Like country club members who play golf against one another every Saturday, four of the five 3-year-olds competing in the Florida Derby at Gulf-stream Park, last Saturday had beaten each other from the time they were 2. Top Knight, the solid choice in the betting, beat Arts and Letters and Beau Brummel in the Flamingo. Arts and Letters won the Everglades against Top Knight, Al Hattab and Beau Brummel. Al Hattab beat Arts and Letters in the Fountain of Youth. Beau Brummel beat Top Knight in the Garden State last November. Drone, the horse that aroused most interest among horsemen and fans, because he was unbeaten in all of his four races, chipped a bone in his right knee after a fast workout the Thursday before the race and had to be retired from racing indefinitely. This disappointed all of his admirers and may have affected the attendance, which was about 2,000 less than last year, though cold and cloudy weather probably contributed also.
During the week before the Derby, owners, trainers and horseplayers were all saying judiciously, "Top Knight is the one to beat." Even the man who doubles as masseur in the solarium—whenever there is sun—and as house detective at night in the Attaché Hotel, where many racing people stay in Hallandale, fancied Top Knight. But, as usual with horseplayers and trainers, there were hedges. Al Hattab, which means "wood-chopper" in Arabic—his sire being The Axe II—might cut down the others. Arts and Letters might prove that a little learning is a wonderful thing. Nobody thought much of Fast Hilarious except that he might win laughing. And Beau Brummel, it was agreed, would probably be undressed.
Derbies, especially in Florida, make gag-and-gimmickmen happy. At Gulf-stream the usual fashion show was followed by a race among orchid reindeer, orchid being the color of the day. Cupid, weighing in at 568 pounds, Dancer at 610 and Comet at 579 were reluctant to get into the gate for the [1/16] of a mile. The jockeys were dressed—naturally—as Santa Clauses. Cupid promptly dumped his rider and jumped into the infield lake to cool his tension. Dancer threw his jockey. Comet was dragged by a lasso to the finish line, the official winner. Fortunately, nobody entered a Rudolph. Past Florida Derby days have featured elephants, bulls, ostriches and zebras.
By the time Thoroughbreds took over from reindeer and water skiers and models, favorites had not had too good a day. Then the ninth race, the Florida Derby, made up for that. Fast Hilarious, as expected, came out of the gate quickly, but Manuel Ycaza, on Top Knight, did not permit him to get much of a lead. Hugging the rail along the back-stretch, Top Knight ran smoothly and unfalteringly. Coming into the stretch he improved a slim lead swiftly, going ahead of Fast Hilarious and eventually winning by five lengths over Arts and Letters, who was 2½ lengths ahead of Al Hattab. The latter was a big disappointment to those who had proclaimed that he loves Gulfstream. He finished only a length ahead of fading Fast Hilarious. The pace was sluggish, and the time, 1:48⅖ was considerably slower than the track record for the mile and ‚⅛ set by Calumet's Gen. Duke when he won the Florida Derby in 1957 with 1:46[4/5]. All but Dinny Phipps' poor Beau Brummel got a good piece of the action. Top Knight drew down $81,800; Arts and Letters, Paul Mellon's horse, got $20,000 for second; Pelican Stable's Al Hattab took $10,000 for a dull race; and Fast Hilarious, $7,000 for his front-running effort.
There was gossip before the race that Top Knight was not sound, and his trainer, Ray Metcalf, who had won the Florida Derby with Native Charger in 1965, said later, "I don't know where the rumors have come from, but his race today shows they are not true. There is nothing wrong with this horse. We may run him in the Wood or the Kentucky Derby next—that decision remains to be made. I wish the people who keep knocking this horse would get lost."
After the race, Ycaza said, "Phew! A nice horse. Broke good, laid good and finished good. There's not much more than that you can ask. My plan was to break out and play it by ear, but they left the rail open, and...." Then he grinned. Braulio Baeza was thoroughly crestfallen at Beau Brummel's dismal performance. He shook his head sadly and said, "I didn't expect him to be that bad."
Top Knight, by Vertex out of Ran-Tan by Summer Tan, was sent to Jack Price's equine academy at Ocala when he was four months old. Price, who was at the Derby, was hugely proud of his pupil. "Top Knight was a good study," he said, "a loner, and never wanted to get into the fights yearlings, like other youngsters, engage in."
Before he left the track, Ycaza had a last word: "It was a real thrill winning this one because all the best 3-year-olds were here." Then he paused and added, "Except for that big one out there in California."