Normally the opening day of Churchill Downs' Derby meeting is a cozy social gathering where the old regulars gather to gossip about the big race one week ahead. Last Saturday's renewal veered from this tradition, for the rainy afternoon produced an astonishing opening-day record crowd of about 20,000 as well as enough excitement and tragedy to insure that this week's 84th Derby will be one of the most talked-about.
The crowd came to see the eastern debut of Silky Sullivan, and the way the ladies stormed the paddock shrieking such non-Thoroughbred remarks as, "Oh, you darling creature," and, "You are pure heaven, Silky boy," a refugee from the nightclub circuit would have been convinced that the object of this attention must be either Sinatra or Presley.
And Silky by no means disgraced himself. For one thing his race, known appropriately as the Stepping Stone, was only at seven furlongs (compared to the Derby's mile and a quarter), and all week long Trainer Reggie Cornell had been saying perfectly frankly that his concern was not for Silky to win but for him to run a respectable race and return to his barn in good condition. In this Silky did just fine, for although he finished fourth in the six-horse field he was beaten only 2¼ lengths for all of it and was eating up the ground in his usual fashion at the wire. Willie Shoemaker didn't let Silky drop as far back as this California phenomenon has been known to get, but the pair gave many a Kentucky disbeliever a pretty convincing show of pure ability. For example, Silky, after going only a quarter of a mile, trailed by 32 lengths. After half a mile he was 31 lengths to the rear, and with only an eighth to go he was still 13½ lengths out of it. But in that last eighth he gained 11 lengths, and although most of those in attendance were unaware of it Shoemaker worked Silky on out beyond the finish line—going the mile in 1:36[4/5] and the mile and an eighth in 1:51[1/5].
Silky Sullivan, running on an off-track, probably did his condition a world of good. The winner, Belleau Chief, who had done little before this, was timed in 1:22⅘ only a fifth off the track record.
The other big Derby news of the week was most tragic. Bill Hartack, who is the regular rider for Calumet's favored Tim Tam, suffered a broken leg when slammed around in the starting gate by a fractious 2-year-old filly named Quail Egg. Hartack announced from a hospital bed with his usual determination that if he could get a special plastic cast made he would be willing to give it a try on Tim Tam. But nobody believes for a minute that Trainer Jimmy Jones would take a chance—even with this great rider—with any jock in less than perfect condition. On that subject Jones was pretty noncommittal but did say that he might wait until after this week's mile Derby Trial to make a final decision on Tim Tam's rider. He gave the assignment on Tim Tam in Tuesday's Trial to Ismael Valenzuela; if the boy got on well with the horse he might have the big ride on Saturday. So this could be a great break for Ismael, who was born in the year Cavalcade won the Derby (1934), and is the younger of the two Valenzuela lads from McNary, Texas, who have both been riding well this spring.
Jones pointed out, "Tim Tam isn't much of a problem horse, and he's the sort who could and should run well for just about anybody." My modest hunch is that Tim Tam is going to make May 3 another happy day for Calumet. Behind him: Jewel's Reward, Gone Fishin', then Silky.