HIALEAH, Fla. — The pedestal that Chief's Crown is supposed to occupy has been tottering all week.
To begin with, Jimmy Milner, who makes the morning line at Hialeah, has installed Proud Truth, not Chief's Crown, as the favorite in today's $265,000 Flamingo Stakes, one of the major stepping-stones toward the Kentucky Derby May 4.
Milner has made Proud Truth the 6-5 favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo, reducing Chief's Crown to second choice at 8-5. That's not much respect for Chief's Crown, who won last year's 2-year-old championship and has won his only start this year.
"Since his win in the Breeders' Cup (at Hollywood Park last November), it's been 140 days, and Chief's Crown has only had a seven-furlong race in that time," Milner said. "I'm cautious about him being in top condition to go a mile and an eighth. And Proud Truth was impressive winning the Florida Derby. He's the now horse, as far as I'm concerned."
If that isn't enough effrontery for Roger Laurin, who trains Chief's Crown, John Veitch, who trains Proud Truth, apparently doesn't even believe that Laurin's colt is the horse to beat today.
"Stephan's Odyssey is the horse I'm really worried about," Veitch said. "He was sixth, far back, in the Florida Derby, but he was getting over a skin rash, and everybody knows he's a better colt than he showed that day."
Stephan's Odyssey, winner of last year's Hollywood Futurity, lost by only a neck to Proud Truth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, the race that preceded the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. And Stephan's Odyssey was carrying 122 pounds that day, 10 more than Proud Truth.
Veitch is suspicious, as is Milner, about one seven-furlong race being enough of a foundation today for Chief's Crown, who lost more than two weeks of training early in the year because of a cough.
In that seven-furlong race, run at Gulfstream the same day Proud Truth won the Florida Derby, Chief's Crown won by more than three lengths, but against considerably less formidable opposition than he'll face today.
A win in the Flamingo by any horse but Chief's Crown, Proud Truth or Stephan's Odyssey would be a major upset. Of the five other horses entered, Important Business has been running in $35,000 claiming races, and only Sir Leon has scored a victory in stakes company.
Despite the quality of the top three, excitement over the race is minimal. Reserved seats were still available at midweek, and a crowd of only about 24,000 is anticipated. ABC, which televises the Kentucky Derby and several other top 3-year-old races, is not carrying the Flamingo as it has in the past, so there will be no national telecast.
Mr. Happy, owned by John Brunetti, Hialeah's president, has drawn the inside post position, with Chuck Baltazar riding. Next, in order, come Important Business, with Jose Santos; Alfred, Victor Molina; Stephan's Odyssey, Eddie Maple; Chief's Crown, Don MacBeth; Now I Can, Mickey Solomone; Proud Truth, Jorge Velasquez, and Sir Leon, Jean Cruguet.
Important Business is a supplementary starter, costing his owner a $12,500 fee. The big three and Sir Leon carry 122 pounds, the others 118 because they are non-winners of a stakes race.
Disagreeing with the track linemaker, Laurin said: "I think my horse will go off the favorite. He's last year's champion and he hasn't done anything wrong this year."
The other morning, at a press breakfast when post positions were drawn, Tom Durkin, the track announcer at Hialeah, questioned Chief's Crown's performance in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita last October and struck a nerve with MacBeth. Chief's Crown has 7 wins and 2 seconds in 10 starts, but his 1 1/2-length win in the 1 1/16-mile Norfolk was the first and only time he's gone farther than a mile.
"The horse that ran a close second to him that day, Matthew T. Parker, isn't that much of a horse," Durkin said.
That remark brought sparks to MacBeth's eyes. "If you wanna knock my horse, you're talking to the wrong guy," Chief's Crown's jockey snapped. "We won the Norfolk pulling up. He was playing with that other horse at the end."
The rap against Chief's Crown snowballs all the way to Churchill Downs, where the track's oddsmaker, Bruce Battaglia, has made Proud Truth the 5-2 winter-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Battaglia has Chief's Crown at 7-2 and Stephan's Odyssey at 5-1 to win the Derby.
With little speed in the Flamingo, it may well be Chief's Crown who goes to the lead. Woody Stephens, who trains Stephan's Odyssey, said that his colt was too close to the pace in the Florida Derby, so he probably will be running at the back with Proud Truth. Both horses are known for their finishing kicks.
It will be up to Chief's Crown to hold them off. The ranks are swelling with people who don't think he's up to it.