At age 54, Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby aboard Ferdinand today, but even more amazing than this geriatric milestone was the way he did it. On a colt who figured to have little chance, and who might not even have been the best in the race, he outrode some of the top current stars of his profession.
He looked like the Shoe of the 1950s as he drove the California-based colt to a 2 1/4-length victory over the English invader Bold Arrangement, with Maryland-bred Broad Brush third. The favorite, Snow Chief, faded to finish 11th.
But while Ferdinand was getting the benefit of Shoemaker's legendary finesse, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers were being annihilated by bad racing luck. Pat Day, the champion jockey who rode Rampage, said matter-of-factly: "I was on the best horse today, I believe." Jorge Velasquez could justifiably have said the same thing about Badger Land.
Only the romanticists who believe in miracles could have seen this, for the oldest previous Derby winner had been Angel Cordero last year at 42 and Shoemaker is long past his prime. It had been 21 years since he scored his third Derby victory aboard Lucky Debonair, 29 years since he made another kind of history when he misjudged the finish line and blew the Derby with Gallant Man.
Ferdinand had won only one minor stakes race before today, and the only reason he commanded some respect was not Shoemaker but another senior citizen, Charlie Whittingham. The 73-year-old trainer has won more stakes than any other member of his profession in history, but he has a well-known antipathy to the Derby. He had not brought a horse to the Derby since 1960. But all year he kept insisting -- despite apparent evidence to the contrary -- that Ferdinand was a Derby horse.
Whittingham thought the regally bred son of Nijinsky II had the stamina and the right stretch-running style for this race. And, indeed, the 112th Derby -- and the richest running with a $784,400 purse -- developed in a way for Ferdinand to use his assets to maximum advantage. He came from last place after the leaders set an extremely fast (and destructive) pace.
Ferdinand broke sharply from his No. 1 post position, but as the horses on the outside converged toward the rail, Shoemaker said, "They ran me into the fence. I got pushed back a lot farther than I wanted to be."
But Shoemaker was far more fortunate at the break than the veteran Velasquez, aboard the 5-to-2 second choice, Badger Land. Bumped and squeezed as the gate opened, Badger Land found himself last in the 16-horse field after one-sixteenth of a mile.
"I got killed out of the gate," the jockey said. "I was lucky not to go down. I was in serious trouble." Velasquez had to move widest in the pack to get any running room, and his troubles were only beginning.
Up front, the Derby was developing as almost everyone had expected. Groovy was setting the pace, while Snow Chief was fourth, in perfect striking position. But the 2-to-1 favorite had to run hard to get into this good spot. Groovy was equalling the fastest half-mile in Derby history -- :45 1/5. (He wound up losing by nearly 50 lengths).
As the field approached the final turn, Snow Chief moved strongly to challenge the front-runners and, for a few fleeting moments, many in the crowd of 123,8l9 may have thought he was going to take command. But suddenly a flock of contenders moved into high gear behind him.
Broad Brush surged outside Snow Chief and briefly got the lead. Bold Arrangement, who had come seeking to win this Derby and the English Derby back to back, was accelerating five-wide. And Badger Land, who looked strongest of all, was moving six-wide. "I still thought he could do it," Velasquez said.
Behind these three were two other strong horses -- Ferdinand and Rampage. Shoemaker had gotten there with a characteristically patient ride. He had allowed Ferdinand to drop back to last after a half-mile, and he was content to advance gradually along the backstretch. Knowing the colt has a tendency to loaf when he gets to the lead, he said, "I didn't want to get to the front too quick." And given the hot pace -- the field went the first six furlongs in 1:10 1/5 -- moving too soon would have been suicidal anyway.
As the field neared the stretch, Ferdinand and Rampage were rallying alongside each other. Day was on the inside, and he tried to get through on the rail. "As soon as I moved inside," he said, "they closed the hole on me."
Stopped cold, Day had to ease Rampage to the middle of the track before he could start moving again. "He was going fastest of all at the end," Day said.
Because Day was inside him, Shoemaker had to move outside, and he momentarily had a wall of strong horses in front -- Broad Brush, Bold Arrangement and Badger Land. But as Broad Brush drifted a bit wide, Ferdinand suddenly found plenty of room between him and tiring Snow Chief. Then he angled to the rail, drove inside Bold Arrangement to take the lead in midstretch and drew away to cover the 1 1/4 miles in a moderate 2:02 4/5. He returned $37.40.
Ferdinand, who is owned by Elizabeth Keck and was bred by her husband, Howard, had faced Badger Land and Snow Chief in West Coast stakes several times this winter, and never had been able to beat them. When he finished seven lengths behind Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby, Ferdinand seemed to prove he wasn't in the class of the top 3-year-olds.
But Whittingham was undeterred. "Maybe," he said this week, "you get foolish when you get older." He never wavered from his conviction that Ferdinand was a Derby horse, or from his belief that the right jockey for him was the 54-year-old Shoemaker. As a result, he created one of the most memorable chapters of Derby history, while the woes of the other colts who might have won this race quickly will be forgotten footnotes.