One of the appealing aspects of each racing year is the sudden emergence of a "non-Establishment" 3-year-old who poses at least a momentary threat to such gilt-edged Kentucky Derby candidates as, for instance, this year's Secretariat. A dozen years ago a wisecracking ex-bookmaker named Jack Price produced from a sire and dam named, of all things, Saggy and Joppy, a national hero (and Derby winner) which he called Carry Back. Ten years later the Cinderella horse was Canonero II, who had the nerve—and courage—to jump up and beat the likes of Jim French, Eastern Fleet and Unconscious in one of the most exciting Derbies ever.
This spring there are not one but two unlikely colts running the legs off just about everything they have come up against. They belong to a couple of non-Establishment guys named Hellman and Kellman. In California this week Neil Hellman's Linda's Chief will probably go off as favorite in the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby. At Florida's Gulfstream Park last week Joe Kellman, a 53-year-old Chicago glass manufacturer whose fright wig white hair gives him the look of a chap who has just been yanked out of the electric chair in the nick of time, watched nervously as his 3-year-old, Shecky Greene, galloped to his fourth straight victory of the year in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Neither Hellman nor Kellman is in the least optimistic about seeing his colt come down in front at Churchill Downs on May 5. In fact, both owners and their respective trainers are realistic enough to consider passing up the Derby on the grounds that top sprinters will never win any Kentucky Derby—and certainly not one in which the opposition includes Secretariat.
Be that as it may, nobody is having more fun in racing this spring than Joe Kellman, who once fancied himself a boxing promoter and who has always prided himself on being a close friend of some of the country's leading comedians. Hence the name of Shecky Greene, a bay son of Australia's former Horse of the Year Noholme II and the hitherto lightly regarded mare Lester's Pride. "I'm so happy," said Kellman after accepting his trophy at Gulfstream, "because I don't deserve any great success in racing. I didn't invest millions into the game like all those big names. I got in it for peanuts, and no matter if Shecky Greene ever wins another race, I'll always know I've had a real runner."
Although the Joe Kellman success story is guaranteed never to push the achievements of Paul Mellon into the back pages of turf history, it is a happy enough tale. It began in 1961 when Trainer P. G. (Phil) Johnson, then racing at Chicago's Arlington Park, persuaded rookie turf enthusiast Kellman to claim the 4-year-old filly Lester's Pride for $10,000 from the prestigious Ada L. Rice stable. For $5,000 each, Kellman and his dentist, Dr. Charles Salk, acquired the filly. Later, when the doctor realized that the air circulating through Arlington Park wasn't laughing gas, and why on earth was he putting out $5,000 for half a beast that had won but three races (and $9,670) in 19 starts, he sold his half interest back to Kellman. Kellman soon decided that if Lester's Pride had any future at all it would have to be in the breeding shed rather than on the racetrack.
What happened was straight fairy tale: Lester's Pride went about her business and produced seven foals—six of them in successive years—and all seven won races and three of them were stakes winners. There was a chestnut colt named The Hack (for comic Buddy Hackett), who won $43,120. Then came Phil Foster, who won a stakes and $59,766. Then Ricky's Marge (named for Kellman's son and wife), a filly who won only $6,975. After that Ivy Hackett (for Buddy's daughter), a winner of $40,688, and Dr. C. Salk (for the disenchanted dentist), who won $39,122. Then the $57,260 winner Pat Henry and, finally, Shecky Greene, who has won eight of his 11 races and $194,627. This season Shecky has set a Hialeah track record of 1:08[3/5] for six furlongs and equaled Eastern Fleet's seven-furlong track record of 1:20[4/5] as he won the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream. As a 2-year-old he won four of seven starts and after four straight wins Kellman and his trainer, 47-year-old Lou Goldfine, took Shecky to Belmont and Churchill Downs for a crack at the big boys. In two unspectacular races they learned mainly that their horse was not ready for anything beyond seven furlongs.
This winter, however, Goldfine and Jockey Braulio Baeza have improved Shecky Greene's rating abilities. Even so, Goldfine was skeptical about his horse making good against the more experienced colts he would be facing in the Fountain of Youth. One of them, also trained by Goldfine, was My Gallant, an unlucky second to Our Native in the Flamingo and exactly the sort of colt (by Gallant Man out of the Nashua mare Predate) one would expect to improve over the longer distances. "I don't personally think that Shecky can go around two turns," said Goldfine before the race. "He's not a natural distance horse, and even if he wins at a mile and a sixteenth, that's probably about as far as he'll ever make it."
Well, Shecky did make it—but just barely. On a slow and tiring track Baeza was content to let long shot Leo's Pisces open up three lengths over his five rivals while he snugged Shecky Greene neatly into second place. Turning for home he rapped Shecky a couple of times and went on to win by a length in 1:43[4/5]. Some of those behind him, like Twice a Prince and My Gallant, were going to overhaul him in a few more strides, while the last two to finish, Everglades winner Restless Jet and Bahamas winner Royal and Regal, showed a clear dislike for the sticky going. How much farther could Shecky have gone and still won, Baeza was asked. "About another yard," he said.
Joe Kellman is happy enough about Shecky Greene, the horse. The man is another matter, however. Kellman once offered the comedian 10% of the horse. What ensued was such a violent disagreement over just what this meant in terms of earnings, taxes, etc. that the two sometime-buddies are currently in splitsville. According to Kellman the fault is Greene's. Kellman has been heard muttering lines like "He was offered $10,000 for nothing, and wanted $40,000," or "You give a guy a suit, you don't expect him to ask for an overcoat, too." In more mellow moods, however, he says, "Shecky's a sweetheart. He's beautiful. We've got a feud going now, but it won't last forever. All it would take would be one phone call from him to apologize to me, and we'll be friends again."