It is minutes short of post time. The horses have left the paddock in a slow, cautious walk to the track. As they appear for the long parade-first to the right and down around the clubhouse turn, then back past the stands again on the trip to the starting gate at the head of the stretch—the band strikes up My Old Kentucky Home. Necks already strained and weary from nearly a day-long wait stretch desperately for a closer look. Here and there in the crowd of 100,000 pressed bodies a few tears flow, some lips quiver under the spell of the moment.
That will be the scene, much as drawn above, a few minutes before 4:30 at Churchill Downs this Saturday. For horses and owners this is the culmination of a three-year wait. The members of this post parade are the sole survivors of an original nomination list of 125 colts, geldings and fillies made eligible for the 81st consecutive running of the Kentucky Derby. Every owner has spent $1,600 in entry fees alone to see his racing silks in this sporting pageant. For one of them the reward will be at least $100,000, a gold cup and a safe niche in the permanent records of racing history. For others the trip home may be melancholy.
But this moment also represents the last chance for the bettor lurching and pushing his way to the front of the pari-mutuel lines which opened seven and a half hours previously. In these hectic hours the mixed mob has started spending on a big scale. Before the day's nine races are over they will have bet over $4 million.
A million and a half of it will go into the machines on the seventh race of the afternoon—the Derby—alone.
Winter Book bets are all but forgotten in the light of new-found knowledge as tips, hunches and rumors race across the rambling old horse park faster than any Stevens caterer with his $1.25 mint juleps in the take-it-home-with-you souvenir glasses. Every horse in the parade will get a play. Some—like Nashua and Summer Tan, who have staged a rivalry reminiscent of the feuds between Cavalcade and Discovery—will draw a tremendous following. Others, with less fortunate backgrounds and peanut-size bank rolls to show for their achievements, will be lucky if even their owners, grooms and exercise boys go out on a financial limb on their behalf.
Many things will stir in the minds of the 100,000 bettors Saturday before the mutuel windows slam shut. All the old "systems"—from the blind thrust of a hatpin into an outspread program to selection according to color and name—will be brought into play. Many, too preoccupied to unscramble the hieroglyphics of the past performance charts, will settle for a bet on the favorite (most likely: Nashua). In the 80 previous Derbies 37 favorites have won (this 46% average is far better than the national average of 34% winning favorites), and 15 of the 27 odds-on favorites have won.
There is another school of thought adhering to the theory that the jockey alone is responsible for a Derby victory. This applies particularly if the jockey's name happens to be Eddie Arcaro, who has ridden to triumph five times in this premier classic. Arcaro wound up a suspension this week just in time to make Nashua his 16th Derby ride. Most of his admirers would rather forget that in Arcaro's first 15 they made his mount the favorite in 10—and exactly half of them did not even get in the money.
The more experienced Derby bettor has often profited by basing his selections not only according to the merit of past performance but also on a logical study of inherited bloodline characteristics. One example of this sort of thinking paid off in 1951 when a 15 to 1 field entry, Count Turf, romped home by four lengths. Count Turf's backers dismissed his unimpressive pre-Derby record but gave him their support largely because of his noble breeding. You see, Count Turf's grandsire, Reigh Count, won the 1928 Derby—and his sire, Count Fleet, won the Derby (and triple crown) in 1943.
This year the great imported sire Nasrullah (SI, Nov. 1) will—if Nashua, Jean's Joe and Flying Fury all start Saturday—be represented by three sons in this select field. Among Nasrullah's notable progeny are Noor, a four-time winner over Citation in 1950, and Never Say Die, winner of the 1954 Epsom Derby and St. Leger—proof enough that his sons can go a distance of ground and go it at a winning clip. Of the three Nasrullahs mentioned, Nashua comes to this race with the best credentials: 10 wins in 12 starts and earnings of $477,440. His recent Wood Memorial win over Summer Tan (whom he has now defeated in four of their five encounters) stamped Nashua as a colt with both magnetic appeal and the stamina and heart of a true champion—to say nothing of the fact that, already 15th on the all-time earnings list, he is the richest horse ever to seek a Kentucky Derby victory. When Citation, the No. 1 money earner with a final total of $1,085,760, came up to his 1948 Derby he had already won $248,430.
