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The Triple Crown campaign has not witnessed a dominant figure since 1979, the year Spectacular Bid winged like Pegasus into Louisville, and no heir to the great gray has emerged this spring. In fact, as many as 20 horses (the maximum allowed) could answer the call at Churchill Downs, and at least six of them are live enough to win the classic: Fly So Free, Dinard, Best Pal, Hansel, Strike the Gold, and Olympio. The race is so wide-open that one of France's leading trainers, Francois Boutin, is considering sending one of his promising colts, the stakes-winning Ganges, to Louisville; and Ireland's leading trainer, Dermot Weld, is thinking of flying in his major stakes-winner, Rinka Das, for the race.
In the end, though, this may very well turn out to be the year of the eunuch. No gelding has won the Derby since a son of Man o' War, Clyde Van Dusen, galloped home in 1929. But the two leading West Coast Derby horses, Dinard and Best Pal, have both suffered the unkindest cut of all. Dinard's half-length victory over Best Pal in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6 was perhaps the single most compelling performance of the year among Kentucky-bound 3-year-olds. In only the fifth start of his life, under jockey Chris McCarron, Dinard got pinched back on the first turn, lost three lengths as he struggled to regain his balance, then came four-wide off the last turn and ran down Best Pal in the final 100 yards.
Dinard's trainer, Dick Lundy, was euphoric over the effort. "It was a tremendous learning experience," Lundy says. "He got five races' worth of experience out of it. The more pressure we've put on this horse, the better he has handled it." Dinard undoubtedly has the pedigree to get the 1¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby. He is a son of Strawberry Road, who won major stakes at a mile and a half in France and Australia, out of a daughter of Bold Bidder, the sire of Spectacular Bid. In the Santa Anita Derby, Best Pal hung on mightily until the final yards and may have been "a tad short" on conditioning for the race, according to his trainer, Ian Jory. Since shipping to Churchill Downs, Best Pal has worked with gusto, including a six-furlong workout on a dull racetrack in 1:12[1/5] seconds, a sharp move that he embroidered with a final quarter mile in 23 seconds, including a last eighth in a scorching 11 seconds flat.
They are two tough geldings, strictly business in approach and style, and are the heart of the California contingent that will carry on the traditional rivalry with horses from the East. Joining them is Olympio, a horse long on pluck and verve. Dinard whipped him by six in the one-mile Los Feliz at Santa Anita on Jan. 11, but a month later Olympio nailed Dinard on the wire and beat him a nose in the San Vicente. It was Dinard's lone defeat.
Last Saturday, in another Derby prep race, Olympio set the early pace in the Arkansas Derby, surrendered the lead to favorite Richman down the backstretch, was shuffled and bumped at the far turn, but then dug in again through the homestretch to charge past the leaders and win it by 2½ lengths. "I don't like to come back in two weeks," said Olympio's trainer Ron McAnally, referring to the Derby. "But if other favorites [like Cahill Road] begin to falter, we don't have any choice. We've got to go."
No telling what kind of colt Hansel has become. Whipped twice, and soundly, by Fly So Free in Florida this winter, Hansel caught a blazingly fast track in the nine-furlong Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky in March and bounded off to a 2½-length victory in 1:46[3/5], a track record by 2[2/5] seconds. Last Sunday, in the 1[1/16]-mile Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, Hansel, hand-ridden by Jerry Bailey, won by a whopping nine lengths. "He's exactly where I want him to be, going into the Derby," said trainer Frank Brothers.
The parade of Derby contenders from the East will be led by Fly So Free and Strike the Gold. All winter long in Florida—through his victories at Gulfstream Park in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, by a length, on Feb. 2; the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth, by six, on Feb. 23; and, finally, in the 1⅛-mile Florida Derby, by a length, on Mar. 16—Fly So Free gave reason to believe that he would chase the assorted demons that have hounded 2-year-old champions throughout the 1980s and into this decade. No juvenile champion since Spectacular Bid has come back the following spring to win the Kentucky Derby. Here, surely, was the colt who would break the spell.
And then along came Strike the Gold, an attractive chestnut son of Alydar. In the Florida Derby, his first start in a stakes race, Strike the Gold came from far back and made a long, desperate run at Fly So Free, who felt the repeated lash of jockey Jose Santos's stick before fending off the challenge. Schulhofer said the rider's flailings were attributable to Fly So Free's tendency to pull himself up once he gets to the lead.
The two colts met a final time in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, on April 13, and all at once the old demons were back, knocking at the Derby door. On Schulhofer's orders, Santos snugged Fly So Free off the early pace of Nowork All Play, and the colt grew rank, fighting Santos around the first turn and again down the backside. On the turn for home, Santos asked his horse for speed and nearly reached the lead. Coming off the last bend, with jockey Chris Antley driving him on, Strike the Gold blew past Fly So Free on the outside, accelerated quickly through the final 220 yards and won off by three lengths. Schulhofer said it was a mistake to order Santos to lay off the speed, and took the blame for the defeat: "You can choke a horse just so long and then he says, 'The hell with it.' "
Nick Zito, the trainer of Strike the Gold, celebrated for days after the Blue-grass win, buying drinks for the house at whatever bar he walked into in Lexington, and happily touting his horse. "He's starting to mature," said Zito. "He's getting into his game. This is a terrific horse."