The ending was devilishly fitting. The confusion of the spring came down to the final 300 yards of the one-mile Derby Trial at Churchill Downs last Saturday, the last major prep race leading to this Saturday's 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was giving his speedball. Total Departure, one final tightener before the Derby, while trainer Woody Stephens was using the Trial as the last calisthenic for his main Derby hope, Chumming, and for Caveat, a nice colt who had won three races on the grass but was still a maiden on the dirt.
"Caveat ran in the slop here last year and he finished third," Stephens said before the Trial, after torrential rains had ceased. "I wasn't pleased with his race. But you have to run him or train him, and I might as well run him." In this peculiar year, in which a lot of 3-year-olds have knocked and said hello but few have stayed for dinner, this was to be Chumming's announcement that he was indeed a Derby horse. And the same for Total Departure, and maybe Pax In Bello. But Caveat? Forget him.
Then there they were, pounding over the mud 300 yards from the wire, with Total Departure leading Pax In Bello by half a length, 102 to 1 shot Le Cou Cou chugging along in third, Chumming swimming for a life raft and, and...yes! Down the middle of the track, coming from somewhere to the east of Eden, Caveat began to gain on the leaders. Dead last down the backstretch, he was suddenly right there. He collared Total Departure in the final yards and won the race from him by a head. Thus Caveat broke his maiden on the dirt and gave notice that he was a Derby horse. Knock, knock. Hello. Join the gang.
Nine years before, Stephens had saddled Cannonade and won the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby. Now here he was at Churchill Downs again, with one of Cannonade's sons, Caveat. "This gives me a shot at the Derby, anyway," Stephens said. "I'm pretty sure he'll get the mile and a quarter. His daddy loved Churchill Downs. Maybe he does, too. But I still can't throw Chumming out. He just didn't run his race."
Such has been the way of this season's 3-year-olds, an unpretentious rack of fur coats with so far not an ermine among them. Or so, as April gave way to May, it seemed. While short on individual brilliance, the class of '83 offered the consolation of being deliciously competitive.
The Trial was the fourth straight Derby prep to end in a desperate photo finish. In the first division of the April 23 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Bounding Basque and Country Pine clung to each other through the last eighth before Basque won by a nose. Slew O' Gold beat Parfaitement by a neck in the Wood's second division, after another corking long drive. Five days later, in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Play Fellow beat Marfa by a nose. Then came the Trial. Lord knows the last time, if ever, that four such preliminaries were decided by a total of less than half a length.
This Kentucky Derby is as wide open as the gates of Churchill Downs will be on Saturday. The prospect is of a parimutuel banana split, with enough nuts and flavors to suit everyone with $2 to wager. There will be legitimate speed horses up front, in Total Departure, Parfaitement and Desert Wine; and horses that come from off the pace, in Marfa, Balboa Native, Play Fellow, Current Hope and Caveat. Chumming and Slew O' Gold have sufficient speed to lay close to the leaders. And the front-running winner of the Arkansas Derby on April 16, Sunny's Halo, has both the speed to take the lead and the patience to step aside and let the others hang out laundry.
"I think I have the best horse in the race," said David Cross Jr., Sunny's Halo's trainer. "He's a big, strong, macho s.o.b., all stud. And he's got two buttons on him, which is beautiful. He can go to the lead or he can come from off it."
Nonetheless, the trainer of the hour is the gifted California horseman, Lukas. Last fall, after the death of his superb 2-year-old filly, Landaluce, Lukas plunged into a horrendous slump. Distracted by grief, he temporarily lost touch with his horses. However, Lukas not only regained hold of his stable over the winter, but by early spring he was targeting three colts for the Kentucky Derby.
Not since 1946, when Maine Chance Farm ran Lord Boswell (fourth), Knockdown (fifth) and Perfect Bahram (ninth), has a trainer saddled a threesome for the Derby. But on the eve of the 109th running, Lukas has the favored entry of Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure.