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For the price of four or five dozen long-stemmed American Beauty roses a horse can be nominated for the Kentucky Derby, so it was no great surprise this year when the owners of a record number of 3-year-olds (258) paid the initial $100 entry by the Feb. 15 deadline. But no sooner had the Derby books closed than strange things began to happen. Nominees for the race were beaten so often by non-Derby colts that the Run for the Roses in Louisville next week is shaping up as a consolation event.
Consider what happened on three fronts last week. In the $100,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct—a race whose winners have gone on to capture seven Kentucky Derbies (and three of the eight U.S. Triple Crowns)—three of the first four horses to cross the finish line, including the winner. Upper Case, will not be seen in Kentucky. At Garden State the same afternoon another Derby ineligible. Over Arranged, upset several Louisville entries in the Delaware Valley Stakes, and at San Francisco's Golden Gate Fields the West's best hopefuls, Solar Salute and Royal Owl, were overwhelmed in the $100,000 California Derby by Quack, who has not been named for any of the Triple Crown races. With this disconcerting turn of events, only a runaway victory by Derby favorite Riva Ridge in this Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes can prevent the field at Churchill Downs from being hopelessly cluttered and having mediocrity written over it from head to tail.
At Keeneland last Friday, the day before surprises jolted so many of the Derby nominees, the seven-furlong Forerunner Purse was held. It is a modest event—$8,125 to the winner—but sometimes has telling results. In 22 years the race has produced seven Kentucky Derby winners and eight more who finished second. This year, over a sloppy track, the victor was Billy Rogell, who finished a head in front of Big Dot (not in the Derby). Another half length back—and, incidentally, traveling fastest of all after breaking through traffic and reaching the rail—was Introductivo. Billy Rogell, a son of Beauguerre out of a War Admiral mare, covered the seven furlongs in 1:24[4/5]. And although this year the Forerunner was not an impressive race—proving only that the first three are adept in mud—it did seem to indicate that of the nine starters Introductivo would probably be the best at the longer, mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance.
Upper Case, Riva Ridge's stablemate who won the Florida Derby before finishing second in the Flamingo and third in the Gotham, had no difficulty taking the Wood Memorial, which, like the race at Keeneland, was run in muck and rain, though at the more testing distance of a mile and an eighth. Upper Case was never worse than third and moved out in front near the half-mile pole. By mid-stretch he was four lengths in front of Paul Mellon's Head of the River, who had put on a spurt around the final turn but then hung noticeably in the last furlong. John Galbreath's True Knight came from last with a tremendous rush in the stretch, and at the finish it was this non-Derby eligible (six months ago he could have been claimed for $20,000) who was gaining steadily on Upper Case. The winner's margin was a comfortable length and a half. Four lengths behind True Knight was Head of the River, and nearly four lengths farther back was Forage, another of the improving colts for whom no $100 Derby deposit was made. Scattered up the track—and none with any excuse except possibly the sloppy going—were the Derby candidates Freetex, Traffic Cop, Festive Mood, Harbor Prince, Eager Exchange, Second Bar, Great Bear Lake and Instinctive.
Off his showing, Head of the River, the upset winner of the Everglades over Hold Your Peace and Riva Ridge (in a race also run in the slop), deserves a shot at the Derby, and Trainer Elliott Burch intends to give it to him. "I thought he ran pretty well," said Burch in a postrace consultation with Owner Mellon. "He may have tired a bit at the end, but he hasn't raced in three weeks and he hasn't been worked particularly hard. Now I'll take him to Louisville and see what happens." Burch also revealed that Key to the Mint, who was his No. 1 Derby candidate (SI, April 17) before being injured in Florida, probably would accompany Head of the River to Churchill Downs. "If he does well and seems ready," added Burch, "I might run him in the one-mile Derby Trial." And then would there be any chance, he was asked, of running the colt in the Derby itself? "Well, let's say," replied Burch with a half smile, "if he simply galloped in the Trial.... MMmmm! Otherwise the Derby Trial will serve as his prep for the Preakness at Pimlico."
As for Upper Case, he too will aim for the May 20th Preakness. As his owner, Mrs. Penny Tweedy, accepted congratulations, she was reminded that following Upper Case's Florida Derby victory, she had said she had no regrets that he hadn't been nominated for the Kentucky Derby. Did she still feel the same way? "Now there's no question about that at all," she laughed. "Yes, I do regret it."
"There's no doubt it's unfortunate," chimed in Trainer Lucien Laurin, "but let's look at it another way. Upper Case's winning the Wood made me feel that much better about the chances of Riva Ridge in the Derby. I said in Miami that Riva was 10 lengths the better of the two. O.K., so let me change that now to five lengths. Still, the way Riva Ridge has been working at Keeneland, I'd have to say that not only has he never been better, but that I've got to consider him the best of the 3-year-olds whether they are eligible for the Kentucky Derby or not."
At the moment, only one horseman might dispute Laurin's confident appraisal of the colt's preeminence. That is Charlie Whittingham, the trainer of Quack, who romped in the California Derby. The horse is still learning what the game is all about and seems to improve with every race. A month ago Whittingham, a tactician who usually prefers to do his racing (and his steady purse winning) in California rather than go carpetbagging, said he didn't think any of the West Coast 3-year-olds belonged in the Kentucky Derby. "I didn't nominate Quack because I didn't think he was good enough to win it. He's a big, old country horse just beginning to come around."
Well, under Jockey Bill Shoemaker he came around just fine last Saturday at Golden Gate. The favorite Solar Salute was fourth (behind Kentuckian and The Pie Host), and Royal Owl finished fifth. Royal Owl probably will skip the trip across the Rockies. But Solar Salute, on the basis of seven straight wins before losing to Quack, may give the Derby a whirl. His rider, Laffit Pincay, partially blamed last Saturday's defeat on a bad start. Solar Salute reared as the gate was sprung and after that he was never as close to the lead as his jockey wanted him to be. This may, of course, be a very legitimate excuse, but as Trainer Jimmy Conway said after watching his Traffic Cop finish a disappointing sixth in the Wood, "As an excuse you can always say he didn't run as well as he can. But you have to run well to earn the trip. We did not, so we won't go. Maybe some other day."