The bumper stickers distributed around Gulfstream Park this week read: "Praise the Lord Avie," But with an eighth of a mile to run in today's Hutcheson Stakes, the colt's fans might have had this motto: Pray for Lord Avie.
The champion 2-year-old of 1980 looked hopelessly beaten in his season debut. He didn't seem to be accelerating as he turned into the stretch seven lengths behind front-running Spirited Boy.
It was only in the last 10 strides that the leader weakened and Lord Avie accelerated suddenly. The champion caught him in the last stride, winning the $50,000 event by a head and preserving his status as the long-range favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
But as dramatic as his finish was, Lord Avie's performance was not one of championshiop caliber. His triumph in the Hutcheson may have only postponed the day of reckoning for this colt that bloodstock investors have valued at $10 million or more.
Lord Avie had earned last season's Eclipse Award by winning three straight stakes over moderate opposition at the end of the season. He came to Florida and trained beautifully for trainer Danny Perlsweig. His first start appeared to be a soft touch; his chief rival, Spirited Boy, had never won a stakes race.
Perlsweig was confident as he gave his instructions to jockey Chris McCarron, the substitute for regular rider Jorge Velasquez, who broke his collarbone Tuesday. "Don't rush him," the trainer said. "Give him time to get himself together. And don't be surprised if you're last after an eighth of a mile. Halfway down the backstretch let him start picking up horses and then let him finish."
Rarely do jockeys follow trainers' instructions as perfectly as McCarron followed Perlsweig's. Lord Avie was indeed last after an eighth of a mile. And he did start picking up horses along the backstretch. Meanwhile, Spirited Boy was winging on the lead. He sped the first half-mile in 45 2/5 seconds, opening a six-length lead over longshot What It Is, who was seven lengths in front of the rest of the feild. From that position, Spirited Boy looked invincible.
Lord Avie sped the last eighth of a mile in 12 seconds flat to nail the leader in a photo finish, covering the seven furlongs in 1:23 2/5. Linnleur was another length behind in third place.
Lord Avie's performance permitted widely divergent interpretations. Perlsweig, naturally, was ecstatic.
But the Hutcheson did not reveal any new dimensions to this colt, who never ran especially fast or beat quality rivals last year. He was barely able to win against the weakest field he is likely to face in 1981, and his time was unexceptional. His stretch run looked dazzling because he was catching a faint-hearted front-runner, but he was not greatly outaccelerating Linnleur, a colt with modest credentials.
His abilities will be put to a more serious test when he runs in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 16. Meanwhile, his fans can keep on praising Lord Avie.