Half the fun of a Kentucky Derby is waiting for it, with suspense building up around one or two horses. Sometimes it's a question of whether the hero can come through; whether Secretariat, for example, could rebound from his defeat in the Wood Memorial to whip Sham and Angle Light. Sometimes it's the prospect of a two-horse duel: Eastern Nashua vs. Western Swaps, that sort of thing. Occasionally, there is an oddball challenger you can't help wondering about: surely you remember Silky Sullivan?
This year's Derby—the 101st running takes place Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Louisville—has turned into one of the best, at least as far as anticipation is concerned, even though there is no one outstanding star, odds-on against the field, or a bitter two-horse rivalry to be settled. What makes this Derby so fascinating to contemplate is that of the 15 or so colts expected to start, at least five, maybe six, have credentials so solid that victory by any of them would be no upset. It is a meeting of masters, so to speak.
Assuming there are no late withdrawals because of injury or illness, the field will include the winner of every late 1?-mile prep race leading up to the Derby. Foolish Pleasure captured both the Flamingo and the Wood. The Florida Derby went to Prince Thou Art. Avatar won the Santa Anita Derby, Diabolo the California Derby. Promised City came down in front in the Arkansas Derby, while Master Derby took both the Louisiana Derby and last week's Blue Grass Stakes. The only bright hopes missing are Circle Home, injured early, and Singh, injured late.
But the Kentucky Derby, at a mile and a quarter, is one-eighth of a mile longer than all these races and, as the owners of the 1,044 starters who did not win during the past 100 years have discovered, that extra eighth is often where shocked surprise replaces confidence, where defeat usurps victory. The owners and trainers who show up at Churchill Downs know they must have a colt who is fit and ready, who can take advantage of lucky breaks. And a jockey who won't suffer stage fright at the sight of the twin spires or the sound of My Old Kentucky Home.
Most of this year's owners really do think they have a chance to win, although a few, as has always been the case, came mostly to bask for a few days in the Louisville limelight, taking the customary bows at the many banquets and accepting the opportunity to luxuriate on Derby Day in a superior clubhouse box. They will go home with clippings for the old scrapbook and a racehorse so tired that he might not even win in Chicago this year. For the others, however, there is real hope.
It has hardly ever been fashionable to make a Louisiana Derby winner your Kentucky Derby selection. The last time this system paid off was in 1924 when Black Gold beat 18 foes at Churchill Downs. But after a lapse of 51 years, it might be time again. This year's candidate is Master Derby, and all he's done so far in 1975 is win five of his seven races—in fact, his last five in a row.
No fireworks went off around New Orleans after Master Derby's Louisiana Derby victory, for, as usual, the field was not star-studded. But then Trainer Smiley Adams brought the chestnut up to Keeneland, where he prepped for the Blue Grass Stakes with an easy five-length win on an off track. As he entered the Blue Grass field with such notables as the Darby Dan pair of Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place and the California star, Avatar, people began to take notice. The chestnut's sire was Dust Commander, something of a whiz on off tracks. It was raining hard last Thursday, Blue Grass day, and Keeneland hardboots knew what they were doing when they sent Master Derby off as the favorite on a track so wet that Mark Spitz could have beaten Man o' War on it. On this horribly rainy day, Master Derby held off long-shot Honey Mark to win by half a length in the good time of 1:49. Prince Thou Art was six lengths back, a neck in front of Avatar.
When Dust Commander won his Blue Grass five years ago, at 35 to 1, most people laughed it off on the customary grounds that "he caught his kind of off track on a lucky day." They stopped laughing nine days later at Louisville when Dust Commander came home first by five lengths (this time at 15 to 1) on an off track. His son, who races in the gold and red silks of Mrs. Robert E. Lehmann's Golden Chance Farm, may be even better than his dad. He's a tough fighter all the way and proved in the Blue Grass that he can lay up with the pace and still finish with a kick.
Five days before Master Derby did his number at Keeneland, Foolish Pleasure showed a Wood Memorial crowd at Aqueduct that his defeat in the Florida Derby was just a slip of the hoof. Obviously recovered from trouble in both his front feet, the 2-year-old champion of 1974 returned to the winner's circle in style. Breaking from the outside in the bulky 15-horse field, the big bay sprinted into good position at the first turn—he was outside only three horses there—and overtook pace-setting Bombay Duck in the last few strides to win by barely a head. His time was a nifty 1:48[4/5], tying the stakes record set by his grandsire, Bold Ruler, in 1957.
"Considering that he'd only had two works in three weeks, and that he won on gameness and guts," said Trainer Le-Roy Jolley, "I'd say this was the best race Foolish Pleasure ever ran."