Ivor Godfrey Balding is a 59-year-old English-born horseman with slightly graying hair, a jolly round face highlighted by bushy eyebrows, a crisp, ducklike gait and a puckish sense of humor. For the last 33 years he has been working for Thoroughbred Owner-Breeder C.V. Whitney, first with the polo ponies, then doing a 23-year hitch as manager of Whitney's Lexington, Ky. farm and, for the last five years, as the moderately successful trainer of the eastern string of the boss's racehorses. When a Balding-trained runner wins a race—which happens with amazing regularity at Saratoga, where the boss particularly likes to watch them—Ivor usually acts as surprised as anyone else. His eyes twinkling, smoke pouring furiously from his ever-present pipe, he is capable of accepting congratulations by saying, "Yep, it just goes to show you what a good trainer can do with a bad horse."
Last Friday, Ivor Balding and his wife Frances dined at Manhattan's "21" Club. On their way out Proprietor Pete Kriendler slipped them $5, with instructions to bet it on the Whitney long shot, Bugged, in the next day's big 2-year-old race, The Garden State. In the morning Owner Whitney phoned to say that a bad cold would prevent him from getting to the Jersey track. "But, for the hell of it," he coughed into the phone, "bet $50 to place on the colt for me. I'll watch it on television."
The Baldings arrived at Garden State so late that their lunch table had been given away. An early-afternoon rainstorm had made the track somewhat slippery and slick, which, Ivor figured, wouldn't suit Bugged at all, so he decided to book both bets. "In this sort of going Bugged will run into the one thing he dislikes most of all—dirt thrown in his face," said Balding. He looked up at the posted odds of 15 to 1 and grunted, "He's probably not much horse, but maybe the others aren't either."
A few moments later many of the frustrations of the Whitney-Balding team vanished into the blue Jersey skies as Bugged, a chestnut son of Nashua and an undistinguished Mahmoud mare named Fly Trap, won the 15th running of The Garden State by a neck over Iron Ruler. Whitney, who had paid $10,000 to supplement the colt into the race at the last minute, peered into his television set in amazement as he saw his Eton blue and brown silks drive across the line, making him a winner of The Garden State for the first time in six attempts. He had nominated a total of 157 horses in 15 years for this race. For Balding, winning his first big pot, it meant a 10% trainer's cut of the winning purse of $188,721 (the gross was $314,535). "For a while," cracked the overjoyed trainer, "this colt hadn't shown enough to keep wasting money on. But it looks like he's a late developer."
Either that, or, as some observers at Garden State were saying after the race, he didn't beat much. What he did beat, however, he handled with authority. There was nothing fluky about the victory for this colt, who has one strange attribute—he either wins his races or finishes off the board. In 11 starts this year, Bugged has won four times. In his only other stakes, the Champagne, he was fourth, beaten nine lengths by Vitriolic and trailing Iron Ruler and Captain's Gig.
Much of the credit for last week's victory must go to Bugged's 24-year-old Puerto Rican jockey, Eddie Belmonte, who was riding him for the first time. "Belmonte told me in the paddock," Balding said, "that the best place on the track was about three feet off the rail, so I told him, with not much real confidence, "If you can take the rail, go get it, hut I think you'll find this colt won't like dirt in his face down in there.' " In this instance Balding was wrong, Belmonte right. "He liked the track just fine. It was fast but a little slippery," said the winning jock later.
Despite a 13-horse field, the 15th Garden State was a remarkably clean race. Broad Shadows, the California sprinter, took the lead, with Wellpoised and Pappa Steve prompting the early pace. The favorites, T.V. Commercial, Subpet and Iron Ruler, were well positioned throughout, but only the latter was menacing. His excuse, if he had any, is that he was carried wide on the last turn. But even at the end Bugged, who had never been worse than sixth and had benefited from a skillful and saving ride by Belmonte, was not giving up an inch of ground. Family Fun was third and Francie's Hat fourth. Subpet and T.V. Commercial were sixth and seventh respectively. Manuel Ycaza blamed the track for T.V. Commercial's poor showing, while Angel Cordero, on Iron Ruler, said his colt got so con fused on the stretch turn that he wobbled through it nearly sideways. Bugged, who covered the mile and a 16th in the poor time of 1:44[4/5], needed no excuses whatsoever.
The Garden State is supposed to show us all what to expect next year from this year's crop of 2-year-olds. Bugged, after a winter in Camden, S.C., may continue to do well in 1968. If he doesn't, it won't be the first time that the winner of this $125,000-added classic has disappointed his admirers. In fact, only one Garden State winner, Carry Back, has ever gone on to win a Kentucky Derby or lasting fame as a top handicap horse. "It used to be," said former Calumet Farm Trainer Jimmy Jones at Garden State last week, "that some of us would save a colt all year to win this pot. Right or wrong, many of the winners never amounted to much later on. I'm not blaming the race, for the race is a good one, at the right time and at the right distance. It's probably just coincidence. When I won it with Barbizon in 1956 he was absolutely perfect on that one day. The next week he couldn't have beaten a bull. But it doesn't look to me like there's any knockout brown in this 1967 field."
Vitriolic, probably the best 2-year-old this season, was forced to skip The Garden State because of a shin splint—which, in the long run, may turn out to have been good for him. Last year his stablemate, Successor, won it easily and then spent most of this season trying to recapture his old form. Going back to last spring, when T.V. Commercial won the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland, there have been no fewer than 26 different 2-year-olds who have won stakes this year in preparing for The Garden State. On that basis, and off one very fine performance in New Jersey last week, Bugged must be given the same chance for success as any other colt in the season ahead.
As for Ivor Balding, there's a check for $18,872 coming his way. He owes Pete Kriendler $82.50 out of it, and the boss another $280. "That's the least of my worries," said Balding as he headed back to Long Island. "If Mr. Whitney had come to the races, and if I had made those bets, we'd surely have lost. That's the way it goes."