Ladies and gentlemen, the main attraction: the mile-and-one-quarter Kentucky Derby for the 3-year-old championship of America; each contestant to carry 126 pounds. On your left, wearing a chestnut coat, weighing 1,200 pounds, height 16.3 hands, girth 76 inches, eyes blue and brown, the hero of the hobos, that fighting Irishman from the West Coast, Sil-kee Sullivan!
"And on your right, dressed in dark bay, weighing 1,050 pounds, height 16 hands, girth 71½ inches, eyes brown, that consistently fine representative from Kentucky—and a credit to the name of Calumet Farm—the fancy Dan from the East, Tim Tam!"
This is how a gravel-voiced fight announcer in the tradition of Harry Balogh might introduce the 84th running of America's most glamorous horse race at Churchill Downs on May 3. Before quite a number of these 83 Derbies the skies have echoed to anticipatory roars of enthusiasm from citizens of the proud racing state of California. Back in 1950 the noise was particularly deafening as thousands of these jubilant souls crossed the Rockies to Louisville where they roamed the mysterious labyrinths of Churchill Downs (shown, incidentally, in detailed drawings on pages 10-17), singing the praises of their flashy speedball hero, Your Host. Their color bearer led for a mile and then managed to hang on long enough to finish ninth.
Since then the West Coast has been far more successful. First it was Determine (bred in Kentucky but owned and raced in California), who won in 1954, and the following season when nobody but Californians thought Swaps was better than Nashua, Swaps showed them that he was—at least on the afternoon of May 7, 1955.
Now the Californians are at it again, and this time they come to challenge the best in the East with a freakish stretch-running colt who has already found more popularity before facing the Derby starter than have most colts fortunate enough to win Triple Crown and Horse-of-the-Year honors. For although Silky Sullivan's papers show little to recommend him for the favorite's role, his nationwide adulation has reached such staggering proportions that he will quite likely find himself in just such a sentimental and mathematically regulated position by post time on the big day.
Derbies have a way of being named—in later years—after one particular horse, not always the winner. For instance, 1953 was—and always will be—known as Native Dancer's Derby because the idolized gray simply couldn't lose. Though he did. Conversely, it appears that the 1957 Derby, despite the richly deserved victory of Calumet and Iron Liege, will come to be associated less with that feat than with the horrendous error committed by Willie Shoemaker on Gallant Man when he misjudged the finish line. That one might even be called Shoemaker's Derby.
And so might next week's 84th, which may not be won by Willie on Silky Sullivan but which will most certainly be enlivened by the pair of them. For Silky's accomplishments, belittled in some quarters, exaggerated in others, have placed him in the unique position of being a full-fledged hero before his supreme trial. As a California phenomenon—in a land where phenomena are not uncommon—Silky Sullivan is more popular than the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants and even, as one Santa Anita regular dared to suggest recently, "more popular than Swaps ever was." If, in reality, he is a hobo masquerading at Churchill Downs with false credentials, he will be quickly put in his place by the likes of Tim Tam and Jewel's Reward. But, even should this happen, the Silky fans will probably not take to swigging hemlock. For the Silk Man has already made the first part of the 1958 racing season—and win or lose next Saturday, this one will always go down as Silky's Derby. It can be no other way.
Favorite or no, Silky Sullivan will not have Churchill Downs quite to himself. Somewhere up ahead of him for most of the mile-and-a-quarter trip, if not for all of it, will be that dark bay colt carrying the famous devil's-red and blue silks of six-time Derby-winning Calumet Farm. His name: Tim Tam. His popularity: nothing like Silky's. His Kentucky Derby qualifications: grade A.
The co-favorites for this 84th running present a marked contrast between two colts with championship aspirations. If Silky is depicted by some as a flashy, hoboish sort of character who grins secretly in delight at the roar from the stands as he shifts his powerful legs into overdrive, Tim Tam is, by comparison, a perfect picture of gentlemanly decorum: a conservative well-mannered student from the classrooms of Groton. If these were two young men working their way toward teen-age athletic stardom, Silky would be plodding along in a form-fitting T shirt and last year's sneakers, Tim Tam would be decked out in shorts created for the day by a Savile Row tailor working under special commission in the prep-school department of Brooks Brothers. Silky does his chores for Trainer Reggie Cornell (who has never started a horse in the Derby before) and for his co-owners Phil Klipstein and Tom Ross (who have never even seen a Derby before) wearing a red noseband—the green one worn by Silky on the cover was in honor of an exhibition outing on St. Patrick's Day—a specially made super-size surcingle (to get around his enormous girth) and a set of unconventional steel shoes. Tim Tam, the wearer of ultra-conventional standard aluminum racing plates, carries no surplus equipment, and nothing he does on the race track comes as too much of a surprise to either his fans or to the team of Owner Mrs. Gene Markey (see page 64) and Trainer Jimmy Jones.
