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With four weeks to go, a trio of prep races further muddied the Kentucky Derby picture

With the Kentucky Derby only four weeks away, the sound of starting gates slamming open at racetracks across the land was positively deafening last Saturday as three major Derby prep races were run in just over an hour. In the East, at precisely 4:37 p.m., in the 35th running of the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, a field of nine horses surged from the gate to see which of them could run the fastest mile. In the South, at 5:25 p.m., another nine horses hurtled onto the track at Gulfstream Park in the 1‚Öõ-mile Florida Derby. Eighteen minutes later, on the West Coast, six thoroughbreds broke from the gate in the 1‚Öõ-mile Santa Anita Derby.

The results of these three races were supposed to clarify the 3-year-old picture and establish a favorite for the Derby in Louisville. Instead, in a day of upsets, Gone West beat the 2-year-old champion, Capote, in the Gotham, while Cryptoclearance and Temperate Sil left odds-on favorites up the track at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, respectively. When the dust had settled, the Derby picture seemed about as clear as, well, mud.

Which brings us to the Gotham, a race run on a track listed as sloppy, although a more accurate description of the gluelike surface was "yucky." Of the three preps, the Gotham was perhaps the most intriguing, because it featured the long-awaited 1987 racing debut of Capote. The handsome, dark bay son of Seattle Slew hadn't raced since Nov. 1, when he had wired the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, a convincing win that established him as the Kentucky Derby winter-book favorite. By Saturday, though, the Las Vegas odds-makers had replaced him as the Derby favorite with Masterful Advocate—the impressive winner of three stakes in the past three months—for the very simple reason that Masterful Advocate had raced big this year, while Capote had stayed in his stall.

But Capote's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had announced after the Breeders' Cup that his colt would run in only two races before the Derby, and he stuck to his game plan, flying the colt in from California only three days before the Gotham. "It's a tough assignment, going against class competition after a long layoff," said Lukas. "That way, you can't go through the playoffs; you have to start at the championship level. I expect Capote to win because he's a champion. But I'm not going to cut my wrists if he doesn't."

Capote's main competition was expected to come from the Leroy Jolley-trained Gulch, who was 0 for 2 against Capote at Santa Anita last year. But Gulch had raced twice in 1987, winning the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct two weeks before, and he had the home-court advantage. Gulch had also won in the mud as a 2-year-old, which loomed as an edge on the sloppy Aqueduct strip on Saturday.

Then there was Woody Stephens's Gone West, whose two wins this year had been in allowance races. But Gone West was carrying 114 pounds, 9 fewer than Capote and Gulch. Besides, nobody with any brains ever throws out a Stephens horse, especially on an off track, where Woody has often worked wonders. Asked before the Gotham who was the horse to beat, Stephens promptly replied, "Me." He continued, "I like Leroy's horse, too." But in reference to Capote, he said, "I don't bet a horse that's been away five months."

It began to rain hard on Friday night in New York, and when sheets of rain were being whipped about by 40-mph winds just hours before the Gotham, it was clear that Capote had more than a long layoff to overcome; he hadn't even galloped over an off track in his career. Though the sun was out by race time, water was still standing on the track.

The Aqueduct bettors backed the champ just the same, sending Capote off as the 7-5 favorite, and for a while it looked as if he would take it. Jockey Pat Day sent the colt straight to the lead, sizzling through the first quarter in 22[2/5] seconds. But Robbie Davis on Gone West stuck to Capote like a sidecar, hanging just off his right flank. The speed duel was on, and by the half-mile mark Gone West had stuck a head in front. After six furlongs, run in a killing 1:08⅕ Gone West had stretched his lead to two lengths. Capote held on to second place until the stretch, where he was passed by Shawklit Won and, finally, by Gulch. At the finish, the four-length lead Gone West had built in the stretch had shrunk to one. Shawklit Won was second, 8½ lengths in front of Gulch, who hung on for third by a head over the leg-weary Capote.

Still, Capote's race was no disgrace. He had come east and been done in by Gone West, but as Lukas led him off the track, a bettor shouted encouragingly, 'That's the last time we see Capote when he's not in front."

The owners of Gone West, Mr. and Mrs. James P. Mills of Middleburg, Va., who'd shelled out $1.9 million for the Mr. Prospector colt, seemed rather stunned by their horse's success. "Lovely horse, isn't he?" Mrs. Mills murmured in the winner's circle. "Rather a surprise." The septuagenarian Mr. Mills concurred. "I said to my wife before the "ace, 'Do you believe in miracles?' And she said, 'Sometimes, my dear.' "

Even Stephens seemed mildly surprised, despite his prerace cockiness. "I was just going to put him in and see what happened," he said. Woody will find out IOW good his horse really is on April 18 in the Wood Memorial, when he faces Capote and Gulch again, this time going in eighth of a mile farther.

That was the distance of the Florida Derby, where the favorite also came up short. Bet Twice, the 3-5 choice off his win in the Fountain of Youth two weeks earlier, got boxed at the top of the stretch, and that turned the race in to a stirring three-horse scrap among Cryptoclearance, No More Flowers and Talinum (another member of Lukas's deep stable). Cryptoclearance, who had von the Everglades on Feb. 7 and run second to Talinum in the Flamingo on Feb. 28, came out of the 9 hole in the Florida Derby, ran wide the entire race and won by a head.

