Trainer Eddie Gregson was walking 10 feet behind his Kentucky Derby horse, Gato del Sol, when they emerged from the quiet of the stable area at Churchill Downs and began that long trek around the clubhouse turn toward the saddling paddock. There were 141,009 people packed into the Downs last Saturday afternoon—a warm, bright day in Louisville—and thousands lined the clubhouse turn, a few yelling at Gregson as the colt strode by: "What's the name of your horse?" And "Do you like him?"
Gato del Sol's sire, Cougar II, the champion grass horse of 1972, had been poised and unflappable, and he passed these characteristics on, but now the colt was coming to his toes, doing a nervous little waltz, and sweat streaked his flanks. Gregson's face was strained. This was his first Kentucky Derby, a mile and a quarter for which he had been judiciously pointing his horse for weeks, and Gato del Sol was in a sweat before he even got to the paddock.
Gregson glanced at the crowded grandstand. "It's amazing," he said. "I schooled this horse in the paddock, but you could school a horse every day and not re-create this. You have to have a horse physically fit to run this far in May and mentally ready to go through it. To win, it's like climbing Mount Everest."
Thirty minutes later, of course, the 43-year-old Gregson found himself at the summit, for win the Derby he did. After finally settling down in the paddock and handling the raucous post parade like old Cougar himself, Gato del Sol galloped leisurely through the first part of the race with all the urgency of a kid going to school. At the end of the first half-mile, he and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye still trailed in the 19-horse field and were some 16 lengths behind the leader. Since definitive charts of the Derby were introduced in 1903, no winner had come from so far back. But the colt began picking up horses as he pleased down the back-stretch and then, rounding the far turn, bounded from 16th place to fourth in a single quarter-mile. He won his Derby right there. Outrunning Laser Light, an 18-1 shot, and Reinvested to the wire, Gato del Sol won the race—and the $428,850 first money—by 2½ lengths.
"A trainer fantasizes about this," Gregson said. "It just bowls you over. Twenty or 30 years from now, it will make for a nice evening around the fire."
Gato del Sol paid $44.40 to win to the gambling clientele who preferred him, among them Arthur Hancock III, who was down for $100. He went dry-mouthed into the winner's circle, trying to wet his lips. "I still don't believe it," said the Kentucky breeder, who co-owns Gato del Sol with Leone J. Peters, a New York real estate tycoon. "Is it official? Has it been declared official yet? I can't believe we did it. It's like a dream. My dad would sure be proud, I know that."
It was thus that a neatly balanced gray colt, named in memory of a tan-colored cat who used to sleep in the morning sun, won the 108th Kentucky Derby at 21-1 for a trainer who was once a Hollywood actor, since reformed; a co-owner who came of age as the maverick son of the greatest thoroughbred breeder in American history; and a Cajun jockey who broke his maiden at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La.
Arthur Hancock came to this Derby representing the fourth generation of Hancocks to breed thoroughbreds. But until last Saturday no Hancock had ever owned the winner. Hancock's father, the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, is regarded by many as America's most influential horse breeder. He was the man who turned Claiborne Farm, outside Lexington, into a showcase of the bloodstock business. Horses Bull Hancock imported and ideas he espoused would produce Derby winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid, among others.
No one coveted the Derby more than Bull. "I saw how much Daddy wanted to win it," says Arthur, 39, Bull's oldest son. "We talked about it a lot. He'd plan a mating with Derby breeding, sire and dam, and then he'd get a filly or something. He had some bad luck."
Bull's best colt, Drone, was undefeated and training for the Florida Derby in 1969 when he broke down. Still, Bull almost won the Derby that year, when Dike got beat a neck and a half-length by Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters. But Bull would tell you that finishing third was no cigar. He died in 1972, his dream unfulfilled.