For the past two months, Devil's Bag has been dazzling racing fans with his sheer speed. At Laurel yesterday, he impressed them by showing how slow he can run.
The thoroughbred sport is populated at every level by horses with blinding, uncontrollable speed. But those animals inevitably run into situations when their one-dimensional nature works against them, when they get involved in enervating duels with other habitual front-runners. It happens even to the great speed horses, like Seattle Slew or Dr. Fager.
What Devil's Bag possesses is the most valuable of all equine traits--tractable speed. He is so quick that in his five-race career no rival has ever poked a nose in front of him. But he will deliver that speed in any fashion that jockey Eddie Maple wants.
He showed this virtue in the first quarter-mile of the Laurel Futurity. As he and Ballet Partner raced head and head, they provided a perfect contrast between the two types of speed horses.
Ballet Partner is a sprinter who probably did not belong in this 1 1/16 mile race and trainer Harrison Johnson said in the paddock, "I don't want to hook up with Devil's Bag." He instructed jockey Greg Hutton to try to take him back off the lead. But as Hutton tried to follow orders, Ballet Partner visibly resented the jockey's restraint. He was throwing his head, fighting the rider, dissipating his energy; he wound up finishing 25 lengths behind the winner.
With Ballet Partner at his flank, Devil's Bag might have been expected to be a bit excited himself. "That was as close as a horse has been to him at any time," Maple said. "I was surprised that he didn't show any hesitation or anything. He was just as steady as he's been." Devil's Bag loped along through a quarter-mile in a slow 23 3/5 seconds--the kind of fraction that cheap claiming horses might be expected to run.
That slow quarter probably cost him his chance to break Spectacular Bid's track record. His fractions the rest of the way reflected his even, methodical style of running: 46 2/5, 1:11 2/5, 1:36, 1:42 1/5. The final time was respectable but not nearly as impressive as his last two record-shattering victories in New York, but trainer Woody Stephens was hardly disappointed. "If we get by like this," he said, "We don't need to worry about records." Besides, having trained some rank, unmanageable speed horses in his career, Stephens could appreciate the easy, professional way Devil's Bag scored his 5 1/4-length victory.
"I think he rates just as nice as any horse in the world," Stephens said. In fact, the colt is so maneuverable that the trainer wants to experiment and have Maple take him off the pace. "One of these days," Stephens said, "We'll do just that and find out."
Judging by the way he performed yesterday, Devil's Bag may develop into a horse like Affirmed, who was so versatile that he could always make his own racing luck. In the Kentucky Derby, filled with speed horses, he could stalk the leaders; in his other battles with Alydar, he could take the lead, set a slow pace and make his archrival chase him.
Devil's Bag may have this sort of versatility. And he may, at the same time, possess even more ability and sheer speed than Affirmed. The prospect is exciting to contemplate.