The stars of the Florida season were My Dad George and Corn Off The Cob, who finished one-two, inches apart, in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby. The way they ended up those stakes—with comparatively slow last quarters—suggests that neither is a genuine mile-and-a-quarter horse, but nobody can argue that they be denied a chance to find out. In fact, no colt at the moment is more deserving than My Dad George, the only 3-year-old in the country to have won two of the $100,000 events. Without a race since the March 28 Florida Derby, My Dad George has been shipped by Trainer Buddy McManus straight to Churchill Downs, where this week, in the Stepping Stone, he probably will face Terlago. Neither McManus nor Owner Raymond Curtis, a retired theatrical producer, has ever seen a Derby. But My Dad George's sire, Dark Star, rocked the joint 17 years ago when he dealt Native Dancer his lone defeat.
Corn Off The Cob, so named because the children of Owners Ted and Pat Gary liked to eat their corn that way, came back from his Flamingo defeat to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes over Naskra before running into My Dad George again. But like his conqueror, he is a tenacious fighter who does not give in easily. And in Arnold Winick he has an excellent trainer.
Two other recent Florida winners aiming for Churchill Downs are Cassie Red and Holy Land. The former would appear to be better suited for shorter distances, while Holy Land, owned by Mrs. J. Simpson Dean Jr., has won all three of his 1970 starts but against secondary opposition and has yet to run more than a mile and a sixteenth.
The Blue Grass is the last distance prep for the Derby, and this week it will bring together a field of considerable talent, including Naskra, winner of the Everglades. By Nasram out of Iskra by Le Haar, Naskra has an abundance of stamina in his veins. In Keeneland's Forerunner Purse last week he made up nearly five lengths while covering the last furlong in 12 seconds to finish second to Supreme Quality. The performance delighted not only his owners, Richard Hersch, Peter Jacobs and Harry Gordon, but also Trainer Phil Johnson and Naskra's regular rider, Braulio Baeza. "He will improve off this race," said Baeza. "At least he should improve. If he doesn't we're in trouble. Maybe we're in trouble anyway, but I wouldn't change mounts now, even if I could." If Naskra has a major weakness it is his curious tendency to come up with a fever on the eve of major races. It cost him starts in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby. If a colt gets hot flashes before a stakes at Hialeah, what might he develop on Kentucky Derby Day?
One colt at Keeneland who has indicated he might like a distance is Mary Fisher's Hard Work. He's not as good as last fall, but he's coming back strong. And Hard Work has the advantage of running his best on Kentucky tracks.
George Pope's Aggressively, the third California-based representative on the scene, has a Kentucky heritage. Both his sire, Decidedly, and his grand-sire, Determine, won the Derby. More important, Aggressively was a fast-finishing third behind Terlago and George Lewis in the Santa Anita Derby. He has not impressed too many people at Keeneland because, as his acting trainer Don Richardson says, "He just won't work much. He's kind of a rogue and raises hell all the time. Still, he runs in the afternoon, which is when it counts." Pope, a northern California rancher and shipping executive, had a Derby near-miss with Hill Rise to go with Decidedly's victory and is a realist when it comes to this race. "As far as I'm concerned," he said not long ago, "I wouldn't send a colt to Kentucky for the Derby if I didn't think he would finish in the first four."
Another fast closer was Dr. Behrman in the Florida Derby. This son of Hail to Reason seems to be improving every day under the handling of Trainer Jimmy Conway, who won the 1963 Derby with Chateaugay. "This colt doesn't need much racing," says Conway. "Besides, he has one ugly-looking ankle, which has somehow managed to stay under control. He's not as good right now as Chateaugay was at this time, but I feel he's a natural distance horse, maybe more so than some of those who beat him in Florida."
When, and if, he ever puts his mind on his work, another tough horse to beat could be Protanto, Charlie Engelhard's $150,000 son of Native Dancer and the Tom Fool mare Foolish One. On looks alone Protanto, a big 16 hands two inches and about 1,050 pounds, is already a Derby winner, but it's not a horse show they're running at the Downs. "Most Native Dancers are prone to be sulky," says Trainer MacKenzie Miller. "And this is a phlegmatic horse, which he gets from Tom Fool. He doesn't like the whip; in fact he sours from it. But in his last race he ran much better. This horse has ability, I know it. But when will he really show us how much ability he's hiding?"
It may all come down to something former Calumet Trainer Jimmy Jones said recently about the Derby. "Horses develop in amazing ways at this time of year—and unexpectedly, too. I remember when we had Ponder during the winter of 1949. He couldn't beat a stable pony. In the Derby Trial he must have got beat 100 yards by Olympia. But in the paddock on Derby Day, just five days later, mind you, he started to get little beads of perspiration, and he was excited and all that. A guy standing there said to me, 'Look at him, Jimmy. You're going to win this damn thing." I didn't think we could possibly be better than third. But Ponder was just one of those colts who was destined to be 100% ready at 4:30 p.m. that Saturday afternoon—and not one minute before. He won by three lengths at 16 to 1."
This could be the same kind of year. Go to the paddock and look for the perspiration. If you can't, you'll have to just sweat out this Derby.