Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has learned that, too, over the years. The Californian has had horses in the past three Derbys, and last year he had three-Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure-but the best Lukas has been able to do has been a third, with Partez, in 1981. This year he has entered not one filly but two-Althea and Life's Magic—the first filly entry in the history of the Derby. Althea is the muscle in the entry. She was voted the 1983 2-year-old filly champion (the Bag was juvenile champ among the colts), and, as mentioned, she ran brilliantly in the Arkansas Derby.
"It was just one of those [races] we all hope to get as trainers," Lukas says. "It was a fantastic race, absolutely a super performance. You had to marvel at the way she ran." The way she ran was fast. A beautiful speciman, solidly built and nicely balanced with a head resembling Alydar's, Althea ran to her looks at Oaklawn Park. She took the lead early, out-legged everything that made a pass at her, then left them all groggy in the stretch to win by seven, racing the nine panels in a sensational 1:46[4/5] to equal the track record. The track was blindingly fast this spring, so fast that it's difficult to fathom exactly what race times mean at Oaklawn, but there's no question that she's more than merely competitive in this field of Kentucky Derby colts.
"Althea is getting awfully good," Lukas says. "I think that the Arkansas Derby pointed out the significance of her ability."
Amen to that.
That leaves those two other horses with some lick, Vanlandingham and Bear Hunt, and a few stretch runners named Joe: Silent King, Gate Dancer, Pine Circle, At The Threshold. Vanlandingham lifted eyebrows at Oaklawn Park this winter when he won an allowance race by 10 lengths and then came back to take the Rebel Handicap, but he got sick on the eve of his most important prep, Althea's Arkansas Derby, forcing trainer Claude (Shug) McGaughey III to keep him in the barn. That Vanlandingham missed his most crucial prep and that McGaughey persisted in bringing him to the Kentucky Derby off so recent an illness has lifted more brows.
"I think most people think I'm crazy trying to do what I'm doing," says McGaughey. Anyway, the colt was sick only a short time, McGaughey says, and missed only four days of training. Since he got over whatever bug it was that was bothering him, Vanlandingham has been kicking his heels higher every day. "The more I've done with him, the better he's gotten," says McGaughey. "And the better he's gotten, the more eager he is. I think I'll get close to enough training in him."
But close to enough is never close enough in the Kentucky Derby. A horse must be absolutely dead fit to win that race. McGaughey is probably closer with Pine Circle, a son of Cox's Ridge who replaced Vanlandingham in the Arkansas Derby. Though he lacked room to maneuver during some jousting. Pine Circle jumped up to finish a surprising second to Althea. He's bred to get 10 furlongs, for he is out of a mare by Gallant Man, the best long-distance runner of his generation.
"I think he should be better off in the Kentucky Derby than in the Arkansas Derby," says McGaughey. "Pine Circle wants to run that far. People might think I'm crazy, but I believe he'll do well if the speed sets up the race as well as it should."
Speed up front, the more the better, is what trainer Grover (Bud) Delp and owner Harry Meyerhoff will be counting on. Five years ago they brought the great Spectacular Bid to town and won the Derby. This year they are fetching Silent King. He's no Bid, but he has a shot, what with all those speed horses churning and making butter of each other on the front end. This little chestnut colt drops so far out of it early that it looks as if the field were pulling him along by a towline. In the Blue Grass, Silent King was more than 20 lengths behind the leader going down the backstretch. When jockey Bill Shoemaker finally asked him to join the parade, he seemed to lower himself a notch and take off, circling horses with a rush around the turn. Silent King's charge fell way short of Taylor's Special, but it gave Delp hope.
"The way the race developed, it turned out to the advantage of the winner," says Delp. Loose on the lead, Day was able to get Taylor's Special to relax. "But it won't be that way in the Kentucky Derby," says Delp. "Horses get excited running in the Derby. They'll be carrying the mail."