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As many as 20 3-year-olds, lots of them famous only in their own peaceful barns, are likely to go to the post at Churchill Downs next Saturday for what gives promise of being the most wide-open Kentucky Derby ever run. The setting will offer the dual stimulation of a cavalry charge and a wheel of fortune, and the bettor, owner, trainer or jockey who stands there at post time brimming with confidence is either an incurable optimist or a curable fool. This year, no matter who you draw in the office pool, don't throw away your number.
The reason for this exciting confusion is obvious: the winter and spring semi-classics that led up to this 96th Kentucky Derby failed to produce anything like an outstanding contender for a race in which all starters carry 126 pounds and run a mile and a quarter for the first time in their lives. Nor is it likely that the three remaining pre-Derby preps—this week's Blue Grass at Keeneland, the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs and next Tuesday's Derby Trial—will eliminate many hopefuls. On the contrary, unless all three of these races are won convincingly by wide margins and in very good time, the Derby field could top the 1928 record of 22 starters.
Four races last week were supposed to clear up some of the confusion, but they did little to get the job done. Silent Screen was beaten in the nine-furlong Wood Memorial by Personality, which means he either isn't yet the champion he was a year ago or that Personality is better over a distance. In Kentucky, Naskra, who is bred for distance, lost to a sprinter named Supreme Quality at seven furlongs but showed enough to gain new supporters. Earlier in the week at Keeneland, Protanto snapped out of a five-race losing streak to win a sprint impressively. And out at San Francisco's Golden Gate Fields. George Lewis won a two-length victory in the California Derby, running the mile and an eighth in 1:48[1/5] after his jockey, Bill Hartack, succeeded, at last, in rating him well. That victory earned George Lewis a Derby trip, and Hartack, who is looking for a record sixth Derby win, will have to make up his mind after he tests Dr. Behrman in the Blue Grass which of the two colts he will ride on May 2.
The 14-horse Wood Memorial might have been a fairer race had it been split into two divisions, but its finish was the most exciting since Nashua edged Summer Tan in 1955. Delaware Chief, ineligible for the Derby, took the lead, while Bill Shoemaker, subbing for the suspended John Rotz on Silent Screen, laid up snugly in second place. Eddie Belmonte had Personality up closer than usual in third place, while none of the other 11 had much to say about the outcome after some rough crowding in the clubhouse turn had sorted out the field. Delaware Chief, under Jean Cruguet, held on bravely as the trio turned for home, with Silent Screen going head and head with him and Personality coming on the outside to form a threesome that rolled the last eighth of a mile stride for stride. Just short of the wire, Personality seemed to pick up new energy and was drawing off as he crossed the finish. Less than a length separated him from third-place Delaware Chief.
"I think he'll go as far as horses have to go," said John Jacobs, who trains Personality and stablemate High Echelon for his mother. "I like the way Personality won. He hung on and was game all the way. Now he's got the message. He knows what he's supposed to do. He missed nearly all last season with spread sesamoids and suspensories, but my father [the late Hirsch Jacobs] always had hopes for him. He carried a photo of Personality in his wallet."
Hirsch Jacobs often called Personality "the best horse I've ever bred." So enamored of him was the elder Jacobs that in the spring of 1967 when he commissioned the eminent painter Richard Stone Reeves to do a portrait of the mare Affectionately he insisted that her 3-week-old suckling colt be included in the picture. That was Personality's first brush with publicity.
High Echelon was a slow starter, as usual, in the Wood and eventually came from 11th to finish sixth, although he was beaten barely four lengths for all the money. Last fall High Echelon won both the Belmont and Pimlico-Laurel Futurities, but he hasn't won since. "He's a difficult horse to train," says John Jacobs. "He only does what he has to do. He has problems with both knees and with his left shin, but we know he is capable of running a great race, and one of these days he's going to do it." High Echelon will probably run next in the Derby Trial, and after that the pair will run as an entry in the Derby. Hirsch Jacobs, the world's winningest trainer, started seven horses in the Derby from 1949 to 1967, but the best he could do was a third and two fourths. John would like to do something about that in memory of his father—and with his father's favorite horse—on May 2.
For the second time in two weeks Silent Screen did not disgrace himself, but neither did he win. He was, as Shoemaker points out, being ridden by an unfamiliar jockey, and he lost some ground on the first turn. After that, says Shoemaker, "He hung a bit in the last eighth. I hit him a couple of times, but he's not much of a whip horse." Trainer Bowes Bond and Owner Sonny Werblin want to give Silent Screen his big chance in the Derby, but they are faced with a dilemma. He may not go the distance, and he seems to lack some of the competitive instinct needed to put his opponents away once he catches them. "He seems to wait on horses," says Bond. "It may be that he needs blinkers. But it's late to be experimenting with things like that, isn't it?"
"No matter what," says Shoemaker, "he ran a good race and he's a nice colt. There's not much difference between him and Terlago, and the next time he'll be tough to beat." The next time, presumably Derby Day, will find Johnny Rotz back on Silent Screen and Shoemaker on Terlago, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and the best 3-year-old to race in the West this year. "Terlago's a tough little horse who can run," says Shoemaker, "and if the track comes up right he'll run good. But the one thing he doesn't like is mud, just can't handle it at all."
A California horse that could spring a real surprise is George Lewis, particularly if Hartack elects to ride him. After a record built strictly as a sprinter, and a good one, he was a come-from-behind winner at nine furlongs in the California Derby. So it is conceivable that he could be stretched out another eighth of a mile.