His friends and backers will be happy to know that Ring for Nurse is thoroughly enjoying his seaside vacation in Atlantic City. All he does is eat and sleep and look pretty for the folks who come by to take his picture or tickle his nose. He does not even have to go through any of those annoying workouts, but then he always loafs through them anyhow. Yes, it is a good life, and the results are spectacular: his body has filled out grandly, and his copper hide gleams like a bright new penny in the sunshine.
The last time the racing public saw Ring for Nurse was on Aug. 7 at New Jersey's Monmouth Park, when he crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of some of the nation's best 2-year-olds in the $112,580 Sapling Stakes. Besides being his fifth straight victory and his second in a stakes within five days, the Sapling raised Ring for Nurse's earnings to $126,258, or more than five times what his three owners had paid for him exactly two months before. That's not bad for a colt who lost his first three races by a total of 51 lengths. After the Sapling, his flabbergasted young trainer, Don Le Vine, decided this was a good time for everybody, the horse included, to take a nice, long rest and try to put the whole crazy chain of events into some kind of reasonable perspective. After all, there are people in racing today—good, sensible people, too—who think that Ring for Nurse may be the best 2-year-old in the country and quite possibly the winner of the 1970 Kentucky Derby.
Every time somebody mentions the Derby around his barn, Le Vine, who just had surgery for a chronic bleeding ulcer, rolls his eyes around and bites his nails and goes looking for wood to knock on. His state of mind is not helped any by the fact that one of his partners in the improbable triumvirate that owns Ring for Nurse—TV Sports Producer Frank Chirkinian—talks freely about winning the classic. Chirkinian directed the Derby coverage for CBS for six years and now is enchanted by the "irony," as he calls it, of going back to Louisville next May as the owner of a contender. "And, for God's sake, whatever you do," he told a colleague at CBS the other day, "when I walk into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs don't throw it up to the camera in the Goodyear blimp."
The third partner is Bob Levy, a balding, blustering young man who is the president of Atlantic City Race Course. Levy is known to his partners, with varying degrees of affection, as "that idiot," because his arm had to be twisted hard before he consented to buying a piece of Ring for Nurse. And even now he is unpersuaded that the colt is the next Man o' War.
"He's a freak, that's what he is," said Levy recently in his office, running his fingers through what used to be hair. "Truthfully, I thought we might win one race, then run him in some claiming race. I looked up his pedigree, and so far as I can see, there have been no stakes winners on the female side since 1934. [The dam, Big Benigna, is virtually anonymous, but the sire, Run for Nurse, is hardly that. His dam is a Count Fleet mare.] I've got to think that his pedigree will catch up with him sooner or later."
"That idiot!" chorused Le Vine and Chirkinian. Neither Chirkinian, for all his innocent optimism, nor Levy, for all his persistent pessimism, plays more than a peripheral role in the saga of Ring for Nurse. They put up most of the money to buy him, but Don Le Vine is the man who first saw the colt, who determined to race him or else and who brought him to his present position.
Le Vine, from Pittsburgh, had played football at Bethany College, then knocked around as a lifeguard and stockbroker before becoming a horseman and TV commentator. Until Ring for Nurse came along, though, he was best known as Princess Grace's brother-in-law (married to Lizanne Kelly), the guy who rattled teacups all up and down Philadelphia's Main Line when he quit a perfectly respectable business—stockbroking—to live and work with (shudder) those beasts.
The Ring for Nurse story began in Florida last January. He was the property of Kenny Noe Sr., an old horseman with a penchant for developing young horses, then selling them at a profit for himself and his owners. On Jan. 30 Ring for Nurse made his debut in a three-furlong dash at Hialeah, and he finished 11th, a full 21 lengths behind the winner. His next two starts, at the same distance and track, were hardly more promising. He was beaten 15 lengths in each, finishing 13th in one race and getting all the way up to 12th in the other. At this point the word was out that Noe was worried, understandably, that he would never be able to unload this dog.
Ring for Nurse next appeared at a different track (Gulfstream), with a different jockey (Mike Miceli), over a different distance (five furlongs). His workouts before the races were as atrocious as ever—a trait that Le Vine attributes simply to laziness—but, to the complete astonishment of everyone, he won and by six lengths. Among the fans that afternoon was Le Vine, and he was impressed enough to do some homework on Ring for Nurse.
"I went back and checked the records," said Le Vine, "and I found that this horse and one named Insubordination were the only colts who had been able to go five furlongs in 58 and change at Gulfstream. I became interested."