Everything about Tim Tam—from his proper breeding and upbringing in the hands of the skillful tutors at Calumet to his authoritative way of winning races—suggests that this is what a Kentucky Derby champion should be. As the bloodline chart on page 9 indicates, Tim Tam is classically bred. His sire is Tom Fool, one of the great runners of this or any other generation, and his dam, the champion Two Lea, was the winner of 15 races (including the Hollywood Gold Cup) and the sum of $309,250. Two Lea herself is a daughter of Bull Lea, who, as Calumet's fabulous sire of champions, has already produced three Kentucky Derby winners: Citation in 1948, Hill Gail in 1952 and Iron Liege in 1957.
In direct contrast to this social register pedigree, Silky Sullivan is a boy who has had to make it almost on his own. His sire, Sullivan, raced in Ireland at the age of 2, and although he only won one of four starts he was in the money in the other three. In California the next year (1947) he managed to win five of his eight starts while increasing his bankroll by the meager amount of $23,650. Rated strictly as a sprinter, only one of Sullivan's victories came at the intermediate distance of a mile and a sixteenth. This is, to be sure, small potatoes beside the accomplishments of Tom Fool, who, in winning all 10 of his 1953 starts at the age of 4, never carried less than 125 pounds but carried as much as 136 as he swept everything before him at distances from 5½ furlongs to a mile and a quarter.
Silky's dam, Lady N Silk, a non-winner in four starts, shows up better as a carrier of staying power. Bloodline charts, like any elaborate set of statistics, can invariably be drawn upon to prove a number of contradictory breeding theories, and far enough back in the pedigree of any horse—even the moderate claimer—there is to be found a name or two upon which to pin some measure of credit for success. Thus, while Silky Sullivan's immediate ancestors are on the undistinguished side, it must still be remembered that this big chestnut is, after all, a Thoroughbred—just the same as Tim Tam is a Thoroughbred. It is only necessary to backtrack three generations from Lady N Silk until the name Fair Play pops up. Fair Play sired the greatest of all American champions: Man o' War. And in that same generation line the charts show that the famous European stallion Phalaris is both the great great grandsire of Tim Tam (on Tom Fool's side) and the great great grandsire of Silky Sullivan (on his dam's side).
In discussing the opposite pedigree patterns of the two Derby favorites, California breeding authority Leon Rasmussen recently said, "While [I am] willing to admit that Silky Sullivan has a pedigree, especially on his dam's side, which might produce a horse able to win at 10 furlongs in stakes company, the colt still is a comparative 'freak,' for it demands a most felicitous mating of the genes to make him, on bloodlines, a classic winner.... In other words, if Silky goes on to win the Derby—possibly the Triple Crown—breeding experts are going to be thrown back on their heels. Such things happen just often enough in racing to be good for the game."
Nothing, however, could be better for the game than the spectacle of watching Silky Sullivan run. That agonizing delayed action—whether caused by a possible arthritic condition which brings on physical pain until he has warmed up by running, or by the fact that Silky is just enough of a natural showman, and a smart enough one, to know that a good horse can often take it easy for all but about three-eighths of a mile—there have been few sights on the American turf to compare with it. Of all the successful come-from-behind horses of recent years (including Whirlaway, Stymie, Ponder, Phalanx, Needles and even Gallant Man), none was successful in getting as far back—41 lengths in one race, and usually about 30 lengths—and then turning the apparent rout into victory. The fact that Silky always does drop way out of it but does not invariably win has naturally stimulated some skeptical eyebrow-raising. His fans can usually say the distance was not long enough to suit Silky; the opposing camp is more apt to point out that if Silky can't always lick "ordinary" horses in California he won't even come close to making up 30 lengths on eastern stakes winners.
