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That eminent English observer, Geoffrey Chaucer, long ago noted that April rouses a longing to go on pilgrimages. What might be called Chaucer's Law is having its old effect again in the U.S. this spring as horses and people converge on Louisville and Churchill Downs for the 82nd running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday.
Private planes and entire trains have been standing by for days, waiting to ferry their human cargoes from the comparative peace and quiet of California, Texas and New York into a city that rejoices in Derby Week much as the capital of a kingdom might be expected to rejoice at the coronation of a ruler. And, in a certain sense, these people do flock in to see a ruler proclaimed. For, until at least the results of the Preakness are in on May 19 and the results of the Belmont Stakes on June 16, the winner of the Kentucky Derby occupies a very special spot in turf history. Whether or not he is the best 3-year-old in the country—and very often he is not—he will be this week the horse of the moment. A horse, in fact, so glamorized and publicized that for the time being everyone will be politely reminded that this is not the week when one should even attempt to discuss the record of a fast 2-year-old in Maryland or the breeding record of a Virginia mare—or even the possibilities for success of a famous handicapper running at Jamaica.
Those are topics, if you will, that must wait their turn at the round table, and those turns won't roll around until well after Derby Week. Not until, for instance, thousands of Louisville visitors have this Saturday grimaced in disbelief at the disappointing taste of a watered-down mint julep (at $1.25 a glass) at Churchill Downs; not until they have been stuck with fantastic hotel and restaurant bills, and not until they are squeezed into a battered old horse park where fully a third of them (of a crowd always announced as "over 100,000") will never even see the race they came all that way to see. For many, these frustrations will be taken lightly, for this, after all, is the Kentucky Derby—a horse race glamorized beyond all true perspective and proportion and yet a contest that has developed during the course of the last 82 years into a sporting spectacle probably unrivaled anywhere on earth.
To the horseman the Kentucky Derby is no spectacle. When a man has been bringing his horse along by carefully calculated training theories to a point where he hopes the colt can carry 126 pounds for a mile and a quarter against the best 3-year-olds in training, he is not particularly interested in band music in the infield or at the sight of rows of inebriates resting amongst the wrack and ruin of the day's newspapers and shattered glasses. The artificiality and carnival air of such a spectacle has, to this dedicated man, no business being part of a race meeting.
And yet they come to the Derby—trainers, owners and their horses, all the way from California, New York, Florida, Chicago, Seattle and from nearby spots in Kentucky. Many would like to be there who can't be. Many are there who, knowing full well they shouldn't be, want to share, for this brief moment, the distinction that goes out so warmheartedly to any stable willing to run in the big race. And as they gather together in Kentucky from the widespread winter racing headquarters and from the southern training grounds, the horsemen begin to talk. Usually it isn't very long before somebody throws in the old familiar line: "Worst looking bunch of 3-year-olds I've ever seen." There may be some agreement on the subject, but this becomes a time when trainers and owners engage in a tactful campaign of building up the other man's horse while simultaneously repressing the urge to state, "Brother, when you see me coming down in front on Derby Day, you're going to tell me I've got the best horse since Citation." It may indeed be this eternal hope that creates the special excitement of the Derby, for this is the race where men ask their horses to carry scale weight over a longer distance of ground than they have ever traveled before, and, in many cases, whether they win or not, the Derby is the proving ground which leads to lasting success or ultimate failure.
In Kentucky last week, as the invasion's advance guard moved into the settlement of regulars who know the horse business inside out, there appeared to be a definite justification for wailing over a generally poor crop of 3-year-olds. Victories in the major winter and spring stakes had been divided up among more than a dozen colts (see chart page 37) and, with few exceptions, form reflected highly uneven performances by colts of whom so much had been expected at the close of the 1955 season. So spotty, for instance, were the records of many a Derby eligible that in the last three major Derby preps before the big one, all three victories went to colts who hadn't even been nominated for the Derby itself. This can be taken either as an indication that many of last season's better juveniles were apparently falsely appraised or that a lot of owners simply failed to realize this winter that, if you had a sound horse in your barn, this was the time to throw out his 1955 record and give him another crack at everything in sight- Kentucky Derby included.
TEMPERAMENTAL SON OF PONDER
It is pleasant—although not always possible—to think of the Derby winner as a real champion. A colt, in other words, who stands at the head of his division, ready and capable of warding off the challenges of any contenders, and who, despite the occasional defeat that touches even the great, accepts that defeat with graciousness and a true show of heart and stamina. You think, perhaps, of a Whirl-away, a Count Fleet, a Citation, an Assault or a Swaps. Champions all—and all Derby winners who used the carnival at Louisville as the center stage for one of the most important performances of their respective careers.
What, then, do we find to indicate that the 1956 crop of 3-year-olds can produce another great name in turf history? If the class as a whole is labeled "ordinary" and "common," will the colt who graduates with top honors this week merely be acclaimed the best of an ordinary lot? Or may we expect to see one of the starting field (which will probably range between 10 and 16, depending on showings in this week's mile Derby Trial) emerge as a champion in his own right? There is always, or nearly always, during Derby Week much hopeful talk about a wide-open race. Never, so it would seem, has there been so much justification for that familiar cry as there is this week. But through the maze, of facts and figures and through the whirling mixture of calculations that will be made collectively and individually before Saturday's post time, there nonetheless stands one favorite whose 1956 record makes him the true focal point of this 82nd Derby.
That colt is a temperamental running fool with the un-horsy name of Needles (see cover). He is a good-looking bay with a devastatingly effective stretch run that immediately reminds you of his sire, Ponder, who won the Derby in 1949, and of his grandsire, Pensive, who won the same race in 1944. The fact that Needles is so unlike most of the colts who will run against him gives him a special sort of glamour during a year when glamour and excitement within the division are sorely needed. Needles, for instance, is not a work horse. He does not require much work to remain fit, and nobody apparently seems to be more aware of this than Needles himself, who, unless he feels like putting out in the morning, will struggle to avoid getting to the race track, or, once there against his will, take a particular delight in refusing to do what is asked of him. His two big races this winter were the Flamingo at Hialeah and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. He won both by coming from the back end and finishing like a jet going flat out. As both of those races were at a distance of a mile and an eighth, and in view of Needles' run at the wire, there is certainly every reason to expect that here is a horse for whom the Derby's mile and a quarter is virtually made to order.