As Mighty Appealing trained for the start of his 3-year-old season here this winter, newspapers and press releases were filled with glowing accounts of his progress. The Daily Racing Form said his preparation had been "brilliant." Trainer Dean Gaudet said her colt was in razor-sharp condition.
Jim Milner knew otherwise. For weeks, the veteran clocker had wielded his stopwatch, his binoculars and his tape recorder and given Mighty Appealing the same careful scrutiny that he gives to all the horses who train at Gulfstream Park. When Mighty Appealing went to the post as the favorite in his first start of the year, Milner declared, "He has no chance."
His assessment was dead right. Mighty Appealing promptly lost all credibility as a Kentucky Derby contender. And now Milner is developing similarly strong convictions about the most prominent member of this 3-year-old generation, the Eclipse Award-winner Chief's Crown.
The famed turn-of-the-century gambler known as Pittsburgh Phil once likened the role of the clocker to that of a scout in the army. Milner sees himself as part spy, part detective, part clerical worker. He spends an enormous amount of energy learning the identity of the animals he sees on the track each morning. And he has spent a lifetime learning what is important and what is illusory in horses' training.
"It's like watching a bunch of guys come out for a football team; some are obvious athletes and some are uncoordinated. You find the athletes and you look for the ones who've got the right mental attitude.
"When you watch them work," Milner said, "you have to know the horses' background, what they've done before. If a horse gets very tired after a work, it may be because the trainer wants him to in order to get him fit. But eventually he'll give you a definitive, evaluation-type workout.
"To judge him, you look at what he does on the stopwatch. You look to see how much left he has when he finishes. You look to see if the horse is still eager when the boy pulls him up. You have to take into account the condition of the track and the weight he carries; it can vary as much as 50 pounds. But the most important thing of all is the manner in which he works. Any horse with talent can work reasonably fast, but you want to see them do it effortlessly or do it with style."
Milner never saw any style from Mighty Appealing in the morning. "The first day he was here, he went off with no vigor or verve or enthusiasm," the clocker said. "He was laboring; he was an unhappy horse. When he had his definitive work, he worked with a maiden, and I'm sure they expected Mighty Appealing to zip past him. But he was laboring. At no time this winter did I ever give this horse a chance."
Milner's evaluation was deadly accurate, and now he is watching Chief's Crown with similar interest. Like Mighty Appealing, the champion colt had a physical setback at the start of the winter, but now he has embarked on serious training and he is making headlines in the Daily Racing Form. Earlier in the week, he worked five furlongs in 59 seconds, suggesting that he is now getting fit.
But the clocking fraternity has a far different impression of the long-range Kentucky Derby favorite. Milner had never seen Chief's Crown before this winter, and one morning an infirm-looking colt came onto the track who was obviously from trainer Roger Laurin's stable. "You don't suppose that's the good horse," Milner joked.
It was. And from that moment, the clocker hasn't liked what he has seen. "Chief's Crown's yoke is repeatedly lathered," Milner said. "That probably comes from pain and fear; he doesn't want to extend himself. When he worked that five furlongs the other day, he went with a another horse, and he edged away with (jockey Don) MacBeth prompting him with a vigorous hand ride. When he passed the wire, he pulled up abruptly. His action was saying, 'Thank God, it's over!' To me it was extremely unimpressive."
A lot can happen between now and the first Saturday in May. Chief's Crown could, of course, recapture his 2-year-old brilliance. But at least racing fans should know that when they read headlines saying things like "Chief's Crown Sizzles" they should view those reports with a measure of skepticism.