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New Derby Contender Bubbles Up at Hot Springs -- but it's not the one you think

The phone rang. It was Clarence calling from Hot Springs.

“He run big, didn’t he, Doolittle?” says Clarence.

“That he did, Clarence. That he did. I got him bumped right up to the top of my Kentucky Derby ratings … Though not right on top, of course.

“Well, for God-sakes don’t put him out!” Clarence yelps. “We’re not done cashing on this horse.”

“Don’t worry, Clarence. Nobody listens to anything about horse racing during basketball season. And when they do hear something, it’s all the media-hype horses. Todd Pletcher’s latest Wonder Horse, and all that. If this horse keeps running we’ll get plenty of price.”

“I probably shouldn’t have told you about him.”

“Clarence. I told YOU about him.”

“Only because I taught you everything you know.”

“Uh-huh.”

Clarence isn’t my pal’s real name. The banks and some financial agencies have Clarence listed under an entirely different moniker. But on the turf, everybody knows Clarence as Clarence, named after an old-time trainer named Clarence Breedlove, though nobody knows why. Clarence is a sometime jockey’s agent, and a full-time source of information about the races. Sometimes good information. Of course, sometimes not. But on this day Clarence has landed on the right horse, and so have I.

Anyhow, Clarence calls about ten minutes after we hit the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It’s Saturday, Mar. 19, seven weeks to the Kentucky Derby, and this is the first Derby prep I’ve cashed on all spring. Gives you a little lift. Hopping on the Traveling Circus of Horse Racing – headed for Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.

The Rebel used to be a minor local prep for the Arkansas Derby -- far from the spotlight action at Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita Park in California. A local event for local people and local horses. At least it used to be local. Now the Rebel carries a purse of $900,000, with 50 qualifying points toward a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby. A year ago the Rebel was won by none other than American Pharoah.

And on this March Saturday, Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert is back at Oaklawn with a horse named Cupid, who gets off at 3-1 and wins the Rebel Stakes wire-to-wire. Looked pretty good, too. Gray horse. Cost $900,000 at the Keeneland Yearling sale. Big international owners and all that.

But it isn’t Cupid we’re talking about. What has Clarence and me bubbling is we figure all the headlines will be about Cupid. And how Cupig is four-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert’s latest Derby hopeful. Cupid this. Cupid that. “Stupid Cupid,” the Connie Francis song.

But we like the horse that finished second -- Whitmore.

The fact we both cashed the $45 exacta by coupling Whitmore with the speed horse Cupid contributes immensely to the joy of the occasion. I also caught the $118 trifecta, with a horse named Creator coming along third. A good day at the windows – and an especially good day for Whitmore, showing that he does, indeed, belong. The fact he couldn’t catch Stupid Cupid going 1 1/16th miles doesn’t mean a thing. They’ll all be going 1 1/8th miles next, and Whitmore might get a better post position than post 10. Saturday he was stuck out on the outside and forced to weave his way through a pack of land terrapins to almost catch Cupid. A nice, smooth ride by Irad Ortiz Jr., the top young New York jock who flew out to Arkansas for the mount. Ron Moquett trains for owners Robert LaPenta, Harry Rosenbaum and Southern Springs Stable.

The good news on Whitmore is he’s by Pleasantly Perfect, a straight-line descendent of stamina sire Ribot. The bad news is he’s out of a mare with a double dose of Cat. So we’ll see.

From what I could see on TV, Whitmore is a bronzy chestnut, not tall or small. And definitely not big in the butt like so many sprinters. Kind of longer, and very smooth-striding when he came out of the pack and made his run. Ortiz seemed to be able to steer him where the horse needed to go next.

Power of signature

Another nice thing about Whitmore is you won’t hear much about him, because few saw him run in the Rebel.

The race went off while Indiana University and the University of Kentucky were locked in a death duel in the final minutes of an NCAA tournament basketball game in Des Moines. Can you imagine going into the Two Keys Tavern in Lexington and asking if they could turn the channel over to the horse race for a few minutes? Of course there might not have been much resistance a few minutes after the Hoosiers dropped the Big Blue, when CBS analyst Charles Barkley was saying, “Kentucky doesn’t have McDonald’s All-Americans. Its players eat at McDonalds.”

Clarence thought that was pretty funny, when I relayed the comment over the phone. He couldn’t hear Barkley on the TV at the bar he was attending at the track.

“Listen Doolittle, before you go. I hear you got a new Kentucky Derby book out. Why don’t you ship me a crate.”

“Well, Clarence, you can buy the books on line at KyDerbyBook.com.”

“I was thinking you could … uh, maybe cut through some of the red tape.”

“You mean free.”

“On consignment might be a better term,” says Clarence. “I can kite ‘em up pretty good down here and we’ll both make a little stake. I’ll just sell ‘em as autographed editions and run the price up. Probably get Baffert and Penny Chenery to sign, and D. Wayne. Maybe Shug and Eddie Arcaro …”

“Whoa, whoa, Clarence. In the first place Arcaro died twenty years ago, and all these other people are scattered all over the country. How you going to get their signatures?

“Oh, I got kind of what you call ‘Power of Signature’ for everybody. Won’t be a problem. And I always signed for Arcaro.”

“I seem to remember something about some checks down in Miami.”

“Just a mix-up, that was all. And the statue has run out on that … Hey, you know maybe I’ll get the books signed by American Pharoah. You got him on the cover, I hear. Now there’s an idea! Get an ink pad, and a horse shoe …”

“Sounds very authentic. OK, Clarence, I’ll send you a carton of books, and I’ll sign them myself to get you started.”

“Don’t worry about signing, I’ll take care of it. You still dot your i’s with those little hearts, don’t you?”

“Very funny.”

 


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