Just as Nashua's background is becoming better known every day, Summer Tan's blood heritage is familiar to every horseman. His sire, Heliopolis, is a son of Hyperion who produced the 1944 Derby winner Pensive, and whose grandson, Ponder, accounted for the 1949 Derby. Summer Tan's dam is Miss Zibby, whose sire was the 1935 Derby winner Omaha, a son of the 1930 Derby winner Gallant Fox.
The tentative Derby field, however, is filled by others well equipped with aristocratic birth certificates. Should Ben Jones, for example, decide to saddle a Calumet Farm eligible, he would call on Trentonian, a son of Bull Lea, who already has sent out two Derby-winning sons—Citation and Hill Gail (1952). And if Honeys Alibi, a California-raced colt, should accept the issue he will get some fine support if only for the reason that his sire, Alibhai, also sired last year's Derby winner Determine. Noor, still a world record holder over classic distances, may be represented by Prince Noor. The 1947 Derby winner Jet Pilot has an eligible son in Racing Fool, half of an entry (with Flying Fury) of Harry F. Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable which turned the unturnable tables on undefeated Native Dancer in the Derby of 1953.
It was inevitable, of course, that some of the better 3-year-olds would not make it to the Downs starting gate. Some, such as Blue Ruler (another son of Nasrullah) and Roman Patrol, were beset by minor training pitfalls. Others had reasons of a different nature. Two Boston brothers, Paul and Frank Andolino, own a speed demon called Boston Doge. The colt has been accused by some of ducking a meeting with his top-rated contemporaries. At the same time he has been hailed as the most shrewdly managed horse in the country. The Andolinos are keeping him on a special program: sprints. They see no reason to send him a mile and a quarter under 126 pounds until he's ready—which may be never. Boston Doge likes his special program. He has lost only one of 11 races.
Another strong Derby contender dropped along the way was Saratoga. His trainer, Frank Bonsai, was perfectly frank to explain why: "We ran against Nashua twice in Florida and couldn't beat him. I'm not sure Saratoga belongs in a race with Nashua and Summer Tan."
THE WEST WILL CHALLENGE
Fortunately for the Derby, there are still a lot of owners and trainers willing to take a chance against the powerful champions of the East Coast. The West has a strong contender in Swaps, who has won all three of his 1955 races, including the Santa Anita Derby (SI, Feb. 28). In his most recent outing last week, he flirted with the Churchill Downs track record while winning a six-furlong dash by eight and a half lengths. But should Willie Shoemaker bring Swaps down in front on Saturday, it would mark only the second time in history (and first time since Morvich in 1922) that a California-bred horse has won.
Two other West Coast representatives, Honeys Alibi and the temperamental Jean's Joe, are dark horses. Jean's Joe is a son of Nasrullah quite unlike Nashua. It seems he loves to catch the leader, but is shy about passing him. In his first seven starts this year he won only one, but was never out of the money.
The Derby's real sleeper may be the Cain Hoy Stable entry of Flying Fury and Racing Fool who have been training for weeks in Kentucky. The last time the stable did this they did it with a colt named Dark Star—and he made their training program look awfully good on Derby Day of 1953.
The starting field is expected to number between 8 and 10, thus minimizing the chances or necessity for crowding and poor racing luck which has so often plagued Derby fields in the past. Actually Nashua's presence in the role of favorite may encourage the opposition to come out in stronger force than would have been the case had Summer Tan won the Wood in convincing fashion. Eddie Arcaro explains it this way: "If Summer Tan had won easily, everybody would have known that he was a speed horse few could hope to catch. But, with Nashua winning again by his usual close margin, these other guys figure they always have a chance—a chance, that is, that Nashua just might, the next time, miss out by the same close margin."
It is now seconds to post time. The field is warming up so far away that every pair of binoculars is raised to eye-level position. Standees strain forward in a fight to get an inch closer. The horses are led into the gate as the announcer heralds the approaching moment of decision. The betting has stopped. One wonders how 100,000 people can be so quiet, so intent—or so nervous.
The starter squeezes his hand on a charged switch. It springs open the gates and sets off a piercing bell. Another Derby field thunders away. This is what happens every year. It will happen again this Saturday.
(weights in parentheses)