When darkness fell at Hialeah racetrack last Saturday it was quiet in the stable area, except for the party going on under trainer Angel Penna's shed. Long after their workday had ended, grooms and hot-walkers and exercise riders were gathered under the lights of the barn, while just outside a handsome, dashing, young chestnut colt named Time for a Change was making brief circuits of the walking ring. He looked quite pleased with himself, thank you very much, as he stopped occasionally to take in the celebration going on around him. Suddenly jockey Jerry Bailey strode out of the darkness and into Penna's tack room, where the Argentine trainer was sitting on a director's chair, his legs crossed in front of him.
Penna looked up, growled gently and then laughed, extending his arms. "There's my boy!" Penna said. The two men embraced like circus bears.
"All right!" said one of the workers.
"Oh!" said Bailey. "What you did! What a job you did!"
Yes, what a job Penna had done. An hour and a half before he had saddled Time for a Change, Ogden Mills Phipps's 3-year-old son of Damascus, for the $365,000 Flamingo Stakes, he lifted Bailey aboard and sent them both out hunting for the brilliant, undefeated Devil's Bag, America's 1983 2-year-old champion and at that moment the odds-on favorite to win the '84 Kentucky Derby. Bailey and Change met Devil's Bag on the first turn, introducing themselves through a polite opening quarter mile in 23[2/5] seconds, then took him by the throat and bounced head and head with him through a spirited six furlongs in 1:09[3/5], eyeball-to-eyeball. Coming off the turn for home, they found the Bag was empty, and Time for a Change went on to win this richest of Flamingos by a neck from stretch-running Dr. Carter, who surely would have won himself if the wire had been three more jumps ahead.
It was one of the most stunning surprises in recent racing history, for no 3-year-old since Secretariat, in 1973, had stirred the imagination more than Devil's Bag. The bay colt, who looks every bit a champion physically, had won as he pleased since he first came out of the gate last Aug. 20 at Saratoga and won by 7½ lengths. Coming to the Flamingo, he had won all six of his starts, and his veteran trainer, 70-year-old Woody Stephens, regarded him as the best horse he had ever trained. The game was so easy for Devil's Bag—perhaps, alas, too easy.
The Bag was, of course, the focus of attention at Hialeah, but it was the presence of Dr. Carter and Time for a Change that made this 55th running of the Flamingo the most important renewal since Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke, Iron Liege and Federal Hill raced one another breathless in 1957. Now in March of 1984 there was once again a Flamingo worthy of being called a winter Kentucky Derby, drawing to it the three leading lights of the 3-year-old division.
Stephens naturally figured he had the fastest gun in town. On Feb. 20, in the Bag's first race of the year, the Flamingo Prep, jockey Eddie Maple restrained him in second place the first quarter mile, trying to conserve his speed. When the rider chirped to him, the colt sailed grandly to the lead and ran off with a flourish to win by seven lengths, running seven-eighths of a mile in 1:21[3/5], racehorse time even on Hialeah's fast surface. It was the first time the Bag had ever won coming off the pace. Approaching the Flamingo the colt didn't work sensationally, but Stephens figured he was in prime condition.
Devil's Bag was not only the glamour horse of the moment but also the most costly horse in training in the world. James P. Mills's colt had been syndicated over the winter for $36 million, so the pressure was on. But Stephens had been around too long to believe that Devil's Bag was a mortal lock in the Flamingo. He was heard to say such things as "If he doesn't get there, I'll go to the bar and at least I'll have won one or two Scotches."
And as he made his way to the paddock to saddle the horse for the Flamingo, he said, "I've learned that if you've done the best you can do, there's no use worrying anymore. I think I've done the best I can with this one. He had a good race over the track. He's relaxed. He has been working well. I don't think I've ever trained one better. He's ready; so am I."