The results of the derbys last weekend in Florida, California and Arkansas were delightful, so far as the Derby publicity men in Kentucky are concerned. It's almost as though Lynn Stone, president of Churchill Downs, is personally orchestrating the buildup to the May 6 opener of the Triple Crown series.
Alydar won the Florida Derby the hard way, for him, by having to police the pace when Believe It refused to be a target. Affirmed breezed by eight lengths at Santa Anita, and the storybook horse of the year, Esop's Foibles, repeated his Louisiana Derby victory in Hot Springs. The undefeated Sensitive Prince, meanwhile, rested in New York.
"The future book prices on both Affirmed and Alydar were out, because of how impressive they were," a spokesman for the Stardust race book said yesterday. "Affirmed came in from 2 to 1 to 8 to 5; Alydar from 7 to 2 to 5 to 2. Esop's is now 20 to 1. He was 100 to 1 not too long ago before Alec Harthill got involved. Sensitive Prince stays at 6 to 1, Believe it went out to 10 to 1, from 8 to 1, and Balzac keeps his 20 to 1."
Those are California-oriented figures, because of the Stardust's availability to the Los Angeles sporting crowd. A truer national book probably would have Affirmed and Alydar 2-to-1 cochoices, with Sensitive Prince 5 to 1.
"Alydar is a standout for the Derby," Woody Stephens, the trainer of Believe It, declared in Florida Saturday after his colt was beaten by two lengths. Affirmed might not even win tomorrow at Santa Anita," Stephens added.
Those seemed to be harsh words concerning last season's champion 2-year-old, and Sunday's result certainly made Stephens look like something less than a pearless prognosticator. There is, however, a tendency among many horsemen to put down Affirmed. The same holds true for the press and the public.
Maybe it is because Alydar has the Calumet name and colors going for him. This is the greatest stable name, and the deveil's red and blue silks are the most famous in modern American racing. But all the stories about Calumet's glory years and its eight Kentucky Derby victories aren't going to help Alydar beat Affirmed the first Saturday in May. He is going to have to do it the hard way, on the track, and Alydar lost four of his six races against Affirmed last season, including the three close finishes.
"We're ahead of Affirmed . . . for 24 hours," Calumet trainer John Veitch observed after the Florida Derby. "Affirmed is a top horse, and a versatile one. He is going to be tough. My colt has improved from 2 to 3, but there's no reason for me to assume Affirmed hasn't improved, too."
"The rain and the mud interfered with Affirmed's training at Santa Anita," trainer Iaz Barrera acknowledged. "He's just about on schedule now, though, and he's better than he was."
Affirmed will stay on the West Coast for the Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park on April 16. Alydar shipped from Florida to Keeneland, near Lexington, Ky., for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 27.
Sensitive Prince probably will face Stephens' entry of Believe It and Quadratic in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 22. When sensitive Prince defeated Believe it by a head in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream recently he was in receipt of eight pounds. In the Wood the weights will be even.
This year's Kentucky Derby shapes up as the best since Secretariat - Sham in 1973.Not since 1969, when Sensitive Prince's sire, Majestic Prince, defeated Arts and Letters, Dike and Top Knight, has there been so much of quality.
There are two ways for a Triple Crown winner to emerge. He can be a truly outstanding horse, as Secretariat was, or he can come along in a comparatively weak season, as Seattle Slew did.
"It would have been nice if this had been a light year," Veitch said last week in Florida. Unfortunately for Alydar, it isn't. And the strategy Stephens employed against the Calumet runners Saturday is certain to be repeated, somewhere along the Triple Crown trail.
As Stephens and Barrera know, Alydar is even more formidable when he is permitted to run the kind of race he wants to run, making one powerful run leaving the three-eighths pole. Force him out of his best pattern and he becomes much more vulnerable. That may be impossible for them to do in Kentucky, with a bigger field and cheap speed available, but the Preakness could well be the Florida Derby, theoretically.
Meanwhile, I'll take the 7 to 2 I got on Alydar in the future book last week and add a ticket - on Darby Creek Road at 30 to 1. This is the best price on the Vegas board, if only trainer Lou Rondinello can get the colt cranked up in time.