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This Old Shoe May Still Have Life : ‘If Nicklaus Can Win the Masters, I Can Win the Derby’

Times Staff Writer

In 1965, the year he won his third and last Kentucky Derby, Bill Shoemaker pulled a Walter Hagen. When Churchill Downs runs the 112th Derby this Saturday, Shoemaker, 54, hopes to do a Jack Nicklaus.

Shoemaker won the 1965 Derby aboard Lucky Debonair. A few days before the race, Shoemaker was attending a Derby party in a tuxedo.

At about 4:30 in the morning, a friend--whom Shoemaker won’t identify--suggested that they go to Churchill Downs to work a horse who wasn’t running in the Derby.

At the track, Shoemaker took off his dinner jacket, but that was all. In fancy white shirt, suspenders, striped pants and size 1 patent-leather shoes, he hopped on the horse and took him for a spin around the track.

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“It was cold, about 30 degrees, I guess,” Shoemaker said. “We froze our butts off. And you couldn’t see a thing. You couldn’t see from here to there.”

The legendary Walter Hagen used to go from formal dinner parties to the golf course, change clothes and win tournament matches.

In those days of match play, Hagen would frequently rally on the back nine to win. Once asked at the end of the round why he hadn’t played as well on the front nine, Hagen reportedly said: “I don’t even remember the front nine.”

Shoemaker’s mount in Saturday’s Derby is Ferdinand, a well bred, good-looking chestnut. Ferdinand has not beaten Snow Chief, the Derby favorite, in two tries, but he is given a chance because of a late-running style in a race that requires the rivals to run 1 miles for the first time.

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“This might be the year for old-timers,” Shoemaker said Tuesday. “If Nicklaus (at 46) can win the Masters, I can win the Derby.”

Shoemaker has ridden in 23 Derbies, which puts him two up on Eddie Arcaro and far ahead of anybody else. Of the jockeys riding this year, Laffit Pincay has the next-most Derby experience, having ridden in the race 12 times. Pincay will ride the speedy Groovy on Saturday.

Shoemaker’s first Derby win was with Swaps in 1955 and he repeated aboard Tomy Lee in 1959. Since winning with Lucky Debonair, Shoemaker has ridden in nine non-winning Derbies, his best finish a second with Avatar in 1975.

Charlie Whittingham, who trains Ferdinand for Elizabeth and Howard Keck of Bel Air, is also an old-timer and a man who wouldn’t be at the Derby if he didn’t think he had a chance.

Whittingham, 73, has had more than 40 horses who have won major stakes, but he has never won the Derby, having started in only two. Gone Fishin’ ran eighth in 1958, and Divine Comedy finished ninth two years later.

“It won’t kill me if I don’t win again,” Whittingham said. “I haven’t done it yet and I’m still breathing. Of course it’d be a different story if I was from Kentucky. I’d probably have shot myself by now.”

Whittingham has resisted coming to the Derby with other horses because he believes that it takes too much out of them.

“If you don’t get nothin’ here, then you go home with a tired horse and don’t get nothin’ there, either,” Whittingham said. “That’s two nothin’s, and that ain’t very good.”

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In two races against Snow Chief, Ferdinand finished third in both the Hollywood Futurity last December and the Santa Anita Derby April 6. The victorious Snow Chief beat Whittingham’s colt by 6 1/2 lengths at Hollwood Park and by 7 lengths at Santa Anita, where the trainer thought a slick track hurt Ferdinand. Weather forecasts indicate a good chance for a fast track Saturday.

Ferdinand has hurt Ferdinand in several of his races. The son of Nijinsky II, whose sire, Northern Dancer, won the 1964 Derby, has tried to pull himself up when he gets the lead.

For that reason, Whittingham has worked Ferdinand in company with the filly, Hidden Light, at Churchill Downs. Hidden Light, who will also be ridden by Shoemaker as the favorite Friday in the Kentucky Oaks, has been put on the lead in these workouts, with Ferdinand being asked to overtake her.

On Tuesday, Ferdinand ran the final furlong in a blazing :11 1/5, covering five-eighths of a mile in :58 3/5. Hidden Light was clocked in :59.

“I think he’s been better here than at any time this year,” Shoemaker said. “He hasn’t been goofing off like he’s done in some of his races. But this is the toughest race in the Triple Crown to win, mainly because you’re usually up against such a large field.”

Whittingham has plenty of respect for Snow Chief. “He’s a tough horse,” he said. “He’s a real digger, and he runs on anything.

“But if my horse improves, he should be a contender. There’s legitimate speed (Groovy, Zabaleta and Wood Memorial winner Broad Brush) in the race, and that should help my colt. My horse will probably be better six months from now, but he might even be good enough now.”

If Ferdinand is good enough, Shoemaker and Whittingham are sure to go out and make whoopee. This time, Shoemaker will celebrate after the Derby.

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Derby Notes

“Everybody catches Derby fever except the horses,” said Herb Stevens, whose favored Rockhill Native finished fifth in the 1980 Derby. The trainers of Mr. Classic, Royal Doulton and Ensign Rhythm have decided not to run, but arrangements have been made for Southern Appeal to be shipped here from Maryland, which leaves the probable field at 17.


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