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Being ushered to the winner's circle on major stakes days at Saratoga has always been something like an invitation to a financial discussion at the boardroom of Chase Manhattan. Only the big boys get in. Until this summer, that is.
First, Riva Ridge took a shellacking. Next, Onion knocked off the mighty Secretariat in the Whitney. Then along came a sprinter named Annihilate 'Em to outlast seven rivals in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers. Finally, last week's 69th running of the Hopeful—a 6�-furlong 2-year-old stakes with immeasurable prestige—was won by a big chestnut gelding named Gusty O'Shay, a 9-to-1 shot. As late as May 24 Gusty O'Shay could have been claimed for $5,000.
Oh, a few things went as predicted. In winning the Alabama, Desert Vixen just about wrapped up the country's 3-year-old filly championship. And the day before the Hopeful, Talking Picture added the Spinaway to her victories in the Schuylerville and Adirondack, putting her several lengths ahead of the rest of the nation's 2-year-old fillies. But even that win was not accomplished without a pre-race incident. While being ponied on the morning of the race, Talking Picture broke away and, after a hair-raising, un-Olga Korbutlike flip, landed flat on her back. This should have been enough to convince the densest of trainers to retire the filly for the season. John Campo, however, is not the densest of trainers. He covered up the nasty cut on Talking Picture's nose and sent her off less than 12 hours after her gymnastics to a stiff, six-furlong war. She coasted home by 2� lengths.
It was the sort of performance Saratoga deserved this year. Despite such horrors as Secretariat being sidelined the day of the Travers and the presence for the first time of off-track betting facilities at nearby Schenectady, the 24-day meeting set a record handle ($36,675,881, almost $200,000 more than the previous year) and came close to drawing a record audience (419,103, about 13,000 fewer than in 1971).
Even in a year when the country's 2-year-olds are something less than sensational one might have assumed that the Hopeful would be won by a runner with credentials finer than Gusty O'Shay's. Among the seven starters were Az Igazi, whose name means "It's the real thing" in Hungarian and who seemed like that in winning both the Saratoga Special and the Sanford; the improving Take By Storm, a son of the Argentinian champion Pronto and a Bold Ruler mare; and Prince of Reason, who is by Hail to Reason and Home by Dark.
Gusty O'Shay is something else. His breeders, sisters Helen Hopkins and Lola Peters, picked up his dam for $2,500 in a claiming race. When they discovered the nerves of one foot had been operated on they were unsuccessful in calling the deal off. What they got instead of their money back was a free season to the stallion Rose Argent, by Double Jay who is out of a Sailor mare named Rose. This is old Brookmeade Stable and du Pont blood and not to be scorned. Neither, so it turned out, were the services of black trainer Harrison E. Johnson, a 33-year-old former exercise boy for Brookmeade and for Trainer Horatio Luro. In between jobs around the Maryland and West Virginia circuit, Johnson used to pop up to Washington to vent his frustrations at racing's strange ways by driving a bus. Having survived that, he has now assembled a six-horse public stable, including two owned by Hopkins.
Gusty had no real problems. After losing his first two races (both for a $5,000 claiming price) at Penn National and Shenandoah, he won a $7,500 claiming race at Delaware Park and then won twice more before it was decided to put him in a stakes. The Aug. 6 Saratoga Special was the first. Going off at 19 to 1, Gusty led by four lengths before giving way in the late stretch to Az Igazi.
"We thought we better try those Saratoga horses again," said Co-owner Hopkins, "and that's why we came back for the Hopeful."
The Hopeful was worth coming back for. Gusty picked up $50,400 of the gross purse of $84,000 by leading all the way and holding off a strong bid by Dinny Phipps' Take By Storm, probably the best horse in the race. Storm undoubtedly will do better at longer distances. Prince of Reason was third, while the even-money favorite Az Igazi wound up dead last.
His fine ride by Robert Kotenko notwithstanding, nobody really expects Gusty O'Shay to finish the year as 2-year-old champion. Where, then, are the big guns hiding? Some of the season's early stakes winners like Mr. A.Z., Tisab, Lover John, Raise a Cup, Who Duzzit and Century's Envoy may be the best around, but that is hard to believe. It may be, as some Saratoga trainers pointed out before shipping back to Belmont Park, that there was more coughing among 2-year-olds this summer than usual. Or, as some of the same trainers emphasize, more of an awareness not to rush these fragile juveniles just for the sake of winning a rich stakes in August when there are richer ones coming along later.