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The Kentucky derby is still a dozen Saturdays away, but it was insinuating itself into the thoughts of many racing fans last week when one of the first big 3-year-old races of the season—the San Vicente Handicap—was run off in California. These midwinter weeks are a time of speculative, probing glances, the more expert of which will land on the four or five hottest possibilities for Churchill Downs. And the early-season news of 1960 is that these glances are not being directed South to Florida, where the cream of eastern Thoroughbreds is in training at Hialeah. They are turned instead across the continent to Santa Anita, where an unprecedented challenge to eastern and southern racing and breeding supremacy is being mounted.
The time has long passed, of course, when no one expected anything but ranch horses to come out of California; Hill Gail, Determine and the mighty Swaps won three Kentucky Derbies for California between 1952 and 1955. But these were lone raiders from the West—or so they seemed; few suspected they might be only the advance guard of a gathering army of California Thoroughbred horseflesh which could shift the balance of racing power to the Coast.
Last year Tomy Lee won for California, and three others from the state finished in the first six. This shock had hardly been absorbed in Kentucky when it was perceived that this year California has at least a dozen valid Derby hopefuls, including the colts ranked first and third nationally—Warfare and Tompion.
A TASTE FOR SPRINTS
All of the nine starters in the seven-furlong San Vicente Handicap were among the top-rated colts of their generation. The race, as a matter of fact, was won by one of the lesser-known entries—John William, who stayed close to the leader, New Policy, around the turn and into the stretch and drove past him in the last furlong to win decisively against a good field. C. V. Whitney's Tompion, the favorite, started sluggishly, moved up a little and then finished a disappointing sixth, though only 3� lengths back of the winner.
The race proved two things. First, that John William loves sprints and is one of the most improved colts on the grounds. Second, that Tompion can no longer be considered the major Derby threat he looked to be as a 2-year-old. He hasn't reached the winner's circle since he took the Hopeful at Saratoga last August, and he's just as stubborn as ever about running only when he feels like it. In the San Vicente it looked as though the more Jockey Eddie Arcaro tried to whip him into doing his work the more obstinate Tompion became. Maybe the answer is to give him to a sit-still rider, like Shoemaker.
John William, who belongs to the Merrick Stable of Nat Schulman and Irving Rosoff, is a bay son of Johns Joy out of a Polynesian mare. Johns Joy is not renowned as a sire of stayers, and although John William won with authority in fast time (1:22) he's going to surprise a lot of people if he can repeat this sort of front-running effort when he's asked to take on an additional half-mile. The second horse in the race, Ralph Lowe's New Policy, a Khaled colt, had a head lead most of the way on John William, but the pace got him in the last sixteenth and he lost by half a length. Of the other San Vicente starters, Noble Noor ran an even, impressive race, even though he finished fourth and was beaten a length and a half by T. V. Lark. It's easy to be wrong about colts this early in the season, but T. V. Lark is probably a sprinter.
THE BIG NEWS IS WARFARE
Of course, of all the horses at Santa Anita, the one most in the limelight, without having done much of anything yet in 1960, is Warfare, the 2-year-old champion of 1959.
Warfare did not run in the San Vicente, but he was the center of attraction last week for another reason: a rumor suddenly went around that his owner, Clifton S. Jones, a Buena Park, Calif. real-estate developer, who had bought the colt from his father for $12,000, was about to sell him. There definitely was cause for speculation. For a week Ivan Parke, who trains the Pin Oak Farm horses for Houston Oilman James S. Abercrombie and his daughter, Josephine Abercrombie Robinson (SI, Nov. 1, 1954), had been watching Warfare closely. He apparently liked what he saw, for in buzzed Abercrombie, his daughter and her husband, Burnett Robinson, in their private plane. Into town also came Clifton Jones. The price Jones was asking for the colt was originally said to be $1 million—which Abercrombie was far from willing to meet. The deal collapsed.