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Trainer flint (scotty) schulhofer ducked through the door that led from the clubhouse to the paddock at New York's Aqueduct racetrack last Saturday, gleefully rubbed his hands together and then began picking his way through the crowd on his way to the winner's circle.
"Did you see him out there?" said Schulhofer. "I just knew this colt was going to run good today.... Whew! This is a big, handsome-looking colt who can run. And he's getting better all the time."
Schulhofer was right: His horse, Cahill Road, had run good. But on that last point Schulhofer was wrong: His horse would not be getting better for a while.
Moments earlier, in the Wood Memorial Stakes, New York's last major Kentucky Derby prep race, Cahill Road, a strapping full brother to last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Unbridled, had stamped himself as one of the most gifted young racehorses in America. After snatching the lead from the pace-setting Kyle's Our Man on the turn for home, Cahill Road then repulsed a challenge from 40-1 long shot Lost Mountain in mid-stretch, and accelerated through the final 200 yards to win the 1⅛-mile race by three lengths.
In that brief instant, it became as clear as the flags snapping Tut! Tut! on the infield poles that the 64-year-old Schulhofer was training not one but two of the fastest 3-year-old guns around. It was Schulhofer who had made another of his charges, Fly So Free, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, the solid winter-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on May 4. Despite Fly So Free's recent second-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, a loss for which Schulhofer takes the blame, the colt remains the consensus pick among Las Vegas odds-makers to wear the roses.
Heading into the Wood, Schulhofer insisted that even if he won the race, he wanted to pass up the Derby with Cahill Road, and give the gawky, clumsy bay more time to mature. But after his performance in the Wood—one of the strongest by a 3-year-old this year—it seemed, for a few moments at least, that Schulhofer most certainly would have to reconsider.
A problem that has plagued Cahill Road for most of his life involves the suspensory ligament that runs behind the cannon bone, between the ankle and knee, in his left leg. The colt had strained it as a youngster, and it remained a worrisome condition, one that the slightest misstep could aggravate. Two days before the Wood, as Schulhofer ran his hand down the leg, he said, "This colt is just beginning to get good. He walks horrible; he's all over the place. He jogs fair. He gallops all right. But when he levels out in a full run, he gives you chills, he is so smooth. If I can only keep that leg together." The trainer tapped on the stall door. "Knock on wood," he said.
Moments after the Wood was over, whatever dreams he may have had for Cahill Road vanished. No sooner had Schulhofer crossed the paddock than a pall fell over the writers and railbirds waiting for the colt to gallop back to the winner's circle. He was not galloping. With jockey Craig Perret still on him, and groom Moises Morales leading him, Cahill Road came limping up the racetrack, obviously in distress. He had suffered "a strained left front suspensory," the one the trainer had been concerned about, and now his career was in jeopardy.
Perret jumped off. "I felt it [the ligament] go at the quarter pole," he told Schulhofer. "But he didn't give in a step. He didn't even want to pull up at the end." Schulhofer hurried toward the barns. "We always worried about this," he said. "No Kentucky for him."
The Wood certainly occasioned the keenest sense of disappointment so far in this 1991 Triple Crown season. Not only did Cahill Road come back lame, but the 1990 2-year-old filly champion, Meadow Star (undefeated in nine lifetime starts coming to the Wood and aiming to become the fourth filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby) finished fourth, beaten 10¼ lengths, in her first start against colts. The callipygian chestnut had no excuse, and her future as a Derby horse is in doubt. Finally, Kyle's Our Man, the front-running winner of the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, who had worked brilliantly for the Wood, faded in the final quarter to finish sixth. He may not want to go beyond a mile.