Blinkers Off Tall tales from the Derby's past
All Those Carry Backs
His name was Jack Price and the “Weep No More My Lady” power structure in Kentucky eventually grew to love him. The operative word here is “eventually.”
In the beginning, the very thought of Price as an owner capable of winning the race treated as the holy of holies by that group of born-to-the-manner clubhouse blue bloods was enough to make them wonder what their world was coming to.
And Jack Price knew it. He came to Derby City in 1961 well aware of what they thought of him, which may account for the Redwood-sized chip on his small shoulders. He clearly was an odd man out, and if he hadn’t been he would have ensured that he would be after the aggressive way he approached the home team.
“I’m like a lot of these people,” he said when asked about some of the clubhouse attitudes toward him. “My father was a horseman, too. He sold vegetables from a horse and wagon.”
There was much on his resume that nettled racing’s “old guard.” He was the son of a Jewish immigrant, and he married a Catholic girl named Katherine Boyle. His background was very much what the Equine Establishment’s was not. Born and raised in a poor neighborhood of Cleveland, he had been a hustler and scuffled from an early age.
He caddied; he worked as a messenger, became a candy butcher in a movie house and even ran a newsstand in the Cleveland railroad station. He was arrested and fined for small-time bookmaking, a sin something akin to spitting on the flag for the Establishment that he was irritating in Louisville.
Later, he started a loan company which he eventually sold, owned a small manufacturing business with his brothers and finally looked at the calendar and asked himself, “After 40 years of work where are you going?”
He said, “The hell with this. I worked hard enough and long enough. I will now do what I want to do.”
He trained his own horses his own way, and that was not always for the best. He once told a magazine reporter:
“There’s no great secret to training horses. I could take a high school graduate and teach him to be a trainer in six months. I don’t say he could get a job as a head trainer, because he couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.
“If I hadn’t been working for myself I’d have been fired for the mistakes I made when I was first training. But there’s no mystery to it.”
If he hadn’t worked for himself, we never would have had a colt like Carry Back. As Price struggled on the small Ohio-area tracks, he supplemented his income by boarding horses at his small farm.
One of them was a mare named Joppy, eventually bought by Price from the owner for $150 and the cancellation of another $150 debt for boarding. Joppy had never won a dime, had a terrible disposition and ultimately was ruled off the track for refusing to break from the starting gate.
Price wanted to breed Joppy, but the only Romeo he could afford was a $400 per-service retired sprinter named Saggy, whose single claim to fame was his defeat of the great Citation on a terribly sloppy track during his Triple Crown season.
From this marriage came an ugly sway-backed colt they called Carry Back. His incredible success was seen as a slap in the face of every trainer and breeder who ever paid homage to the rules of natural selection.
“Carry Back was,” more than a few of them said, “proof that luck can erase any bottom blood line.”
So here came Jack and Katherine Price with faith in each other and their colt. Period. Asked that week about a jockey — he chose John Sellers — he did not endear himself to the industry when he said “I don’t much care. Generally the jock is just passenger. Usually, I want the one that can do the least damage.”
The battle lines were drawn. Whatever he said was analyzed by media and blue bloods alike. And, once again, he knew that, too.
He enraged Kentucky hardboots by saying, “As far as I’m concerned, Carry Back is a moneymaking machine, and this is just another horse race. Some of these sportsmen will do anything to run in the Derby. If my colt isn’t sound I just won’t run him.”
Then he added the ultimate sword thrust at tradition:
“They can play ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ all they want, but I have my own idea that when they play it during the post parade, Wathen Knebelkamp [president of Churchill Downs] may cry, but he’ll be looking at the tote board with one eye to check the handle.”
On the inside, Jack was laughing like hell.
So they ran the race. Sellers took back and saved ground with an eye on Crozier, the second-best horse in the Derby. Carry Back was 11th at the start and Sellers simply kept him out trouble, easing slowly past the others, rallied at the top of the stretch and, according to the chart, just wore Crozier down to win by three-quarters of a length.
He would win the Preakness but mystify a great many people by running seventh in a nine-horse field in the Belmont Stakes, finishing 14 lengths behind the winner, Sherluck, whom he had beaten in the two previous Triple Crown races.
Why did this happen?
Well, Price, who would come back to the Derby for years as a welcome guest and was the best interview available on Derby weeks, gave his own version of the Belmont at last.
It was 1964 and Sonny Werblin was hosting a party at the old Executive Inn. As usual, Werblin, the show biz agent, thoroughbred owner and managing partner of the New York Jets, had invited a slew of celebrities. When Jack and Katherine Price showed up an hour late, Sonny hollered, “Where the hell have you guys been?”
“You won’t believe it, but we went up to Lexington to see Carry Back get laid,” Price answered. “He came out there and made his ram-bam jump and came back with his head up. We were so proud of him, weren’t we Katherine?”
To which Mrs. Price smiled and said sweetly, “Well, you took care of Carry Back, dear. Now what are you going to do for me.”
After the laughter subsided, Price went to the bar to get a drink and a man who never could quite believe how badly Carry Back was beaten in the Belmont, eased over to him and asked, “What really happened? There must be an explanation.”
“There is,” Price said, but I never tell it because nobody would ever believe it.”
“OK,” Price said, and then he lowered his voice. “Carry Back, well, Carry Back, the best way to say this I guess is to say the boy really loved himself a lot. You know he was like a kid who spends too much time in the bathroom.
“So we had this device, it’s called a stud ring, and it keeps a horse from doing that, and I had the groom always make sure to put it on him the night before he raced.
“Well, the groom just forgot, and my memory when I think of the Belmont is not that I’m sorry we didn’t win the Triple Crown. And not that I’m sorry we finished seventh. It’s the memory…” — here he paused for dramatic effect — “the memory of all that damp straw just glistening with the residue of all those Carry Backs that will never be born.”
Then Price shook his head and said, “I miss those little guys.”
The last time I saw Price, who died in 1995, was years later. He told me he was running a finishing school for young horses.
“I call it Dorchester Prep. We even have a graduation for the proud owners. Right now I’m looking for a band for the prom.”