided questions and snapped, "I can't tell you any plans. I'm taking this day to day."
Day to day Graustark worked faster and harder. On February 2 he won the Bahamas Stakes (at seven furlongs), beating a fast sprinter named Impressive with consummate ease. The workouts continued. Four days before his next scheduled race, in a final work on a rainy Saturday morning, Graustark suffered a severe bruise to his left hind heel. Galbreath announced that the colt would not race again until the Keeneland meeting in April.
Graustark's Florida campaign had caused a lot of talk but it had not necessarily been disastrous. Gentry's methods were unusual, but they could have been right for the horse. "The good ones." pointed out Elliott Burch, who trained good ones named Sword Dancer and Quadrangle, "can take a lot of training."
Graustark had to take a lot more training when he got to Kentucky. As the date for the Derby approached Gentry demanded more and more of his colt. Graustark won two allowance races at Keeneland and was made the even-money favorite for the Derby. He still hadn't run a distance or beaten a top horse, but he was proclaimed The Big G, the best colt of recent years. His running action was compared to Count Fleet's. His stride was measured by exotic and dubious methods and found to be just short of Man O' War's.
At the height of all the praise someone noticed that Graustark wore the same size shoe as Citation. "That's very significant," said Bill Collins, a leading New York blacksmith. "They both wear a size 5. Of course, 40% of all horses wear that size. It's the most common hoof size there is."
While people marveled at this kind of trivia, few seemed to notice that Graustark was still running with a bar shoe on the hoof he injured in Florida. A bar shoe is used as a precautionary measure for sore-footed horses. Very few champions have worn one long, and few horses can run with a bar shoe on a sloppy track.
A week before the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Blacksmith Pat Hillock was called in to reshoe Graustark. There was some discussion about the weight of the bar shoe, but it finally was nailed in place, and Gentry and Owner Galbreath hoped for dry weather.