Believe It confirmed his 7-to-10 favoritism and strengthened the conviction of his owners that he is a solid (fourth choice) Kentucky Derby candidate by winning the $109,900 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct yesterday in impressive fashion.
The chestnut colt's margin of victory was 3 1/2 lengths over Darby Creek Road, which was nearly five lengths ahead of Track Reward at the end of one furlongs run in 1:49 4/5.
Eleven 3-year-olds attempted, in the wood, to justify a trip to Churchill Downs for the Louisville track's May 6 feature. Only the first two finishers succeeded.
James P. Mills, the owner of Believe It, never has had any doubt as to his colt's ability.
"Ever since he was a little baby, in the fields at Hickory Tree (Mills' farm near Middleburg, Va.), I've thought he was special," Mills said yesterday after the winner's circle ceremonies. "When he was sent to Kentucky as a yearling to be sold, along with several other horses we had bred, I went down to make sure he didn't get away from me. The only way anybody was going to be able to buy him was over my dead body."
Mills approached Woody Stephens, a trainer, and asked him if he would "represent" him in the Keeneland auction ring. Stephens had trained Believe It's dam, Breakfast Bell, a daughter of Buckpasser.
"I asked Woody to do me a favor, and he did," Mills recalled. "He bought the colt for me (for $115,000). I remember he came back to me and kind a slipped a crinkled-up slip of paper (the sales slip) into my pocket. Of course, there was little need for him to be so secretive about it, by then. The word was out. Everybody knew who the yearling had been bought for."
Any man who will pay $115,000 to buy back his own horse deserves something good to happen - and Believe It has lived up to Mr. and Mrs. Mills' highest hopes. The Wood was his sixth victory in 14 starts, the $65,940 first prize increasing his career earnings to $317,483. The chestnut son of In Reality has finished off the board only once.
"I was extremely happy with his race today," Stephens said. "Eddie (Maple, the jockey) may have moved a little early with him on the back side, but Believe It went to the lead easily on the turn and never was really pushed. I'd think we have to go to Kentucky, with a colt like this. He's earned the chance."
Maple had only one scary moment yesterday. An Aqueduct crowd of 32,056 and a national television audience saw his mount be pinched back by Just Right Classi and Island Sultan shortly after the start.
"I intended to take back, but they helped me overdo it," Maple commented. "It happened about 10 jumps out of the starting gate, going to the first turn, when the nine (horse) came over and the 11 (horse came in). But when I looked at the films of the race it wasn't as tight as I'd thought. Actually, this race was about as easy as a race can get."
Aqueduct might well be Believe It's favorite track. He upset Alydar here last fall, in the Ramsen Stakes over the Wood distance. The track was sloppy that afternoon, and Stephens wouldn't mind a bit if the same conditions prevailed in Kentucky on May 6.
Believe It continued out an extra eighth of a mile yesterday, completing the mile and a quarter in 2:04. Stephens obviously is going to have a fit horse at Churchill Downs. The problem is the opposition, which looms the strongest in at least a decade.
"Alydar's beaten us twice this year, and we've had no excuses," Stephens acknowledged. "But, despite the Flamingo and the Florida Derby results, this is a colt you have to keep trying with."
Affirmed, last season's champion 2-year-old, will challenge Alydar for the role of Derby favorite. The undefeated Sensitive Prince will be a strong third choice. In other years, against lesser horse flesh, Believe It would have been the Derby choice.
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Wood winners have won nine Derbys, including the last three. Seattle Slew, Bold Forbes and Foolish Pleasure. Believe It, despite his excellent record, figures to be at least 10 to 1 on Derby Day. The only criticism of the colt is that he picked the wrong year to be a 3-year-old.