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Original Issue

This track is on the Beam

A race backed by a bourbon company is giving little Latonia a big name

Wayne Lukas climbed the spiral "W staircase that leads to the executive offices of Latonia racetrack in the northern Kentucky hamlet of Florence just minutes after Marfa, one of five Kentucky Derby candidates he trains, had romped to an eight-length victory in the second running last Saturday of the $233,500 Jim Beam Spiral Stakes. "People get into racing because they love horses or because they are dreamers." Lukas said. "Some days, like today, when you win a big purse like this one [$151,775], the dreams turn out perfectly. But there are those other days, too, and you can't imagine how bad they are, when the dreams get destroyed."

One such day occurred last November when Lukas' charge, Landaluce, one of the most popular 2-year-olds in racing history, died from a bacterial infection after a week-long fight for her life. Landaluce had been purchased for $650,000 as a yearling by Texans Robert French and Barry Beal, who also own Marfa, and the filly had rattled off five consecutive victories before her death. "Neither Barry nor Bob was here today to see Marfa win," Lukas continued. "They haven't been to a racetrack since Landaluce died. Maybe this horse will change the way they feel, pick up their heads a little. But I can appreciate their sorrows. There just aren't three or four Landaluces. There's one."

Marfa's win in the 1[1/16]-mile Jim Beam was powerful, but not without its moments of adventure. He was balky entering the starting gate and had to be loaded twice. Then, in the stretch, he twice lugged in close to Noble Home, making it appear as if he would put a body block on Noble Home and bump him into the infield lake. At another point during the stretch run, Marfa twisted his head so far to the right it appeared he had tired of racing and was counting the house. A big gray colt, Marfa has frustrated Lukas by demonstrating a mind of his own. "There are times," the trainer said, "when I am not sure whether Marfa is a prospect or a suspect."

Marfa's victory was only his second in nine lifetime starts, certainly not a record to send shudders through the 3-year-old horse population. He had been bought for $300,000, but until the Jim Beam Spiral, the investment seemed like a poor one. The colt, by Foolish Pleasure-Gray Matter, did not break his maiden until his sixth start, at Santa Anita in mid-February. A second-and fourth-place finish in two subsequent starts, however, kicked Marfa's bankroll just high enough to allow him to compete in the Jim Beam. Well, maybe high enough.

On Thursday, the past performances given to Latonia by the Daily Racing Form listed Marfa's earnings at $30,050, a figure it revised downward to $28,050 on Saturday. But the original figure had been used by Latonia at closing time for the Jim Beam entries on Thursday, and it was barely enough to put Marfa in the field. It also knocked Asked to Run ($29,005) out of the Spiral, and at week's end the trainer of Noble Home, John E. Salzman, was furious and the entire matter remained confused, though there seemed no chance that the result of the race would be changed. Confused, too, was the running time for the race. Latonia's electric timer caught Marfa in 1:42⅖ only two-fifths off the track record, while the Daily Racing Form's hand-held watch timed him in 1:44[1/5]. If you think Marfa will win the Kentucky Derby, take the first clocking; otherwise, use the second. It's such differences of opinion that make horse racing.

The confusion and controversy may, in part, be the consequence of holding a major-money event like the Jim Beam at a small track like Latonia. Big races with big sponsors generally go to big places. The Marlboro Cup is run at Belmont Park; the Budweiser Million at Arlington; the Rothmans International Stakes at Woodbine in Canada. Those races draw large crowds, and megabucks are bet on them. Yet, a year ago, little Latonia launched the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes.

It all started in 1981, when Dave Vance, who was then president and general manager at Latonia, went looking for a corporate sponsor for the Spiral Stakes. Vance sent letters and pounded sidewalks, at first seemingly to no avail. One of the letters, however, was to the James B. Beam Distilling Co., the world's largest seller of bourbon whiskey. The letter ended up on the desk of the vice-president/director of marketing, Victor Zast, who has been a horse-racing enthusiast for 25 years. Zast liked the idea of sponsoring a race. Jim Beam is the oldest continuously operating business in Kentucky, and bourbon and horse fans have long been compatible. "Many corporations could sponsor a big race in either New York or California," Zast said. "I thought that Latonia would work for us."

