Only hours after Head of the River advanced to the head of the class at Hialeah, Solar Salute did something equally unsettling at Santa Anita. He trounced Royal Owl, the golden horse of the West, a colt many people had predicted would follow those California superstars Swaps and Majestic Prince to Churchill Downs and further glory.
The Santa Anita Derby had been all but conceded to Royal Owl, though he was not bred to go the mile-and-one-eighth distance and might even be short for the race as he had not had a start in a month. Few people were paying proper attention to Solar Salute, a modest son of a modest sire named Windsor Ruler. Even the horse's owner, John J. Elmore, and Trainer Lou Glauburg were anything but enthusiastic about his ability. Solar Salute had won the San Felipe a fortnight before, but had been entered in that stake only because Royal Owl and his injured nemesis, MacArthur Park, were withdrawn. Though the victory gave Solar Salute his sixth straight win, his owner and trainer felt he had earned the prize by default. They had so little confidence in the colt, who had won just two of 12 starts last season, that they had failed to nominate him for the Santa Anita Derby. The late-entry fee last weekend cost them $5,000, but it took Solar Salute just one minute and 47[3/5] seconds to earn back the investment and $83,000 more.
His performance was magnificent, and while he may be no Majestic Prince to look at (Glauburg describes the colt as "just average; there's nothing outstanding about him, but nothing much to criticize either"), it is evident Solar Salute has amazing grit. In his early races the colt often appeared washy and nervous. But Glauburg's patience and Jockey Laffit Pincay's feel for the horse (he has ridden Solar Salute in his string of seven wins) have pacified the animal. "He's my choice for Churchill Downs," says a pleased Pincay. Is Glauburg equally exhilarated? "MacArthur Park is the best colt here on the Coast," the trainer answers glumly, "and if Royal Owl had had a race two weeks ago the way we did, he probably would have beaten us, because I think he's the better horse."
An odd reflection by a Kentucky Derby-bound trainer perhaps, but then Glauburg was hardly in a rush to pack. "I guess we'll have to go to Churchill Downs now," he said after the Santa Anita race. "I'll have to leave 37 horses behind, which I don't much want to do."
Solar Salute has earned the trip. Taking the lead from his five rivals at the start, the bay clicked off quarters in .23[2/5], .47 and 1:11[1/5]. Pincay was riding cautiously, watching Bill Shoemaker on Royal Owl, who was never more than a length away. In third place was Quack. "I knew the pace was slow enough," Pincay said later, "so that when Shoe started his run I would have plenty of horse left."
But when Shoe made his move around the final turn, Royal Owl wasn't ready to make his. "I was hustling just to keep up," Shoemaker said afterward. Meanwhile, Quack drove through on the inside. With Pincay focusing attention on his archrival Shoemaker, Howard Grant actually got Quack half a length in front at the eighth pole. But then Solar Salute showed his toughness. After appearing to be a beaten horse in the San Felipe, he had come on again to win. Now he did it once more, digging in to overtake Quack 70 yards from the wire and pulling away to win by three-quarters of a length. A thoroughly beaten and tired Royal Owl finished a distant third. Solar Salute's victory was no April Fools' joke. Any horseman who doesn't take him seriously may be a May fool on Kentucky Derby Day.