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A victory achieved through the enforcement of racing's disqualification rules almost always tends to appear somewhat hollow, largely because the question all races seek to discover—which is the best horse—is answered inconclusively or not at all.
Such was the case at Jamaica last Saturday when C. V. Whitney's heavily favored Head Man was given the decision in the Wood Memorial even though he finished two and a half lengths behind Golf Ace, the Escadru gelding who campaigns in the tangerine-and-black colors of the Winding Way Farm. Fouls in racing are by no means uncommon occurrences, and, whether they are intentional or not, their systematic detection through the eyes of the film patrol results in hundreds of reversed decisions every year. What put the foul in the Wood into a category of special importance, however, was that it involved a colt who is most highly regarded as a Kentucky Derby candidate and a rival who has been named for none of the important Triple Crown classics.
Golf Ace, to anyone who has cocked an eye at the results of the winter's racing, is hardly a new name. As a matter of fact, he came into prominence of a sort by virtue of his second-place finish to Needles in the Flamingo at Hialeah last February. A month later he finished fourth in Needles' Florida Derby. Golf Ace, for all his obvious ability to run, has usually been inclined to bear out toward the middle of the track, especially after rounding the stretch turn on the last leg of the trip home. It was this old habit which probably cost him the Wood victory.
Before the race there was a good deal of speculation as to what sort of race would be run. It was common knowledge, for instance, that Head Man, unlike his stablemate Career Boy, was capable of running on the lead or slightly off it—or even way off it. Just as well known was the fact that Nail, a real speed colt with highly questionable stamina, would—if he had his own way—set the pace and go as far as his legs would carry him. But in the paddock Head Man's owner and his trainer Syl Veitch, after conferring with Jockey Eddie Arcaro, suspected strategy of a different sort would be employed in an effort to beat Head Man. The word had gone around, they heard, that everyone would rate back from the start—thus assuring a slow pace and giving every horse a chance to cash in on his stretch-running ability during the last furlong of this mile-and-an-eighth contest. And, sure enough, when the barrier sprang open, there was Hedley Wood-house on Nail straining to keep his sprinter from running away from the pack. Right behind him was Arcaro doing the same to Head Man. But out in front of both of them was Tony DeSpirito astride Golf Ace, who was off and away with nobody to bother him—nobody did.
Golf Ace clicked off three-quarters in 1:12[2/5], passed the mile mark in 1:37[4/5], and then, turning for home with the race seemingly well under control, he fell into his old habit. Head Man had already passed Nail, and Arcaro was bringing him up on the outside of the leader. He never got there because Golf Ace bore so far out that Eddie was forced to switch course and try to make up the ground on the inside. He never made it.
People will argue, I suppose, for quite some time over whether or not Head Man would have nailed Golf Ace had both of them come home on a straight line. The belief here is that Golf Ace—on this particular day—would have won, foul or no foul. This doesn't necessarily mean that he is the superior horse, for it must be remembered that Golf Ace had three times this season run this distance whereas Head Man was going over a mile and a sixteenth for the first time in his career. Although it's not particularly advisable for anyone sitting in the stands to criticize Arcaro's riding strategy, it is my impression that from the way Head Man was dying to run as he went around the first turn and up the backstretch, Eddie might have given him the green light sooner than he did. Had he done so he might not have had to lodge the protest against DeSpirito which took the well-earned victory away from Golf Ace.
Be that as it may, Head Man now goes to Louisville to await the Derby, and Arcaro thought enough of him Saturday to advise Veitch that he'd like the ride on him on Derby Day.
It seems a shame that one must almost give Golf Ace the brushoff for the next few weeks, but the story of this unlucky gelding serves as an interesting illustration of just how rapidly a horse can develop over a short period of time. A year ago Golf Ace won but three of 14 starts, and as late as last November he brought no particular distinction upon himself by finishing third in a $12,500 claiming race at Jamaica. In his first two starts at Hialeah this winter he was hopelessly outclassed, and when the Triple Crown nominating deadline rolled around on February 15 his three owners—Philip and Randolph Weinsier and their brother-in-law Armand Cantor (all from Great Neck, N.Y.)—came to the unhappy conclusion that they didn't have much of a horse in their barn. From that day on, almost, Golf Ace has made sterling progress, winning twice and placing twice before his misfortune in the Wood (which nonetheless earned him second money of $10,000). Standing in the winner's circle Saturday before the stewards' disqualification became official, Randolph Weinsier showed some amazing restraint for a man who is about to grab either a check for $42,000 or one for a paltry $10,000. "No, we're not too upset at having failed to nominate for the Derby," he said. "After all, we think Needles is the best horse. We had two good cracks at him and he beat us both times. Our horse is a gelding, which means we're ineligible for the Belmont Stakes, but we might give some thought to making Golf Ace a supplementary nomination to the Preakness. If we'd nominated on the regular February 15 deadline it would have cost us just $50. If we do it now it will cost $7,500. For that kind of money you have to be sure of your horse!"
While the Wood constitutes the last major test for Kentucky Derby eligibles in New York each April, the same purpose is usually adequately served by the Chesapeake at Laurel for any contenders quartered in Maryland. Well, there were four Derby eligibles in last Saturday's Chesapeake, and, just to show you what sort of a topsy-turvy 3-year-old season this may turn out to be, the winner was a 99-1 shot named Frosty Mr. who had been no better than third in any of his eight 1956 starts. As this non-Triple Crown nominee ran off with the money—$16,825 for covering the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:44 2/5—he also just about canceled out all hope that any of the four Derby eligibles would make it to Louisville. Of the quartet, only Born Mighty showed anything as he came from dead last to finish third. This may have been the last week of major Derby tests. It also seems to have resulted in a week where those who like Needles should just keep right on liking him.