With one sustained, surging drive that took him from last place to victory at Gulfstream Park last Saturday, a colt named Prince Thou Art completely rewrote the script for the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Until then the anticipated plot had been Foolish Pleasure against the world. Unbeaten in nine races as a 2- and 3-year-old, Foolish Pleasure had been looked upon by some as another Secretariat, for whom a Triple Crown would be routine, but in the Florida Derby he finished in the wake of the Prince, nearly 3½ lengths back in third place, behind the winner and his Darby Dan stablemate, Sylvan Place.
And to complicate the 3-year-old picture further, in California a lightly raced colt named Avatar, a 5-to-1 fourth choice in a field of seven, scored an upset victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
Since both these races are harbingers of the big D in Kentucky, the upsets certainly caught the keen attention of the fringe owners, those hoping to hit with the eternal million-to-one shot. Instead of the Derby being a tight little race this year, with a few ambitious colts challenging the big horse, it appears now that the newly imposed limit of 20 entries for that classic will be tested.
The defeat of Foolish Pleasure was particularly startling, what with both the horses in John Galbreath's Darby Dan entry outrunning the odds-on favorite by decisive margins.
Lou Rondinello, who trains the Galbreath stable, denied that there had been a two-horse strategy in the race. "We thought both horses had a chance to win," he said. "We did not send Sylvan Place out as a rabbit to take away Foolish Pleasure's burst of speed. Sylvan Place went at him at the half-mile pole and ran by him. But that's the way he runs."
Jean Cruguet, who rode Sylvan Place, told a different story. "I sacrificed my horse a little bit in this race," he said. "I was supposed to keep my eye on Foolish Pleasure and I moved earlier than I wanted to. If I hadn't used him up early, we might have been head to head with Prince Thou Art at the wire. I could have been closer."
Braulio Baeza, up on Prince Thou Art, rode a lovely race, rating his mount perfectly. He came by the grandstand the first time a contented last and stayed there until the far turn, when he asked the handsome dark brown horse for a run and got it.
"He changed leads on the turn and slid out toward the middle of the track," Baeza said, "but he didn't really lose any ground. He changed leads again in the stretch run, but he did it easy and he still didn't lose any ground. He's a kind horse, easy to ride and easy to manage. I thought he was a little tired at the finish, but all the other horses were more tired than he was."
"He's a docile horse," said Rondinello. "That's why you can keep him at the back of the pack. He doesn't mind. Then when you ask him for the burst, he'll give it to you if he has it. If he hasn't, he'll stay at the back. Today he had it."
All winter Rondinello has been working with Prince Thou Art to develop his ability to run over a distance, and the horse has responded even better than he had expected.
"He's grown up," Rondinello said. "I guess you could say he's a man now. So is Sylvan Place. Sylvan Place is a more with-it horse than Prince Thou Art, more lively, more alert. But both these colts will improve during the year. Don't all 3-year-olds?"
Both apparently will be entered in the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington on April 24. Foolish Pleasure may go against them there, if he docs not run in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 19.
"Sure, I'm disappointed," said John L. Greer, the 77-year-old Tennessee baking company executive who owns Foolish Pleasure. "I've been expecting him to lose. I mean, a horse can't win all his races, can he? He seemed a little flat today, but I still think he's a great horse. One loss in 10 races doesn't mean that much, does it?"
In California much was made of Avatar's name and breeding. His owner, Arthur A. Seeligson Jr., a San Antonio oil and investment executive, told questioners, "Avatar means "the object of great admiration.' "
His trainer, Tommy Doyle, was more explicit. "Avatar comes from Hindu mythology," he said. "It has to do with reincarnation; to be specific, the descent of a god in physical form."
Whether Avatar lives up to these definitions remains to be seen, but his performance in winning the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over the long shot Rock of Ages gave evidence that even if he isn't a god, he certainly isn't a dolt. As Jimmy Jones used to say about some of his Calumet Farm prospects, he comes from pretty good folks. His sire, Graustark, a son of Ribot, was a standout as a 2-year-old and a favorite for the 1965 Kentucky Derby until he broke down in the Blue Grass Stakes. His dam, Brown Berry, a stakes winner for C.V. Whitney, is by Mahmoud's son, Mount Marcy. So Avatar has every expectation of developing into better than an average colt.
