SAN MATEO — In the Eclipse Award voting for best 2-year-old colt in 1987, Forty Niner was the winner, Tejano finished second and Success Express came in third.
Purdue King was nowhere, even though he had finished ahead of Success Express twice late in the year. In the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita Oct. 31, Purdue King ran second behind Saratoga Passage, with Success Express winding up fourth. Seven weeks later, Purdue King was second to Tejano in the Hollywood Futurity, with Success Express running sixth.
Forty Niner, with five wins in six starts and now the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, was a deserving champion, and Tejano's victory in the Hollywood Futurity clinched his second-place finish in the Eclipse voting. But John Valpredo, Purdue King's talkative owner, questions the lack of support for his gray colt.
The races involving Purdue King represented Success Express' lowest finishes, but, of course, Success Express won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park on Nov. 21, with Valpredo choosing not to run Purdue King.
"I don't know about the Breeders' Cup," Valpredo said. "Sometimes I think that it doesn't prove who the best horse is, it just proves who the best horse is that's nominated."
Because Purdue King wasn't nominated for a $500 fee as a yearling, it would have cost Valpredo $120,000 to supplement the Dimaggio-Purdue Princess colt into the $1-million Juvenile.
"The way I figure it, if he had finished third, I would have lost money," Valpredo said.
So Valpredo waited with Purdue King until the $1-million Hollywood Futurity a month later, and the second to Tejano netted $180,000, boosting the horse's career total to $489,730.
That total can again grow considerably today, when Purdue King runs as the favorite in the $250,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows.
The Camino Real will still not be enough to make Purdue King a national name, because only one of the 10 starters, Antiqua, has won a major race, and that on grass. But a victory today would give Purdue King a ticket to one of the seven most important Kentucky Derby preps, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 5.
The other starters today are Chinese Gold, Blue Guy, Chillon, Blade of the Ball, Ruhlmann, Greager, Seeker's Journey and Havanaffair.
Cotton Tinsley, who started training in 1957, 11 years after Valpredo had raced his first horse, is Purdue King's conditioner. Historically, Valpredo's trainers have had little to say because the owner, who gets as close to his horses as he can without actually being the trainer, is spokesman enough.
Tinsley, who had a long association with Fred Hooper, training Crozier, who won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1963, is Purdue King's second trainer. Last year, when Valpredo's stable trainer, Irv Guiney, had difficulty getting stall space at Hollywood Park, Purdue King was sent to Tinsley.
At Del Mar, Purdue King was back in the hands of Guiney, who saddled him for two stakes wins and a third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity. After Del Mar, the colt returned to Tinsley's barn.
"I don't know what happened with Guiney, except that he left me and said he could do better, and make more money, with somebody else," Valpredo said. "He tried to explain it to me in a letter. But I think he's made a mistake, leaving this horse."
No matter who trains for Valpredo, the owner calls the shots. Purdue King, having last run in the Hollywood Futurity, will be making his first start today in a month, having passed up the $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita, a race that seemed to be his to win.
The Santa Anita race was seven-eighths of a mile. "We had run a mile three straight races, and I didn't want to shorten up this horse," Valpredo said. "Besides, it's early in the year and I don't plan a heavy campaign for this horse. He might only run about seven times all year."
Purdue King's change of trainers doesn't compare with his change of jockeys.
Fernando Toro, who rode him for the first time in the Futurity, is the colt's sixth rider.
Chris McCarron, who has ridden Purdue King in half of his 10 starts, and for four of his five wins, would have been aboard today, but he had a commitment to ride The Medic in the San Marcos Handicap at Santa Anita.
The other morning at Santa Anita, with Toro aboard, Purdue King worked five furlongs in a brilliant :58 4/5.
"He had a terrific last quarter-mile, something like :23 4/5," said Valpredo, who has paid the $600 to make Purdue King eligible for the Triple Crown races. Unlike the Breeders' Cup ante, the owner finds that price to be right.