His head bowed disconsolately, Danny Wright was walking back to the jockeys' room after the Maryland Juvenile Championship when he met trainer Richard Small. Neither man had to say anything -- both knew how miserable the other had to feel -- but Small patted Wright on the head, anyway, and said, "It's all right."
The trainer may be a future candidate for sainthood. Most members of his profession would have been less philosophical about losing a $100,000 race because the jockey blew it.
Small knew, however, that his filly, Bug Eyed Betty, had proved something in defeat that he had suspected for the past few months: she is an exceptionally talented racehorse, one of the best 2-year-old fillies in the country. And her dramatic running style makes her one of the most exciting horses to come along in Maryland in recent years.
Obviously, she needed a lot of character just to overcome a name like Bug Eyed Betty. The filly was bred by prominent New York horseman Sidney Watters but didn't have the pedigree to merit a place in his barn at Belmont Park. Small is Watters' nephew, and he helped arrange a sale of the filly to Tom Bateman of Ashland, Va.
When she went to a farm to be broken, the yearling was such a wild-eyed hellion that she got the nickname Bug Eyed Betty. Small had no intention of calling her that officially; he submitted a number of classy, intelligent names to the Jockey Club, and they were all turned down. "When she was ready to run," Small said, "we still didn't have a name, and we were desperate for one that would be approved."
The filly began her career by running the way an animal named Bug Eyed Betty might be expected to: she lost her first two starts by a total of 44 lengths. But Small drastically reassessed her ability after a maiden-claiming race at Bowie in June.
"It was a five-furlong race," the trainer said, "and she was dead last with a quarter mile to go. She blew by them all. I know it wasn't a good field, but horses don't quit going five-eighths. I've never seen a horse do what she did that day."
Bug Eyed Betty's form was erratic after that victory, but it was apparent from her stretch-running style that she would be more effective when she could run longer distances. In her last three starts, she has finally had the chance to go seven furlongs, one mile and 1 1/16 miles, and each performance has been more impressive than the last.
On Nov. 3, in the City of Laurel Stakes, she came from 17 lengths behind and lost by only a length to Toes Knows. The winner then went to the Meadowlands and beat a strong stakes field by eight lengths.
On Nov. 17, Bug Eyed Betty took on Cosmic Tiger, who had just finished a good third in the $246,000 Selima Stakes. Cosmic Tiger seemed to have all the advantages that day. She was a front-runner who figured to set her own comfortable pace. She did just that, and opened a five-length lead on the final turn, but Bug Eyed Betty came from last place and caught the leader with an explosive finish.
Small had forgotten until about a week before the race that Bug Eyed Betty was nominated for the Maryland Juvenile Championship. "I usually don't run fillies against colts, and I had no intention of running until the last minute," he said. "But I was pretty darned confident that she could win."
Because Small waited so late, his regular jockey, Vince Bracciale, was committed to an assignment out of town. The trainer gave the mount to Wright because he had ridden the filly before. "I picked him because he knew that she has another gear," Small said. "I could talk to other jockeys for an hour and they still wouldn't know what she could do, wouldn't know that gear was there."
Bug Eyed Betty was lagging near the rear of the pack while five of her male rivals battled for the early lead. She started to advance on the backstretch, and on the turn she shifted into that extra gear Small talked about. She accelerated so fast her rivals (even Miracle Wood, who was rallying well himself) looked as if they were in slow motion. It was the kind of move that racing fans think of when they remember horses like Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony or Bates Motel. It wasn't something anyone would ever expect to see from a humbly bred 2-year-old filly.
When Wright shifted gears, unfortunately, he was steering his vehicle into a wall of horses. He had to put on the brakes just as Bug Eyed Betty was reaching top speed. He looked for another opening in the pack, and it closed on him again just as he was trying to get through. When he did get clear, Bug Eyed Betty moved strongly again to collar Miracle Wood, but all her difficulties eventually took their toll. After a long stretch drive, she lost by a nose.
Small knows that these small traumas are an inescapable part of the game, and that a trainer must take them in stride. He knows another of the game's pitfalls, too: "Doing what I do for a living," he said, "it's an occupational hazard to get too enthusiastic, to think a horse is better than he actually is."
This is one time the trainer is entitled to be enthusiastic.