He has an odd name even for a racehorse—Esops Foibles. His trainer, Loren Rettele, is 32 but looks 16. His breeder is known in racing as the wrong Whitney, which is to say he is not William C, Harry Payne, Jock or C.V., but just plain Tom Whitney—if one dare call the translator of The Gulag Archipelago just plain Tom. His owner is a Dallas dress manufacturer. His jockey is Chris McCarron, who rode 87 more winners as an apprentice than did the remarkable Steve Cauthen. His father is Nashua, one of America's most honored horses, but his mother, Checkered Career, won only once in 21 starts. However, her sire, Ribot, is considered by some to be one of the few horses that deserve mention in the same breath with Man o'War.
This Saturday afternoon Esops Foibles will take that checkered resumè to the post as the favorite in the one-mile Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs, the next to last prep race for the Kentucky Derby. If Esops Foibles steps nicely in the Stepping Stone, and if you are a gambler, consider taking the Derby price on him. He should be 15 to 1. That is because the Big A's, Affirmed and Alydar, have attracted virtually all the attention among 3-year-olds this spring, with Sensitive Prince, undefeated against moderate opposition and trained by the shrewd Allen Jerkens, getting most of what remains along with Believe It, who won the Wood Memorial last Saturday. In any other year Esops Foibles would be considered one of the Derby favorites, but Affirmed, Alydar and Sensitive Prince have won 12 straight major and minor races leading up to the Derby.
Esops Foibles is not much larger than a Shetland pony, standing only 14 hands high and weighing but 900 pounds. Alydar, by comparison, is eight inches taller and at least 200 pounds heavier. But Esops Foibles adores long stretches; in the last six weeks he has run down two of the longest in the country to win the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies. Only one horse has taken both before—No Le Hace in 1972. No Le Hace was good enough to finish second in Riva Ridge's Derby.
Until mid-March Esops Foibles was an enigma. He had run a dozen races in California and won only two, his first start last May, at Hollywood Park, and then, after eight losses, a race in January at Santa Anita. Neither victory appeared to be significant.
"Esops Foibles always seemed to get himself in trouble," says Rettele, "but he had plenty of ability all along. Last summer he ran third to Affirmed in a division of the Hollywood Juvenile Stakes. He was beaten by 13 lengths; that's what the record shows. But he was in so much trouble that anyone watching it knew he was a heck of a lot better. He was bounced around, crowded and had to be checked twice by his jockey. It was a difficult race for him."
Rettele may look like a boy working at a man's job, but he is an excellent trainer, good enough to finish in the top 10 at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in the last two years. "My father was a jockey," Rettele says, "so getting into racing was natural. I spent 14 years working for Jack Van Berg as an assistant, and Jack is far and away the most active trainer in racing. He's on airplanes all the time, going from one track to the other. Some days Van Berg will be at three different racetracks, then call you late at night and ask about some horse or some race at the place you're at. I learned from him that you have to watch every horse in every race as closely as you can. You have to go to the paddock and look the field over—not just your horse, all horses.
"That background helped me tremendously, and now I do a lot of the same things I did when I worked for Van Berg. Esops Foibles frustrated me. I knew he could win, but everything always seemed to be going wrong. Finally, I decided it was best to get him out of California; he didn't seem to like the tracks. So I shipped him to New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby. Nobody gave us much of a chance. I knew that he'd like the long stretch at the Fair Grounds, and he did. When he beat Quadratic, nobody was too excited, but I got a certain feeling. We shipped to Oaklawn Park, and when Esops Foibles won the Arkansas Derby I started to think about Kentucky. You can compare his bloodlines with any horse in racing today and probably not match them."
Nashua, who beat 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps later that summer in one of the most ballyhooed match races of all time, is 26 now and still standing at stud at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky. The sires of several other Derby favorites are also at Spendthrift: Exclusive Native (Affirmed), Raise A Native (Alydar) and Majestic Prince (Sensitive Prince). While Nashua has sired 62 stakes winners in 18 crops of foals, he has never had a Derby winner. Most stallions are beyond their peak years after age 15, but Nashua is still producing good runners.
If Esops' sire is a blue chip, what about his dam? "If you look at Checkered Career's bloodlines," says Tom Whitney, "you will find the most interesting thing is Ribot." Ribot was undefeated—the winner of 16 races in Italy, France and England and twice the winner of one of the world's most important races, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Maybe momma couldn't run that well, but her pedigree is class.
Whitney got into racing seven years ago. When he is not translating Russian or running his bookstore in Washington, Conn., he can be found poring over breeding books. "The breeding of horses is fascinating," he says. "You can't really come up with the final answer, but you may get close. I won't go to the Derby because the crowds are too big. I'll just sit at home and watch. Yes, maybe I am kicking myself a bit for selling Esops Foibles. He went for $20,000 as a weanling at Lexington. Well, you can't keep every horse you breed. The one thing I know for certain is that the man who bought Esops Foibles is an intelligent man. He doesn't own many horses, but he has done very well with the ones that he has."
Owner Jerry Frankel has 2,000 employees at his Jerell Inc. firm in Dallas. Jerell Inc. has an Employees Stock Ownership Plan. Ergo, Esop. Foibles, says Frankel. stems from Checkered Career's record. Everybody seems to like the name, according to Frankel. "They'll really like it if he wins the Derby. Running against Alydar, Affirmed and Sensitive Prince might just be an exercise in futility, but I've got to try it. I only own six horses, and when you get this close to the Derby you have to try and win it. An opportunity like this may not come up again. I've only been in racing for three years, but I'm in to stay."
As is McCarron, the Maryland jockey sensation of 1975 who has gone on to the big-money races in California and elsewhere. "When I won the Louisiana Derby with Esops Foibles," McCarron says, "a lot of people thought it was just an upset. I didn't feel that way. When we won the Arkansas Derby a lot of people dismissed Esops Foibles again. But this horse can run."
Esops may be pony-sized, but he's full of run.