Californians and Floridians, so often at odds on other things, are in solid agreement on a racing matter. Californians are betting on a colt to win the Kentucky Derby who hasn't even been to the post this year, and that's what Floridians are doing, too. It isn't the same colt, of course—you couldn't expect that much agreement between ancient rivals. In California (SI, Feb. 11) it is Rex Ellsworth's Candy Spots; in Florida it is Never Bend, Cain Hoy Stable's 1962 2-year-old champion. Never Bend did not start in last week's seven-eighths-of-a-mile Bahamas, but after the 14-horse field staggered home looking more like a bunch of claimers than Triple Crown candidates, it was clear that Captain Harry Guggenheim's colt should have a picnic in the Flamingo, his first big race on the road to Louisville.
This was in strange contrast to last season, when the first three Bahamas finishers, Sir Gaylord, Ridan and Crimson Satan, demonstrated early championship caliber. The Bahamas winner, Sky Wonder, once ran for $12,000. He won by a head over Gray Pet in the slow time of 1:24⅗ with Royal Ascot another head back. The other also-rans, including Pack Trip, Bold Tim, Master Dennis and Ornamento, may have ability, but they have a lot of proving to do.
So the only two colts worthy of serious Derby consideration are on opposite sides of the continent, spending their time in serious training rather than active racing. Candy Spots beat Never Bend the only time they met—in the Arlington-Washington Futurity—and then Never Bend was beaten by Crewman in The Garden State. Captain Guggenheim insists that much of the blame for Never Bend's defeats last year be placed on his own shoulders. (As it was, Never Bend won seven of 10 starts and more money, $402,969, than any horse in the country in 1962.)
"My only concern with racing today," Guggenheim said at Hialeah last week, "is to try to keep a horse sound. Over-racing 2-year-olds will knock them out faster than anything. And one of the troubles is that there is so much incentive for overracing 2-year-olds—big purses and championship prestige—that even the most conscientious owners "sometimes undertake a campaign that they know is not in the best interest of their horses. Seven or eight starts for a 2-year-old is ample.
"Trouble with my trainer Woody Stephens and myself is that we may have been so ambitious for Never Bend that we started him once—maybe twice—too often. After winning The Garden State Trial he had one bad work, and that should have told us he had had enough for the year."
Guggenheim has a milder excuse for losing to Candy Spots in the rich Futurity last September. And he has nothing but admiration for his California rival. "Our colt sprained a back muscle at Saratoga in August and I'm surprised he even got to the Chicago race. I believe in that race he was not nearly his best, although he was only beaten half a length by Candy Spots. But I don't think Candy Spots was at his best either, running in only his third race, and certainly he got all the worst of it in the race. He came from dead last, circled his field on the outside, and won magnificently. I thought then that he would improve and I still think he will."
Never Bend now is virtually a faultless picture horse. Middle-sized at just over 16 hands, he has filled out some and has a big, strong shoulder. "He's settled down a bit since last fall," says Trainer Stephens, "but we know that the old fire is still there." It must be, for a couple of weeks ago, after watching Never Bend work five-eighths of a mile in :58 3/5 on the Columbia, S.C. training track, veteran King Ranch Trainer Max Hirsch turned to Stephens and said, "If you live to be 100 years old you'll never train a horse who puts in a more perfect work."
With nearly 14,000 foals a year in the U.S. it is surprising, as Calumet Farm Trainer Jimmy Jones pointed out last week, that we can't come up with a larger percentage of better 3-year-olds. Says Jones: "I agree with Captain Guggenheim when he says that overracing at 2 contributes to the deplorable situation, but that can't be the whole answer. For example, we don't overrace our 2-year-olds at Calumet, and yet we haven't anything among the 3s to brag about at the moment." (For habitual Calumet backers, come Kentucky Derby time, this season's two best candidates are named Martial Owens and Paved.)
The guilty parties
Jimmy offers three explanations. "First, we have neglected to become more selective in our breeding. It has reached the point where every owner will breed whatever he's stuck with, and the result is a breed that, for the most part, is gradually becoming weaker. Not nearly enough of our male horses are being gelded. Instead, anything that can win at six furlongs goes to stud. Second, I think that the tracks contribute to the bad situation. With two or three exceptions, they are generally in pretty awful shape. Less use of sand and more use of live soil is needed, and too much tractor-drawn mechanical equipment only digs up the tracks and makes them more dangerous. Trouble is that management is no longer made up of men who know the horse business. It is made up of men who know how to work a set of books and save $50 a day at the expense of the owners. Lastly, today's situation may be getting even worse in some areas where many of the country's biggest breeding farms have gradually been depleted of their vital quota of nutritious natural minerals. Overworked land is bound to result in a poorer quality Thoroughbred. As proof, you only have to look around and see where better horses are starting to pop up—from the new land on farms and ranches in Florida and California."
It could be, of course, that we are shortly going to find plenty of good opposition for Candy Spots and Never Bend. But if it doesn't turn up in a month in Hialeah's Everglades or the Santa Anita Derby or the Flamingo, this should be a two-horse classic season the likes of which we haven't seen since 1955 and Nashua and Swaps.