While Tim Tam, in winning seven of his nine races this season, has also enjoyed his share of dramatic finishes, he has yet to become a matinee idol even to the extent that Calumet's Gen. Duke was a year ago before an injury forced him to the Derby sidelines. One of the reasons, of course, although Trainer Jimmy Jones doesn't yet think Tim Tam is the horse Gen. Duke was, is that Tim Tam merely does what is asked of him in a neat and utterly convincing fashion. With his regular rider, Bill Hartack, aboard, Tim Tam will usually lay off the pace far enough to be within striking distance and yet not so far as to bring on any grandstand heart attacks. When he makes his move you have that instinctive feeling that it is a move toward victory and no matter how long it takes to wear down the pace-setter Tim Tam will be right there until the job is done. If you ask Jimmy Jones about Tim Tam he'll reply very frankly, "He's kind, docile and gentle all the way through. He doesn't yet have the fire of a Gen. Duke, but always remember this about young 3-year-olds: they are like a bunch of maturing athletes; the ones with splinters in the seat of their pants one day are the ones who jump up and surprise you by turning into champions the next day. Tim Tam is improving all the time and I guess you'd have to say that for an outfit going into the Derby with probably just one horse [instead of an entry], we've got just as much a look at it as any other fellow." Unquote the voice of understatement. A few days after Jones made this comment Tim Tam came out on the Keeneland Race Course at Lexington and set a new track record as he flashed the seven-furlong distance in 1:22 1/5 and beat Claiborne Farm's Nadir by a half-length, apparently with a good deal of speed in reserve.
The fight announcer who made his first fictional appearance at the start of this preview faithfully reflected the popular opinion of the 1958 Derby field. But he would have been entirely wrong, according to others, in figuring this contest as strictly a two-horse race. As many as 20 entries (from an original eligibility list of 140 nominees) may turn up, because neither Tim Tam nor Silky Sullivan has managed, during winter campaigns in Florida and California, to frighten away the opposition in the manner that Citation did when he won the Triple Crown in 1948.
This season must, in looking at it from an over-all perspective, be another of those sort of wide-open years even if only because of Silky's freakish way of running, and likewise because, despite Tim Tam's most recent record breaker, this dark bay was considerably hard put to win the mile-and-an-eighth Florida Derby over the 75-to-1 shot Lincoln Road. The Louisville field could be studded with forlorn hopes.
Some of those in it, naturally, have a better chance (or, as the jockeys say, "a look at the money") than others. First to be included in this group is Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham's Jewel's Reward, the hard-luck disqualified winner of the Flamingo, who is trained by Ivan Parke. Now that Mrs. Graham and Parke have substituted Eddie Arcaro for that impetuous, overeager (but excellent) rider Manuel Ycaza, Jewel's Reward has become more of a Derby threat than ever. Arcaro, with 18 Derby appearances, five of them winning ones, knows the conditions of that race as no man in history, and if there is any possible way to get Jewel's Reward clear of trouble and ultimately down in front, Arcaro knows how to do it. His mount, making his first start since the disputed Flamingo in last Saturday's Wood Memorial at Jamaica, demonstrated his gameness in winning, although the Wood field contained nothing of top-ranking ability.
One of the surprises of this Derby—although it wouldn't have been classified in the surprise bracket at all a few months ago—could be Nadir, who indicates from time to time that one of these days he is going to jump up and run a whale of a horse race. So far this season The Garden State winner has been largely a disappointment, possibly through no fault of his own. But Nadir is a son of Nasrullah—a fine recommendation on the one hand and a highly unpredictable heritage on the other—and you don't know quite what he's going to do from one day to the next. Now, however, his health appears to have improved (he has gained 100 pounds) and Trainer Moody Jolley expects that if Nadir is ever going to show his full potential that time is now. By way of backing Jolley up Nadir ran a fine race behind Tim Tam at Keeneland last week, beaten by only the Calumet Farm contender.
Other possible Derby starters are showing up at Churchill Downs these days with less respectable credentials but with eternal hope nonetheless. Some of them:
GONE FISHIN'—a son of Endeavour II (who sired Porterhouse), this smallish Llangollen Farm colt ran the fourth fastest mile ever recorded by a 3-year-old (1:34 4/5) in pinning back Silky Sullivan's ears at Golden Gate Fields on April 11. Never having carried real weight before this Derby (at Golden Gate he lugged only 110 pounds to Silky's 122), Gone Fishin' often has trouble leaving the gate, and doesn't much fancy off-going. But Trainer Charlie Whit-tingham says of him, "He wants to run—and he could run eight miles."
