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First among the thrills of the fall racing season are the emergence and development of the sport's new potential celebrities: the 2-year-olds.
The fact about them is: after eight months of racing there is no clear-cut 2-year-old champion of 1957 as yet. The prediction: the next six weeks will produce an exciting new one.
These youngsters, just like devilish schoolboys, are a fascinating lot. The toughest to train, subject invariably to every trackside variety of childhood diseases, every 2-year-old in the country today—and there are probably over 5,000 of them in training—is nonetheless a candidate for, and therefore possible winner of, next May's Kentucky Derby. Their careers have varied greatly since last January 1. Some, having raced very early, are already on the shelf. Others, starting later in the East, in Chicago or at Hollywood Park, have won impressively one day, lost unimpressively the next. And still another group, just back from Saratoga or flexing muscles hopefully at Belmont Park, is ready to burst into action in quest of the rich stakes on the calendar during the next six weeks.
Two-year-old racing has always played a vital part in our over-all turf setup. But in the old days, following The Hopeful at Saratoga, you had a pretty fair idea of who the best young colts were, and these few survivors of a season which rarely saw any 2-year-old start before late June or early July, then battled for the championship among themselves in the Belmont and Pimlico Futurities. Today the picture has changed. Racing goes on 12 months at over 30 major tracks (and at some 50 or more minor ones). From a track management's point of view, no major track can keep pace with progressive competition without offering huge purses and presenting a program of real variety. With more 2-year-olds in training than any other age group, it has become only natural that much of the purse money has got to go into the 2-year-old stakes. Eastern critics of western racing like to point out the folly of offering $100,000 for 2-year-olds going six furlongs in July—a distance many New York trainers believe to be excessive before mid-August. Western tracks reply that potentially top horses can go six furlongs in July and the only way to lure them is to offer more attractive purses than are to be found in New York or New Jersey.
From the owner's standpoint there are some obvious points that should be mentioned. Every owner would like to make some money with his horses (although a few with such extensive wide-ranging operations as Calumet, Llangollen and Greentree know that a year-end profit is next to impossible). Any man who can afford a race horse to begin with should be able to afford to "carry" that horse along until he's ready to race at his best form. But it doesn't always work this way. A lot of owners want the fastest possible return on their investment and, faced with this self-created economic problem, will rush 2-year-olds into the starting gate at the earliest possible chance. Some win, some come close, but the tragedy of it all is that hundreds every year wind up hopelessly broken down because they never had a fair chance. Of course, there is another way to look at it. If you have a short-bred horse (who doesn't figure—on his breeding—to develop into a stayer), you're being smart rather than greedy in going after all the money you can as fast as you can. Racing early you avoid the competition you know would be coming from the big "waiting" stables and, after all, $100,000 picked up at Hollywood Park in July is just as comforting as $100,000 earned at Belmont in September. In the end, it's all in the way you look at it. The greedy man, as opposed to the owner of a big breeding stable, has an economic problem which he wants to solve, and in doing so he obviously contributes nothing to the future of racing because he puts out of his mind altogether the old principle that the main object of all Thoroughbred racing is to develop classic distance horses. This fellow can draw a parallel to his unfortunate contemporary in England. Over there a man can't afford to race unless he wins a big bet. Over here, some will argue, a man can't afford to race unless he wins a big pot.
To get back to some of the 2-year-olds who have made a name for themselves to date. If a standout had to be named right now, it would have to be Fred Hooper's Alhambra, who has been the star of the Chicago season. Hooper won the Kentucky Derby with the first horse he ever owned (Hoop Jr.) and last year turned up with Greek Game, who, like Alhambra, is a son of Olympia. Being a son of Olympia hardly guarantees distance ability. Alhambra has a few questions still to answer but Hooper thinks he's the best 2-year-old he's ever owned, and both he and Trainer Chuck Parke think this brown colt will keep rolling along despite an occasional tendency to loaf at the wrong time. To back up their convictions they have brought him to Belmont where he'll not only get the chance to meet tougher horses than he's yet faced but also to run over a deeper track, which, as many Midwesterners have found out, has often been the downfall of a Chicago summer star. One strong recommendation for Alhambra comes from Eddie Arcaro, who is his regular rider. "He's a colt with a lot of fire in him," says Eddie, "but in his only legitimate defeat (to Maine Chance Farm's Jewel's Reward in the Washington Park Futurity) he suddenly unbuckled on me at the eighth pole when I thought I had the race won. I don't understand it. He's good, though—the best 2-year-old I've ridden this year—so far."
Picking a runner-up to Alhambra—strictly on his performance to date—is not simple. In New York and Jersey, for example, there is some remarkable inconsistency. Eleven stakes have been won by 10 different colts: Bolero U, Jester, Jewel's Reward, Jimmer, Rose Trellis, Louis d'Or, Wing Jet, Grey Monarch, Plion and, most recently, Li'l Fella. The biggest headlines in California were made by Old Pueblo, Fleet Nasrullah and Strong Ruler, but none of the achievements of any of these youngsters—yet—would suggest that they own any claim to the title, for, after all, one or even two wins (even in a rich stake) does not qualify a horse to be classified as the best of his age. He must beat the best, and beat them with some degree of consistency.
Among the fillies there has thus far been one standout in much the same way that Alhambra leads the colts. She is Mrs. George Zauderer's Poly Hi, who has already won six stakes in her short career. Some of her contemporaries, like Idun, Hasty Doll, Margaretta, Melody Mine, Sally Lee, Bridgework, Sequoia, Amorial, Pocahontas, Noordeen, Polamby and Gleaming Star have not been as successful, but by the end of the fall Poly Hi will have faced some of these over a longer route, and possibly new conclusions can be drawn.
The exciting part about this 2-year-old season is that we can almost be positive that at least one very fine colt is lurking in the wings. "So little has been developed in the short stakes that we can at least hope for some development in the fall," remarked Jimmy Kilroe, racing secretary in New York and at Santa Anita, recently. "Of course there's more big money in the fall for 2-year-olds, and this makes a lot of people wait. Another thing that made them wait this year was that more horses had the cough than usual."