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Original Issue

A thoroughbred can of worms

It could have been a dream field: Hoist The Flag, Canonero II, Jim French, Eastern Fleet, Executioner, Unconscious, His Majesty, Dynastic, Impetuosity, Twist The Axe, Bold Reasoning and Salem, all together in a 1-mile race for 3-year-olds on the ancient track at Saratoga. The only trouble with the dream at last week's Travers was that, for one reason or another (and sometimes for several), none of these top 3-year-olds of 1971 even got to the starting gate.

That left the old race (this was its 102nd running) to William Levin's Bold Reason, a bay son of Hail to Reason and Lalun, who is the only legitimate survivor of the demanding winter and spring classics. He had been a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Preakness, third again in the Belmont Stakes and had won five straight races in the weeks before the Travers when the rigors of competition had made the rest of the 3-year-old division collapse like a house of playing cards in front of an electric fan. Bold Reason made the Travers a good race, one obviously won by the best horse.

Bold Reason has campaigned so successfully since the Belmont, winning on turf and dirt and increasing his lifetime earnings to $304,082, that Levin and Trainer Angel Penna are seriously thinking of sending him to Paris in the fall to run in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. He would be challenging Paul Mellon's prestigious English-trained 3-year-old, Mill Reef, who has already been made a 3-to-2 favorite for France's October classic. "This colt seems to do so many things so well," says Penna, "that I have to believe he would have a chance over there."

The Travers was not all that easy for Bold Reason, but his victory was convincing enough. It was helped by a masterful job by his Panamanian jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., a rider of such exceptional poise and skill that he is already being compared to Bill Shoemaker. At the start the Queen's Plate winner, Kennedy Road, shot off to an eight-length lead, but Pincay stayed snugly in fourth position. The pacesetters tired at the far turn, and Bold Reason took over. He opened a two-length lead at the eighth pole, but then tried to pull himself up. Pincay alertly kept the colt together and guided him under the wire a winner by three-quarters of a length over West Coast Scout.

Impressive as he was, Bold Reason was upstaged at Saratoga by one of the missing colts, Jim French. A consistent performer who was almost always in the money and who has won $394,701, Jim French seemed to find time to rest only when Trainer Johnny Campo was shipping him somewhere on an airplane. But on Travers day he was under house arrest. Racing officials, looking into the bewildering question of who owns Jim French, had two of his current or previous owners under suspension and said that a third had no owner's license and had not applied for one. Joseph A. Gimma, chairman of the New York State Racing Commission, said glumly, "There are so many unanswered things. I wish I knew what was going on."

The colt had been bred by Ralph Wilson and foaled at Leslie Combs' Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky. Wilson, who also owns professional football's Buffalo Bills, sold him—or at least a part interest in him—last year to Frank J. Caldwell, a Long Island furniture executive. Caldwell became the colt's sole apparent owner early this year.

Rumors spread that Caldwell had silent partners, none of them anxious to be front and center at any of Jim French's races. At most major U.S. tracks, owners are obliged to list all partners before being granted a license. Bob Quirk, an investigator for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, sought to question an acquaintance of Caldwell's named Robert Presti, a Long Islander reportedly in the construction business. Presti is rarely seen at a track, but his niece, Toni Menzella, has raced in Florida (where tracks are not under the TRPB umbrella), and Presti himself is said to enjoy entertaining horsemen and making his chauffeured car available to them. Says Quirk, "We invited Presti in for a talk, but he declined."

Presti's shyness increased the Jim French gossip, which bubbled over again when Caldwell proclaimed early in August that he had sold a 70% interest in the horse to Mrs. George Sarant, wife of a Long Island automobile dealer. Jim French ran in the name of Etta Sarant at Monmouth, where he finished a bad ninth in the $100,000 Monmouth Invitational, but when the horse was shipped back to Saratoga by Campo (who had complicated his own life by falling down in a softball game and breaking a wrist and a kneecap), it was revealed by New York racing officials that Mrs. Sarant did not have a New York owner's license and apparently was not interested in applying for one. Then Campo said the Sarants, after only a few weeks of ownership, had apparently let their 70% go to Fred R. Cole, a construction executive from—yes—Long Island who was put under suspension himself for his involvement in the ownership investigation. Cole wired the stewards Friday night in an attempt to satisfy them of the legitimacy of his ownership of the horse and his eligibility to run in Saturday afternoon's Travers Stakes, but his appeal to the stewards was much too late. Suspensions or no suspensions, entries for the Travers had closed tight the morning before.

To add to the comic-opera turmoil, officers from the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office filed a writ of attachment on Jim French on behalf of the Citizens Union Bank and Trust Company of Lexington, Ky., which had reportedly loaned Caldwell $130,000 after he had made an affidavit that he was the sole owner of Jim French. The note was presumably made with the approval of Leslie Combs, a director of the bank, who had already arranged with Caldwell to have the colt stand at stud at Spendthrift Farm after his racing days were over.

"We've got a real can of worms on our hands," moaned New York Steward Francis Dunne. And it begins to appear that all of the worms have not been pulled out of the can.