Frank LaBoccetta didn't try to conceal the curious sense of disappointment he felt last Saturday. Curious, to be sure, because the 44-year-old trainer had just won the most important race of his career with Air Forbes Won in the $175,200 Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct racetrack, and at the moment he was celebrating with a glass of champagne. This was the colt's last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, the race LaBoccetta has been aiming for over the last few months, and LaBoccetta simply couldn't figure the way his horse had run.
Air Forbes Won bears a striking resemblance to his sire, the 1976 Wood and Derby winner Bold Forbes, and the colt had given signs that he had a measure of his sire's flash and fire on the racetrack. Unraced as a 2-year-old, Air Forbes Won broke his maiden in his first career start on March 4 at Aqueduct, winning by almost eight lengths, then trounced a field of allowance horses on March 20, winning by three. Two weeks later, in the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, he ran down Shimatoree, and won by more than three.
"This colt is just as important a Derby horse as Timely Writer," Lenny Hale, the New York racing secretary, said of Air Forbes Won after the Gotham. Thus many expected that the Wood, the colt's fourth lifetime start and his first race around two turns, would make him a leading figure at the big dance in Louisville. But it didn't happen. Air Forbes Won beat Shimatoree by a neck in the Wood, following a long, arduous battle against a high wind through the stretch, but it took him all of 1:51 to get the job done—very uninspired running time. Thus the performance left LaBoccetta slightly subdued.
"It did discourage me a little bit," he said. "I thought he would run better. I don't want to make excuses for him—I'm glad that he won—but I really thought he would run better. This is only his fourth start. Think about it. We're running a green horse. Then maybe we got too high on him...."
If so, LaBoccetta will find out for sure on Derby Day. The colt is expected to be one of perhaps 15 3-year-olds—including one filly, Cupecoy's Joy—to try the Derby's 1¼ miles. The central question, of course, is whether there is a 3-year-old in the land who can whip Timely Writer, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby and, at the moment, the prohibitive favorite for Churchill Downs. Trainer Dominic Imprescia has done a superb job in bringing the colt to the race, training and racing him with obvious confidence. "I believe that I have the best horse," Imprescia says. "He's a champ; no one's going to beat him this year."
So far, few are arguing the point. The class of '82, as it has revealed itself this winter, isn't a vintage one, not a 1957 or 1973, and there have been some keen disappointments. Stalwart, a West Coast colt who showed much promise, broke down. Star Gallant, touted in Florida as the second coming of Pegasus, had everything his own way in the Florida Derby until Timely Writer grabbed him by the throat and outran him to the line.
D'Accord, who bedazzled Kentuckians last fall with his 7½-length victory in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, is now being trained by his owner, Bertram Firestone, and has yet to win a race this year. After the colt folded in the stretch to finish third in the 1[1/16]-mile Calumet Purse on April 13 at Keeneland, Louisville Courier Journal columnist Billy Reed had shed row chuckling when he dubbed him D'Accordion. Firestone didn't laugh.
"I brought him up to his race [the Calumet] as good as a horse could be brought up to a race," said Firestone, who parted with Trainer LeRoy Jolley last fall. "If he runs a good race in the Blue Grass, I'll probably run him in the Derby. Anyway, it's not the end of the world. Win some, lose some."
There are perhaps three horses that have a reasonable chance to beat Timely Writer in the Kentucky Derby: Hostage, Muttering and El Baba. And there are a handful of others who have long-shot possibilities, including Gato Del Sol and Air Forbes Won. Of the principal contenders, the most intriguing is Hostage, the winner of the Arkansas Derby and a son of the great Nijinsky II out of a mare sired by Val de Loir, a French champion. "Hostage has got the best pedigree in the race," says John Nerud, the manager of Tartan Farm, which bred and owns Muttering.
Hostage also pulled off one of the neatest upsets of the winter when he whipped odds-on favorite El Baba, who had won eight of nine career starts (he finished second in his other race), in the Arkansas Derby on April 10. Hostage's trainer, Mike Freeman, was about the only witness at Oaklawn Park who expected the 15-to-1 shot to pull it off. Freeman had gone slowly with the colt as a 2-year-old, starting him five times, and after he broke his maiden on the turf at Belmont Park last September, Freeman did not start him this year until Feb. 26, when he finished second in an allowance race at Hialeah.