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Up early to see trainer Charlie Whittingham work Ferdinand. “I’m not saying it’ll be dark,” says Buck Wheat. “But it won’t be light.”
Coming to the 1986 Kentucky Derby this reporter was zeroed in on seeing the famed West Coast trainer Charlie Whittingham, and a horse he was bringing to the Kentucky Derby named Ferdinand. The horse was a son of the English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II, bred and owned by Mr. And Mrs. Howard Keck, who owned a stable that won big races.
We’d heard Whittingham was an early riser, so I asked the Churchill horseman’s representative Buck Wheat what time he thought we should arrive at Whittingham’s barn to see the work.
“Well,” says Buck. “I’m not saying it will be dark. But it won’t be light.”
My racing friend J.D. Raine, who understands morning — and horses — drove us out to the Downs. When we got to Whittingham’s barn it was still pitch black. The shed row lights cast a kind of orangey glow. Charlie and Larry Gilligan, Whittingham’s assistant trainer, were already there, of course, but they were just getting started with Ferdinand — and with a 3-year-old filly named Hidden Light, who is slated to run in the Kentucky Oaks.
Baltimore Sun writer Jack Mann was the only other visitor, and he and Joe and I took up a nearby position. Charlie came over, and graciously laid out the plan for the two horses. “They’ll go over to the grandstand first, and back into the paddock for a few minutes,” said Charlie. “Then they’ll come out and we’ll work ’em. The Shoe will be on Hidden Light and Larry will take Ferdinand.”
That was a surprise. Why, we wondered would “The Shoe,” Bill Shoemaker, not be on Ferdinand. But it was the kind of question a dumb writer doesn’t ask a Hall of Fame trainer, (Hold the questions and just pay attention.)
It was still so dark that instead of watching the workout from the backstretch clockers’ stand, we drove over to the grandstand to see. Clambering up old stairs to a box in the grandstand. About the eighth pole, which is half way down the stretch.
There were only a handful of horses out that early. Guessing it was about 5:45. We didn’t have any trouble catching sight of the pair of horses as they walked in under the grandstand. They were in there for a few minutes, just like Charlie said. Whittingham was too far ahead of the game to be deceptive. Unless needed.
Finally, out they came, sauntering off around the turn and headed for their work. Ferdinand and Gilligan, Hidden Light with Shoemaker. Even with binoculars, the horses faded into dim shapes quickly. But we saw them “break off” into the work at the five-eighths pole and I clicked my watch. With the earliest sunlight just a slight glow in the east, the light was behind the horses as they flew along, not of spec of color. Just black shapes smooth in speed. And of course too far away to hear.
As they turned for home, Shoemaker had Hidden light on the inside fence, with Ferdinand on her shoulder outside. Now they were side by side – and stayed that way a quarter mile to the wire, with every hoof beat striking twice as they sailed by. Shoemaker maybe asking Hidden Light a little. Gilligan motionless on Ferdinand.
As they past the tall finish line pole I clicked my watch and watched them go away around the turn. Finally I looked down. “I must have clicked too soon.” I said to Joe. “57 2/5.”
J.D. held his watch so I could read it — 57 2/5.
Later, Daily Racing Form clockers reported the five furlong times as 58 3/5. So maybe we did click too quick. Or maybe not.
Either way, the work was super fast. A swift clocking for five furlongs will catch a horse at one minute (1:00). That’s averaging 12 seconds for each eighth mile. Shading a minute is fast, but Derby horses do that easily. But 57 2/5 was deep shade. Even 58 3/5 is very fast.
IN later years, I’ve changed my clocking routine, relying on the official clockers times for the entire work, while I just click off the final quarter mile down the Downs stretch. Surprisingly, this is easier accomplished from the backside, because you get a better look at the poles – though tents in the infield obscure much of the lane. The idea is to see if a horse is accelerating as it finishes its work, or slowing down. I’ve also learned that time isn’t as important as finishing strongly, and I like to watch the horse pull up after their work as the glide around to the backside.
Maybe all that is too technical, and trainers will tell you one can’t evaluate a work based on speed alone. And anyone would know this scribe doesn’t know much about clocking horses. Rank amateur.
But Joe and I knew we’d seen something The fact it was Ferdinand, and Whittingham, and Shoemaker would come from last to win the Kentucky Derby four days later. Well that’s what gets anyone out there at the Downs before daylight.
A couple mornings later I visited Whittingham’s barn. This was much later in the morning as Ferdinand was getting a bath after a routine gallop. My friend Martha Moffett was along. Shoemaker came along in street clothes and he and Whittingham were chatting and smiling. As Ferdinand was being dried, his chestnut coat turned from dark bronze, soaked in water, to reddish gold as it dried. Shoemaker walked over and stood by Ferdinand. Then reached up and touched the colt lightly on his face.
“Did you see that?” said Martha, as we walked away. “When Mr. Shoemaker touched Ferdinand it was like they were talking.”
And maybe they were.