There is no point in trying to kid our-selves that this is a vintage year for 3-year-olds. Still, one of these critters is going to win the 94th Kentucky Derby next week. And three races—in New York, Kentucky and California—have now shed some light on prospects for the Derby field. In a way they tell us more about which horses do not belong at Churchill Downs, but at least that narrows the choices.
First, on Friday of last week at Keeneland, Captain Harry F. Guggenheim's Captain's Gig won his second straight race of the season, a seven-furlong affair known as the Forerunner Purse ($10,000). Twenty-four hours later at Aqueduct, Peter Fuller's Dancer's Image ran off with the 44th Wood Memorial, beating Iron Ruler by three-quarters of a length. Both races were run in fast time over fast tracks, but this has little to do with how any of these three colts can be expected to fare carrying the Derby weight of 126 pounds over a grueling mile and a quarter.
What marred the mile-and-an-eighth Wood was the last-minute withdrawal of Isidor Bieber's Wise Exchange, one of the few colts around who really does have the look of a distance horse. On race day Wise Exchange, finally recovered from his shin troubles, came up with a little puffiness behind and under his right front ankle. "I probably could have run him," said Trainer Hirsch Jacobs, "but I didn't feel like taking the chance and then worrying if I had done the right thing. Now we'll give him a few days and if he's O.K. we'll ship to Kentucky for the Derby Trial."
I suppose that if I owned Wise Exchange and had Hirsch Jacobs training him for me I'd want very much to give him a shot at the Derby. But if I had to pay transportation bills and starting fees for any of the runners in the 11-horse Wood field I'd lock all but Dancer's Image and Iron Ruler in the barn. These two deserve the trip, undoubtedly will make it and would appear to have as good a chance as anyone in the Derby. And that includes Proper Proof and Don B., who finished one, two in last week's California Derby.
Salerno, with Braulio Baeza up, set the early pace in the Wood, but he was trying to get out all the way up the back-stretch. When he finally bolted and then quit running almost entirely around the far turn, it meant that Angel Cordero Jr. and Iron Ruler were prematurely forced into taking over. Turning for home, Iron Ruler was on his way to a four-length lead—an all but sure winner. But now Dancer's Image got into the act. He had lagged in eighth place after the start, but Jockey Bobby Ussery wove his way carefully between horses on the final turn and suddenly came after the leader. Dancer's Image nailed his target just inside the 16th pole. The most encouraging aspect of his performance, aside from the final time of 1:49, was that he was drawing away strongly at the finish. Iron Ruler had seven lengths on third-place Verbatim, and the other six were strung out over 16 lengths. None of them want any part of the Derby's 10 furlongs.
Dancer's Image is by Native Dancer and so comes naturally by his classic potential. Owner Fuller, son of former Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, came out of the Wood with his usual optimistic grin. Ussery, who also has a confident streak, said, "The farther Dancer's Image goes, the more he separates himself from horses like these."
You can't compare the Wood to the Forerunner, but at Keeneland Captain's Gig looked a winner throughout. He covered the seven furlongs in a good 1:22[1/5] and worked on out the mile in 1:35. "Impressive as his race was," said Captain Guggenheim, "seven-eighths is a long way from a mile and a quarter, and none of us knows if he is capable of it. Captain's Gig is not a big robust type—like Forward Pass, for example—but if he has anything over some others it is the advantage of being fresh. He's only had two races this year, one at six furlongs and one at seven."
Three days later that advantage was evaporating. Captain's Gig was walking so hesitantly around his barn at Churchill Downs that his Derby candidacy became highly questionable. X rays were being taken, but Guggenheim, Trainer Bill Stephens and Jockey Manuel Ycaza know very well that any training time lost during these last few days before the Derby is irreplaceable. That's because there is little or no time left.