For Jockey Gary Stevens, still flecked with the dirt thrown back in his face on the far turn, the surpassing achievement he had just been a part of had only begun to sink in as he and trainer Randy Winick left the winner's circle at Santa Anita Park on Saturday afternoon.
"Do you realize what you just did?" asked Stevens, turning to Winick.
Puzzled, the trainer replied, "No, what do you mean?"
"You got this horse ready for the Santa Anita Derby off just one race and a few so-so works," said Stevens, one of the nation's leading riders. "That's something only a Hall of Fame trainer does."
Just 10 minutes earlier, at the close of a dingdong, hair-raising stretch duel with jockey Pat Day on Tabasco Cat, Stevens pushed and shoved his mount, a long-striding chestnut colt named Brocco, to a three-quarter-length victory in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Santa Anita Derby—the most important California prep race leading to the May 7 Kentucky Derby—and thus instantly reaffirmed the horse's status as one of the favorites to win the 120th running of the Louisville classic. "This race was our goal all winter long," Winick said. "The four weeks between now and the Kentucky Derby will be just perfect for him. He is peaking at just the right time."
Indeed Winick, the 44-year-old son of veteran conditioner Arnold Winick, finds himself in a position quite as enviable as that of any trainer headed for Churchill Downs. He is the caretaker of a Santa Anita Derby winner who will arrive in Louisville lightly raced, reasonably fresh and obviously improving; who has never run poorly (four victories and two seconds in his six races); and who has something of the alley fighter in him, with no fear of pitched battles in tight quarters and with a terrier's tenacity when put to a drive. "We finally got the colt we've been waiting for," Winick says.
For the past decade Winick has trained horses for Albert Broccoli—the producer of the James Bond film series—who bought Brocco as a 2-year-old in training, back when the colt was called Anytime Chris. "When I changed his name to Brocco, Randy asked, 'What kind of name is that?' " Broccoli says. "My wife said, 'You'll know when he starts to win what kind of name it is.' "
Winick knew what he had when he saddled Brocco for his first start last Aug. 28 at Del Mar and saw the horse win by nearly four lengths. Six weeks later, at Santa Anita, Brocco laughed at a bunch of allowance horses, winning by nearly nine, and 30 days after that, on Nov. 6, Brocco announced himself to all the world when he swooped like a pterodactyl around the final turn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and simply blew past the leaders in midstretch, drawing off in the final eighth of a mile to win by live.
He was at that moment the best 2-year-old colt in the land, and he probably would have been voted the champion juvenile colt had Winick retired him for the year. But the trainer and the horse were both on the muscle coming out of the Breeders' Cup—"He was a tough, fresh horse at the time," Winick says, "and I thought it would be a crime to put him on the shelf for three months"—so Winick dropped him into the $500,000 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 19. The colt got caught in traffic at the half-mile pole and fell three quarters of a length short of catching Valiant Nature at the wire. Thus Brocco, in a close vote, lost the Eclipse title to Dehere, who had won three stakes at Saratoga but was among the also-rans reeling in Brocco's wake at the Breeders' Cup.
Winick brought the colt to the Santa Anita Derby with one eye cocked toward Churchill Downs, heeding the late trainer Horatio Luro's celebrated admonition not to "squeeze the lemon" too hard, too soon. In fact, Brocco lolled around Southern California after the Hollywood Futurity. "He didn't see the racetrack for five weeks," Winick says. "He walked every day and grazed a lot. I knew the Kentucky Derby was down the road, and I wanted to give him a little breather." Cautiously, Winick started him galloping again in late January, then drilling him slowly in February, all the while aiming toward the 1[1/16]-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 20, the race Winick had chosen as the colt's only prep for the Santa Anita Derby.
The track was deep and muddy on the day of the San Felipe, and Brocco made the lead while battling Valiant Nature to the eighth pole, but Winick's colt was caught on the rail, where the going was deepest and most tiring, and Soul of the Matter swept past both of them on the higher ground outside to win by more than two lengths. In the deep stretch Brocco looked like he was going to be third, with Valiant Nature thrusting a head in front, but the big chestnut dug in again and battled back tenaciously, edging him by a head at the wire for second. Brocco ran like a good horse who was coming off a three-month break.
It was precisely the kind of exhausting and leg-wearying experience that Brocco needed to get him fit for last Saturday. Three days before the race Winick stood in front of the colt's stall, feeding him a handful of broken carrots one at a time. Brocco is a tall, angular sort, all legs and neck, and is built rather like a very large greyhound, carrying no excess flesh. "He's such an athlete," Winick said. "He's a very sound horse—he's never bucked his shins or popped a splint—and he gets a lot out of his works."
Brocco's golden coat was dappling, and he pricked his ears, craning his neck forward, as Winick spoke. "He's a good-looking horse, isn't he?" the trainer said. "He's coming to the Santa Anita Derby as well as he came to the Breeders' Cup last fall. All that training, and the San Felipe, got him fit."
It got him fit enough. On Saturday, Stevens rode the colt as Winick had trained and campaigned him, with patience and confidence, letting him fall 10 lengths off the early pace of Fly'n J. Bryan, who smoked the opening half mile in 45 75 seconds. So the race set up beautifully for Brocco and Tabasco Cat, both of whom lay back and began closing on a tiring Fly'n J. Bryan at the far turn. Pat Day and the Cat pounced on the leader and actually got a head in front, while Stevens took aim on both colts and began to ride.
"I was sitting behind Pat, just clocking him, trying to gauge how much horse he had," says Stevens. "I saw he popped his colt on the shoulder a couple of times as he went by Fly'n J. Bryan, and he didn't get any response at all, so I knew I had him anytime I wanted him."
Or so he thought. Turning for home, Brocco came to the Cat in sudden bounds, but Day and his colt resisted. "Tabasco Cat had more than it looked like he had," Stevens said later.
Brocco and the Cat struggled head and head to the 16th pole. Then slowly, gradually, Brocco inched away to win by three quarters of a length in a respectable 1:48[1/5]. Strodes Creek, a colt making only his fourth lifetime start for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, closed on the leaders to finish third, beaten less than two lengths in a performance that advertised him as an improving long shot for the Kentucky Derby.
This crop of Derby-bound 3-year-olds is clearly the deepest and most talented of the last five years. Holy Bull, who won the Florida Derby in extremely fast time, appears to be the pick of the litter, but judgments on him remain tentative until this Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keene-land, where he's expected to meet Valiant Nature. Meanwhile, Winick will fly his colt to Kentucky, where he must work out for a veterinarian because of minor soreness in his right front foot. Nevertheless, Winick has done a superb job in getting Brocco where he is, fresh and eager.
"I wake up smiling every morning," Winick says. "I can't wait for them to play My Old Kentucky Home."
Brocco (second from left) broke cleanly on his way to the winner's circle in California's top prep race.
Deep in the stretch, Stevens (below) and Brocco finally shook Tabasco Cat (at right, above).