The ideal objective in any stakes race—and particularly a classic such as the Kentucky Derby—is to limit the post parade to the truly worthy. This is no place for social-climbing 3-year-olds, but they often are entered by their owners for kicks, and they usually do nothing but gum up the works for the few deserving horses. Once in a while, of course, one of them wins, and when he does he strikes a blow for all the little owners and breeders of American racing.
Still, some fairly recent Derbies have actually brought together the best 3-year-olds in training at that moment, thereby succeeding in the original objective. The last time this happened was a dozen years ago. On the morning of May 4, 1957, a field of 10 was preparing for the 83rd Derby, a group powerfully endowed with proven ability and bred superbly. The best of the lot probably was Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke who, sadly, was scratched a few hours before post time. Of the remaining nine, four were admittedly along for the ride, and a fifth, Federal Hill, did not figure to do much beyond a mile. Calumet Farm was still in the race, with second-string Iron Liege, who would have been any other stable's first string.
In one of the best races of all time this substitute, with Bill Hartack in the saddle, nosed out Gallant Man after Bill Shoemaker mistook the finish line and stood up in his irons. The third and fourth horses were a couple of colts named Round Table and Bold Ruler. Iron Liege, who thus became the only horse ever to beat Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler in the same race, was ultimately sold for stud duty in France. (He has now moved further on, all the way to Japan.) And even occasional punters know that the other three went on to brilliant racing careers and that one of them, Bold Ruler, has become probably the most successful American-bred stallion we have known.
This Saturday, for the first time since 1957, the Derby will bring together another brilliant quartet: Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Top Knight and Dike. All four are chestnuts and all four have the background and the ability to win. Along the way to Churchill Downs they have lost a few of their contemporaries, such as Reviewer, Al Hattab, King Emperor and Drone, through injuries or other misadventures. And the quartet may be joined by perhaps three or four aspiring upstarts—from among Traffic Mark, Ack Ack, Sheik of Bagdad, Mr. Coincidence, Fleet Allied, Ocean Roar, Jim's Gold C.—whose chances range from infinitesimal to nil.
The prospect of a good race is especially fortunate after the fiasco of 1968, which impelled many Kentucky officials to consider methods of retrieving the Derby's image. (Tighter security restrictions in the stable area were a matter of course.) Governor Louie Nunn invited more than two dozen of his fellow Republican governors to Lexington during Derby Week. There they were to be jointly presented a $30,000 yearling colt by Derby winner Chateaugay and are to at feted at Louisville on Derby Day in a special rooftop lounge built at a cost of $200,000.
President Nixon had indicated he enjoyed watching last year's race, when he was still a candidate, and has been invited to become the first President-in-office to attend a Derby. The problems confronting the Secret Service at Churchill Downs are intricate and weighty. For the form player they are no less tricky:
1) Majestic Prince, Top Knight, Arts and Letters and Dike all have the breeding to be classic winners.
2) All four won their last starts in brilliant style, three in near track-record time.
3) All have won major stakes at a mile-and-an-eighth with the kind of closing speed that suggests one more furlong should not bother them.
4) All will be ridden by jockeys who know their way around a racetrack and then some. Bill Hartack is on Majestic Prince and seeking to tie Eddie Arcaro's record of five Derby victories. Manuel Ycaza rides Top Knight. Free for the moment of some distracting personal problems, Ycaza has never been in better form, and the one thing he wants is his first Derby win. Bill Shoemaker, in his 17th Derby, will be looking for his fourth victory on Arts and Letters and also for some revenge after having been twice narrowly beaten by archrival Hartack (a nose when he lost on Gallant Man, and a neck when Hartack and Northern Dancer edged Hill Rise in 1964). Dike's jockey is Jorge Velasquez, a rookie in the Derby lineup but a top New York rider with the competitive drive to overcome the jitters that often affect a new boy in Louisville.