Decidedly, the gray colt from California decided the Kentucky Derby was his

April 7, 2022

Six decades ago, the best of what horsemen considered only an ordinary crop of 3-year-olds, with their prep campaigns virtually completed, headed for Kentucky.

Two of the leading contenders for the 88th Kentucky Derby would have their final Derby tune-up in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Decidedly, a big gray colt from California, who was second in the Everglades at Hialeah, but missed both the Flamingo and Florida Derby because of illness, before finishing second in the Forerunner in his first start at Keeneland, and Ridan, unbeaten in seven races as a juvenile and had been out of the money only once in his 12 races.

The race was run nine days prior to the Kentucky Derby, and Ridan was an impressive winner, pulling away easily and defeating Decidedly by four lengths.

Despite the two Keeneland defeats, the experience of being stabled in Kentucky that spring benefitted Decidedly, a son of 1954 Kentucky Derby winner, Determine. Once in the Bluegrass State, everything about Keeneland helped Decidedly to bloom immediately. “The grass, ambiance, no noise, the atmosphere, the springtime of the year, the rest, made the colt much different than he was during the winter”, explained trainer Horatio Luro in the book about his fabulous career titled: “The Grand Senor” written by Joe Hirsch.

The dapper, suave conditioner with eyes on the top prize retained jockey Bill Hartack to pilot Decidedly in ‘The Run for the Roses.’ Hartack, who was no stranger to Derby success having previously won America’s biggest race twice in the past five years, was aboard the colt for both Keeneland races and had once been the regular rider of Ridan.

Hartack was not only a skilled rider, but also an observant horseman and following the Bluegrass, he suggested to Luro that Decidedly needed blinkers to help him focus. The savvy trainer duly acknowledged the veteran jockey’s advice.

Besides the two Blue Grass combatants, others notable three-year olds seeking their two minutes of glory were: Sir Gaylord, a six-time stakes winner who was coming into the Kentucky Derby on a four-race winning streak, including smashing victories in the Bahama Stakes, in track record time, and a 4 ½-length romp in the Everglades Stakes. Sunrise County, disqualified in both the Flamingo Stakes and Wood Memorial for causing interference in the stretch. In the latter race, he dead heated for the win with Admiral’s Voyage who had previously finished second to Royal Attack in the Santa Anita Derby, and both horses would be waiting in Louisville. A couple of other candidates afforded a winning Kentucky Derby chance were, the British-bred but California-based Sir Ribot, who was third in the aforementioned Santa Anita Derby and Crimson Satan, the champion two-year old colt was trying to recapture his sharp form from his juvenile campaign when he wowed spectators but had raced poorly in Florida during his sophomore season.

On the eve of the Derby, the big race took a big hit when Sir Gaylord was scratched because of a fractured sesamoid that ended his career. Despite his absence, there was ample quality in the 1962 Derby field. The lineup of 15 colts showed an unusual variety of talent and running styles, headed by Ridan, the betting favorite at slightly better than even money based on the strength of his spectacular race in the previous week’s Blue Grass Stakes. Second choice went to Sunrise County, while Decidedly, Admiral’s Voyage and Sir Ribot were supported in that order.

At the start of the race run under sunny skies in 80-degree weather and over an extremely fast track, Lee Town, a speed horse notorious for stopping after six furlongs, shot to the front and some of the top riders in the country – Willie Shoemaker on Sunrise County, Manny Ycaza on Ridan and Braulio Baeza on Admiral’s Voyage, took after him like hounds after a hare as they swept past the stands and into the first turn. At the same time, Hartack was in no hurry and way back in the pack with Decidedly, waiting patiently for the right moment to launch his own attack.

Lee Town held his lead going into the backstretch as Ridan came up outside and began to challenge, forcing the pace as he fought for the lead. Sunrise County and Admiral’s Voyage were close behind in third and fourth, respectively, and moving well as they crept closer to the front two. Roman Line, with Jimmy Combest aboard, who had played a waiting game was now getting in the act as Lee Town did his customary running out of gas and was through. Meanwhile, Hartack, ninth at this point, one horse behind Sir Ribot and three behind Roman Line, continued to wait to make his challenge.

As they whipped around the final bend, Admiral’s Voyage and Sunrise County had joined Ridan and the trio of horses charged head and head almost as a team to the top of the stretch. The crowd was in an uproar as it became evident it was anybody’s race. At this point, Ycaza was using all his strength to prevent Ridan from bearing out into the middle of the track. While it appeared these three would fight it out to the wire, the pace had been wicked thus far: 22 3/5 for the first quarter; 45 4/5 for the half; 1:10 1/5 for six furlongs, and the closers were getting untracked and moving in quickly. Combest had Roman Line, a 26-1 shot, making his bid around the final turn, so too Ray York riding Sir Ribot, while Decidedly, who had worked his way up to fifth position with a quarter mile remaining, was in high gear outside of horses under Hartack’s guidance. Now, as the three early leaders and the three challengers hit the quarter-pole, the mile was covered in 1:35 1/5.

The blistering pace began to take its toll, and Admirals Voyage, who had a brief lead, began to retreat from contention. Roman Line now took command early in the stretch and soon dispatched Sunrise County who couldn’t keep up, but Ridan was still in the fight and refused to quit.

While Ridan and Roman Line were locked in a stretch battle, Hartack, who found a clear path in front of him at the head of the stretch had Decidedly winging on the outside. Down the long straightaway he zoomed in one of the greatest runs ever put on in the Kentucky Derby. His lightning burst of speed carried him to third place, halfway through the stretch and he never let up one bit in his tremendous drive until he was out in front and under the wire, winning in the spirited time of 2:00 2/5. Roman Line was 2 ¼ lengths behind in second, a neck ahead of Ridan, with Sir Ribot another neck behind in fourth place.

The final time easily beat the Derby record established in 1941 when Whirlaway was timed in 2:01 2/5.

In winning his first stakes race, Decidedly, owned and bred by the El Peco Ranch of George A. Pope, Jr. of San Francisco, rewarded his backers with a $19.40 payoff.

The owner was jubilant as the traditional blanket of roses was draped across the withers of his Kentucky Derby winner. “This is the most satisfying thing that can happen to a man,” said Pope.

Following the race, Luro told the press, “We brought this horse here to win. I was always confident. We just thought he could win.” The Argentine horseman then went on to say, “The blinkers were Hartack’s idea. We put them on because he insisted, and it worked very well.”

“He ran straight as a horse can run. I am glad Mr. Luro put blinkers on him.” said Hartack. But the three-time Derby winning rider wasn’t through talking to reporters. Flashing a seldom seen big smile, Hartack then shared what was on his mind. “I guess this Derby meant more to me than either of my others, because I beat Ridan, the horse I used to ride,” he said. “Remember, I thought Ridan was a great horse and said so. He had a habit of bearing out, and when I worked him in Florida, I thought I got him over that habit. Then the owners took me off the horse. That’s their right, of course,” he added. 

Luro had Decidedly razor sharp to run the greatest race of his career on Derby Day, and Hartack’s ride was faultless. He played the waiting game to perfection, and when the speed in front of him began to gasp from the withering pace they had held for nine furlongs, Hartack rolled home to an easy victory on a superbly fit horse.

The Luro-Hartack combination weren’t finished there and returned to break their own record just two years later.

Photo: Decidedly, Kentucky Derby, Associated Press

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