Florida Derby : California’s Hawkster Given Chance for Upset

Times Staff Writer

Shelly Meredith has been to many a Kentucky Derby, although none of his horses have.

When Meredith was an undergraduate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., he went to the Derby every year, as the guest of a girlfriend whose father, a vice president at the company that makes the Louisville Slugger baseball bats, had box seats near the finish line at Churchill Downs.

In 1957, Meredith went to the Derby in an $11 cord suit and drank beer instead of mint juleps. Even so, he was rubbing elbows with celebrities in the box-seat area. He had $179 in his pocket and bet it all on Gallant Man.

Bill Shoemaker could tell the rest. In front with Gallant Man near the sixteenth pole, Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and quit riding for an instant. The lapse was enough to cost Gallant Man the victory. He lost by a nose to Iron Liege.


“When I saw what Shoemaker did, I said, ‘What’s he doing?’ ” Meredith said. “But at least I bet $50 of my money to place.”

Meredith, who lives near Del Mar, may not need connections to attend this year’s Kentucky Derby. One of his horses is Hawkster, a 3-year-old colt who is given a chance to upset favored Dixieland Brass in today’s $500,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

The Florida Derby is the first of five races--along with the Santa Anita Derby, the Flamingo, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Wood Memorial--leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

Hawkster has earned more money--$411,590--than any of the 11 starters in the Florida Derby, and at 4-1 he’s the second choice behind the 6-5 Dixieland Brass. But like most California invaders, Hawkster is considered an unknown quantity because he’s running on a deeper Eastern track for the first time.


Ron McAnally says that in Hawkster’s last race, a third-place finish, three-quarters of a length behind the victorious Double Quick, in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, the colt actually ran on a track that might have been like the one he’ll be tested on here. McAnally, who trains Hawkster for Meredith, has never started a horse at Gulfstream Park, but when he was 17, which was 39 years ago, he groomed horses at this South Florida track.

“At Bay Meadows, the track had taken a lot of rain,” McAnally said. “It was very deep, and very tiring.”

Since winning the Norfolk at Santa Anita last October, against such horses as Music Merci and Double Quick, Hawkster has been fifth in the Hoist the Flag and third in the Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park, and third at Bay Meadows.

All three races were run on off tracks. Hawkster took mud in his face in the Hoist the Flag, and hated it. In the Futurity, he reacted better to the mud and was a late-running third, beaten by King Glorious and Music Merci. That was a mile race, the race at Bay Meadows was 1 1/16 miles and today’s start will be the first time at 1 1/8 miles for the son of Silver Hawk.

The plan from here for Hawkster is to return home for the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 and then, if he’s good enough, go on to the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Hawkster will be ridden by Laffit Pincay, who came from California to win the Florida Derby with Judger in 1974 and Swale in 1984. The colt still belongs to Meredith because no buyers were much interested in him at a sale for unraced 2-year-olds last year at Hollywood Park.

Meredith had bought Hawkster as a yearling for $26,000 at an auction at Keeneland. At the Hollywood sale, he was hoping to sell the colt for double that price.

“I had told myself that if the bidding had even got to the $40,000 range, I would have let him go,” Meredith said. “But none of my horses at that sale were drawing much attention, and it was obvious that Hawkster wasn’t going to come close to that. I bought him back for $28,000.”


Meredith, who sold medical equipment, bought his first horse about 10 years ago. He had been loafing at Bully’s, a Del Mar haven for the horse crowd, and trainer Lester Holt and others kept telling him how great their sport was.

“One night, after having a couple of martinis, I wandered over to a Del Mar sale and bought a horse,” Meredith said.

The purchase was a cheap California-bred, and Meredith wasn’t sure how his wife, Carolyn, would react.

“When I went home to tell her, I figured she’d either leave me or put on some blue jeans and go out to see what we bought,” Meredith said.


“She put on the blue jeans,” Meredith said.

Horse Racing Notes

Walter Blum, the state steward at Gulfstream, said that Crown Collection would be able to run in the Florida Derby because there has been no ruling in California against the horse or his trainer, Wayne Lukas. Two Crown Collection postrace urine tests from last summer’s meeting at Del Mar have turned up positive for cocaine. Blum said that there had been a special test run on Crown Collection after he had finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth and it was negative. He added that if the horse runs out of the money today, another special test will be taken.


Hawkster and Feather Ridge are the only two horses in the Florida Derby who didn’t run in the Fountain of Youth two weeks ago. The rest of the field consists of the first nine finishers in the Fountain of Youth--Dixieland Brass, Mercedes Won, Triple Buck, Big Stanley, Western Playboy, Traskwood, Crown Collection, Silver Sunsets and Reaffirming.

Despite rain most of the week, the track went from good to fast by Thursday. The forecast for today is for scattered showers, with the temperature in the 80s. . . . Of the five horses trying to beat Easy Goer in today’s $50,000 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, Oregon Ridge may have the best chance. The son of Cox’s Ridge has only run twice, both times at Gulfstream, and he beat maidens at six furlongs and then just missed by a neck going seven furlongs.