Publish date:

A conscious challenge to Hoist The Flag

The main topic of conversation around California tracks these past few months was pretty much what it was anywhere that racing people gathered: How good was Hoist The Flag? As this 3-year-old son of Tom Rolfe (and grandson of Ribot, and great-grandson of Man O' War) wintered well in South Carolina and then emerged with a smashing 15-length victory at Bowie a couple of weeks ago, the speculation increased. Was this, at last, a horse in the mold of Citation, a mortal cinch to win the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown?

California, eyeing its own crop of 3-year-olds, rather hoped not. Last Saturday at Santa Anita when track announcer Joe Hernandez broadcast the results of the Bay Shore Stakes at faraway Aqueduct, the throng of 42,180 let out a collective groan, for the word was that Hoist The Flag had won the seven-furlong test by seven lengths over a good field in near world-record time. "If he's that good," said one trainer, "there's no point in anything from here bothering to make the trip to Churchill Downs this year."

Few would have argued with him then, but a few minutes later a ray of hope penetrated the heavy smog that lay over the track. It came in the form of a big, strong chestnut colt named Unconscious, who won the mile-and-a-six-teenth San Felipe stakes and established himself as the best 3-year-old in California and one of the few in the country worthy of challenging Hoist The Flag. Unconscious, ridden by the skillful Laffit Pincay Jr., won the $58,650 event with authority and his time of 1:42[3/5] on a fast but dull track was as respectable as it needed to be.

Pincay had the inside post position with Unconscious and, after breaking perfectly, took his mount back off the pace. At the far turn, faced with the possibility of running into a blind switch, Pincay shifted to the outside and caught the leaders just inside the eighth pole. His winning margin over Steal A Dance was only half a length, but he was in complete charge at the finish. The tiring Fast Fellow was another four lengths back, while Crimson Clem, who will probably like both an off-track and a longer distance, put in a decent stretch run to finish fourth. Straggling along came Vegas Vic, Bold Joey, Diplomatic Agent, Nahallat and Vested Power. None of them, except the winner and possibly Crimson Clem, looked like anything that should be running a mile and a quarter against Hoist The Flag in Louisville on May 1.

Unconscious is trained by the astute John Canty, a 54-year-old Irishman from County Kildare, and is owned by Arthur Seeligson Jr., a San Antonio oilman. He is by Prince Royal II out of a mare named Brown Berry, which at first glance hardly signals the arrival of a new champion. But wait. Prince Royal II is by Ribot, meaning that Unconscious, too, is a grandson of the famous, undefeated Italian horse-of-the-world. Prince Royal II won the 1964 mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, which makes it even easier to believe that he is capable of producing a true stayer, even though he hasn't done much as a sire thus far. Brown Berry, a former C.V. Whitney race mare, is by Mount Marcy, who is by Epsom Derby winner Mahmoud, and her dam, Brown Baby, is a half sister to Fisherman, who won the 1954 Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. "This gives us hope," says Trainer Canty. "We could have something special in Unconscious."

The San Felipe winner is big—16 hands or close to it, and over 1,000 pounds. He won only three of 12 starts as a 2-year-old but was second in four other races and third in one. Canty says he was washy and nervous then, "but he's over that now. Like most of the Ribot family, he has improved vastly from 2 to 3, and I really believe that he will like it more as the distances stretch out. If all goes well for us, we'll run him back next in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, then the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields on April 17 and then right into Kentucky."

As Owner Seeligson and his party passed around the champagne-filled gold cup that Santa Anita gave him after the San Felipe—along with a winner's purse of $36,150 and a breeder's award of $5,865—he was asked about the colt's name. "It's from that old saying," he replied. "You know. Like when you're getting absolutely murdered by somebody, at golf, or poker or something. You're getting clobbered and you can't seem to do anything right. Well, you look at the guy who is doing this to you and you say, 'Man, you're unconscious, absolutely unconscious.' I guess I must have been getting more than my share of beatings because the word stuck with me as being a good name for a racehorse."

"I don't know anything about the name," said Trainer Canty, "but before the race I said I thought I had the best jockey in Pincay. Now, I'm able to say I have the best horse, too."

In California.