CITATION AND COALTOWN REDUX?

The (Louisville) Courier-Journal captioned an online video “Is Baffert’s 1-2 punch best in Derby history?”  Similarly, racetrack handicapper Mike Battaglia and sportswriter Billy Reed have made comparisons between trainer Bob Baffert’s entries of American Pharoah and Dortmund and Calumet Farm’s Citation and Coaltown in 1948.

If, like Citation and Coaltown,  American Pharoah and Dortmund run first and second in the Kentucky Derby (in either order), the analogies will inevitably ramp up.  However, there is a fundamental difference, besides field size, between the 1948 and 2015 scenarios, and this distinction makes it more difficult for one of the Baffert-trained colts to win the Triple Crown in 2015.

In 1948, Citation and Coaltown (both sired by Calumet stallion Bull Lea) were owned by Calumet Farm and trained by the father and son team of Ben and Jimmy Jones.  Moreover, the pair ran as a betting entry.  By contrast, American Pharoah and Dortmund have different owners and will not run as a betting entry.

The common ownership in 1948 allowed the Jones boys to increase the chances of Calumet winning the Triple Crown.  Once Citation won the Kentucky Derby over second-place Coaltown, the colts did not run against one another in the Preakness or Belmont.  While Citation was clearly the better colt, there was always the outside possibility that the speedster Coaltown could upset him, especially in the shorter-distance Preakness, and thereby ruin the Triple Crown run.  Ben and Jimmy Jones did not take this risk.

Unlike Ben and Jimmy Jones in 1948, if Bob Baffert wins the 2015 Kentucky Derby with, say, American Pharoah, he cannot easily ask Dortmund’s owner to forgo a rematch in order to improve American Pharoah’s opportunity to sweep the Triple Crown.

Baffert has said that not much separates American Pharoah and Dortmund in terms of talent.  Thus if American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby, there is a strong likelihood that Dortmund will prevail in the Preakness or Belmont (and vice versa).   American Pharoah’s speed would be dangerous in the Preakness and Dortmund’s size and long stride is suited to the Belmont.

In 1995, D. Wayne Lukas trained the winners of all three Triple Crown races.  Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and Timber Country won the Preakness.  The colts had different owners.  That outcome could repeat itself in 2015.  On the other hand, maybe American Pharoah or Dortmund is slightly better than the other one and takes the Triple Crown, just as Affirmed managed to best Alydar in all three races in 1978.

Copyright © 2015 Horse Racing Business

KENTUCKY DERBY MEMORIES

Growing up in Louisville, I was able to experience the Kentucky Derby up close in some of the golden days of horse racing in the 1950s and 1960s.  Following are a few memories.  Younger readers are likely not to recognize most of the names, just as I am not familiar with many of the icons of today.

Celebrities.  Well-known people like Bob Hope could be spotted at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.  I recall seeing the red-haired actress Susan Hayward at the 1959 Derby and she was stunning.

A popular nightspot for celebrities and sports figures during Derby week in the 1960s was a place called Patio Lounge in a shopping mall on Louisville’s east side (east of the city of St. Matthews).  The shopping center is still there but the nightclub is long gone.  A few of the high-profile people I can remember seeing there were Dr. Alex Harthill, Paul Hornung, Caesar Romero, and Bill Shoemaker (Harthill and Shoemaker traveled together).

In 1953 or 1954, Shoemaker was nursing an injury when he arrived to ride in the Derby.  He went to the University of Louisville, near Churchill Downs, to use the athletic department’s whirlpool.  There he met an obscure 155-pound quarterback who provided advice about treating the injury—Johnny Unitas.

One year in the late 1960s, a friend of mine volunteered to take actor Robert Conrad around to various events during Derby festivities.  Conrad was the star of the top-rated television show Wild Wild West.  My friend kept getting asked for autographs, so he eventually accommodated the requests rather than keep explaining he was just a volunteer.  He laughed that the autograph seekers would later scratch their heads trying to figure out who he was.  His own favorite memory of an autograph was from President Richard M. Nixon in the Churchill Downs clubhouse in 1969, the only sitting president to ever attend the Derby.

