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There will be plenty of that sort at the Downs on Derby Day, a lot of early speed in a wide-open race. There is no single dominating horse of the kind the Bag was supposed to be. Still, Devil's Bag is certainly the fastest of the bunch. And then there's the California filly Althea, a comely chestnut daughter of Alydar who won the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby on April 21 by seven lengths. The first filly ever to win the race, Althea beat 10 colts and looks as if she might just emulate Regret (1915) and Genuine Risk (1980) and become the third filly to win the Derby. And there's speed aplenty in Swale, Vanlandingham, Bear Hunt, He Is A Great Deal and Taylor's Special.
Ah, Taylor's Special. That he is. This is a dutiful colt, ill-bred for the mile and a quarter at the Downs but an aggressive, free-moving sort who looks as if he runs for the simple fun of it. He won the Blue Grass at Keeneland two days before the Trial. Faced with nine furlongs, he cruised to the lead heading into the back-stretch, opened up four lengths on the far turn, then with his ears pricked cantered home cheerfully to win by 3� lengths over the stretch-running Silent King. Taylor's Special got a perfect trip; jockey Pat Day gave him a flawless ride and he was clocked in 1:52[1/5], good time over a tiring track.
"I guess it surprised everybody that he went the distance," said William Mott, the colt's trainer. "He's modestly bred, on the female line especially; there are very few stakes horses in his pedigree there. He's bred like a sprinter and he ran like a sprinter last year. But he has learned this year how to carry his speed."
His pedigree certainly says git-go. The colt's sire, Hawkin's Special, was a genuine hummer. "Probably the fastest horse I ever put a bridle on," says trainer Jack Van Berg, who has won more races (between 4,200 and 4,300) than any other trainer who ever lived. "I mean, when you chirped to him and asked him to run, he'd put goose bumps on you. This was a fast horse."
After Mott got Taylor's Special last year, for months he regarded him as a sprinter. He had no idea that the colt wanted to go nine furlongs, and it wasn't until late last February, when he began to give Taylor's Special longer, stronger morning gallops, that he realized he had a whole lot of horse. "We started to lay into him," Mott said. "Two weeks later he was like a changed horse. He finished strong. He's the one who showed us." On March 10 Taylor's Special won the Louisiana Derby Trial at the Fair Grounds at 1[1/16] miles, on the lead all the way, and 15 days later he rolled to the front in the 1?-mile Louisiana Derby and won that by a length.
Up to now he has run as far as Mott has asked him to, and he finished in the Blue Grass as if 10 furlongs weren't beyond his reach. Mott has no illusions about that dreaded extra furlong of the Derby, the one the colt might not want to do. "I want to be realistic about this thing," he says. "There's a limit to what every horse can do. The way the Blue Grass set up, I think he could have run a mile and a quarter that day. But it's never the same situation. I'm sure the Derby will be a faster pace. I'm sure that Mr. Stephens will send Devil's Bag to the lead and make us catch him. If Devil's Bag doesn't make it, he has Swale coming off it. Woody has all the loaded cannons now."
Swale, who is a son of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, won the Florida Derby on March 31 in one of the best and gamest performances by a 3-year-old this year, disposing of Darn That Alarm before taking on and finally outgutting the star-crossed Dr. Carter through the stretch to win by three-quarters of a length. That performance made Swale the Derby favorite, but that was a status he enjoyed for only 17 days. On April 17 a wild hare named He Is A Great Deal scooted to the lead in the slop in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, widened it as he wished and came home laughing to beat Swale by eight. He Is A Great Deal loved the going.
"Swale was slippin' and slidin' every stride," says trainer Griffin. "He's a big, long-striding, gangly horse, and he couldn't handle the slop at all. It was like he was on ice. But he's been training real good since he came to Churchill Downs." So what did the Lexington mean? Well, one horse's ice is another's follies. So throw out the Lexington, thank you.
But that race set up He Is A Great Deal for a tumble, too. Waiting in the gate for the start of the Blue Grass, the colt spotted Rexson's Hope breaking through the barrier prematurely and he decided to try to crash it as well. In doing so, He Is A Great Deal mashed his nose on the steel gate and raised a welt, knocking himself silly. When the gate opened, he left it only half-conscious. "He just had a bad break," says trainer Bernard Flint. "He was like knocked out. He took a hell of a lick on the head." The gelding went to the lead after the first quarter, yielded to Taylor's Special before they went a half, then coughed it up and reeled home eighth, beaten by nearly 27 lengths.
At this writing Flint had yet to decide whether to put Deal in the Derby. "We could duck the big boys," he says. "He could go anywhere and run with the second stringers. The Illinois Derby. The Ohio Derby. But the Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in the world. I've learned a lot in two weeks. I've learned how elusive this race can be to a man who wants it."