This Kentucky Derby is crazy. With each passing hour today, it grew curiouser and curiouser. At 10 this morning, a circuit court judge ordered Churchill Downs to add a 21st horse, one over the track's self-imposed limit. By afternoon, Churchill Downs lost again in an appeals court. At 6 o'clock, track president Lynn Stone said the hell with it, anything with four feet can run for the roses.
Good. The charm of the Derby is its democracy. The winner of the '24 Derby was the fulfillment of a deathbed wish; a farmer in Iowa worked his horse in snowdrifts training for the '51 Derby; a cowboy from the Nevada desert brought a plug that ran in U-turns, and the best story here this week has been the dream of hometown guy Freddie Wirth, who ripped his pants climbing over the back fence to see his first Derby in '39.
At last, after 42 years as a jockey and trainer, Freddie Wirth had his first Derby horse, Mythical Ruler. Because of the 20-horse limit, he was shut out -- until somebody found a loophole that made the Derby safe for democracy for one last year.
They all can run. Goats and cows, semiambulatory yaks and escapees from merry-go-rounds can run. To judge by Lynn Stone's haggard countenance as he stood before the press explaining how his track botched this one good, the president wouldn't much care if Trigger, stuffed and mounted, was whisked past the twin spires in a golf cart.
"I apologize to the public," Stone said after a bewildering 19 hours that began at 11 p.m. Thursday when Churchill Downs was notified that Flying Nashua's poeple were filing suit to run in the Derby.
Along with Mythical Ruler and Law Me, Flying Nashua was left out of the Derby when 23 horses were entered. After a 23-horse stampede in the 100th Derby in '74, Churchill Downs decided it needed an escape batch against the day when every 3-year-old in America showed up here the first Saturday in May. So the track decided, as a condition of the race, it would accept only the 20 leading money-winners.
One angry owner quickly exposed a flaw in the condition. Ulf Jensen, a vascular surgeon from Newport Beach, Calif., screamed when a surprise entry, the filly Wayward Pass, bumped his colt to 21st on the money list. Where Freddie Wirth was disposed to take his disappointment stoically -- "Maybe God just doesn't want me in the Derby" -- what an angry doctor does is call a flashy lawyer.
The Louisville lawyer, Edward (Ned) Bonnie, is a veteran Kentucky horseman who worked on the defense team for Dancer's Image in the 1968 Butazolidin disqualification case. With his Kentucky rule book in hand, Bonnie pointed out to the circuit court judge Chapter 13, Section 5 of the racing rules.
"In no case (the rule goes) may two horses having common ties through ownership start in a race to the exclusion of a single interest."
Well, Perry Mason could do no better, for that single sentence Bonnie rendered inoperative Churchill Downs' 20-horse limit when the field includes an entry -- that is, two horses owned by the same people. In this instance, the field included two entries. And when the judge said the Downs had to allow Flying Nashua in the race, here came Mythical Ruler's people no longer accepting their disappointment as an act of God.
By then then the Kentucky Court of Appeals was about to turn down the track's attempt to reverse the circuit court ruling. Seeing defeat again, Churchill Downs caved in. Everybody could run, all 23 of them if they wanted to. Only Law Me chose to sit it out, owner Ed Whittaker saying he knew the rules when he entered and would abide by them.
The Derby still needs its 20-horse limit, because a race with more horses is not only unfair but dangerous. The condition will be rewritten, perhaps to force an owern to choose between his entry horses. The money list is not a good idea, either, as demonstrated by the presence here of Habano, who won more than $200,000 in Mexico and not a dime in legitimate competition north of the border. In two races in the U.S., Habano has beaten a total of two horses, but here he is in the Derby, taking a spot that should be available to -- well, to Freddie Wirth.
Wirth is a Derby dreamer, as hundreds have been. The sentinels of the thoroughbred faith kept the Iowa farmhorse, Gift Silver, out of the Derby, as they rejected One Eyed Tom, the Nevada outlaw who the first time he broke from the gate made a U-turn and ran behind the gate. It was Al Hoots who, dying, spoke of a dream that his pet mare, Useeit, would breed a Derby winner -- and she produced Black Gold five years later.
Now comes Freddie Wirth, who caught holy heck from his momma for tearing up his pants in '39. Two or three times he passed up sending his horses to the Derby. He didn't want to run just to run. The Derby meant too much to him to despoil it.
But with Mythical Ruler, Wirth believed it was time to be part of the beauty that is Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May. Six times in eight races, it has won. Because he won only $71,000, though, Mythical Ruler was crowded out of the race even after winning Churchill Downs' own prep race, the Stepping Stone.
"My horse has never been asked to run yet," said Wirth on a day when he believed he wouldn't get in the Derby. "When we won the Stepping Stone, I told the rider to win it and win it easy -- or don't win it. We have never hit this horse with a whip. We were bringing him up to the Derby."
Wearing a fraying out sweatshirt, Wirth sat in his tack room, his leathery face impassive. "And he can win the Derby," the little man said. "Or we wouldn't even want to run him."
Dreams are all right, for one more year.