Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons waited for Bold Ruler in the saddling barn at Gulfstream Park last Saturday and admitted he'd been gambling.
"A friend wanted to split some $2 tickets, so we used my figures and lost five straight races," the great trainer confessed. "We bet it all on the nose and we got skinned."
"Well, it proves you're a dead game sport, anyhow," someone suggested.
"Nope. It doesn't," Mr. Fitz shot back. "It means that today I don't know how to win at horses."
A few minutes later the majority of the 25,000 witnesses of the Florida Derby were in the same boat. For they bet on Bold Ruler against the Jones boys of Calumet, and they saw Eddie Arcaro aboard Bold Ruler suddenly look like he was fighting an octopus in a steamer trunk. Eddie and the Wheatley star simply were overwhelmed by the artful manner in which Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, ridden by Willie Hartack and Dave Erb, came and went and came again in the last half mile of the bitter battle, to furnish stark drama seldom equaled in horse racing.
Without doubt, we also witnessed the birth of a solid favorite for the Kentucky Derby next month. Gen. Duke won the Florida Derby in 1:46 and 4/5, equaling the world record for a mile and one-eighth, although there was some reason to suspect Iron Liege could have won it had Erb not chosen to hammer Bold Ruler whilst his partner, Hartack, went to the outside in the stretch for running room.
The Joneses—Ben, the old hand at winning around Louisville, and Jimmy, his son and no less a trainer—have packed up their "Kentucky division" and are moving into Lexington. They left their older horses and a few spares to mop up what was left of Florida's gold, but what was left didn't amount to much. For Calumet had walloped the exchequers at Tropical Park, Hialeah and Gulfstream for an astounding $515,855—without doubt the greatest haul by any racing stable in history for a comparable period.
By Derby time, incidentally, Barbizon also should be right and ready to try for Calumet's sixth and Ben's seventh victory at Churchill Downs. "We'll give him a taste of that blue grass and see what happens," Jimmy said. "There wasn't any need to push him too fast in Florida...."
There certainly wasn't. Had Barbizon been a third party to Calumet's trial of Bold Ruler, Arcaro probably would be snapping at chair legs now.
Gen. Duke outbroke the others at the start but made no effort to retain the lead, as Federal Hill dashed for the front, with Arcaro moving Bold Ruler quickly yet in no real hurry into second position around the clubhouse turn—but Gen. Duke wasn't as modest here as expected. He stuck close to the leaders.
In contrast to his effort in the Flamingo—in which he was undone when Bold Ruler simply went away and left him—Hartack kept Gen. Duke in scratching distance of Bold Ruler through most of the back run, but when he made his first lunge at the Wheatley star he found Gen. Duke not yet ready.
"I asked something of him going into the far turn, but he wasn't going to give it yet," Hartack said later, "so I figured maybe I'd ask him again a 16th later. That time I asked him, he gave me all we needed."
Willie asked him as they turned down the stretch but, meanwhile, Arcaro was having his troubles with Iron Liege, heretofore the sprinter in the Calumet one-two assault force but now a late challenge. Federal Hill had done what he could, but he just didn't have enough to deal with the raging Calumet entry, and, as the drama unfolded, he stepped inside and let the heavyweights have at each other.
And they did, with Iron Liege inside and Gen. Duke driving up on his flank. Arcaro was in a fix that quickly unraveled the gallant Bold Ruler, for Gen. Duke swept up and beyond. "He went by in a wink," said Arcaro. Iron Liege still was in a drive, and Arcaro admitted later that the No. 2 part of Calumet's entry was tough enough.
"I didn't know if Bold Ruler had any left but I hit him with the whip in my left hand and my horse got up again—I had no excuses; he didn't die on me," Arcaro said. "If we had to run it over again, I don't think I would have done differently...."
This, of itself, is a testimonial to the power and speed of the Calumet pair, which today are topside in a 3-year-old group that has been compared favorably to the wonderful assortment of 1931 which included Equipoise, Jamestown, Twenty Grand and Mate, or the 1948 season, which had Calumet's Citation and Coaltown.
The record time of Gen. Duke does not enter into this estimation, for Gulf-stream's strip was faster than a sailor's eye and it was a day when platers and sore claimers looked like they were running downhill.
What does enter into the estimation is the obvious quality of Bold Ruler and, to a lesser extent, of Federal Hill, and the fact of Gen. Duke's superiority in the face of this pair and his dangerous stablemate, Iron Liege, with Barbizon still substantially untested.
It must be remembered that Gen. Duke, Bold Ruler and Federal Hill carried 122 pounds, and Iron Liege and Shan Pac four less, at speeds and in circumstances that gave Floridians and a national TV audience all the best elements of great racing.
It could be that someone will uncover a cannonball between now and the first Saturday of May and snatch the decision at Louisville from the Jones boys or their only threat up to now, Mr. Fitz. But the Californians appear to be out of it, and Gen. Duke, to date, is the boss.
After he had posed for pictures in a horseshoe of orchids with Jimmy, Ben Jones watched Gen. Duke walk calmly to the stable.
"That's the one that's been our white hope all along," he mused. "We've been waiting for him to get there, and he's there now. We bred his dam Wistful [and his daddy Bull Lea] and bred him for just the kind of race he ran today...."
Which means the kind he will also run at Louisville, Pimlico and Belmont Park, when the honors are even more glittering.