Friends of Melvin (Sunshine) Calvert thought the trainer was acting strangely out of character this fall.
Having spent 50 years in the racing game, Calvert is a member of the old school of phlegmatic horsemen who never permit themselves to get too enthusiastic about a young thoroughbred. Only after a horse has won a few sakes and proved himself thoroughly would a trainer grudgingly concede that he might be a useful sort.
But when Calvert was in Maryland in October, people could detect a gleam in his eye whenever he talked about an unraced colt named Superbity. He was even making plans for running major stakes races before the youngster had set foot on the track in actual competition. Either Calvert was entering his dotage at the age 67, or else he had something very special in his barn.
Now the answer is apparent. Superbity has won all four of his races, and on Wednesday he will attempt to extend his streak in the $40,000 Everglades Stakes at Hialeah. If he does, he will establish himself as the top-ranking 3-year-old in America.
A colt getting ready for the Triple Crown events could be in no more experienced or capable hands than those of Calvert.
"I started in this business in 1929 breaking yearlings, like a lot of kids in those days," Calvert said, "and that winter I came to Hialeah as an exercise boy. A couple years later I started as a jockey. I wasn't the world's greatest rider -- I guess you could say I was competent -- so I tried to learn things as I went along.
"I rode a lot of horses I felt sorry for and said when I get a chance to be a trainer I'll give sore old horses like this a chance."
In 1946 Calvert started training and stuck to this early resolve. "Some people," he said, "think gorses are like automobiles, fill 'em up and give 'em gas and they'll keep running. Well, you can't go top speed 12 months a year. You've got to give horses a lot of tender loving care."
People at every track where Calvert campaigns learn to respect the patience with which he manages his horses. In 1978 he came to Laurel and won with seven of the 10 starters he saddled. This winter at Calder he started 18 horses and won with 11. Calvert obviously handles his horses very judiciously.
While he gives tender loving care to all of them, Calvert had a very special feeling for Superbity from the start. In the three decades that he has worked for owner Frances A. Genter he has trained much of Superbity's family tree.
One of the first top-clas horses Calvert developed was Rough N Tumble. When he went to stud, he sired a filly named My Dear Girl. Calvert said she was the fastest horse he ever trained. My Dear Girl produced In Reality, Calvert's most successful runner, who earned $795,000. Superbity is another of her offspring.
"I'd be high on anything out of My Dear Girl," Calvert conceded, "but Superbity trained exceptionally well. He had the conformation; he had a smart attitude; he had the disposition of a nice horse."
Superbity won his debut at Calder in early December, then steadily improved as he won an allowance race, a minor stake and then the $100,000 Tropical Park Derby. But the Everglades will be his most serious test.
On Wednesday he will face Rockhill Native, last season's 2-year-old champion; and Irish Tower, who destroyed Rockhill Native by a dozen lengths in the recent Bahamas Stakes. If Superbity wins, the nations's 3-year-olds will finally have a clear cut leader, and Calvert's judgment will be fully vindicated.