Last Sunday's Santa Anita Derby, traditionally the best gauge for judging West Coast Kentucky Derby prospects, was supposed to be a race between Telly's Pop, a horse that looks like the one Lee Marvin sat on in Cat Ballou, and An Act, a once-beaten 3-year-old who flies a set of silks that might have been designed by Betsy Ross. They are red, white and blue with white stars, a white 76 on the front, a gold eagle on the back and a red, white and blue cap. Three weeks before the Santa Anita Derby the two had hooked up in the California Derby, and Telly's Pop went by An Act so quickly that the latter looked like a horse running in five feet of water. But in the 39th Santa Anita Derby, An Act got his revenge by beating a 48-to-1 shot, Double Discount, by a neck, and Telly's Pop, who finished a struggling fifth, by nine lengths.
At one time, An Act, though he is a half-brother of the fine filly Sarsar, could have been bought for $7,500. Last March he was sold for $100,000 to a group of seven owners: two meat packers, a garment manufacturer, a real-estate developer, a breeder, a horseman and a bloodstock agent. The next outing for An Act will be the $200,000 Hollywood Derby on April 17, when he is expected to face Telly's Pop for the third time. He may beat him again, but the chances are he will never upstage him.
Though Telly's Pop is not the apple of a horseman's eye, he is good enough for Kojak, and that's good enough for a lot of horseplayers. The fact is, Telly's Pop is so common in appearance and conformation that he resembles a nag one might see in the opening race on a Tuesday card in the boondocks. His front legs are straight, his hooves so disparate that he must be shod in four different-sized shoes. Telly's Pop's pop, Bold Combatant, was a sore-legged racer who earned $1,210; his mom, Count Us Mary, won three races in four years. Bold Combatant was considered such a dud as a sire that he was unceremoniously dispatched to Japan in 1975. A search through the female line of Count Us Mary does not yield a stakes winner in more than 50 years. So how do you account for a Telly's Pop? Maybe with the old backstretch saying, "The best part about him is the part you can't see."
The smart money never believed in Telly's Pop because of his breeding and the fact that he is terrible in morning workouts. Before last weekend he had won six of eight starts and $343,870, but had been the betting favorite only twice. In the beginning he got no respect. He drew a top bid of only $4,200 in a yearling sale in 1974, so co-owners Mel Stute and Ken Dodd kept him. Stute called movie and television producer Howard Koch and offered him for $6,000. "I'm broke," said Stute. "You'll have to buy him for $6,000 or lend me $6,000."
Koch called actor and horse-owner Walter Matthau and offered to sell a half interest for $3,000. Matthau declined. Next Koch called Telly Savalas, ole Mucho Macho himself, and finally convinced Telly to buy half. "What do I know from horses?" Savalas says now, "I bet five dollars on a horse and if it loses I curse the breed for two days. But I went in. I named him after my father, who took me to my first race as a youngster. When I got to see Telly's Pop for the first time they told me he was a gelding. I thought gelding was a color like chestnut or bay. I was furious. The only horse Telly Savalas had was a gelding'? What would that do for my image?"
Telly's Pop was gelded because he had a bad temper. When he was put into his first race, at Hollywood Park, he won at odds of 6 to 1. He went on to win $258,870 as a 2-year-old and become the second-leading earner ever (to Warfare) among California-bred juveniles.
"It isn't the fact that Telly's Pop has won four $100,000 stakes that interests me," says Savalas. "He is the people's horse. A little bookmaker told me that he was holding more than $980 on him the day before he won the California Derby, and most of it was in bets from housewives. When you are in this synthetic, commercial business that I'm in of spinning dreams and blowing bubbles, you look at a horse and, of course, you think of the Run for the Roses. I've heard all those stories about there being a lot of money behind Telly's Pop. No, there is a lot of love behind Telly's Pop."
Not since Silky Sullivan was running down his opponents in California in 1958 had a Coast campaigner attracted such attention. His blue and white silks are, in part, the flag of Greece, and when he races people surge to the paddock to gaze at him. As Savalas walks among them he tells the people to "come on down to the winner's circle, Baby." One morning recently at Santa Anita, Stute, his trainer, said, "I didn't know there were that many Greeks in California." Hundreds of people, Greeks and barbarians alike, have crowded winner's circles from Hollywood to Santa Anita to Del Mar, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields at Savalas' invitation. There is another backstretch remark that suits Telly's Pop. "He carried his racetrack with him." His six wins have been earned on five different racetracks. Good horses do things like that.
And win or lose, Telly's Pop will keep drawing crowds, for, being a gelding, he is going to stay around and race a while. "This horse," says Stute, "could make a lot of money. I'd like to have him run 15 times this year, if possible."
Says Savalas, who still would like to get in his licks at Churchill Downs: "I have been drinking mint juleps for months."