It was the most dramatic horse race of 1984: Time for a I Change raced the much-acclaimed Devil's Bag into defeat, then outfought Dr. Carter through a furious stretch drive to win the Flamingo Stakes by a neck.
Many who witnessed that memorable battle at Hialeah thought it was just the beginning of a great campaign for the country's Derby-age colts. Instead, it was the high-water mark; the extreme stress of the Flamingo may have taken a toll on all the combatants. None of the principals has won a stakes race since. Devil's Bag was retired with a bone chip in his knee that trainer Woody Stephens contends he suffered in the Flamingo. Time for a Change developed a virus six days after the race, was out for months, and was trounced when he made a comeback attempt in the fall. Dr. Carter came down with a virus, too, that effectively ended his season.
But nearly 11 months after that race, Time for a Change and Dr. Carter finally will have a rematch Saturday in the $125,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.
Dr. Carter has raced three times on the grass this winter, and managed one victory against unexceptional competition. But it's very likely that turf racing is not his game. "I ran him on the grass," trainer Scotty Schulhofer explained, "to get him fit without hurting him. Dr. Carter is the horse to beat in the Donn."
Maybe. But the gray colt has looked so unimpressive on the turf that there is no way to be sure he will return to his old top form on the dirt. At best, his condition is ambiguous.
But there is little ambiguity about Time for a Change, and his return to health and good form is both a triumph and a relief for his astute trainer, Angel Penna.
Penna admitted he was "frustrated and despondent" while Time for a Change was ailing last year and, when the colt returned to training in October, the trainer was put under further pressure. Time for a Change already had been syndicated for $10 million, and the syndicate members had to decide whether to send him to stud or race him in 1985. They asked Penna, and Penna said: Race him.
Time for a Change returned to competition in an allowance race here two weeks ago and drew away to a six-length victory against a respectable field.
"I liked his race very much," Penna said. "It showed he was still the good horse he was before. He was as good inside as he looked on the track."
Time for a Change figures to win what Gulfstream is billing as "The Great Rematch," but there are nine other horses in the Donn field. One of them, the Canadian colt Key to the Moon, could easily spoil the reunion of the two principals.
Key to the Moon's best distance is 1 1/8 miles, the route of the Donn, and yet, in his last start he was able to whip the best sprinters in Florida at seven furlongs. He is sharp and presumably fitter than Time for a Change. Much handicapping logic points to him.
But the Donn is a race in which even hardened gamblers might be affected by sentiment, and hope to see Time for a Change and Dr. Carter battling head and head down the stretch just as they did on that unforgettable day in 1984.