Through the years the Kentucky Derby has been exalted and declaimed. It can be a sublime or ridiculous event—or both, as the victory of Canonero proved last year. It is a source of joy and frustration, and come May there are always horsemen muttering, "I wouldn't care if I never won another race, if I could just win this one."
It is unlikely that next Saturday's 98th running will have a storybook ending to match 1971, but the possibility exists. The winner could be a gelding from Las Vegas who has prepped for the Derby hardly a whinny from the Sahara Hotel. Ostriches, bears and monkeys have been his company—and it seems his only competition to date. But far be it from even Jimmy Jones, who saddled a pair of Derby winners, to rule out this son of Sunset Strip.
"Any horse can win," says Jones, "for the Derby is held at the time of year when miracles happen overnight. Horses are developing quickly. In every Derby field there is one colt who puts everything together at precisely post time. This is what makes the event remarkable—you never know who is coming up and who is over the hill. Take Calumet's Ponder in 1949. If they'd run the Derby a week earlier, he would have finished nowhere." (Calumet will collect another Derby cup—its eighth—when the 1968 trophy, which has been held in a bank vault for four years as courts debated the Dancer's Image-Forward Pass affair, is at last delivered.)
Sixteen horses are expected to start this year in the Run for the Roses. At the head of the list are Riva Ridge, Hold Your Peace, No Le Hace and Head of the River (who may be joined by his more impressive stablemate, Key to the Mint). Unlike some favorites in the political sweepstakes, Riva Ridge has held his own through the spring campaign. Yes, there was a nasty upset in a Florida primary, but last season's champion still retains his top ranking and figures to become the 43rd favorite to win the Derby (43% of the favorites have been successful, compared with 34% in other races). Riva Ridge has had only three 1972 starts. He won the seven-furlong Hibiscus at Hialeah in late March. Ten days later he appeared in the Everglades on a sloppy track. Mired down on the rail and cleverly trapped there by Jockey Mickey Solomone on Hold Your Peace, the son of First Landing only managed to finish fourth. Paul Mellon's Head of the River splashed around the dueling colts and scored an upset victory. Riva Ridge's final Derby prep was the nine-furlong Blue Grass Stakes last week at Keeneland. He coasted to a four-length win over a pretty poor lot.
Some horsemen thought Riva Ridge looked like a short horse in the Blue Grass. After watching him shake off his closest competitor, Sensitive Music, in midstretch, there was considerable argument about the quality of his performance. It was felt that if a better horse collars Riva Ridge at the eighth pole this week at Churchill Downs, he will not have sufficient finishing kick to get the job done with much facility, if at all. But the colt's trainer, Lucien Laurin, who has yet to win a Derby (he has had two starters), disagrees. "At Keeneland they called the track fast, but it really was very tiring," Laurin explains. "Riva was timed in 1:49[3/5]. He needed the race. After all, that's why I started him, isn't it? I get a little annoyed when people insinuate that I'm running a short horse. I swear, if this horse doesn't win the Derby, then I don't know anything about training anymore. My colt isn't short. He's dead fit, and now, after a seven-eighths race and two mile-and-an-eighth races, he's as ready as I know how to make a horse."
Among Laurin's rivals is Arnold Winick, one of the ablest trainers in the U.S. He once ran a kennel and began to dabble in horses only after being stuck with a colt as payment for a dog's board bill. Somewhere along the line, Winick must have learned the Churchill Downs formula of the late Ben Jones, Jimmy's father and a six-time Derby-winning trainer. "Get two mile-and-an-eighth races into your horse before the Derby," old Ben would say. Winick has done just that with Hold Your Peace, who runs in the silks of Maribel Blum, widow of a distiller. After starting him in three sprints in Florida this winter, Winick entered Hold Your Peace in the Flamingo Stakes. He ran off with the hundred-grander by 10 lengths. His next race was the Everglades, in which he and Riva Ridge had their muddy battle. Winick is inclined to believe that his colt's second-place finish in that event was not so much the result of his jockey's misguided tactics as the 10 pounds he had to give away to Head of the River. Last Saturday in the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs Hold Your Peace scored an easy five-length win over seven runners, giving away pounds to each. Winick purchased the colt for $26,000, and although he only won two of 11 races as a 2-year-old, he is now 4 for 6 at three. The colt's name, selected by Winick's wife LaVergne, comes from his sire, Speak John. Winick talks of his Derby hopeful as "my little big horse—he's only about 15 hands tall. But he's like a sports car with a powerful motor: he can maneuver in and out of tight spots because he is so small and agile. Why, he'd make a horse trainer out of anyone. He's a different colt this year. In the Champagne last fall Riva Ridge went by him so fast I thought he'd catch pneumonia. After that I took him to my place in Florida for a rest and he came back roaring like a bear. But I still have great respect for Riva Ridge. He didn't win $500,000 just by sitting around doing nothing."
Anytime Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stable has a starter in a classic event, the horse must be considered a contender. And this week it may have two in Louisville: Head of the River and Key to the Mint (a decision was to be made about him after the Derby Trial). Neither Trainer Elliott Burch nor Mellon has ever won a Kentucky Derby, and they are particularly keen for victory because they have come so close in the past. Training Sword Dancer in 1959 for the late Isabel Dodge Sloane, Burch lost by a nose to Tomy Lee. The Burch-trained and Mellon-owned Quadrangle was a close-up fifth to Northern Dancer in 1964, and then in 1969 their Arts and Letters lost by a neck to Majestic Prince. Head of the River, a son of Crewman and a half-brother to Run the Gantlet, did not distinguish himself recently by finishing third to some non-Derby eligibles in the Wood Memorial. That day in sloppy going the colt failed to sustain his run and the form he had shown in the Everglades, but Burch was not overly discouraged: "Next time he should go better." In past Derbies Burch has had trouble retaining some of the glamour jockeys he contracted for early in the season. They have jumped to other mounts and left him stranded. So this year he hired 31-year-old journeyman Mike Hole for Head of the River. He is a strong rider who suits the colt. If Key to the Mint, a son of Graustark and half-brother to Fort Marcy, starts, he will be ridden by Braulio Baeza. But Key to the Mint will only go to the post if Elliott Burch feels he is far enough along after his mid-March injury to win.
One owner who definitely thinks victory a possibility is San Antonio businessman Joseph Straus, who has nominated No Le Hace. The colt's trainer, Homer Pardue, was born across from the Churchill Downs quarter pole on Central Avenue. Going into this week's Derby Trial the Straus colt, a son of Candy Spots, had won live in a row, including two at that all-important mile-and-an-eighth distance—the Louisiana and Arkansas derbies. Detractors like to point out that winners of the Arkansas Derby often have been far from top class. The horses No Le Hace beat that day at Oak lawn Park have done little noteworthy since.
"Never mind that," says the colt's no-nonsense handler, Pardue. "My horse will have no excuses in the Kentucky Derby. He can handle the track and a largo field. When he gets in trouble, it just makes him mad and he drives right through. Sure, the field will he tough, but no one is in Louisville for the fun of it. Horsemen don't come here to see the roses; they come to get them."
The mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance simply may be too far for some colts, but that won't be an excuse for Freetex, a son of the distance-loving Vertex. The colt was second to Riva Ridge in last fall's Garden State, but since then has seldom done things right, winning only two of six races. But his owners, the Stavola brothers, are not complaining. They received the horse as a present from their father and he has earned over $150,000 for them. If the track is muddy in Louisville the colt may be scratched. But if Freetex has racing luck (and he needs it, for he comes from far back at the end) and a fast track, he is capable of running well, as he did in winning the one-mile Gotham Stakes in early April.