It was a joyous moment for John Veitch last Saturday as he strode across the Gulfstream Park track toward the winner's circle and Proud Truth, the handsome 3-year-old chestnut colt he trains for Darby Dan Farm. After a seven-year drought, Veitch had finally won a major Kentucky Derby prep race, the $300,000 Florida Derby, and, perhaps best of all, had trounced Woody Stephens's horse, the 11-10 favorite, Stephan's Odyssey, in the bargain. In a thrilling stretch run, Proud Truth, the second favorite, seemingly blocked on the rail, found a glimmer of daylight between two horses, slipped through and, in the words of his jockey, Jorge Velasquez, "took off like a mad horse." He won the 1‚⅛-mile race by a neck, and Stephan's Odyssey finished sixth in the field of 11.
The 39-year-old Veitch was feeling his oats because he has had it up to here with near-misses. In 1978 he had a marvelous colt in Alydar, but had to watch him finish second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races. In 1983 and the first half of 1984, Dr. Carter, his Kentucky Derby prospect, regularly finished second, usually behind Stephens's brilliant colts Devil's Bag and Swale. Dr. Carter ran second to Devil's Bag in the '83 Cowdin and Champagne Stakes, and second to Swale in the '84 Florida Derby. Dr. Carter caught a virus in April and never made it to the Kentucky Derby that Swale won.
Now, at last, the tables have turned. This time it's Veitch who has two hot prospects for Louisville in his barn. Proud Truth and Script Ohio, the latter the winner of the 1984 Young America at the Meadowlands. And it's the 71-year-old Stephens who has just one Derby prospect, Stephan's Odyssey—now twice a loser to Proud Truth. Veitch's colt beat Stephan's Odyssey by a neck in the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on Feb. 18, but that victory was a bit suspect because Proud Truth had carried 10 pounds less weight. In the Florida Derby both colts were assigned 122 pounds. Still, Veitch was confident. "I think the 10-pound pickup will not be as crucial as it would be with a smaller, more delicate horse," he said. "Proud Truth is like a bruising fullback. He's got size, strength and power, and the Florida Derby gives us another sixteenth of a mile. The added distance will compensate for the extra weight."
Proud Truth reared twice in the gate, but broke well and settled into the middle of the pack up the backstretch. Mighty Appealing and Banner Bob, the speed in the race, battled each other for the lead until the far turn, where Mighty Appealing started to back up, with Stephan's Odyssey comfortably in third. Then Irish Sur, winner of the Tropical Park Derby, and Proud Truth started to move. Irish Sur went to the outside, while Proud Truth weaved through traffic to save ground along the rail. Velasquez saw an opening between Covert Operation and Banner Bob and gunned the son of Graustark through the gap to win by a neck over Irish Sur. The time was 1:50, very slow for the fast track, but Proud Truth—winning for the fifth time in six starts—finished with his ears up.
Eddie Maple, the rider of Stephan's Odyssey, was disgusted with his sixth-place finish. "The time stinks," he said. "Everything stinks. This horse was laying in a pretty good spot, but he really didn't kick in for me. I don't know why."
Stephens also detected an odor in the time. "It stunk," he said. "Swale run it 2[2/5] seconds faster."
Veitch caught an entirely different scent—roses, maybe—though the harrowing stretch run had given him a bad few seconds. "Somewhere around the [3/16] pole the situation looked in doubt. I didn't start to pull my hair out," said the totally bald Veitch, "but I almost threw up."
Earlier in the afternoon another important race for 3-year-olds had been run at Gulfstream. The newly created $50,000 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs featured the return of the 2-year-old colt of the year for '84 and winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Chief's Crown. He had been out of action after getting a cough in late December. "I'm going to see how he runs," said trainer Roger Laurin, "and after that we'll make up our minds where we're going to go. I'll either feel a lot better on Sunday or a lot worse." Laurin felt a lot better. Sent off the 1-5 favorite in a field of nine, Chief's Crown won easily by 3¼ lengths over Creme Fraiche—another Stephens horse—thereby remaining the horse to beat in Louisville on May 4.
Though the Florida Derby moved Veitch one giant step down that road to Churchill Downs, the Swale Stakes was a reminder that obstacles lie ahead. When asked about the possibility of running both Proud Truth and Script Ohio in the Kentucky Derby, he answered with the caution of a man who has known disappointment. "They may be an entry in Kentucky," Veitch said, "if they get that far and I live that long."
At the top of the stretch, Proud Truth (second from right) waited for a gap to open.
Proud Truth's struggle to victory over Irish Sur was a harrowing experience for Veitch.