Few stakes on the long U.S. racing calendar have more appropriate names than the Hopeful, the 2-year-old test that traditionally closes the month of racing at Saratoga. The young colts are asked to run six and a half furlongs for the first time, and although the winner's purse never approaches the proportions of first money in such later races as Chicago's Arlington-Washington Futurity or the Garden State, the Hopeful often produces a winner who finishes out the year as champion of the division and winter-book favorite for the next year's Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events.
Over the last three decades, for example, 13 Hopeful winners have wound up as 2-year-old champions; 12 have followed up their triumphs at Saratoga by winning the Belmont Stakes a year later. Some Hopefuls, like last year's, which was won by Buckpasser, are so outstanding that the audience knows instinctively a champion is on hand. Such was the case, too, in the years of Middleground, Native Dancer, Needles, Jaipur and Bold Lad. And when George Widener's Bold Hour won last week's 62nd running of the Hopeful, Saratoga's closing-day crowd of 21,490 may have seen another potential champion flexing his muscles. The victory by still another son of the brilliant sire Bold Ruler was impressive enough. Bold Hour won his race with a display of real courage and a good finishing kick over a three-horse Wheatley Stable entry made up of Great Power, Top Bid and Disciplinarian.
The Phipps family, Trainer Eddie Neloy and their first-call jockey, Braulio Baeza, have taken home just about everything this year but the Statue of Liberty, and it was obviously a shock and surprise to many to see all three of their starters beaten in the Hopeful (as an entry they had gone off as odds-on favorites). Still, the Widener-Bold Hour victory was the most popular one of the entire meeting, not only because Bold Hour may well be the best horse of his age, but because Widener, to Saratoga racegoers, represents everything sporting and traditional about the famous Spa course. In addition, Widener's trainer, Bert Mulholland, was celebrating his 83rd birthday on the day of the Hopeful.
Winner of two of his five previous starts, the son of Bold Ruler and Widener's great race mare Seven Thirty had certain carefree ways about him, persuading Mulholland to work him for a week with blinkers. He also started him with blinkers for the first time. As the Phipps jockeys paraded to the paddock, looking like a diminutive three-man army in their yellow-and-purple silks, Trainer Neloy kidded Trainer Mulholland: "If we can't beat you we'll surround you." Mulholland grinned and said nothing.
At no time during the running of the Hopeful, however, were Neloy's jockeys and colts able to surround Bold Hour. He broke from the No. 1 post position just a step behind Great Power, but took the lead immediately thereafter and held it the rest of the way home. It was not what could be called a sensational victory, but it was convincing, and it put Bold Hour at the top of the heap, at least for the moment. And he was tested: Disciplinarian ran at him early in the race and got nowhere for his efforts. Great Power, who had recently strained a muscle in his right hind leg while working in the slop, possibly should not have gone to the starting gate. He barely hung on to take second place by a head over stablemate Top Bid and came back taking so many gimpy steps that his soundness in the immediate future must be somewhat suspect. Top Bid, in turn, displayed good speed in the last sixteenth and no doubt will be heard from when the distances move up into the one-mile range.
But there must be something wrong with a 2-year-old division when the first major race of the season for eastern-based horses can offer a field of only five starters out of 330 nominations. Actually, the whole structure of 2-year-old racing in this country is beginning to change. For better or worse, many owners have finally become cautious about starting their young stock too early. Time was when every 2-year-old was supposed to reach his peak at Saratoga in time for the Hopeful. Now many are being saved for the richer purses down-state and in New Jersey and Chicago.
Every year recently the young crop has been delayed in its development by fits of coughing, by bucked shins, sore ankles and the usual equine childhood diseases. This year is no exception. Still, not every generation produces a Buckpasser, and it is wrong to expect that it should. When the 2s take turns beating each other it is fashionable to say the crop is either very good and well-matched or else lousy. It is too early to tell if this theory has any validity this season.
Jimmy Kilroe, director of racing at Santa Anita and an annual observer at Saratoga, where he was racing secretary for many years, has an explanation for the late development of 2-year-olds. "I believe," says Kilroe, "that Belmont Park has something to do with it. Many of the top stables with the best horses used to enjoy racing at Belmont in June. The atmosphere was wonderful, and you could, at one time, start 25 or more horses in a single race. If you raced in June you had a good idea by Hopeful time of who might be the best. Some of this incentive is lacking at Aqueduct, so many stables are not ready for Saratoga. Still, it is hard to see how a big outfit like Cain Hoy Stable, for example, with all those good Oaks mares, fails to come up with a top colt."
"The answer to that," says Cain Hoy Owner Captain Harry Guggenheim, "is that a top stable does not always produce a top colt. Something like Never Bend doesn't come along every year. This year, for instance, I winter-trained as usual in Columbia, S.C. with Saratoga in mind. But when we got to New York most of my 2-year-olds were coughing, and then the track was too muddy to do much training. We're way behind schedule, it's true, but there's still no guarantee, despite our five mares, that we've got anything very good."
There must be, nonetheless, some good colts around, and if Widener's Bold Hour is to hang on to his temporary leadership he will have to beat them this fall in the Futurity, the Champagne and the Garden State. Great Power, who looks and acts the part, still may be a major challenger, but he has a long way to go.