In his 84 years, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt has gone to Yale, commanded a PT boat during World War II, befriended Ernest Hemingway while on safari in Kenya, entertained the Duke of Windsor, squired the jockey Robyn Smith before she married Fred Astaire, run racetracks in Baltimore and New York and raced some of the best horses.
Some of the best, indeed, but even though Native Dancer, Discovery, Social Outcast, Next Move and Bed O' Roses have excelled in his cerise-and-white colors, Vanderbilt has never won the Kentucky Derby. He came as close as any owner could in 1953, when Native Dancer, the best horse in the race, was knocked around by another horse twice before losing by a head to longshot Dark Star. Never losing another race, Native Dancer went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and finished his career with 21 wins in 22 starts.
"Can you imagine how he would be remembered if he had won the Derby?" Vanderbilt said last week during a visit to his barn at Hialeah in Florida. "They wouldn't be talking about Cigar and his made-up [winning] streak, or any of the rest of them. Native Dancer's record would be the record by which all horses are judged."
That's close to being the case, anyway. In a poll of 100 turf writers by the now-defunct Thoroughbred Racing Action publication in 1988, Native Dancer finished fifth, behind Man o' War, Secretariat, Citation and Kelso.
Wearing a slouch hat, casual slacks and a natty V-neck sweater, Vanderbilt was at Hialeah to visit the enigmatic Traitor, a colt who might be his owner's first ticket to the Derby since Native Dancer. Early last year, Vanderbilt sent his trainer, Mary Eppler, to a sale of unraced 2-year-olds at nearby Calder Race Course, with instructions to find a Derby prospect, and that's what she did. Traitor cost $102,000, and in four races last year he quickly distinguished himself, winning the Futurity at Belmont Park in his third start and then finishing second to Ordway in the Champagne Stakes.
That was followed by surgery for two small chips in his right knee, and without running in the Breeders' Cup in late October, Traitor still finished in a tie for fourth place in the Eclipse awards voting for best 2-year-old male. He continues to appear toward the bottom of some media polls of leading 3-year-olds, but it has been difficult to take him seriously because he hasn't run since that runner-up finish in the Champagne on Oct. 5.
Vanderbilt and the 42-year-old Eppler have been tight-lipped about their plans. Finally, this week, they at least spelled out the options: A $100,000 race in Ocala, Fla., on Monday or the $150,000 Tampa Bay Derby the next Sunday.
There are out-of-town tryouts for the Derby virtually everywhere, but running a contender for the first time as a 3-year-old at the Ocala Training Center, in a betless race, would be unprecedented. Ocala has racing only one day a year. This is as improbable as mounting a pre-Broadway production of "Cats" in Oshkosh.
Traitor is lucky to still be in training. Several weeks ago, he lunged with his right shoulder into a metal fence at Hialeah. His exercise rider, Kieron Magee, was thrown over the fence, landing on a concrete walkway. The former Irish steeplechase rider broke his nose, lost consciousness and suffered facial cuts.
Last week, a guard at Hialeah pointed to the splotchy bloodstains that still cover the concrete. He also demonstrated the severe angle of the damaged fence, which has since been repaired.
None of the blood at the scene was Traitor's. He was leaving the track after a morning gallop, heading back to the barn through a tunnel, when the rider of another horse smacked his mount with a whip, spooking the Vanderbilt colt. With Magee on the ground, Traitor raced through a gap in the fence, toward the grandstand, but Eppler, on her pony, quickly grabbed the reins.
The body-sore Traitor lost 12 days of training. Now there is time for only two Kentucky Derby preps--next week's race in Florida and the $500,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12, three weeks before the Derby.
"My experience is that 3-year-olds usually run their best race the third time they run," Eppler said. "If that's the case, Traitor's third race will be the Derby."
Social Outcast, Native Dancer's stablemate, finished seventh in the 1953 Derby. Vanderbilt's only previous Derby starter was Discovery, who finished second to Cavalcade in 1934. Discovery is a Hall of Fame horse, but he was inexplicably ineffective against Cavalcade his entire career.
"Before Mary bought Traitor," Vanderbilt said, "I told her that I was getting pretty damn old, and that if I'm ever going to win a Derby, I better do it soon. I usually breed my own horses. Traitor's the first one I've bought in about 20 years."
For several years, Vanderbilt has been afflicted with a degenerative disease in both eyes.