MARTINS RULLAH—another Nas-rullah who represents the only line of comparison between Silky Sullivan and Tim Tam (he finished five lengths behind Silky in the Santa Anita Derby, then 10 lengths behind Tim Tam in the Florida Derby). Mud and slop move this colt way up, as evidenced by his easy Experimental victory on an off track. In the Wood Memorial, Martins Rullah came up from last with a Silkyish run to finish third, beaten four lengths by Jewel's Reward.
TALENT SHOW—this gelded bay son of Olympia (whose sons have no great fondness for running the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter) was beaten only by Tim Tam and Jewel's Reward in the Flamingo, but came back to win his last start at Gulf-stream. If he can get the distance it will be a distinct surprise.
LINCOLN ROAD—his sire, With Pleasure, could run a little and Lincoln Road himself ran a lot in the Florida Derby, when, as a 75-to-1 shot, he at one time led the field by six lengths.
BELLEAU CHIEF—earned a trip to the Derby by beating Lincoln Road a neck in the recent Biscayne Bay Handicap at Gulfstream.
Of other hopefuls, such as Bene-dicto, Count deBlanc, Noureddin, Little Porter, Hillsdale, Rellim S.W., Roman Bow, A Dragon Killer, Flamingo, Coup de Vent, Red Hot Pistol, Ebony Pearl and Jet's Alibi, there may be one or two who, although considered more or less unseasoned in terms of a classic distance race, will probably give it a try.
For the fourth consecutive year SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has asked a representative panel of six experts to give us the benefit of their selective wisdom. Herewith their choices:
Bill Lauder, New York Herald Tribune: Jewel's Reward, Tim Tam, Silky Sullivan.
Jimmy Burns, Miami Herald: Tim Tam, Silky Sullivan, Lincoln Road.
Joe Agrella, Chicago Sun-Times: Tim Tam, Jewel's Reward, Nadir.
Nelson Fisher, San Diego Union: Tim Tam, Jewel's Reward, Silky Sullivan.
Kent Hollingsworth, Lexington Leader: Tim Tam, Nadir, Jewel's Reward.
Oscar Otis, Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form: Tim Tam, Silky Sullivan, Jewel's Reward.
Judging strictly on both past performances and popularity rating, the 84th Kentucky Derby is scheduled to be a showdown between the four big names: Tim Tam, Silky Sullivan, Jewel's Reward and Nadir. Narrowing it down to an even thinner margin, the story may well be of hobo Silky, the naming red chestnut, conceding perhaps a sixteenth of a mile to the conservative Calumet gentleman, Tim Tam, and then trying to nail him in that painfully long Downs stretch. Past Derby history is against Silky: charts covering the last 44 Derbies show that only 11 winners have been real come-from-behind horses and none of them was as far back as is Silky's custom (Needles was the trail-ingest: 24 lengths while running 16th in a 17-horse field up the backstretch). Some 17 winners were front-runners, while the remaining 16, although not in the lead, were close to the pace.
But any horse who can (as Silky has done) turn in a final quarter in less than 23 seconds should be right in the middle of it at the finish, Tim Tam and Jewel's Reward notwithstanding. "Every once in a while," said Preston Burch, longtime trainer for Brookmeade Stable, the other day, "a colt comes along with no overwhelming pedigree who—for no apparent reason at all—just runs and can keep on running. It's like once in a while an Abe Lincoln comes out of the woods."
Silky Sullivan may be no Abe Lincoln but he has the leading role in one of the most colorful, dramatic and meaningful spectacles of sport in the U.S. The Kentucky Derby, with its special atmosphere of tension and excitement—a sort of suspense-filled pause in the Thoroughbred racing calendar in which every sports fan can feel at home—is the common denominator which brings together the two-bit participant in the office pool and the wealthy and experienced owners and breeders engaged in racing's ever-growing billion-dollar industry.
The race itself, not foremost in everyone's opinion as the test of champions, has nonetheless—by careful attachment to tradition and a super job of promotion—done more toward building public confidence in racing than anything this controversial sport has ever known. The horse that wins the Derby must—on the first Saturday in May—give more than 100,000 "live" fans and maybe 50 million others glued to their television screens a demonstration of "combined speed and stamina" which satisfies that most exacting definition of the racetracker.
It could be one of racing's greatest days. But whoever wins, it will be Silky's Derby.