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May 13, 1974
Cannonade, deftly guided through a rough race by Angel Cordero, won the Kentucky Derby convincingly and drew a bead on the Preakness
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May 13, 1974

The Cannon Takes Aim

Cannonade, deftly guided through a rough race by Angel Cordero, won the Kentucky Derby convincingly and drew a bead on the Preakness

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It was a mob scene—in the stands, in the infield, on the track. The largest field of horses in Kentucky Derby history was sandwiched between roiling elements of the largest crowd ever to assemble for this most publicized and glamorous of horse races. Without that setting, the 100th running of the mile-and-a-quarter classic might have slipped into history as no more than a line of type to inform future historians that on May 4, 1974, John Olin's Cannonade, trained by Woody Stephens, ridden by Angel Cordero, won in the slow time of 2:04 over a fast track that certainly warranted a better clocking.

No, the race itself was not the thing, even though Cannonade richly deserved his victory over 22 rivals, including his more highly regarded stablemate, Judger. What made the centennial Derby an event to remember was the schmaltzy glitter that surrounded the occasion from start to finish and the unprecedented attention focused on Churchill Downs by the nation's one-day-a-year racing fans. A mob of 163,628 showed up in person, and one of them, Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, the party-loving kid sister of the Queen of England, summed it up between glasses of champagne in the Directors Room. "A lovely day of racing in the country," she said.

The princess was partly right. It was country, but American style; it is doubtful that Royal Ascot was ever like this. The clubhouse and grandstand were replete with extravagantly overdressed people, and the jammed infield was an orgy of youthful exuberance. Police were helpless to prevent the mob from breaking through barriers and crowding against the rails, and an effort to remove an army of stripped-to-the-waist youths from the top of one of the tote boards ended in abashed failure. Bands played, streakers streaked, one of them to the point of such exhaustion that she finished the day by jumping into an infield fountain, and nearly everyone had a good time. They thought so, at least, until they had to wake up Sunday morning and face the beginning of the second hundred years.

Some of the records, not necessarily those that pertain to the quality of the horses in the grab-bag field, may be hard to surpass. The crowd itself was larger by 29,152 than the previous high of 134,476 that turned up a year ago to watch the duel between Secretariat and Sham. Most tracks in the country would be glad to settle for a Saturday attendance of 29,152. And while the enormous throng may have been short of shoes and bras, it did have money, lots of it. During Derby Day's long 10-race card, these folks out for their day of country racing shoved $7,868,734 through the windows—almost a quarter of a million more than they had risked in 1973. In the Derby alone they bet $3,444,649, or $159,687 more than the record set in the Secretariat race.

Another record was broken when 23 horses went to the post, one more than in 1928 when Reigh Count proved he was the best of 22 starters. Many of the 23 should not have been at the party, including most of the 10 that Churchill Downs herded together to form the mutuel field for betting purposes. But a couple of these field horses actually won stakes this year—what 3-year-old hasn't?—and one of them, Hudson County, ran the race of his life on Saturday to help force the pace and then hung on to finish second, ahead of Agitate.

Despite the unprecedented number of entries, and in contrast to many previous Derbies, the backstretch atmosphere before the race was subdued. A year ago when Trainer Pancho Martin had Sham at one end of Barn 42, he spent altogether too much time taking verbal potshots at Trainer Lucien Laurin, who had Secretariat at the other end of the same barn. This time Pancho paid not a whit of attention to the fact that Judger, bred by the late Bull Hancock and purchased from his estate by his 24-year-old son Seth, was stabled in Secretariat's old stall, No. 21, or that Cannonade was situated in the stall right next to Judger.

"If there's a Secretariat in this race," Martin announced, "I've got him, and his name is Rube the Great. If he had racing room he would have won his division of the Wood Memorial by five lengths instead of by a head. And I have Accipiter running as an entry with him. I am filled with confidence. I am feeling very high."

So, by his own admission, but in a different way, was Martin's portly boss, Owner Sigmund Sommer, who looks a bit like Alfred Hitchcock.

"Are you nervous?" Sommer asked Woody Stephens when the two met in the paddock before the Derby.

"No, I'm not nervous this time," replied Woody.

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