They had fallen into a dispute about polo ponies when the French nobleman grabbed Horatio Luro by the lapels. A well-bred heir to an Argentine horse fortune, Luro took this affront personally. He decked the clown. Next thing you know, the French nobleman whipped a card from his pocket and said to Luro, "You'll hear from me."
Of all the stories you hear Derby Week, seldom do you hear a trainer who once danced the nights away with Lana Turner tell of the time he sent his representative to set up a duel with a French nobleman. This was in the early 1930s in Argentina, long before Horatio Luro became a great trainer who even now, at age 80, might win the Kentucky Derby a third time -- with a colt named Tap Shoes, of whom we'll speak right after the duel.
The duel took place in the country outside Buenos Aires. Because the duelists could not decide which man had been the offended, they flipped a coin for the right to choose weapons. For Luro, this was a happy circumstance, as by winning the flip he deprived the French nobleman of a gun. "He had been shooting lions in Brazil," Luro explained.
Luro selected swords, calling them "more conservative than pistols," and sought out an instructor, who advised him that the blood runs hot in Frenchmen and would cause the nobleman to attack on the run. Luro's strategy, then, was clear. First he would take a shot of brandy. "It was very good, that," Luro said. Then he would play defense and let the passionate Frenchman rush within range of his blade.
"He was so violent that I cut him on the arm and he started to bleed like hell," Luro said. "Of course, they stopped the duel."
The Senor is a dashing figure. He sets his polo cap at a rakish angle. He trims his mustache pencil thin. Either his hair is dyed or it is naturally orange, but in any case he brings to the track an air of elegance. "The Cary Grant of trainers," Jack Klugman calls him.
Of the duel, Luro now sighs and says lightly, "This is just one of those things in life you have to face."
At 80, Horatio Luro has been places and seen things. He twice has won the Derby, setting records with Decidedly in 1962 and Northern Dancer two years later. Bull Hancock, who made Kentucky breeding the standard for the world, called Luro "the best horseman I ever say." Every trainer quotes the Luro maxim on the care of a big horse: "You do not squeeze the lemon dry."
Tap Shoes is Luro's first Derby horse since Northern Dancer. One of the four or five best in what may be a 20-horse stampede Saturday, Tap Shoes has been squeezed hardly at all. He has run only two races. No Derby winner in 34 years came to the first Saturday in May so lightly worked. Because the Keeneland track came up muddy last Thursday, Luro even bypassed the Blue Grass Stakes, a traditional last warmup for the Derby.
Some trainers would sell their first-born before passing up the Blue Grass over the simple fact of a muddy track. They would squeeze the lemon until it screamed. But from his days at his daddy's side in Argentina -- "Unless I go to the track every Sunday, I get no allowance" -- Luro has trained his horses long distances at any easy pace. His first big winner after coming to the United States in 1937 was Princequillo, who could run all day.
So Luro saw Tap Shoes' defection from the Blue Grass as no big deal.
"I would be at a great disadvantage in the mud," Luro said, "because Proud Appeal has a short action with a very special foot for mud. Tap Shoes has a very long action and a flat foot."
When someone outside Barn 40 today asked Luro if he was concerned about missing that last race before the Derby, the old man said, "Not a bit. He was fit before the Bahamas (running third) and fit before the Flamingo (which he won). He still is fit."
With long walks, Luro took a bad case of nerves out of Tap Shoes. To correct the horse's strange running motion -- called "paddling," the motion is akin to a swimmer's butterfly stroke -- Luro changed the angle of Tap Shoes' shoes. He has a public stable of 24 horses, work enough for a man a third his age, and Luro says, "For me, just being alive is a thrill. Many people my age have problems, but I don't have any."
Just in case, though, he bought a home in Miami Beach between two hospitals.
"Within walking distance," he said, smiling against the prospect.
After his father's death in 1937, Luro brought his horses to the U.S. in search of the big-money purses. In Hollywood, he quickly became a figure of celebrity, a fast friend with Bing Crosby, a horse player. Soon enough, Luro had on his arm the likes of Ava Gardner, Loretta Young and Lana Turner. ("Very attractive, Lana was. I took her to South America with me. Hard to control. You could not hold on to her for long. Too much, too much for me." The Senor, in wistful remembrance, lifted an eyebrow of salute.)
He dined with ambassadors and worked for millionairesses, hitting it big with Princequillo, who was owned by Audrey Emery, who in turn owned most of downtown Cincinnati.
How long did he work for Emery?
Luro chuckled devilishly. "Until," he said, "I got a nervous breakdown and went to the Mayo Clinic. Princequillo caused it. He will break down every third day. It was a very difficult mission to get him to the races. He was my only asset, very valuable, and I was worrying about my future. The Mayo Clinic told me to buy a fishing pole and go to Canada and stay there two years."
Luro had other plans. "I sold Princequillo, I liquidated everything I had and I went to Mexico. There, I try to pick a nice, good-looking girl and change my ideas of living. I became more calm. I had been a deep worrier. But no more."
He hasn't fought a duel since the Frenchman. "Here in the United States, it is more civilized." He rolled up a fist. "The action takes place right now." And he smacked the fist against his open hand, laughing.