A horseman never commits suicide," says owner Nathan Perlmutter, "because there's always tomorrow." Yet the dominance of Seattle Slew over this year's 3-year-olds is testing the resolve of horsemen to abide by the conventional wisdom that no matter the adversity, life must go on.
Upwards of a dozen owners remain anxious to compete for second place in the Derby. Most, of course, don't admit that their goal is to be bridesmaid. In the world of horse racing, that would be unseemly rhetoric. Smiley Adams, who trains the Derby hopefuls Run Dusty Run and Bob's Dusty, says, "I like my chances as good as anybody else's, including Seattle Slew's." Later, questioned more closely about his horses, Adams said, "Well, they are better than two empty stalls."
Perhaps because first place in the Derby has already been spoken for (although Osvaldo Canet, trainer of Papelote, declares that "all the super horses get beat once"), interest focuses on the quirks, quaint stories and impossible dreams of a group of horses and horse people known as The Others. Or, if you're given to derision. The Fodder.
Nathan Perlmutter and his wife Ruth are members of Seattle Slew's supporting cast. They own Ruthie's Native, are not wealthy in horse-owner terms and, despite Ruthie's eighth-place finish in the Blue Grass, intend to start him in the Derby. He's the first and only racehorse in the Perlmutter barn, and Nate says, "It's fun for us because we have no calluses of experience over our emotions."
Perlmutter is an executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in New York City; Mrs. Perlmutter, a sociologist who confesses her affection for do-good programs, went back to work to pay for Ruthie, his training, groceries and plane tickets.
They bought Ruthie's dam for $15,000 and were offered $17,500 for Ruthie when he was foaled. But, says Mrs. Perlmutter, "all of a sudden, it was like selling your child." Later, the offer was $100,000, then $400,000. "Everybody thought we were so very cool," says Perlmutter. "Actually, we were stunned." As the numbers grew to boxcar size, Mrs. Perlmutter considered it all—and cried, "I am the typical Jewish mother with this horse. I do everything but bring him chicken soup." So far this year, Ruthie has won $158,315. Says Perlmutter. "This is like your son growing up to be a doctor. Isn't that what every parent wants?" When Ruthie's ability is questioned, Trainer Gene Jacobs sniffs, "He may not be a super horse, but he's my super horse."
While it appears Ruthie's Native will make the Derby, many others get right to the stable gate at Churchill Downs before calling it quits. Like Cathy's Reject, who was Derby-bound until he staggered to a sixth-place finish in the Blue Grass. Sad, for Cathy would have been a sentimental choice. He bites, kicks, doesn't pay attention, has been known not to try and has a running style that leads friends to call him Tank. In other words, he's terribly human. He sports a big head in relation to his body and is thoroughly ugly.
Dr. and Mrs. Jack Lee of Tarzana, Calif. bought him for $13,000 and sent in three names for approval, all of which were rejected. Then they tried to sell him at auction when the trainer reported that the horse's front and rear ends showed no evidence of cooperating with each other. Bidding stopped at $3,000, so the Lees bought him back in disgust. Their daughter Cathy, 16, said, "I want this horse nobody wants." Ergo, the name. This year he has won nearly $40,000 and thus has achieved a measure of beauty. But Nina Lee couldn't bring herself to send him to the Derby. "He's too nice a horse. I don't want to break his heart."
Then there's Western Wind, who likes peppermint candy (it must be red and white striped) which he prefers to follow up with carrots—10 each day. But his main love is a 6-month-old dog, part Schnauzer, named Prudence, which he likes to nip on the ear or drag by the neck. Prudence suffers such indignities with good grace. Other Wind companions are a rooster (Ken) and a hen (Tucky) purchased for $3 each to entertain him with their scratching.
Before winning the Illinois Derby, Flag Officer's main claim to fame was having kicked out a plate-glass window in Chicago after a race. He is an inveterate stall walker, so now his front feet are hobbled by a gunnysack. For those who believe in omens. Flag Officer was delayed a day getting to Churchill Downs when his van broke down.
For The Moment would have liked to have been stranded all week on the turnpike. "The only thing he likes better than a day off," says one observer, "is two days off." Moment's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, says, "Most of my good horses have worked good. I must admit it gave me a calmer feeling."
Jean L. Levesque, a Canadian, owns Giboulee and Fort Prevel, both of whom figured to run in the Derby. But as a result of dismal Blue Grass performances. Fort Prevel will not start and Giboulee has lost some backers. Giboulee's off-track deportment is awful, and his trainer, Jacques Dumas, says, "Mostly he's a big, unruly bully." Like most everyone else, Levesque suspected Slew's dominance, which is why, in March, he offered owner Karen Taylor $1.5 million for half interest in her horse. Turned down, he sniffed, "I'd take it if it were me."
Other promising 3-year-olds have fallen to injury or illness (among them, Royal Ski, who wrenched an ankle; Clev Er Tell, who fractured his knee; Cormorant, who got a fever) while others have dropped out because their talent called in sick. "Without Slew," says Affiliate's trainer, Laz Barrera, "the Derby is all even."
That is enough to make a Nathan Perlmutter hope. "There is little in life," he says, "other than racing, that gives you a statistical chance to get to Nirvana."