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Late winter is a time of spiritual rejuvenation for the thoroughbred racing fan. Whether he is heading for the $2 window at Santa Anita or wading through the slush to an OTB office in New York City, a bounce returns to his step and a gleam to his eye: the season of the 3-year-olds has begun again.
Which means that Whitney Tower, our racing expert, really begins to do some bouncing of his own, mostly between California and Florida in pursuit of the unpredictable young thoroughbreds who are trying to race their way to the Kentucky Derby.
"No matter what can be said of the brilliance of a 2-year-old, or the exploits of older horses in the handicap division," says Tower, who is beginning his 20th year of covering the thoroughbreds for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, "the 3-year-olds are the glamour division, and their route to the Derby is usually the year's most exciting racing news."
In other professional sports, where star players return year after year, a writer can make certain reasonable assumptions at the start of a new season about the teams to watch, the individuals likely to be outstanding. Tower has to begin all over again each January. "You must have a point from which to depart," he says, "so you go back to the best 2-year-olds from the previous fall. But these are young colts and they don't always hold their form and the season is often well under way before some of them make their first start."
Even so, the eventual standouts in the classic 3-year-old races soon become evident, and only once has a subsequent Derby winner escaped Tower's notice entirely. That was in 1971 when Canonero II, the Venezuelan long shot whose Derby start was his first race in the U.S. that year, came from 15th at the half-mile pole to win by more than three lengths. Tower is still incredulous. "I had to look at my program to find out what his name was. I couldn't believe that after traipsing thousands of miles back and forth across the country for four months, here was a horse I hadn't mentioned in a story even once. And finding out something about him after the race was a problem. I don't speak Spanish, and nobody in his entourage spoke English. I tried French, which I can get along in pretty well, but that didn't work either."
Accepting such journalistic nightmares, Tower plunges into the 1974 season on page 20 of this issue. From now through May 4 he will be wherever the 3-year-olds are, watching their races, learning about their condition, contemplating their bloodlines, talking to everyone ("Breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, not to mention parking-lot attendants, bartenders and the guy at the binocular stand") and, happily, reporting what he has learned. See you at Churchill Downs.
A familiar female voice persuaded us not long ago that "people who need people are the luckiest people...." The people-needers of America have cause to rejoice this week, with the birth of Time Inc.'s newest publication, PEOPLE, the first national weekly magazine launched since our own beginning in 1954. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED happily welcomes PEOPLE to the team.