Of the two favorites in the Derby Trial Stakes today, one was a colt whose management this year has been stunningly inept and indecisive. The other was a colt who has been trained with intelligence and foresight.
The ill-trained horse, Star Gallant, finished a neck in front of the well-managed horse, Royal Roberto, as both of them were upset by Listcapade, a 56-to-1 shot who wasn't even nominated for the Derby. But handicappers looking for the winner at Churchill Downs on Saturday shouldn't take the relative finish of the horses too literally.
In fact, Star Gallant's credibility as a serious Derby contender was destroyed when he faded in the stretch and lost by 1 1/4 lengths; Royal Roberto's credentials were enhanced when he rallied to finish only another neck farther behind. In the Derby, which more than any other race in America rewards long-range planning, the relative performance of the two horses will be much different.
Star Gallant is endowed with more sheer speed than any member of his generation; he showed that again today when he ran the first half-mile of the Trial in 45 seconds flat, while under considerable restraint. But horsemen who watched him train in Florida this winter thought trainer Lenny Imperio was not laying a proper foundation for the distances races that lay ahead of him. When Star Gallant ran 1 1/8 miles for the only time in the Florida Derby, and suffered the only defeat of his life, he seemed to confirm that impression.
It was logical to give Star Gallant another 1 1/8-mile race to prepare him for the Kentucky Derby, so Imperio and owner Moustafa Fustok decided to ship him to New York for the Wood Memorial Stakes. When they got there, however, they changed their minds and announced that they would go to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes. Two days later they scrapped that plan and decided to run in the Trial, though the last thing Star Gallant seemed to need was a speed-sharpening mile race like today's.
Why all this indecision? Why the trip to New York? "He likes airplanes," Imperio said. In fact, Fustok--who runs the American branch of his brother Mahmoud's global racing operation--seems to be calling the shots as much as Imperio, and thus has the horse's campaign looked as if it has been mapped out by an indecisive committee.
If Imperio and Fustok don't seem to know what they want to do from one day to the next, trainer Jimmy Iselin has had as clear-eyed a vision of what he wants to do with Royal Roberto as he has of his own life.
His father Philip Iselin was president of Monmouth Park and the New York Jets, but he wanted Jimmy to go into the family business, a company that manufactured clothing for large-sized women. The son had other ideas.
"I always loved horses," Iselin said. "My parents wanted me to learn tennis and golf; I just wanted to go to the track. They sent me to Lawrenceville, but I was always running out to get the Racing Form every day and I got thrown out. One day a friend said, 'I've got a horse; you know a lot; would you train him?' That was the beginning of the end. When the horse won a race, my father told a friend, 'The worst thing in the world just happened; Jimmy's horse won at Aqueduct.' "
The father's forebodings were correct. Jimmy Iselin kept working in the apparel business for a while, but he recalled, "One hot day when the asphalt would stick to your feet, and our air-conditioning wasn't working, and the union was giving us trouble, I called my father and said, 'Dad, I've made a decision. I'm going into the horse business.' "
That was six years ago, and Iselin has not regretted it for a moment. "There's nothing I can do well except this," he said. "I didn't have the instincts to go for the jugular that you need in business, but you can blindfold me and have me feel 40 horses' legs and I'll tell you who they are."
In the short time he has been training, Iselin already has established a reputation as a capable, judicious handler of horses. Royal Roberto could cement that reputation.
When he started training Royal Roberto a year ago, Iselin said, "There were three horses we related him to--Forego, Little Current and Kelso." All three were big, long-striding horses who matured late. So instead of asking the colt to produce early in his career, he envisioned all his races until now as educational experiences to prepare him for one long-range objective that is now at hand: the Kentucky Derby.
Royal Roberto did give racing fans a glimpse of his potential when he made a strong stretch run to win the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah in February. He hasn't won a race since, but to Iselin he is on schedule. "The final phase of his preparation started with the Florida Derby," the trainer said. "We weren't really interested in winning that, and he finished fourth. Because Royal Roberto wants his races close together, we decided on the Forerunner and the Trial."
Nine days ago, in the seven-furlong Forerunner Purse at Keeneland, Royal Roberto rallied to finish a half-length behind Linkage, who likely is the best 3-year-old in America. Before today's race he said, "He may get beat; I don't care. He may be third or fourth. But he'll come running at the end."
Royal Roberto fulfilled this prophecy perfectly. Jockey Miguel Rivera had him eighth after a half-mile, a dozen lengths behind Star Gallant, moved up along the inside on the turn, and finished well, though he had spotted the leaders too much ground to catch them.
Today Royal Roberto is right where Iselin wants him. Imperio probably has realized that a colt who fades at a mile is not ready to go 1 1/4 miles. But it is too late for him to do anything about it.