"He should be even better at 4," said Seeligson. "He should age like good wine."
But in breeding, Prince Thou Art (named from a line in Whittier's The Barefoot Boy) probably can upstage Avatar. He's out of Primonetta, a champion mare for two years, by Hail to Reason, the second stud in modern horse racing history to sire a winner of England's Epsom Derby (Roberto) and a winner of the Kentucky Derby (Proud Clarion).
Prince Thou Art's closing rush and the failure of the flagging Foolish Pleasure made the Florida Derby a memorable race. The Santa Anita Derby was exciting in a different way.
Rock of Ages, a long shot, took the lead nearly immediately and almost held it all the way. Behind him coming up the backstretch was Fleet Velvet, one of the three favorites. Jockey Jorge Tejeira dropped Avatar neatly into third, ahead of Diabolo and George Navonod, the other well-regarded horses. At the turn for home Fleet Velvet ran out of gas, but Rock of Ages kept rolling. Tejeira moved with Avatar and got him in front of Rock of Ages just short of the sixteenth pole. Sandy Hawley, riding Rock of Ages and something of a master at strong finishes, came on again, and at the wire both owners probably would have settled for a dead heat. The photo showed that it was Avatar by a nose.
"The trouble with this colt of mine," said Doyle, "is that he always wants to pull himself up when he gets the lead. He does it even working out in the morning. I knew he was fit enough to go nine furlongs and we felt all along that he had the potential. But we also felt that he might be somewhat green. All I know now is that if he's not the best horse I ever trained, he's the first horse I've had to win any kind of Derby."
Avatar ran the mile and an eighth in 1:47[3/5]. It is unwise to compare times at different tracks, but Prince Thou Art's time over the same distance in the Florida Derby was a stately 1:50[2/5].
LeRoy Jolley, who trains Foolish Pleasure, was upset by the modest pace in the Florida race. "It's hard to say any horse made a real move in a race as bad as this one," he said. "When I say bad, I mean nobody ran any part of the race. Except the winner. He made a good move, but the rest of them, including my horse, they walked all the way."
Barring accident or illness, Avatar, Prince Thou Art, Sylvan Place and Foolish Pleasure will meet in the Kentucky Derby, although Doyle is unsure of the precise path he will take to get there. He is a native of Dublin who grew up on the Curragh, Ireland's famous racecourse, before coming to the U.S. in 1951. His only Kentucky Derby experience was as an observer in 1953 when Dark Star upset Native Dancer.
"I would think we'd take Avatar either to the California Derby at Golden Gate on April 19 or to the Blue Grass Stakes," he said, "but before we make up our minds, I'm going to consult with a lot of my trainer friends who have had Derby experience. I want to do this thing right, and that means getting the benefit of the advice of trainers who have more experience with Derby horses than I do."
Doyle raced Avatar lightly as a 2-year-old; most European trainers do not like to run young horses hard.
"I would have preferred it if he had had no races in 1974," he said. "I like to go overboard in being slow and cautious with potentially good horses. He's a larger than average colt, maybe 16 hands one inch, with a build like Graustark. And he's a delight to train and be around, for he is kind and placid and yet combines that with a highly competitive spirit. He's a tiger when there's a horse in front of him."
Prince Thou Art shares Avatar's kindliness and his aversion to losing. Foolish Pleasure and Sylvan Place are more nettlesome. With the four of them, plus possibly other challengers encouraged by Foolish Pleasure's defeat, the Kentucky Derby suddenly looks like a wide-open horse race.
At Gulfstream, Prince Thou Art (1A) caught Foolish Pleasure (obscured) and Sylvan Place.
At Santa Anita, Avatar (center) was whipped through the stretch to gain victory by a nose.