Latonia is a small night track that holds day racing on weekends. It's a step above the "leaky-roof circuit" and has a six-story, glass-enclosed grandstand that seems to jump up out of the Kentucky farmland. A year ago, Latonia averaged 3,700 fans for its January-April meeting and 4,400 for its fall session, with the daily handle ranging from $460,000 to $517,000. But this year Latonia's crowds have jumped 17% and its handle 20%. Major moves. Some say good weather is the cause, but others attribute the rise to the track's new identity, brought about by the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes.

The race serves as the centerpiece for a seven-day Spiral Spring Festival that includes a variety of events backed by businesses and merchants in the area. There are fiddlers' contests, horse and dog shows, dart tournaments, a donkey derby and a human marathon, plus tennis and golf exhibitions and a beauty pageant. For $17.50, a visitor could have attended the Northern Kentucky Restaurant Association's dinner where local restaurants served their specialties: the Gatehouse Tavern's Caesars Salad, El Greco's Wiener schnitzel, Quality Inn Riverview's teriyaki steak, Mike Fink's beignets and Josh's strawberry sabayon. Mints, towels and antacids were provided by the First National Bank of Covington.

Dinners and fiddling contests and dart tournaments are only a small part of what's been happening in recent years on the road to the Kentucky Derby. A decade ago there were six pre-Derby races worth $100,000 added; in 1983 there will be 18 of them. While inflation accounts for some of those increases, many tracks simply want to get in on the excitement and glamour of the 3-year-olds, and Latonia is a leader in that trend. This year only the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby and the Santa Anita Derby will have purses larger than that of the Jim Beam Spiral. In just two years, the race is a firmly established part of racing's spring excitement.

Oddly, in its first running a year ago, the Beam produced the best field of all the 1982 Derby preps. It included future major stakes winners Cupecoy's Joy, Drop Your Drawers, Fast Gold and Wolfie's Rascal. Unfortunately for the promoters, that race was won by long-shot Good 'n Dusty, a horse not even nominated to the Kentucky Derby, a sad state of affairs considering that the Beam Co. also underwrites a $250,000 bonus for any horse that sweeps the Beam, the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Kentucky Derby.

This year it looked for a while as if things would turn out badly again. The star of the race was to be Croeso, the 85-1 winner of the $250,000 Florida Derby. But Croeso wrenched a knee six days before the Beam and will not race for six weeks, putting him out of the Derby. Latonia had lost its star attraction.

Early in the week, the weather forecast was wretched, with rain predicted for race day. On top of that, Kentucky and Louisville both advanced to the Mideast Regional final of the NCAA basketball tournament. The nationally televised game was scheduled for a 12:45 start, hardly what a Kentucky track promoter would want to compete against on his biggest day of the year with a 1 p.m. post time for the first race.

Once the basketball game was over, however, people streamed to Latonia. By the end of the day, the track had set an alltime attendance record as 12,325 race fans, betting a record $1.4 million, milled about in the chilly—but rainless—spring weather, sipping Golden Spiral cocktails and wearing Jim Beam hats. The Golden Spiral, by the way, costs $2.95 and consists of Jim Beam bourbon (what else?), pi√±a colada mix and orange, pineapple and coconut juices, topped off by a splash of Galliano.

As he was leaving Latonia late Saturday evening, Lukas said, "I'll take Marfa back to Santa Anita and do some more talking to him to see if he can be taught to correct some of his mistakes. My plans are to come back to Kentucky and go for it. When you try to run in a series of races as tough as the Triple Crown, you want a big strong horse. That's why we paid so much for Marfa. Until today he has been an awful lot of frustration for me. Now things are starting to really look up."

Actually, Wayne, things are looking up for a lot of horses. The Jim Beam Spiral was the 26th so-called Kentucky Derby prep of 1983. Marfa is now one of 26 different winners. There's heavy traffic on the road to Louisville.


Before the Beam, the parading field of 12 was toasted by the record crowd.


Marfa (center) lugged in, but Jorge Velasquez straightened him out to beat Noble Home.