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"Send me a mare you think is worth $15,000," Nerud told him. He was shipped a mare named Malvine. Nerud bred her to Drone, a gray horse that the late Bull Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm, called the fastest horse he ever owned. To that cover, Malvine produced a roan colt that Tartan Farm called Muttering.
When Muttering won the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, Nerud was tickled. "It was a grand race," he says. "Prince Spellbound ran to Muttering, but he couldn't get by him. This is a nice racehorse. But to win a race like the Kentucky Derby is very difficult to do. There's an awful lot of luck involved in it. I do think that Muttering is the best 3-year-old from the West Coast. The question is: Does he have as much class as Timely Writer? We don't know."
But know we will soon enough. As we will know, too, about Gato Del Sol, Spanish for "Cat of the Sun," who finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby—beaten by 3¼ lengths—and has been training in Kentucky for the Derby. And Cassaleria, the one-eyed colt, who had traffic problems in two of his last three races (he got boxed in during the San Felipe at Santa Anita, finishing third but beaten by only three-quarters of a length, and he was brushed and ran wide in the Santa Anita Derby, in which he was sixth), then crossed the line third in last Saturday's California Derby, a length and a half behind the 40-to-1 shot winner, Rockwall. And Royal Roberto, who got beaten by just half a length by Linkage in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland on April 15.
If the backstretch at Churchill Downs has its share of first-time Derby trainers in 1982, there is also the prospect that it will have its veterans, too. Trainer Lucien Laurin, who won the Derby 10 years ago with Riva Ridge and the Triple Crown a year later with Secretariat, was living in semiretirement at the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, Fla., when he started puttering around with Stage Reviewer. He'd bred the colt himself, and his wife owns him. Laurin's son Roger almost ended up training him.
"I knew before I ran him last year that he was a nice colt," Lucien says. "I told Roger, 'Take him for me.' But he said he had enough to do. He told me, 'Why don't you fool around with him? It'll do you good to get out of Ocean Reef.' So I took him." Stage Reviewer showed some ability last year, winning two of four at Calder Race Course, and two more this year before he jumped up and ran second in the Tampa Derby. In the Calumet Purse, he caught D'Accord and Call to Arms inside the 16th pole and drew off to win by a length.
Next morning, Lucien Laurin was fidgeting as Trainer Herb Stevens pressed him: "You've got to run the horse in the Blue Grass, Lucien. You've got to give him the chance." Out of retirement, and just tinkering around, Laurin may have stumbled into the Kentucky Derby. "I don't know," he says. "We'll see how he does. But he is a nice colt. I told Roger...." Roger laughs. His dad had been living a lot in the past, he says, talking about what had been but was no more. "It's nice to see him involved in something that is happening now," Roger says.
As is Frank LaBoccetta, a former brickmason who gave up his trade in 1968 to begin apprenticing as a trainer under Walter Kelley. Three years later LaBoccetta was on his own, and Air Forbes Won is the horse he has been waiting for since he began. He gets up at three in the morning these days because he can't sleep. "I can hardly wait to get to the barn to see him," he says. "I don't live far away and I go back and forth, from home to barn, to see him all the time." This is it, you see; this is Frank LaBoccetta's big horse, his Derby horse.
The Wood was a bit discouraging, but that was yesterday. In this game, the Kentucky Derby always means tomorrow. Everyone is down there to take a shot at Timely Writer: Laurin with the horse he's been fooling with; Nerud with the son of the mare he traded the stud prospect for; Freeman with the colt whose work the clocker at Oaklawn wouldn't believe; and LaBoccetta with the colt who looks like Bold Forbes.
Ed Anchel, who manufactures car stereos, showed up at the Keeneland summer yearling sale two years ago ready to pay $100,000 for Air Forbes Won. The colt was the fourth yearling led into the ring. "People hadn't settled in their seats," Anchel says. "I got him for $50,000. I said, 'Did we miss something? Does he have four legs?' "
Yes, he does. And now they're in Louisville, as ready as LaBoccetta can make them to get a mile and a quarter.