By John McEvoy
-- America's greatest boxing writer, the late A.J. Liebling, used to comment after watching yet another up-and-coming pugilistic "phenom" take his lumps from a seasoned practitioner of the "sweet science" that "tradition packs a nasty wallop."
Well, tradition packs that same wallop when applied to geldings in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Looking ahead to May 3, we can only hope that any sexually modified Derby candidates will keep their guard up. Nearly three-quarters of a century of failure adds up to a notable "wallop," indeed.
What is it with this "not since Clyde Van Dusen" stuff? Clyde Van Dusen (the only Derby winner to be named for his trainer) was the last of seven geldings to run away with the roses. He won the Derby in 1929. The question arises: Have geldings become to the Kentucky Derby what the Chicago Cubs (last appearance: 1945; last victory: 1908) are to baseball's World Series?
Clyde Van Dusen's win was achieved with the help of some deft pre-start maneuvering by his jockey, Linus "Pony" McAtee, an opportunist of the first order. McAtee's mount had drawn No. 20 in the 21-horse field, but this was in the days before the gate was in use, when walk-up starts were still the rule, and in the course of the 13-minute delay while the Churchill starter worked to get the horses in line, McAtee was very busy. Sidling and pushing like a bargain hunter at a yard sale, McAtee managed to move his mount over to the middle of the pack by the time the horses were finally dispatched. Emerging from his more advantageous post position, Clyde went to the lead after the first quarter-mile and never looked back.
There were good geldings prior to Clyde Van Dusen that got it done in the Derby. Three of the earliest Derbys were won by geldings: Vagrant (1876), Apollo (1882), and Macbeth II (1888). Old Rosebud set a Derby record when he galloped to victory in 1914. And the great Exterminator counted the 1918 Derby among his 50 career triumphs. Paul Jones (1920) preceded Clyde Van Dusen into the Churchill winner's circle.
There have been some near misses since 1929. In 1996, Cavonnier was nailed right on the wire by Grindstone, losing by a nose, and turning Bob Baffert's hair a paler shade of white. Other recent runner-up finishes by geldings were turned in by Prairie Bayou in 1993 and Best Pal in 1991.
And among the more than 100 gelded Derby losers were two eventual Horses of the Year: Forego and Roman Brother. Forego had the misfortune of coming along in Secretariat's year, 1973, when Big Red hung up the Derby record that still stands. Roman Brother, coincidentally enough, lost his Derby to Northern Dancer, who in 1964 set the mark that Secretariat would shatter.
Both Forego, who was voted Horse of the Year for three straight years, 1974-76, and Roman Brother, thus honored in 1965, broke tardily in their respective Derbys. Could there be a gelding-related explanation for their delayed departures?
One theory about slow-breaking geldings was offered years ago by the comedian Buddy Hackett. Like his show business colleagues Shecky Greene, Joey Bishop, and Jan Murray, Hackett was a friend of Chicago horse owner Joe Kellman, who delighted in naming horses after his show business pals. Honoring Hackett, Kellman came up with The Hack.
Kellman's Shecky Greene became the sprint champion of 1973 and later a productive sire. In sharp contrast, The Hack was gelded. In an interview with a New York newspaper, Hackett roguishly explained that this operation had been necessitated by The Hack having a powerful sex drive--much like his own.
Did he win more races after that? Hackett was asked.
"No," Hacket said, "it didn't work out. He'd lose too many lengths at the start of the race. The Hack would hear something so embarrassing that it made him freeze up. He was a horse with sensitivity, so he'd just stand there, mortified. When the gates opened and the other horses would spring out, he'd always hesitate and then he'd have a hard time catching up to them."
Hackett's interviewer, a racing neophyte, then innocently inquired, "What was it that The Hack heard?"
Replied Hackett, "He would hear the track announcer shout out, 'They're off!' "John McEvoy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.