But his victory was more impressive than that narrow margin would indicate, because, in effect, he ran farther than the competition. Cryptoclearance was six horses wide on the second turn and eight wide at the head of the stretch, where he began to move on the leaders, No More Flowers and Talinum. The three colts battled to the wire, their jockeys whipping furiously, but it was Cryptoclearance, with Jose Santos in the irons, who was a step ahead at the finish.

Afterward, trainer Scotty Schulhofer said he thought Cryptoclearance would thrive on the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance. "I think the longer they go, the better he'll like it," he said. Cryptoclearance will not race again until the Derby, because Schulhofer wants to be sure his horse is fresh for the big one. "He's like a kid learning to play baseball," he said. "You start him, say, in T-ball, and then he keeps moving up. Right now, he's beginning to play high school ball, and I hope by Derby time he might think about going to college."

Schulhofer has never had a Derby-caliber horse before. In fact, he has never even been to Louisville. "I'll have to show him around," says owner Phil Teinowitz, who bought the Fappiano colt for $190,000.

Nobody will have to show trainer Charlie Whittingham around Louisville. He owned that town last year, when he won his first Derby, with Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker. Whittingham will revisit Churchill Downs this year with Temperate Sil and the Shoe, the decisive winners of the Santa Anita Derby, the last leg of Saturday's trilogy.

The Santa Anita was yet another upset. Masterful Advocate, the star of California racing this year, went off as the 2-5 favorite but was bumped at the start, failed to fire and finished second by 5½ lengths to the son of 1980 Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill. Shoemaker rode Temperate Sil in masterly fashion, laying just off the leader, Lookinforthebigone (yes, another Lukas colt), until the final turn. Sil went to the lead in the stretch and never looked back, winning in a sedate 1:49 on the fast track. "The press said he was a sprinter," the 73-year-old Whittingham said after winning his first Santa Anita Derby. "At least he can sprint a mile and an eighth. Now we'll see if he can sprint a mile and a quarter."

Temperate Sil will not race again before heading for Churchill Downs. "I'll do as I did with Ferdinand," said Whittingham. "I'll rest him until we go to Kentucky. He's had a few tough races, and he could use some time off. There's no use sending him to Louisville early. There's no use for anyone to get to a city early that's visited by two million and built for twenty thousand."

Masterful Advocate will probably race again, however. The $5,500 bargain-basement colt may make his next start in the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington on April 23, then move on to Louisville. "We all expected Masterful Advocate to run better," said co-owner Dave Leveton after Saturday's race. "But our plans haven't changed much."

As for Temperate Sil, his primary owners are Lewis Figone and Richard Granzella, who both run garbage-collection companies in the Bay Area. Although he now owns his refuse business, Figone says he had to work his way up through the ranks, as it were. "I carried garbage for 12 years, and I still have the aches and pains to show for it," he said.

Whittingham says of Sil's owners, "I've been partners with many different types of people. What they collect is up to them." What Whittingham collects is purses, such as the hefty $278,250 first-place money that was added to Temperate Sil's career earnings of $575,375. And that ain't garbage.

Sil's major weakness is that he hates an off track—he had lost his previous two races on surfaces that were less than fast. "He can't run in the mud," said Whittingham. "But he works well and trains easy. He does whatever we ask him. We can rate this horse, and he's easy to get going when you ask. He runs with his head down and his butt up. He'd make a hell of a blacksmith, wouldn't he?"

The Shoe, who had just won his eighth Santa Anita Derby, was impressed with his horse and compared him favorably with last year's Kentucky Derby winner. "I liked Ferdinand much better until today. This horse showed me a lot, and he's getting better." And bettors looking for an edge would do well to keep in mind that every nine years the Santa Anita Derby winner goes on to win the Kentucky Derby. Majestic Prince did it in 1969, Affirmed in 1978. Will history repeat itself in '87?

With no clear favorites emerging on Saturday, there are plenty of 3-year-olds with room to improve in the next month. The week after next, there'll be another horse-racing Super Saturday. Besides the rematch in the Wood, the Arkansas Derby will feature Demons Begone, who is unbeaten as a 3-year-old.

So, do all the upsets mean that 1987 is a bad year for Kentucky Derby horses? Not according to Whittingham. "Every year people say it's a poor crop," says the man known as the Bald Eagle. "And even when you have a Secretariat, people say it's a poor crop except for one horse."

And so the questions continue. Will Gone West go south to Churchill Downs and win? Will Schulhofer find Louisville to his liking? Will luck be a lady to Lukas? Will the garbage men come up smelling like roses? Stay tuned.



Capote (orange silks) came east for the Gotham, but it was Gone West (green) who won in the slop for trainer Stephens (left).



[See caption above.]



In Florida, Cryptoclearance was a head better than No More Flowers and Talinum (6).



After Temperate Sil's win at Santa Anita, the Shoe liked his chances for Louisville.



Moving like a silver streak at the top of the stretch, Sil went on to win by 5½ lengths.