Trainer Laz Barrera leaned against a door in the directors' room at Churchill Downs last Saturday evening some two hours after winning the 102nd Kentucky Derby with Bold Forbes. He took a telegram from his 16-year-old son Larry and read it over and over. The wire had been sent from Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. just after Bold Forbes had passed under the finish line; it said simply, "My man," and it was signed "Bill."
Sixteen years ago Barrera had arrived at Hollywood Park from Mexico as the owner, trainer, groom, hotwalker and one-man band for a cheap thoroughbred named Destructor. After just one win, Destructor was claimed from Barrera, leaving him horseless and penniless. When things looked bleakest, a trainer named Bill Winfrey loaned Barrera eight runners to get started again. Winfrey had experienced good times and bad during his own career. The good ones had come in the late 1940s and early 1950s when Winfrey handled a shedrow of champions for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt; the real bad day had come when undefeated Native Dancer lost the 1953 Derby to Dark Star. Barrera held the wire in trembling hands. "I am so proud of this," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. "This means so much to me. Oh, how long this road has been."
Not since Native Dancer lost that Derby 24 years ago has there been such an upset at Churchill Downs. Bold Forbes beat Honest Pleasure by a widening length to take the winner's prize of $165,200, and in so doing beat a 2-to-5 favorite (the shortest choice since Citation in 1948), with $1,049,461 riding on his back—more money than had ever been bet on a Derby starter. It was the best day any U.S. trainer has had, for Barrera also won the $125,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park with Life's Hope and the $50,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct with Due Diligence. "My wife Cha-Cha was too nervous to come to the Derby," Barrera said. "She is at home. She's been crying for two hours. My daughter Blanche is so happy they cannot get her to stop dancing."
Until three weeks ago, Barrera, 52, had won a lot of races in a lot of places but never one worth $100,000. "It seemed that a jinx was working against my father," his 22-year-old son Albert said. "Everyone knew he was an excellent trainer but even he grew superstitious when $100,000 races came up. He put Bold Forbes in the Wood Memorial on April 17 in the hopes that the colt would run a good enough race to earn a trip to Kentucky. We started to kid my father about the Wood being a $100,000 race and he didn't like it at all. When Bold Forbes won the race we were so happy. It was a breakthrough and my father finally had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. All along he thought the colt might be able to beat Honest Pleasure."
It was a Derby bound to evoke controversy, the debate being about the ride Braulio Baeza gave Honest Pleasure. Bold Forbes and the favorite ran in the first two positions all the way; the last time that had been done was in 1914 by Old Rosebud and Hodge. Some believed Angel Cordero had outfoxed Baeza by setting a fast pace, then slowing it deliberately. Was Baeza tricked as he fell behind by as many as five lengths down the backstretch? Who put the handcuff's on jockeys riding the other seven starters? Who were the other seven starters?
Well, four of them had never won a stakes race. Only three in the field had won a $100,000 race and they finished in the win, place and show spots, with Arkansas Derby winner Elocutionist getting to the finish line 3� lengths behind Honest Pleasure. Between Bold Forbes and last-place finisher Bidson were just 16� lengths, which made one wonder further if this was not a poor Derby field. Bold Forbes' time of 2:01[3/5] did not approach Secretariat's track record of 1:59[2/5], but Secretariat belonged in a different league.
What Cordero had Bold Forbes do was remarkable in its own fashion. His mile and a quarter in 2:01[3/5] over a dull track is the fastest time ever posted by a wire-to-wire winner. (Twenty Derbies have been won in this manner.) Some of the horses who went wire to wire in slower times were legitimate champions: Count Fleet (2:04[2/5]), Regret (2:05[2/5]) and Jet Pilot (2:06[4/5]). The first was a Triple Crown winner, Regret was the only filly ever to win the race and Jet Pilot was one of the swiftest horses ever entered.
In the hours preceding the Derby a banner was carried through the infield at Churchill Downs. On it was a drawing of Bold Forbes and the message: "Beware, Braulio, the Angel has a bold surprise." People expressed all sorts of ideas about how the race would be run. The most probable seemed to be that Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure would come out of the gate nostril to nostril and go at each other until one cracked. Honest Pleasure's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said, "The course of the race, perhaps the outcome, will be determined by the first turn."
Coming into the Derby, Honest Pleasure had a record of nine straight wins, and the chartmakers of the Racing Form had shown him on the lead 92% of the way in these races. Bold Forbes was uncommonly swift, too, breaking from the gate like a quarter horse. There was no doubt that Jolley's problem was developing a strategy to cope with Bold Forbes' speed.
Meanwhile, Barrera was doing his planning. A week before the race he borrowed a chart book that gave the positions of every horse in the course of the Derby's 101 runnings. Barrera found that 60% of the winners of the classic were either first or second at the head of the stretch. "When Cordero arrives," Barrera said early in Derby Week, "we will discuss strategy, but we are not going to tell anyone what we plan. Don't be silly. You don't sell a gun to somebody so they can turn around and kill you."