March 27, 2023

Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass played pivotal role for class of 1970

Dust Commander
Dust Commander wins the 1970 Kentucky Derby

This Saturday was to be the biggest day of racing so far in 2020, but missing from a now extremely limited menu are the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Wood Memorial (G2), and Blue Grass (G2). All presumably would have played pivotal roles on the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Triple Crown series as originally scheduled.

Although the three races were not run on the same afternoon at the time, the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, and Blue Grass were all crucial events in the narrative surrounding the 3-year-old class of 1970, the 50th anniversary of which is observed this year.

The Santa Anita Derby of 1970, contested on Mar. 28, was won by Terlago with Bill Shoemaker up. An above average 2-year-old when recording five wins from 14 starts, including a trio of stakes at Atlantic City and Bay Meadows, Terlago’s stock rose fast at Santa Anita that winter.

After knocking off the favored, front-running George Lewis in a division of the San Felipe H. by more than three lengths, Terlago did it again over the 9 furlongs of the Santa Anita Derby, this time as the 3-2 choice and by a similarly comfortable margin of 2 1/2 lengths. The first significant horse trained by the 37-year-old Jerry Fanning, Terlago laid low for the next several weeks as events in the east shook out.

The Wood Memorial, held Apr. 18 at Aqueduct, proved a belated coming out for the regally-bred Personality. The result of a mating between homebred champions Hail to Reason and Affectionately, Personality was the apple of trainer Hirsch Jacobs’ eye. “…Perhaps the best one I’ve ever had,” Jacobs would say when showing pictures of Personality as a yearling.

Unfortunately, Jacobs would not live to see how good Personality turned out. The colt broke his maiden on Feb. 3 in his third start, just 10 days before Jacobs passed away after a long stay at the Miami Heart Institute. It was Hirsch Jacobs’ deathbed suggestion to his son John, Personality’s new trainer, that he fit the colt with blinkers.

Personality would run fourth in both the Everglades S. and Flamingo S. at Hialeah before John Jacobs experimented with blinkers. Personality ran fourth again in both the 7-furlong Bay Shore S. and 1-mile Gotham S. at Aqueduct, but the colt clearly needed distance again, too. Personality finally got both a hood and a favorable 9-furlong task in the Wood Memorial, rallying to beat reigning juvenile champion Silent Screen by three parts of a length.

Until 1989, the Blue Grass at Keeneland was run a mere nine days before the Kentucky Derby and was traditionally the final two-turn stakes prep. The 1970 edition, held Apr. 23, produced a surprise winner in Dust Commander. An Illinois-bred trained by 31-year-old Don Combs, Dust Commander had won a small stakes at Tropical Park late in his juvenile season, but had otherwise made no serious claims to being a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.

However, the conditions proved right at Keeneland on Blue Grass Day. Over a sloppy track, Dust Commander rallied through the stretch to win by three parts of a length as the longest shot on the board. Ridden by locally-based journeyman Mike Manganello, Dust Commander paid $72.80.

Two days later, Terlago turned in his final prep in the 1-mile Stepping Stone allowance on opening day of the Churchill Downs meet, but settled for second to Flamingo and Florida Derby winner My Dad George. With the expectation Terlago would strip fitter after that tune-up, and with Shoemaker back aboard for the Derby, the Californian was installed as the lukewarm 7-2 favorite in the field of 18 when the Derby field was drawn the following Thursday.

However, the morning line proved as off as the main track on Derby Day, which started out sloppy but was upgraded to good by post time. Bettors made My Dad George, who had had the most consistent prep record, the 5-2 favorite. Personality started at 4.9-1, very close to his 5-1 morning line price. Terlago drifted in the wagering to 7-1, while off-track specialist Dust Commander started at 15-1, down from his 20-1 morning line price.

The Kentucky Derby proved a lopsided success for Dust Commander. Saving ground around the far turn and then splitting rivals in upper stretch, Dust Commander powered home on the inside to win by five lengths over My Dad George. High Echelon, entrymate of Personality’s, won a photo for third while Personality himself came home eighth. Terlago lost ground throughout and finished 11th.

While Dust Commander won in the style of a budding superstar, it became apparent within a couple weeks he was only the best 3-year-old colt in America on an off-track, and for 10 days at that. In the Preakness at Pimlico, Personality provided the Jacobs family with their first classic victory when the beloved homebred rallied to beat My Dad George by a neck. Dust Commander, a supplemental nominee to the Triple Crown’s second jewel, finished a non-threatening ninth.

Although a feast or famine type, Personality later added the Jersey Derby, Jim Dandy, and Woodward to his Wood and Preakness victories and was voted champion 3-year-old colt (plus Horse of the Year honors in the Thoroughbred Racing Association poll). In contrast, Dust Commander and Terlago fared poorly the rest of their careers.

After a falling out with the owner, Combs resigned as Dust Commander’s trainer shortly after the Preakness. Dust Commander placed in three more stakes in 1970, but by the end of a 23-race campaign couldn’t even manage to beat allowance foes at the Churchill Downs fall meet. He was retired the following year after going unplaced in five starts. Terlago, meanwhile, was well beaten in his three remaining starts of 1970 at Hollywood Park. He would race 22 more times through 1973, but failed to win a single one.

Despite his origins in the Land of Lincoln, Dust Commander proved to have the most success of the three at stud. His leading sons were Master Derby, who won the 1975 Preakness and Blue Grass, and Run Dusty Run, a Grade 1 winner at two who placed in all three classics behind Seattle Slew in 1977. During a short stint in Japan in the 1970s, Dust Commander also sired Japanese 2000 Guineas winner Azuma Hunter.