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It rained relentlessly last Saturday, but there was no rain check in the race for Horse of the Year honors. The $100,000 Woodward Stakes was the ultimate contest, matching Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge and the midsummer champion Key to the Mint. Since late February the two 3-year-olds had jogged and cantered and galloped and breezed and run as fast as they could over many hundreds of miles. They had won between them more than half a million dollars and most of racing's celebrated trophies. But now they met in a sudden-death mile and a half to determine who deserved the national title.
If the deciding distance seemed scant after the long season, there were horsemen who felt the Woodward would be a far better race if it were just a mile and a quarter. That had been the traditional distance of the stake until this season, when Alfred G. Vanderbilt, the boss of New York racing, ruled differently. "Maybe A.G.V. just wants to start the race in front of the grandstand," grumbled one critic.
"Maybe that guy's right," said Vanderbilt, a man known for his efforts to win fans for the sport. "But also, maybe there are enough mile-and-a-quarter races already. What's wrong with having a true autumn championship? The Belmont Stakes and the Coaching Club American Oaks are raced over a mile and a half in late spring. They are this country's classics. Why not do it all over again in September and really find out who's the best horse around?"
By dusk on Saturday that was obvious: Key to the Mint. But the Woodward revealed a number of other things as well. Among them 1) that winning trainer Elliott Burch, who is not yet 50 and therefore young in his profession, is something of a genius (Key to the Mint seems certain to become his fourth Horse of the Year in 14 seasons), 2) that Burch trains the best 3-year-old filly in the U.S. as well as the best colt, for in finishing second before being disqualified Summer Guest probably snatched that title from her rival, Susan's Girl and 3) that Riva Ridge, beaten in his last three starts, is not the horse he was heralded to be in June.
In their last meeting in the Belmont Stakes, Riva Ridge overwhelmed Key to the Mint by 13 lengths. This time he lost to the Burch colt by a little over six lengths. The reversal of form—19 lengths in 17 weeks' time—was astonishing.
There were indications through July and August that Key to the Mint might be racing into championship form. He won three prestigious stakes—the Brooklyn, Whitney and Travers—while Riva Ridge barely eked out a victory over so-so horses in the Hollywood Derby, then finished fourth in the drug-clouded Monmouth Invitational (SI, Sept. 4) and was a well-beaten second to Canonero in the Stymie.
Yet, all the while, Lucien Laurin, who trains Riva Ridge and finds it hard to believe that he's ever about to saddle a loser, retained confidence in the colt. "I'm not afraid of any horse," Laurin said on Woodward Day. "I'm going in with the best, and all I want is luck." As he spoke, rain poured down, and the track turned from fast to mud to slop. "This surface won't bother Riva at all," Laurin declared. "He's a long-striding horse who needs sure footing, and that's what slop at Belmont provides. The going here won't be at all like the slippery, greasy muck in the Preakness at Pimlico. Belmont's track has a superior bottom and a higher sand content. None of us should have an excuse."
Like Laurin, Elliott Burch did not believe the mud would be a factor. But as always, Burch was apprehensive about his preparation of Key to the Mint. He believed as long ago as last January that the colt had the potential to be the best racehorse in America. His daily concern for the horse's training regimen was revealed in a diary (SI, April 17) he kept as he readied Key to the Mint for the Kentucky Derby. Then, in a conditioning race at Hialeah, the horse struck his right hind leg coming out of the starting gate and suffered a massive bruise. At the time it appeared the son of Graustark might be finished as a racehorse.
But Burch had nursed the lame colt back to his winning ways by Derby week, and while Key to the Mint did not start against Riva at Churchill Downs, he was ready to take on Laurin's horse in the Preakness. The boggy track beat both colts that day. Then came the Belmont Stakes. "I probably messed up Key to the Mint in that race," said Burch last week. "I put a lot of speed into him prior to the event and then told Braulio Baeza, our jockey, to rate him. It was impossible. The colt proved so rank and so difficult to handle that afterward I decided to disregard that race—without, mind you, taking any credit away from Riva Ridge, who certainly was tops that day. But then my colt came back to take those three big stakes, and won like a good horse should. I still don't know if he is a mile-and-a-half horse, but the Woodward—for better or worse—will tell us."
On the eve of the stake, Burch figured that if Key to the Mint flagged, there was always a chance Summer Guest, who had been successful in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama, might win the race anyhow for him and Owner Paul Mellon. She had shown she could stay the distance and she only improved on a muddy track.