Californians who remember storming Churchill Downs with colts like Hill Gail, Determine, Swaps and Tomy Lee are in a smog of despair about this year's Kentucky Derby prospects. Today's California-based 3-year-olds are completely overshadowed by Hialeah's Ridan, Sir Gaylord and Crimson Satan, to say nothing of the Florida bench strength represented by such colts as Rainy Lake, Jaipur and Dead Ahead.
"Out here we're all just hoping we have a Derby horse," said Veteran Trainer Charlie Whittingham last week. "Most years we're right along with Florida. This year we may find we're running in short drawers."
However, there may be a silver lining to the smog. As Santa Anita Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe puts it, "There's a lot of depth in our 3-year-old division, though we haven't yet established what sort of top quality we've got." One of the reasons for this, in the opinion of Mish Tenney, trainer for the huge Rex Ellsworth stable, is that more trainers than ever gave their colts long breathers after the Del Mar season last September.
"Trainers and owners," says Tenney, "are learning by experience that horses aren't machines and that they need rest. Last fall a lot of horses who normally would have gone to the races in the San Francisco area were instead given longer rests in preparation for the tough 3-year-old year ahead. It's true that many of them may be no good; but it's also true that many of them haven't had a chance to prove it one way or the other."
The California winter hero was to have been a brown son of Determine named Donut King. Instead, thus far, the hero has been a Florida-owned invader named Admiral's Voyage. Already a two-time stakes winner in 1962 and a favorite in next week's San Felipe, Admiral's Voyage is a big (1,205 pounds at the last weigh-in) well-made, extremely sound animal who loves to eat and loves to run, too. He is owned by Fred Hooper, the Coral Gables, Fla. construction company executive who suffered such miseries a year ago while his courageous Crozier was being outphotoed all over the lot by a little champion named Carry Back.
Some people think that Admiral's Voyage isn't going to relish distances beyond a mile, but Hooper has an answer: "We had a tough time teaching him to take back and run from behind, but Braulio Baeza, who seems to fit him perfectly, mastered this trick. Now, as long as he doesn't have to burn himself out on the front end, I see no reason why he shouldn't go as far as he has to."
Donut King ran a very creditable second to Crimson Satan in The Garden State last fall. Earlier he won the Champagne Stakes at Aqueduct, beating Jaipur, Sir Gaylord and Crimson Satan. No other colt accomplished that. However, shortly after going back into training in early January, his left hind heel became infected. This set him back so much that he'll be lucky to get even one six-furlong start before the end of the Santa Anita meeting.
A few California colts of equally promising breeding are slowly gaining experience by running regularly against each other. First is Neil McCarthy's Royal Attack, a son of Royal Charger and winner of four out of seven starts last year. This powerfully made colt has the look of a real runner. Oilman Howard Keck has a potential classic horse in Calgary Brook, who rates attention on breeding alone. He is by Tom Fool out of a Bull Lea mare (a breeding pattern almost identical with that of the Derby winner Tim Tarn) and has shown occasional bursts of brilliance. Others who may make it to Churchill Downs are C. V. Whitney's Rattle Dancer, King Ranch's Full Regalia and a bay son of the sprint champion, El Drag, called Doc Jocoy. At this stage, however, California's best hope is for something terrible to happen to the Florida opposition.