Celebrity appearances did not always go smoothly.  In the 1980s, Tom Meeker, then president of Churchill Downs, said that the male star of a hit television series was not welcome back because of his rude behavior toward the public.

Boxers.  For years, a professional boxing card was held on Derby Eve.  The boxers would often do their “road work” (jogging) over the Churchill Downs track.  The world’s light-heavyweight champion, Willie Pastrano, was the featured boxer in 1960, and he won a unanimous decision over a fighter named Alonzo Johnson.  I watched Pastrano spar in a pre-fight workout at Bud Bruner’s gym in downtown Louisville against a former Kentucky Golden Gloves heavyweight champion.  Although the sparring partner wore a head protector, Pastrano had such hand quickness and accuracy that the other guy’s face was red as a beet when the two or three rounds were over.  For better competition, Pastrano’s trainer—Angelo Dundee–should have brought in the 1960 national Golden Glove’s champion, an 18-year-old Louisvillian whose name at the time was Cassius Clay.  Clay (later Muhammad Ali) would soon be trained by Dundee and win the world’s heavyweight title in 1964.

The Parade.  The first Kentucky Derby Parade was a very small event held in 1956 on a budget of $640.  The parade route was down 4th Street rather than the present-day route on Broadway.  Included among the Grand Marshalls have been such notables as Muhammad Ali, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Col. Harland Sanders, Diane Sawyer, William Shatner, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.  (The Grand Marshall of the 2015 parade will be former University of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.)

Horses and Jockeys.  The Derby has been blessed with great horses and jockeys.  Two of my favorite rides were both by Bill Shoemaker.  To watch him win the 1959 Derby on Tomy Lee and the 1986 Derby on Ferdinand is to witness a master in action.  I vivdly recall the bright sun beating down on the finish line as Shoemaker rallied Tomy Lee to best Sword Dancer in a furious duel.  (Ironically, Shoemaker was offered the mount on Sword Dancer but kept his word to ride Tomy Lee.)  Shoemaker’s winding course through traffic with Ferdinand was facilitated by luck and incredible vision and riding prowess.

Copyright © 2015 Horse Racing Business

HOW A SELFLESS ACT LED TO A KENTUCKY DERBY WINNER

The Kentucky Derby Museum Friday night presented the fifth annual program called “My Kentucky Derby.”  The entertaining 75-minute discussion between the moderator–Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas–and five retired Hall of Fame jockeys was held in the Sales Pavilion at Keeneland.  Lukas told of how an act of generosity ultimately resulted in the 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, who he trained.

As a fund-raiser in the early 1990s, the Kentucky Derby Museum was selling a season to the stallion Unbridled, who had won the 1990 Kentucky Derby but had not yet hit the big time as a sire.  The goal was to get $50,000 for the season.

Lukas, a champion of the Derby Museum, asked William T. Young, owner of Overbrook Farm in Lexington and a Lukas client, to buy the Unbridled season for the asking price of $50,000.  Young replied that he could buy Unbridled seasons on the open market for $15,000.

However, after consideration of how the Museum would benefit, Young paid the $50,000–more than three times the going rate.  He then instructed his farm staff to find a mare suitable to breed to Unbridled.  The mare chosen was, in Lukas’ words, a “B-level mare,” Buzz My Bell by Drone.  She had career earnings of $223,295 from 13 starts (2 wins, 3 places, and 4 shows).

The product of that breeding was Grindstone, foaled in 1993.  In 1996, he won the Kentucky Derby by the slimmest of margins and never ran another race because of an injury sustained in the Derby.

An irony:  Overbrook Farm owned and stood Storm Cat, the dominant sire of his generation, and bred superb mares to him.  At one time, he reportedly commanded a stud fee of $500,000.  Yet the only Kentucky Derby winner that Young and Overbrook ever had was Grindstone, a son of an unproven stallion and a second-echelon mare.   The breeding that yielded Grindstone would not have been were it not for Young’s altruism.

William T. Young died in 2004; Grindstone stands at stud in Oregon for $2,500; and D. Wayne Lukas is still active as a trainer, raconteur, and avid supporter of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Copyright © 2015 Horse Racing Business