In the Bluegrass country of Kentucky, Derby fallout was spreading like a California smog. Even the hardened veterans of this knockdown, drag-out May festival were infected with puzzlement and suspense over just exactly what was going to happen this Saturday when a field of anywhere from 15 to 30 3-year-old quadrupedal projectiles are released from the launching gate at Churchill Downs to determine which of them can cover a mile and a quarter without the use of turboprops, jet assists or fuels other than oats and hay.
As owners, trainers, jockeys, turf writers, local citizens and thousands of happy-go-lucky invading "foreigners" barreled boldly through the labyrinth which is Churchill Downs itself, only one thing was positively clear: the inconclusiveness of two of the final three Derby prep races meant that the approaching 85th classic was as much of a slot-machine, you-pick-'em affair as could ever be conceived. There was very much over which to speculate: Would Silver Spoon, decisively beaten in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone Purse by both Sword Dancer and Easy Spur, still give the Derby a try, or would the game filly go in the Kentucky Oaks against her own sex instead? Would Willie Shoemaker be on the better Derby mount with Tomy Lee (to whom he was bound by prior commitment) or Sword Dancer, whom he had also ridden victoriously? Would able Trainer H. A. (Jimmy) Jones, after watching Calumet's temperamental On-and-On run so discouragingly in the Stepping Stone, give him one more chance in the big one?
Last week's pair of prep races were both exciting if not solidly indicative of things to come. In the Blue Grass, Tomy Lee was hard put to beat Claiborne Farm's Dunce at a mile and an eighth in the good but not spectacular time of 1:48 3/5. This Tudor Minstrel colt doesn't win his races with much to spare (this time the margin was only half a length), but nonetheless he does a thoroughly workmanlike job and has never yet been known to give up. Shoemaker was hardly ecstatic over the, race, and confided to friends that he had some frank suspicions about Tomy Lee's ability to pull off the same trick when the distance was lengthened by an eighth of a mile.
But Willie the Shoe did not appear to have the same doubts about Sword Dancer, whom on Saturday he rode to victory in the Stepping Stone. And the sentimentalists who turned out to watch C. V. Whitney's filly Silver Spoon in her first engagement with eastern colts were disappointed to see her beaten 2½, lengths. And yet, her race was far from a disgrace.
The Derby starting status of Silver Spoon was to depend on her showing in one prep race, and in midweek Trainer Bob Wheeler decided to make the trial test as stiff as it could be. Instead of putting her in the Oaks Prep for fillies, he'd shoot for a more positive line on her by tackling colts—and good ones at that. "We'll know more by sending her seven furlongs against colts than six furlongs against fillies," said he. But on race day Wheeler had mixed feelings. While proclaiming on the one hand that her final blowout (three eighths in :34 2/5) "really set her up on her bicycle," he also noted thoughtfully that "she's a little more nervous than usual." And, looking over the past performances of his rivals, he commented frankly, "I don't know how she's going to beat these colts going seven eighths. I'd feel a lot better if it was a mile and an eighth."
A LOST INTEREST
If it had been, Silver Spoon might not have fared as well as she did. On the break she tore out of the gate even with Sword Dancer, On-and-On and Easy Spur, and for the first part of it this quartet ran along the back-stretch like a well-coached team. Then Steve Brooks, on the Calumet colt, took back. "As soon as I did," said Brooks, "my horse never got with it again. He just lost interest."
But Sword Dancer, on the inside, was right with it, and Ray York had Silver Spoon right alongside as Bill Hartack was just outside this pair on Easy Spur. Turning for home, said York, "I was head and head with Sword Dancer and I thought we'd win easy. But suddenly she got tired and for the last part of it she was walking." If so, it was fast walking. Sword Dancer, in winning by a length over Easy Spur, who had defeated him in the Florida Derby by three-quarters of a length, was clocked in 1:22 1/5 and Silver Spoon finished third, another length and a half back. York was more inclined to blame the track, which he said was "all cut up," than anything else for Silver Spoon's first defeat in seven starts, but Wheeler was satisfied with her showing.
"We won't make a decision about the Derby for a few more days," he stated. "Mr. Whitney is due in a few days and I imagine he'll want to watch more of the opposition in the Derby Trial before deciding."
While most horsemen who saw Silver Spoon's race thought she ran creditably enough against two of the Derby's favorites, I didn't find one who felt this race would enhance her Derby chances. "If she were mine," said one old hand, "I'd set aim on the Oaks and the rest of the year's big filly and mare stakes—and forget about the colts." If Silver Spoon tackles the Oaks this Friday instead of Saturday's Derby she should be odds-on.
As for Sword Dancer, it is possible, as Shoemaker suggested after the race, "that they wouldn't have caught him if they'd had to go around again." This colt by Sunglow may be, as some critics maintain, a little on the small side to fit the classic pattern, but then small colts have won the Derby before. At any rate, his handsome trainer, 35-year-old Elliott Burch, thinks he has the horse right here. "He may be small," says Burch, "but he's the blocky sort, not raw-boned. He has good shoulders, good quarters, and you'll go a long way to find one as sound as he is right now."
Easy Spur, James D. Norris' gelding by Crowfoot, likes to uncork a stretch run and it could be that the Stepping Stone's distance was hardly to his liking. Norris, who watched Easy Spur's defeat last week, was inclined to blame it on post position (he was on the outside) and still maintained, "My horse is as good as any in the Derby." Later, however, it was reported that Easy Spur had come out of the race with a rapped ankle and his starting status was doubtful even to Norris.
Most of the other horses who sat out last week's prep races in Kentucky to await the Derby Trial itself were relegated by the handicappers to the role of long shots with little or no chance, and a good number would eliminate themselves with the performances in the Trial. In indisputably high regard, however, were First Landing and Our Dad. First Landing, given a more practical ride by Eddie Arcaro in the recent Wood Memorial, would have beaten Manassa Mauler and Eddie isn't apt to make the same mistake twice. Our Dad, a surprise and unlucky third in the Wood—he was finishing faster than anyone in the race—still has to overcome the greenness which stamped his winter running.
FLASHING TO THE FAMED CHURCHILL DOWNS FINISH LINE IN ONE OF THE FINAL PREP RACES BEFORE THE DERBY, SWORD DANCER BEATS EASY SPUR AND SILVER SPOON
WHITNEY TOWER PICKS
1 First Landing
2 Sword Dancer
3 Our Dad
Readers should know that in order to meet his press deadline Tower had to make his choices before the running of Tuesday's one-mile Derby Trial.