At this time of year, the racing world is always preoccupied by 3-year-olds and the prospects for the Kentucky Derby. Countless horses will be hyped as up-and-coming stars, despite the overwhelming evidence that the whole generation is dreadfully mediocre.
But there may be a genuinely brilliant horse ready to burst onto the American racing scene. The only trouble is that he is getting around to it a year too late to receive the attention he deserves.
Turkoman, a late-blooming 4-year-old, has been compared lately with such legends as Whirlaway and Silky Sullivan. He will have the chance to show if he merits these accolades when he faces a superb field in the historic Widener Handicap at Hialeah Park Saturday.
Turkoman finished third in the Breeders' Cup last November, and might have won the $3 million event with better luck. But since that time he hasn't needed luck; he has been overpowering.
In the Affirmed Stakes at Hollywood Park, Turkoman trailed by 10 lengths on the final turn, while a formidable rival named Banner Bob was cruising comfortably on the lead. But Turkoman erupted in the stretch and flew past the front-runner, running a mile in 1:34 1/5. It was the kind of move that is rarely seen on the speed-favoring California tracks.
The kind of move he made at Hialeah two weeks ago has rarely been seen anywhere. Trainer Gary Jones entered Turkoman in the six-furlong Tallahassee Handicap as a prep for the Widener, with little expectation of winning.
With a quarter mile to go, Turkoman seemed to have no chance whatsoever, trailing the leader by 15 lengths. But he flew past the entire field in the stretch, winning in 1:08 1/5, and then galloped out another quarter mile. Clockers could hardly believe their stopwatches when he was done. Turkoman had galloped the mile in 1:32 3/5, two-fifths of a second off the world record.
Horses endowed with such brilliance usually show it early in their lives -- early enough, as a rule, to make an impact in the Triple Crown races. Where has Turkoman been?
"Actually," trainer Gary Jones said yesterday morning, "this horse has always been a good one, physically. I told the owner before he ever ran that this was going to be a very, very good horse going a distance. But he was slow developing mentally. He kept making mistakes. Every race where he got beat, he had an excuse. I must have tried every type of equipment on him, but finally I took all the garbage off. It was just a matter of his maturing."
Even so, Turkoman's talent might have remained hidden if the colt had stayed in California. On the rock-hard western tracks, come-from-behind horses don't usually fare well. "When we came to Saratoga for the Travers, we found out that he likes the deeper eastern tracks," Jones said. "I'm a western trainer with an eastern horse."
Turkoman will feel at home at Hialeah, but he still has to prove that he can beat the caliber of horses he will face in the Widener. Turkoman has still never finished first in a major stake. On Saturday, he will be facing such established stars as Proud Truth, the winner of the Breeders' Cup; Creme Fraiche, the winner of last year's Belmont Stakes, and Gate Dancer, the richest horse in training, with earnings of $2.4 million
"He's still got to show he can do it," Jones said, "but I think he can. I think he's right on the verge of proving just how good he is. That's why we're here."