California Derby 1978 – what a trip

- -

I have emails from Jack and Mary Dixon Hutcheson going back to 2013. The first is about an April Fools’ Day article I wrote about Animal Kingdom becoming a steeplechaser. Jack laughed, which was the goal. There’s one about Moreno upsetting the 2014 Whitney (the subject is “Musta’ been the gumbo”), another about reading The Saratoga Special while stuck at home in Virginia and others offering thanks, tips, encouragement.

The Hutchesons are readers, have been since their first trip to Saratoga in 2001 – the same year The Special began. When in town, they stop by the office, invite us to the annual Virginia Tech raceday gathering in the backyard and say hello. The visits are markers of time, great encouragement to keep plugging away at the newspaper work and always welcome.

But I don’t think I’ve ever gotten mail from them until this week.

The April 13 letter from Jack included a program from the March 4, 1978 racing day at Golden Gate Fields – and three mutuel tickets. The Hutchesons saw the California Derby while in the midst of an RV trip through the United States.

“We are both big sports fans and were able to see Super Bowl XII in New Orleans , the Spurs play in San Antonio, a Virginia Slims tournament in the Astrodome (spell check does not recognize the word),” Jack wrote in the letter addressed to me, my brother Sean and Tom Law. “There was skiing in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Vermont. We also made it to the football and baseball halls of fame.”

Sounds like a great time. The Cowboys beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl, Martinia Navratilova defeated Billie Jean King in the Virginia Slims 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 (they then teamed up to win the doubles crown).

The racetrack side trip happened because the Hutchesons were in San Francisco, saw that Steve Cauthen was riding on the card and off they went.

“We took public transportation to Golden Gate Fields because, well because we could,” Jack wrote. “I know we had no idea what the California Derby was, but Steve Cauthen was riding. That was good enough for us.”

That would have been good enough for anyone. The teenager was a star. In 1977, he’d won Eclipse Awards as outstanding apprentice and outstanding jockey, been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year and the Associated Press athlete of the year. If you were a racing fan, you went out of your way to see Cauthen, so the Hutchesons did.

The program cost 50 cents (including 6 1/2 percent sales tax according to a note on the front cover). Old advertisements typically fascinate me and included here were full pagers for Old Grand-Dad bourbon, The Silks Restaurant and Owens and Owns Ragtime bar and antique car museum “where the hose enthusiast is always at home!”, Old Milwaukee beer and Marlboro cigarettes.

The day included nine races, most worth $6,000, and was headlined by the 63rd California Derby (the richest Thoroughbred race ever to be run in northern California). Pacific Racing Association executives Kjell Qvale and Clifford Goodrich welcomed patrons with a letter in the front of the program highlighting the big field of 13, the participation of Cauthen and other star jockeys Sandy Hawley, Don Pierce and others, plus the Golden Gate-based runners Capt. Don and Gemini Dancer facing a phalanx of raiders from southern California.

Qvale (a U.S. Navy pilot in World War II, sports-car importer, one-time movie producer and owner of Variety Road, who upset Broad Brush in the 1987 San Fernando Stakes) and Goodrich closed with a generous, “So please enjoy what should be the grandest of all Cal Derbies and good luck.”

Golden Gate even named the sixth race for Cauthen’s mother  – the $15,000 Mrs. Myra Cauthen was for 4-year-olds and up who hadn’t won $2,500 twice over a mile since June 11. No idea who won that, but my money would have been on Ack Ack’s Back (according to Equibase he was seventh as Eagle Toast pulled a mild upset). Cauthen didn’t have a ride.

The field for the $155,000 California Derby (eighth race on the card) was the biggest since 1967. Gemini Dancer, a California-bred from the barn of Damon Pollard, was the 7-2 program favorite, followed by Cauthen’s mount (another Cal-bred) O Big Al at 4-1. Noble Bronze wound up the winner for William Breliant and John Bucale. Marco Castaneda rode the winner, a son of Tobin Bronze and the Kauai King mare Fire Hose. The Kentucky-bred had won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship the previous summer and went on to finish fifth in the Santa Anita Derby and sixth in the Hollywood Derby behind Affirmed who would of course go on to win the Triple Crown under Cauthen. Noble Bronze’s sire Tobin Bronze is a member of Australia’s racing Hall of Fame with wins in the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup and other major races before being sold to American interests.

The Hutchesons bet $2 to win on O Big Al (Cauthen), Chance Dancer and Johnny’s Image.

“You will note . . . we did not fare so well,” Jack wrote.

I beg to differ. They took the trip of a lifetime, had all kinds of adventures, hung on to some great souvenirs and spurred me to write a column. Like all of us in the midst of a global health crisis, they’re wondering about the future, rediscovering old treasures while cleaning and dreaming of a return to normal.

“Hope this note finds you well,” Jack closed. “We were planning to see you all again in Saratoga, but that show may not take place. Even if it does, we may watch the races from the safety of our house in Alexandria.”

I hear you, Jack. Stay safe, and keep reading.