Horse Racing: Clarion Call

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Kentucky Derby has produced more than its share of surprises, but it has never been a happy hunting ground for long-shot bettors. In 1913, a nag named Donerail galloped home at 91 to 1, and in 1940 Gallahadion ran off with all the roses at 35 to 1. Outside of that, only ten times in 92 years has any horse hit the wire rated at more than 10 to 1. So imagine the astonishment at Churchill Downs last week when the Derby winner turned out to be Proud Clarion, a 30-to-l shot that didn't even have a jockey 48 hours before the race. What's more, Proud Clarion ran the mile and a quarter in 2 min. 1/5 sec., third fastest time in history, only 1/5 sec. off the track record—and all in a steady downpour that turned the track to mud.

From his record, Proud Clarion hardly belonged in the same field with the likes of Damascus, winner of the Wood Memorial and this year's 8-to-5 Derby favorite, or with Ruken (2 to 1), winner of the Santa Anita Derby, or Successor (4 to 1), last year's two-year-old champion and the biggest money winner in the field, with $445,829 in total earnings. Proud Clarion, in fact, had never even won a stakes race. As a twoyear-old, he had earned a paltry $805 finishing third in one out of three starts. This year he won a few sprint races and finished second to Diplomat Way, another Derby entrant, in the Blue Grass Stakes, pushing his earnings to $14,060. But what the big bay did have —and what the handicappers overlooked—were good blood lines and a trainer with roses in his past. Sired by Hail to Reason, a onetime two-year-old champion, Proud Clarion was trained by Loyd Gentry for John W. Galbreath, whose Chateaugay won the 1963 Derby, and whose Graustark was rated one of the top thoroughbreds of 1966 until he broke down before last year's Derby.

Settling into Stride. For a jockey, Gentry and Galbreath eventually signed Bobby Ussery, 32, winner of more than 3,000 races in a 16-year career and veteran of four previous Derby tries. "Let him settle into his stride before you make your move," Gentry told Ussery. It seemed like useless advice. On the first turn, Proud Clarion was buried in the pack, and Ussery's face was spattered with mud as Barbs Delight fought Damascus for the lead. In the backstretch, Ussery moved to the outside, eased in behind the leaders—and waited. Then, coming into the homestretch, said Ussery, "I hit him three or four times." With a burst, Proud Clarion drove between Damascus and Diplomat Way, past Barbs Delight, and raced on to win by a length. Afterward, Trainer Gentry allowed as how Proud Clarion had been improving so fast that he thought the colt might be a sleeper. He still sounded like the most surprised man in Kentucky. "Just think," he said, "a month ago I was just coming up to the Derby with a horse that hadn't even won a race at the age of two."