The tiny palm-dotted community of Hialeah, on the outskirts of Miami, has moved into prominence in the past decade as a favorite growing ground of a plant of the genus Rheum known as a rhubarb. Much of Hialeah's fame rests on the classic Flamingo, a milestone race for Derby-bound 3-year-olds, and the event regularly produces rhubarb in abundance.
Exactly ten years ago Tim Tarn and Jewel's Reward provided the excitement in a race that resulted in a disputed and embarrassing disqualification. In 1962 Sunrise County won the Flamingo but was disqualified for interfering with Ridan. Somehow that made a winner out of the long shot Prego, who had about as much right to win as Jackie Gleason. Four years later came the now-famous "chicken" Flamingo, so named because Buckpasser's presence in the field terrorized Hialeah's management into permitting win betting only.
Last week, in the 39th Flamingo, rhubarb was in full bloom again, and in certain quarters—among horsemen, the press and many of the 30,902 who turned out in a cloud of pink for Hialeah's traditional closing day—the genus Rheum had a most unpleasant odor to it. The eight colts who went to the post in the mile-and-an-eighth event that is supposed to clarify the whole picture for the coming Triple Crown races gave the folks a rousing horse race all right, but when it was over, Kentucky Derby talk was almost forgotten in the heat of one more disqualification. There were harsh words between riders and officials, and a sad, depressing atmosphere of puzzlement hung over the beautiful track. More than 2,000 miles away, at equally beautiful Santa Anita, there really was Derby talk, and now that the horsemen's strike against management was over, nobody seemed particularly angry at anyone else. More important, however, there may have been some better 3-year-olds in California this week than there were at the Flamingo.
First things first, however. The Flamingo was actually won by favorite Iron Ruler in the respectable time of 1:48[1/5]. Moments later the winner's number came down, and up went that of the second-place finisher, Wise Exchange, who had trailed by a length and a quarter after running through the stretch on a convoy course.
There were no fireworks in the Flamingo until the run home. Mike Phipps's Master Bold took the early lead, as expected, with Peter Kissel's Iron Ruler a few lengths behind him. Next came Subpet, while Calumet Farm's Forward Pass, winner of the recent Everglades, put himself out of serious contention by going wide on the first turn. In the far turn Jockey Angel Cordero Jr., the hero of the Hialeah meeting with 66 winners in 39 days, drove Iron Ruler up to challenge. They took the lead away from the fast-tiring Master Bold, while Wise Exchange, the Hirsch Jacobs-trained gray son of Promised Land who races in the scarlet-and-white silks of Jacobs' partner, Isidor Bieber, was making a big move from seventh place.
Around the turn and into the stretch Master Bold quickly dropped back on the inside as Cordero drove Iron Ruler by him—and a little wide. Jockey Eddie Belmonte, meanwhile, was driving with Wise Exchange, too, and the place he wanted to drive to, obviously, was the spot vacated by Master Bold, between the rail and Iron Ruler. But Cordero had other plans, so the stewards said later. He gradually brought Iron Ruler back in toward the rail as Belmonte was going for it. Belmonte had to check Wise Exchange, change course and make a new move to the outside. When he got clear he was nearly three lengths behind Iron Ruler. After he started running again Wise Exchange flew after the leader, and he might have won it all in another 70 yards or less. As it turned out, he did win it all—$89,050 out of the gross purse of $137,000—when Belmonte claimed foul against Cordero and the stewards backed up his claim and officially reversed the order of finish.
Disqualification in a horse race is at the discretion of track stewards, but stewards, like horseplayers, do not always agree. If they had at Hialeah last week—before they threw a 20-day suspension at Cordero—they would have put up their own inquiry sign long before Belmonte had a chance to dismount and lodge his complaint. But instead of taking the initiative, Hialeah's stewards awaited Belmonte's objection—that Cordero and Iron Ruler had intimidated Wise Exchange through the stretch. Later, in explaining their own severe action (the stiffest suspensions are usually no more than 10 days), they accused Cordero of "herding" Wise Exchange by pursuing an irregular course. The films show that the stewards' decision is arguable, but, unfortunately for Cordero, the stewards are always right.
The point of it all, says Steward Keene Daingerfield, "is that even though the movies show that Wise Exchange had room to get through on the inside, nobody knew how much more herding Cordero was going to do toward the rail. Belmonte had to take back because, at the time, he didn't know if Cordero was going to come all the way in on him. If Cordero had, there would have been room for half or three-quarters of a horse to get through, but not a whole horse." Cordero's defense, in a special hearing held after the last race, wasn't convincing enough. While the stewards were plainly imputing malicious intent on his part, he insisted, in broken English, that Iron Ruler often swerves when he gets the lead but that the colt did follow a straight path once Wise Exchange drove up on the inside. His plea, of course, got nowhere, and Colonel Bieber and the Jacobs family received the Flamingo trophy to the accompaniment of a chorus of boos.
"I don't know why that should be," said Trainer Hirsch Jacobs. "It was a clear case of intimidation through not steering a proper course." Losing Trainer Eddie Yowell, probably the best sport in the house, didn't think he should have lost, but said good-naturedly, "Sure, Iron Ruler weaved in, but when I saw the other jock never stop riding, I thought they'd let our number stay up. It's one of those things that happen in this game, and you have to accept it."
Are any in this field Kentucky Derby horses? Well, the picture has changed a lot now, says Jacobs, who hardly considered nominating Wise Exchange for the May 4th classic until a few weeks ago. "I thought Vitriolic was far the best," Jacobs explains, "but if he's out for a while, I suppose that gives any number of us a chance, at least for the time being. This colt of mine isn't anywhere near as good as Reflected Glory, who won the Flamingo a year ago, but he is very fast, runs honest and should really like a distance. We'll run him in the Florida Derby, then take him to New York and we might get to Churchill Downs yet." Indeed he might—if this gray, who has now won only three of 25 starts, can keep his sore shins well enough through the Jacobs training routine, which isn't so much training as just plain racing whenever possible.