To students of 2-year-olds, the 1970 season was about as dramatic as a house call from a cemetery salesman. But now that the same colts are 3 they show promise of turning 1971 into a banner year for thoroughbred racing. The excitement has already begun—at Santa Anita, to some extent, but more so at Hialeah. Even the heritage of this year's crop is awesome: full brothers of Graustark, Dr. Fager, Personality, Dike and Dewan; a half brother of High Echelon; sons of Graustark and Tom Rolfe (both, in turn, sons of Ribot), Bold Lad, Never Bend, Hail to Reason, Round Table and The Axe II.
Currently considered the best is a bay colt named Hoist the Flag, who, like the star he is, has not yet come onstage. Owned by Jane and Steve Clark, he was the only really outstanding 2-year-old last season, when he won all four of his starts. That is, he crossed the finish line first in all four starts. In his final race, the one-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont, he finished three lengths ahead of Brookmeade Stables' Limit to Reason (whom he had beaten soundly earlier in the seven-furlong Cowdin). But, then, to the surprise of nearly everyone who later watched the patrol film, he was disqualified and placed last. Trainer Sidney Watters packed it in for the season and took the colt home to do a little repair work on his shins. Now the two of them are in the piney woods of Camden, S.C., working toward an early March day at Aqueduct when the champion pro tern will make his first 1971 start. Until then, no matter what the other horses do in California and Florida—or in Maryland and Pennsylvania, for that matter—Hoist the Flag will remain the winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
This does not mean that the others are not clearly demonstrating that there will be more good 3-year-olds challenging Hoist the Flag than there were 2-year-olds last fall. At Hialeah, Peter Kissel's Executioner won the six-furlong Hibiscus late in January, and last week the seven-furlong Bahamas was won by Ralph Wilson's Jim French. At Santa Anita two weeks ago Mrs. Johnny Long-den's Diplomatic Agent won the seven-furlong San Vicente, one of several preps for the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, although it is still too early to tell if Diplomatic Agent—who is by Envoy, an un-raced son of Bold Ruler—is the one to watch in California. The best of the lot there might be a filly with the formful name of Turkish Trousers. Naturally she is by Bagdad. Charlie Whittingham, who trains her for Howard Keck, has nominated her for the Santa Anita Derby. "It's pretty wide open," says Whittingham. "I haven't seen much of any account yet, except Turkish Trousers."
Of these, the one who looks most like a stayer able to handle the mile-and-a-quarter Derby route is Jim French, by Graustark out of a Tom Fool mare. He is named for a groom who cared for him when he was being trained by Frank Wright. Now he is being handled by Johnny Campo, the leading trainer in New York last season with 101 victories. Campo likes to run his stock often. If Jim French, who had 12 starts in 1970 and has already raced three times this year—all in stakes—can stand up to the program mapped out for him (five more stakes races before Derby Day), he is indeed a durable one. In the Hibiscus, which Executioner won, Jim French got away badly and did well to finish a fast-closing fourth. After that race Campo said bluntly, "He'll win the Bahamas next time out." And win it he did, although not without the benefit of bad luck that struck one of his relatives. Horses don't go around calling one another uncle, but uncle is what His Majesty, a full brother to Graustark, is to Jim French, Graustark's son.
It has been five years since Graustark and Buckpasser came to Hialeah as brilliant 3-year-olds to carve up the money between them and prepare for a summit meeting at Churchill Downs. Neither made it to the Derby (won that year by Kauai King), but so great was the interest in the magnificent-looking Graustark that it is only natural for some of that excitement to be regenerated by his son and his full brother.
Last November, His Majesty finished second in the slop at Aqueduct in his first start, and two weeks later he won by five lengths. At Hialeah, just half an hour before the Hibiscus, he easily won a six-furlong allowance race. The Bahamas, in which he went against far more seasoned and experienced horses, was his first stakes race, but the public showed its affection and confidence by sending him off a slight favorite over Jim French. The public might have had a winner, too, had not misfortune struck.
Jockey Braulio Baeza had His Majesty fourth going into the far turn, but he was on the rail and the boys up front were not about to open a hole for him. Suddenly Baeza found himself even tighter against the rail, another horse brushed His Majesty and the colt nicked a rail post with his left foreleg. He nearly went down, but Baeza stayed on him, pulled His Majesty up from an almost kneeling position and looked around to find that the race had all but passed him by.
Jim French, who had come from dead last, was making the big run that carried him to victory. His Majesty somehow regained running momentum and courageously set off after the leaders. This time he did get through on the inside in the stretch, but it was too late. Jim French won by a head over Twist the Axe, a long shot who was ranging up on the outside. His Majesty was third, half a length back. The next meeting of this bunch, which could be in the Everglades at a mile and an eighth on Feb. 17, will be well worth seeing. Twist the Axe, who, like Executioner, is a son of The Axe II, may like a distance.
After Hoist the Flag, the best 2-year-olds last season were Limit to Reason and Paul Mellon's Run the Gantlet. The former, by Hail to Reason, won four of 11 starts, including that gift victory in the Champagne. Run the Gantlet, another son of Tom Rolfe, won two of seven, and one of the two victories was in the Garden State, in which he beat Executioner a head. (Limit to Reason, who drew the 14th post position and then had to take the long way home, was seventh in that race but only a little more than three lengths behind the winner.) Both these colts are at Hialeah, although their trainers are in no mood to rush them. "I gave Limit to Reason a month off after the Garden State," says Trainer Tommy Kelly, "and I'll bring him along real cautiously. It's been a long time since I had a good 3-year-old and I want to win one of the big ones. You don't usually do that by pressing too much at this time of the year."
No one knows that better than Elliott Burch (Sword Dancer, Bowl of Flowers, Quadrangle, Arts and Letters, Fort Marcy), who trains Run the Gantlet and, among others, a son of Needles called Sewickley who looks, says Burch, "like he'll run all day." Winning the Garden State is considered a jinx, but Burch doesn't seem to mind. "Run the Gantlet will come along slowly," he says. "If he shows he's ready, we'll try to get him to the Wood Memorial before making any decision about the Derby."