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Flight to Victory

Fly So Free remained ahead of the 3-year-old field by winning the Florida Derby

As a blustery, overcast afternoon faded into evening last Saturday at Florida's Gulf-stream Park, a handful of grooms and hotwalkers, mostly employees of trainer Scotty Schulhofer, watched Fly So Free, who an hour earlier had won the $500,000 Florida Derby, slowly being walked around the shedrow of Barn 9. Occasionally they slapped hands or muttered something complimentary, but nobody went so far as to pluck one of the 100 purple orchids from the huge horseshoe that had been awarded Fly So Free after his less-than-convincing, one-length victory. And nobody dared cut the cake that was sitting on the desk in Schulhofer's tack room office. They were waiting for the boss.

Here he came, finally, pulling his white Cadillac to a halt outside the barn. As Schulhofer climbed out of his car, somebody yelled, "There's the man with the plan!" And an exercise boy rushed out to give Schulhofer, a 5'7" former steeplechase rider, a congratulatory hug. His wiry gray hair disheveled by the wind and his nose discolored by sunburn, Schulhofer allowed himself a small, tight smile as he strode into his office. "Why didn't you cut this cake?" he asked.

"Waitin' for you," somebody said.

Schulhofer lifted the cake out of the box and ordered the carton refilled with orchids to be given to Tommy Valando, the 68-year-old music publisher who owns Fly So Free, and his wife, Elizabeth. Then he headed down the shedrow to where Fly So Free was waiting to be scrutinized. Walking around the 3-year-old colt, Schulhofer ran his hand along the horse's right flank and seemed satisfied with what he saw. Fly So Free was none the worse for his 1‚Öõ-mile trip, even though jockey Jose Santos had whipped him 18 times, beginning at the top of the stretch.

"The whipping was insignificant," Schulhofer said after completing his inspection. "I know, having ridden myself, that sometimes you're just getting into a rhythm, hitting a horse. But all you're trying to do is get him to running. It would be different if you were putting welts on the horse. But there's not a mark on him."

Earlier, Schulhofer had grown so testy when pressed by reporters about the whipping that he stalked out of the Gulfstream Park press box, leaving the assembled writers with this parting shot: "You reporters, you've just got to have something to write about, don't you?" This outburst was uncharacteristic of the 64-year-old Schulhofer, who's known for his quiet manner and easy smile, and it raised the question of whether he would be able to handle the intense pressure of Kentucky Derby week at Louisville's Churchill Downs, where "knock the favorite" is the media game of choice.

The truth was, even though Fly So Free got his fifth straight stakes victory on Saturday and ran his career record to seven wins in nine starts to remain the early Kentucky Derby favorite, he didn't do much to discourage his competition. His time in the Florida Derby, a dawdling 1:50⅖ was 3[3/5] seconds off the stakes record set by Gen. Duke in 1957. He covered the last eighth of a mile in a slow 13 1/5 seconds. And, yes, Santos did have to get after Fly So Free rather severely to hold off the challenge of Strike the Gold, a blossoming chestnut colt who's trained by Nick Zito and ridden by Craig Perret.

"We'll catch up to him someday," Zito promised after the race.

"We scared that s.o.b.!" crowed Perret. "Santos had to tear into his horse because I was riding down on him."

Strike the Gold ran the sort of race that was supposed to have come from the unfortunately named Jackie Wackie, who had developed a cult following while finishing first in nine consecutive races since Aug. 25. The first eight victories had come at Calder, a racetrack some 10 miles from Gulfstream that exists on a level somewhere between racing's major leagues and its bush tracks.

His awful name seemed to endear Jackie Wackie to the masses. And so did the fact that, as a gelding, he would never be beloved by the industry's blueblood breeders. Furthermore, there is his trainer, Oliver S. (Buddy) Edwards, who is black and weighs 310 pounds, down 80 as a result of dieting. Edwards is an amiable man who cheerfully admits to hating coats and ties. But whenever he mentioned the Kentucky Derby, as he often did before the Florida Derby, it sent shock waves through the racing establishment, ripples that must have caused Churchill Downs' twin spires to quiver.

In early January, Edwards had mentioned to Gulfstream racing secretary Terence Blair Meyocks that he might want some stalls for the Gulfsteam meeting. "He told me to forget about it," Edwards says. But after Jackie Wackie won the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 13 at Calder, Gulfstream called to say, Hey, we were just kidding. "But I told them I'd stay put at Calder," Edwards says. "Jackie handles shipping real good, so I figured I'd just van him over." Which he did for the Feb. 14 Cryptoclearance Stakes, where a 2½-length victory convinced the skeptics that Jackie Wackie might be more than just a tacky name.

But Jackie Wackie wasn't a factor in the Florida Derby, struggling home seventh in the eight-horse field, much to the disappointment of his many fans. The early pace was set by the 41-1 long shot Shoot to Kill, with Fly So Free laying fourth and Strike the Gold dropping back to last. The fractions were a decent :22[4/5] for the first quarter, :46[4/5] for the half mile and 1:11[3/5] for six furlongs.

Fly So Free, the 2-5 favorite, made his move leaving the half-mile pole, a little too soon to suit Schulhofer. He took the lead coming out of the turn for home, while Strike the Gold gobbled up horses and ground behind him. With an eighth of a mile to go, Strike the Gold, closing fast on the outside, got to within a half length of Fly So Free, but no farther. Responding to Santos's busy whip, Fly So Free held on to win by a length.

"He has a habit of waiting for his competition," Schulhofer said later. "I'm not nervous about that. Good horses have little quirks sometimes."

But is it just a quirk or a significant flaw? Will Fly So Free be able to indulge his habit and win when he meets the best of the West in Kentucky? And what about Meadow Star, the unbeaten filly who made her 3-year-old debut last Saturday at Aqueduct with an easy 4¾-length victory? If Fly So Free fails to win his final Kentucky Derby prep, the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, more convincingly than he did the Florida Derby, might not Meadow Star's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, who won the 1980 Kentucky Derby with the filly Genuine Risk, be tempted to let her run for the roses?

These were not the questions Schulhofer wanted to hear late Saturday afternoon. His colt had accomplished his mission and stayed on schedule. Wasn't that enough? Why couldn't the press let him sniff the orchids? And why couldn't victory, any kind of victory, be enough?

"So far, so good," Schulhofer said as he knocked three times on the wooden frame of his office door. Then he smiled and went inside. The cake was still waiting to be cut.



Fly So Free (shadow roll) held off the charging Strike the Gold (far left) to win by a length.