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Original Issue

Plenty Old, but little else

Rex Ellsworth could be pleased at his colt's performance, but for Californians generally there is nothing to cheer in this Derby crop

A year ago last week Frank McMahon's Majestic Prince won the one-mile San Jacinto Stakes at Santa Anita—his fifth victory in a row—and California racing fans knew they were looking at something very special. When San Jacinto time rolled around again last Thursday, many of the same people were on hand to see Rex Ellsworth's 12-to-1 shot, Plenty Old, nose out favorite George Lewis and beat nine other 3-year-old colts. Despite an exciting finish, the crowd was well aware that there is certainly no Majestic Prince in this bunch. (Two days later, officially retired because of recurring leg trouble that had kept him away from the races ever since his only defeat, in last June's Belmont Stakes, the Prince was loaded onto a van and shipped off to stud duty at Leslie Combs' Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, where he had been foaled.)

California racing fans should know better than most that a colt like Majestic Prince doesn't come along very often. At the same time, it may be premature to label the current crop of 3-year-olds at Santa Anita among the worst of the last 10 years. Bloodlines and natural ability aside, one explanation for the poor performances is that a strike kept the track closed for the first 27 days of the meeting. What this meant to 3-year-olds pointing to the Santa Anita Derby and the Triple Crown events is explained by Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe. "Most of these colts lost five weeks of maiden races. That's about 40 races. Naturally, a lot of trainers are way behind with their stock, and the situation is wide open, to say the least." Says leading Trainer Charlie Whittingham, "The time we lost has created a situation among Derby prospects in which everybody keeps beating everybody else. We don't appear to have any outstanding prospects—not yet, that is."

Surely the San Jacinto winner seems to be far from outstanding, even after giving Rex Ellsworth his first Santa Anita stakes victory in five years. "I liked Plenty Old pretty well in Chicago last summer," says Trainer Mesh Tenney of the chestnut son of Olden Times and the Khaled mare Plenty Baby. "But I couldn't get him to the Arlington-Washington Futurity. He tired pretty badly while finishing seventh in his first start this winter. Actually, his stablemate Swarming Bee may be a better distance prospect. He's by Dr. Kacy, a son of Nigromante, out of a Swaps mare and should want to start running after they've gone a mile or so." In the San Jacinto, Swarming Bee finished seventh.

Plenty Old took the lead at the start and simply stayed there. Jockey Bill Hartack, who had lost a head decision with George Lewis in The Bahamas after leading by three lengths at the eighth pole, this time attempted to rate his speedy colt off Plenty Old's slow pace. The tactic backfired somewhat. When the two colts turned into the stretch head-and-head, much of George Lewis' natural speed deserted him. He stuck his head momentarily in front but, as Hartack said later, he refused to exert himself. Had George Lewis run his usual front-end race he might have been good enough to last the mile, run in the poor time of 1:36[2/5] on a fast track.

Of the others in the San Jacinto, I thought George Pope Jr.'s son of Decidedly, a gray colt named Aggressively, turned in the best performance. He came from ninth to finish fourth with the kind of kick that augurs well for the longer distances. The big disappointments were Away From Holme, who was third for most of the mile before trying to bolt on the stretch turn and finishing eighth, and Colorado King Jr., who stopped so badly that he came in last.

The next time around for this bunch is the March 14 San Felipe at a mile and [1/16]th, and it should provide more answers than the San Jacinto did. For one thing, we will discover whether or not George Lewis can go over a mile. Plenty Old may improve on a record that now shows a modest three wins in eight starts, and both Colorado King Jr. and Away From Holme deserve another chance. Others whose ability should be tested are Terlago, Smugglin George, Clove Hitch, Whittingham, Roxbury, Prince Nashville, Holly Park, Sir Wiggle, Laureate and Great Epic. At the moment, however, it appears that the Kentucky Derby winner is now on the East Coast.