Five weeks ago, I did a very smart, crafty thing.
Highland Blade had just won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah, and when I hastily calculated my speed figure for the race, I concluded that he might be one of the best 3-year-olds in America. So I made contact with my Las Vegas connection and managed to get down a bet in the Kentucky Derby future look before the odds had been changed to reflect his victory. The price was 40 to 1.
Last Saturday, when he ran second in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, Highland Blade verified that he is one of the top members of his age group and one of the very few who looks like a legitimate mile-and-a-quarter horse. I would have been sitting in a wonderful position with my 40-to-1 bet except for one small consideration.
Highland Blade is trained by the one horseman in America who isn't consumed by a desire to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, or even to win the Kentucky Derby.
David Whiteley learned his profession as the understudy to his father, who trained great champions like Damascus, Forego and Ruffian. He was imbued with the philosophy that helped make Frank Whiteley so successful: don't get overanxious; don't ask too much of your horses too soon; take the path of least resistance when you can.
David learned this and other lessons so well that he has established himself as one of the best horsemen in America. And so at a time when dozens of horsemen are looking for the faintest possible excuse to enter their horses in America's most famous race, Whiteley announced early this week that Highland Blade would not be coming to Kentucky. I almost cried.
When the Derby favorite, Proud Appeal, looked unimpressive winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Thursday, Highland Blade's chances of success at Churchill Downs seemed even greater. "In view of Proud Appeal's bad race," I asked Whiteley by phone this morning, "have you reconsidered the Derby?"
"I heard he won pretty easily," the trainer said.
"He had to struggle to beat a bunch of bums," I reported. "He ran a mile and an eighth in 1:51 2/5. He doesn't look like a mile-and-a-quarter horse. Your horse does."
"I was a little disappointed by the way he ran in the Wood," Whiteley said. "He only made up three or four lengths on a horse who was winning easily."
"May I offer a rebuttal?" I asked. "The Wood may not have looked great to the naked eye, but the time of the race was tremendous. Highland Blade's speed figure would have been good enough to win last year's Wood and last year's Derby. He lost because the winner, Pleasant Colony, exploded and ran the race of his life. Your horse would have to be one-two-three in that Derby."
"When you go to the Kerby," Whiteley responded, "you can wind up coming out of Post 19 in a 19-horse field. I don't want him to get shut off at the half-mile pole by some maiden and get hurt. Our inclination is to wait for the Preakness."
"But one of the advantages of the big fields in the Derby," I argued, "is that there is so much speed that the race will set up for a stretch-runner like your horse. After they've winnowed out the riff-raff, speed horses seem to have an edge in the Preakness."
"One reason we're inclining toward the Preakness," Whiteley said, "is that we might be pushing our little horse too much to run him back so soon. He runs pretty well running about once a month. He did come out of the Wood pretty well, but we'd rather sit and have our little horse right for the Preakness. I'd hate to squander his future on the first Saturday in May.
"I'd like nothing better than to have a Derby horse, but I'd like to go to the Derby with a horse who's an even-money favorite. This horse would be 3 to I or so."
In Louisville at this moment, there are men who would not only squander their horses' futures but would gladly sell their daughters into white slavery for a chance to finish in the money in the Kentucky Derby. And there are horseplayers holding tickets on Highland Blade at 40 to 1 who ordinarily applaud Whiteley's prudence but think that circumstances justify his taking a little gamble on the Kentucky Derby.