On racing fronts 3,000 miles apart, the traditional runnings of the Santa Anita and Florida derbies last week were supposed to eliminate much of the fancy guesswork for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Instead, from a reasonably clear focus, the view of Churchill Downs flipped wildly to a panorama of new names and new faces that should inspire one of the eeriest Derby guessing games in many a year.
First, at Florida's Gulfstream Park, Peter Kissel's Iron Ruler, sent off as the 3-to-5 choice over six rivals, was soundly trounced by Calumet Farm's Forward Pass. On the same afternoon, in California, William H. Perry's undefeated Dewan ran third as Charles Englehard's Alley Fighter, also conditioned by Dewan's trainer, Jim Maloney, came in first. He was two lengths ahead of Don B., with Dewan another length back. All three probably deserve a trip to Louisville, as do Forward Pass and Iron Ruler. Both races, on fast strips, were run in the poor time of 1:49 for the mile-and-an-eighth distance, which is one furlong less than they will be asked to go in Kentucky.
The 31st Santa Anita Derby actually turned out to be a rather mediocre show put on by horses who should have done better. Everyone knew that Prince Pablo would take the lead from the gate—which he did. But nobody seemed certain of who would elect to run with him for the first part of the race. That tactic, which would probably kill off any finishing thrust Prince Pablo might have, would also eliminate any winning chance for the other horse. As it turned out, long shot Skookum assumed the role, and it resulted in Prince Pablo fading at the far turn. He finished fifth, beaten a little over six lengths. Skookum was eighth.
Meanwhile, Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. had Alley Fighter in the fourth spot. He put his mount's nose in front for the first time midway around the far turn, as both Don B. and Dewan moved up to challenge, and the prospects for a tight three-or four-horse finish were still high. Don B., a tough son of Fleet Nasrullah, and Dewan were expected to put the issue squarely to Alley Fighter. Neither did, and the son of Florida's leading stallion, Rough'n Tumble, coasted home effortlessly. Behind Dewan the order was Proper Proof, Prince Pablo, American Tiger, Chris, Skookum, Glory Hallelujah and Poleax.
Only Dewan may have had a legitimate excuse. "The ground broke from under him leaving the gate," said Maloney. "He stumbled right there. Going by the stands the first time he was in a bad position and didn't seem to have much chance to improve it. He's never been that far back—eighth—and I think he lost whatever chance he had. On the other hand he is still green, and if he's O.K. during the next few days I believe he'll go to Kentucky along with everyone else." "Everyone else," of course, includes Alley Fighter, whom Englehard picked up in Florida for a paltry $91,000 in January 1967 from Joe O'Farrell's Ocala Stud Farm. Englehard, the New Jersey mining executive who races in every country where they put up a tote board, has spent more than $5 million during the last half dozen years to build up his Thoroughbred holdings. His American trainer is MacKenzie Miller. who found out how the other half races when he took Assagai to Paris in the summer of 1966. Mack Miller usually ships all the Englehard stock to winter in Aiken, S.C., but last fall he casually asked his good friends and golfing companions, Bill Perry and Jim Maloney, if they would take two of his colts to Santa Anita with the regular Perry string. Sure, said Perry, assuming that Miller was about to send him a couple of aspiring older grass horses. But one of them was a colt called Jig Time and the other was Alley Fighter. "My God," exclaimed Perry as he watched last week's Santa Anita Derby post parade, "if I thought Mack Miller was going to unload a couple of Derby-age colts on my trainer—to run against my own horses—I hate to tell you what I would have told him."
Maloney, Perry's private trainer, is now the most embarrassed man ever to win a $100,000 race. Alley Fighter, he says, "picked up weight and condition during the last month or so, and he really didn't need too much work. He thrives on easy training, so much so that I handled him more like a filly than a colt. Off his race today—and he's still improving—I'd have to give him a shot at the Kentucky Derby."
Whatever Alley Fighter does from now on will not be the concern of Perry or Maloney. "I saddled him for the last time today," said Maloney, who has now won about $400,000 in purses for his "two" owners this year. "Alley Fighter leaves in the morning to join Mack Miller at Keeneland." Bill Perry, who picked up $15,000 for Dewan's third-place finish, didn't offer much or a smile as he watched the colt go down to his first defeat. Finally he struggled to his feet, managed a sporting grin and said, "You do a couple of good friends a favor—friends like Charlie Englehard and Mack Miller—and then see what happens to you! It doesn't seem right, does it?"
If both of Saturday's derbies produced surprises, the five horses that showed best in them are not the only ones to be considered seriously as potential winners at Churchill Downs. Some others will be heard from shortly, while a few that were once thought of as prime candidates are now doubtful starters or out of it. Wise Exchange, a shin-sore veteran of 26 races, will run in anything that Trainer Hirsch Jacobs can patch him up for, but all the baling wire available may not hold the colt together for another month. Vitriolic, Ogden Phipps's 2-year-old champion of last season, is going to Kentucky after all, but for a knee operation instead of an outing at Churchill Downs. Cut and knocked about in Hialeah's Everglades, Vitriolic, whose sparkling 1967 record of six victories in 13 races made him the early Derby winter-book favorite, may be out of action for the entire year.
Maryland-based Clever Foot has been doing nothing but winning lately, but he has yet to go beyond seven furlongs. Warner Jones's Princequillo colt, Go Marching, handled by Horatio Luro, has shown that he prefers running over grass rather than dirt. Jones, a member of the Churchill Downs board of directors, would love to win the big one before the home folks, but Luro will probably persuade him that Go Marching, who cost $210,000, is not a Derby colt. "If he is," joked Jones's longtime friend, Bull Hancock, "then I have a Triple Crown winner of my own. My Round Table colt, Link, broke his maiden by four lengths at Gulfstream last week. If he looks that good next time out, at Keeneland on April 9, we'd have to start taking his Derby chances seriously."
Also on hand at Keeneland's usually delightful spring meeting will be Captain Harry F. Guggenheim's Captain's Gig, who upset Vitriolic in last fall's Futurity. He was rested for much of the winter in South Carolina and at least will come up to the classics fresh. This has not always proved to be an advantage, but it is also the route chosen for C. V. Whitney's Garden State winner Bugged. Whitney may have two runners in Kentucky. At Santa Anita his Sword Dancer colt, Gleaming Sword, skipped the local derby, but he won on the same card and may have earned a trip to Louisville. Bugged may head for the bourbon country after being tested in next week's one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct and in the Wood Memorial. Still not to be counted out entirely are T. V. Commercial, also bound for Keeneland after a disappointing California season, and Kentucky Sherry, winner of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. In or out of this group may lurk the Derby champion. It is that kind of a racing year.