Barely a month ago the management of Churchill Downs, where the 94th Kentucky Derby will be run this Saturday, was facing a serious danger of overpopulation. Aside from the standard headache brought on by excessive demands for reserved seats, there arose the problem of how to accommodate an expected record number of starters in the race. Two starting gates abreast could handle 26 horses, and the way candidates kept popping up in New York. Florida, California, Maryland and finally in Kentucky itself, it seemed that even this number might be exceeded. If so, it was suggested, why not do away with the gates and start them all from a barrier the way it used to be done?
Luckily, this won't be necessary. Not only is the 1928 record of 22 starters safe, but the 1968 field will almost surely fit comfortably into one 14-stall gate. Furthermore, one outstanding favorite has at last emerged. He is Calumet Farm's Forward Pass. Only a colt with the courage and stamina to beat him has a chance to take home the cash and the roses.
In the two months preceding this Derby at least a dozen among a near-record 191 nominees appeared qualified to succeed. Then, because they couldn't win often enough, because of untimely injuries or even because of the prudence of a few wise owners, many suddenly became noncandidates. Among those whose owners chose not to run were last year's 2-year-old champion Vitriolic, the Santa Anita star Dewan, the Flamingo winner Wise Exchange and the Garden State winner Bugged. A lot of riffraff also dropped by the wayside in recent weeks, but the prospect was for one of the dullest Derbies in years, contested by horses of little or no class.
But last Thursday at Kentucky's Keeneland track Forward Pass changed all this with one of the finest pre-Derby races in many a season as he won the Blue Grass in near track-record time of 1:47[4/5]. In addition, though a majority of horsemen believe Forward Pass has a virtual lock on the race, almost as many concede a pretty good chance to his chief rival, Peter Fuller's Wood Memorial winner Dancer's Image. Finally, Captain's Gig, whose troublesome legs had made him a questionable Derby starter, won his third race in a row on Saturday. His admirers are now persuading themselves that this unseasoned sprinter is capable of carrying his speed for a mile and a quarter, though he has never raced beyond one mile.
All of this adds up to a well-fought Derby, with Forward Pass the horse to beat. This big bay, a powerful 16 hands and 2 inches, has three factors in his favor: impeccable breeding, first-rate handling and a record of racing consistency. It has been said that Forward Pass is an in-and-out runner, yet in 17 lifetime races he has won seven and has never been worse than fourth. The most important part of that record is the fact that Forward Pass won his last two starts, after Trainer Henry Forrest cured him of a tendency to lug in by using blinkers with full cups.
Forrest, a 60-year-old Kentuckian who has won more races at Churchill Downs than any trainer in history, is no stranger to the Derby winner's circle. Two years ago, the first time he started a colt in the classic, he won with Mike Ford's Kauai King. Now Calumet's full-time trainer, Forrest believes Forward Pass is an even better horse. "At least he's more on his toes," says Henry. " Kauai King was a nonchalant type. Forward Pass was a little slow in developing, like his sire, On-and-On. But his grandsire was Nasrullah, and he's got some of that temperament." On-and-On was the son of Nasrullah and a glorious mare named Two Lea, among whose accomplishments were 15 wins, earnings of $309,250 and the production of Calumet Farm's last Derby winner, Tim Tam. Nasrullah has yet to sire a Derby winner, but his sons include Nashua and Never Bend (both second) and Bold Ruler (fourth). Forward Pass's dam, Princess Turia, was a champion race mare in her own right.
In the Blue Grass, Forward Pass was nothing less than sensational. With Milo Valenzuela substituting for regular Jockey Donald Brumfield, who was sidelined by food poisoning, Calumet's devil-red-and-blue silks showed first at the break and there was simply no catching the big colt. Charles Engelhard's Alley Fighter first took up the chase and was the first to retire, finishing a dead-tired fourth. Then T. V. Commercial gave it a try and actually got to within a length of Forward Pass around the three-eighths pole. At that point Milo gave Forward Pass a couple of quick raps with his stick and the race was over. He won by five lengths over T. V. Commercial, with Francie's Hat another half a length back, followed by Alley Fighter and Gleaming Sword. The winner covered nine furlongs in the fastest time of any Derby candidate this year. "He reminded me a lot of Tim Tam," said Valenzuela after the race, "and I wouldn't mind riding him again. But Brumfield has the mount and he deserves it."
Two days after the Blue Grass, Forrest informed Brumfield that he and Calumet Owner Mrs. Gene Markey had decided that Valenzuela would ride Forward Pass in the Derby. They did so, said Forrest, because Brumfield probably would not be up to full strength in time. Then they let Brumfield, a forlorn and sick young man, make the announcement to the press that he was taking himself off the horse of his own volition. "These things happen in racing," said Don bravely, "but there'll be other Derbies. Don't write that I'm being a good sport. Just say I didn't feel up to it, and that this will work out for the best."
If Forward Pass wins the Derby, and with it a pot of around $120,000, Calumet will undoubtedly offer Brumfield suitable remuneration. Exactly 10 years ago this week Jockey Bill Hartack, who had fractured a leg in a starting-gate accident, was replaced on Derby co-favorite Tim Tam by an eager young rider named Milo Valenzuela. Milo won while Hartack watched the race from the press box. Later Mrs. Markey rewarded Hartack with a check for $5,000.
"This isn't a question of money," said Forrest. "It is simply that if the Derby came down to a hard finish, Don might not have the strength and Milo would. If Don rode him and lost, the monkey would be on my back. Even though the defeat might not be his fault, there would be a lot of criticism all the way around."