LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As the horses approached Keeneland’s starting gate to contest the seven-furlong Forerunner Purse in 1962, the tote board confirmed that the bettors thought it to be a two-horse race. A buzz was running through the crowd because the notion persisted that one or both of them might be a Derby horse, although that race was only 16 days away.
The odds-on favorite was a steel gray colt named Decidedly, trained by Horatio Luro, the man known to turf enthusiasts as El Gran Senor. Decidedly’s principal rival was Roman Line, a dark-hued colt from the barn of Vester R. “Tennessee” Wright. Each had been second in a relatively important event their last time out – Decidedly in the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah, Roman Line in the Louisiana Derby at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds.
Though it would take the winner 1:21 and 4/5ths seconds to reach the finish line, the race was over about the time the flag dropped to notify the timer to start his watch. As the gate opened, Decidedly went up instead of forward, rearing high in the air and losing a half dozen lengths.
Roman Line broke cleanly and tracked the early leader to the far turn. When jockey Jim Combest gave the signal, Roman Line seized the lead and widened his margin to five lengths at the finish. Decidedly, under Bill Hartack, closed well to be second.
It was but a week later when Roman Line and Decidedly answered the call of Keeneland’s bugler again. But this time neither would be favored, as the “big horse,” Ridan, was also among the entries for the nine-furlong Blue Grass Stakes. Fresh from a bitter stretch battle in the Florida Derby in which he had nosed the superb filly Cicada, Ridan was the selection of many for the upcoming Run for the Roses.
Those that liked him before thought even more highly of Ridan in the aftermath of his four-length victory in the Blue Grass. Decidedly was second and Roman Line third, but both were closer to the winner at the eighth pole than at the finish. Ridan and Decidedly would race no more before the Derby, but the same did not hold true for Roman Line.
In this day – a half-century ago – most horses stabled at a racetrack were intended to race. At least that’s what Wright and owner T. Alie Grissom thought. So five days after his third-place finish in the Blue Grass, Roman Line was again under colors for the Derby Trial, contested at Churchill Downs at a flat mile. The field contained no horses of the caliber of those Roman Line had faced in his two previous outings, so the bettors made him an even money favorite.
They were not disappointed. Roman Line rated just off of the pace on the muddy track and responded readily to take command, drawing clear without need of urging. Under Wright’s instructions to use no more of the horse than necessary, Combest not only took the pressure off Roman Line, but began pulling him up in the last 50 yards. The margin of victory was six lengths.
At this point the Kentucky Derby was only four days away. Roman Line had raced three times in 12 days. The Derby would make it four starts in 16 days. Wouldn’t it be too much? While his recent accomplishments were impressive, they had been achieved in sprints. Ridan had beaten him by more than six lengths in the Blue Grass and the Derby was 220 yards longer.
However, in the 40 hours between the Trial and the closing of the entry box for the Derby, Roman Line showed no signs of excessive fatigue.
As Wright and Grissom wrestled with the decision, they kept coming back to their colt’s performance in the Louisiana Derby. That race had been a mile and an eighth and was very roughly run. At the end, Admiral’s Voyage had edged Roman Line by a nose. And Admiral’s Voyage had recently dead-heated with Sunrise County for first in the Wood Memorial and then had been made sole winner when his rival was disqualified. Perhaps their colt’s prospects were better than they appeared at first glance.
The decision was made to go. The betting public was unimpressed, sending the Grissom color-bearer off at 26-1, seventh choice in the field of 15. Ridan was made the Derby favorite and Decidedly the third choice.
The pace in the early stages of the race was very fast. Combest wisely restrained Roman Line in mid-pack and moved toward the rail in the run down the backstretch. Entering the far turn the Grissom colt was in good position to move forward if he had the speed and stamina to do so.
Combest asked him to run and the response was immediate. Coming off the bend into the stretch Roman Line was directly behind the embattled leaders, Admiral’s Voyage, Sunrise County and Ridan. To the few focusing on him, it was apparent – this longshot had a chance.
Combest was aware of Sunrise County’s propensity to bear out and positioned his colt to drive into the hole, if it developed. Starting the stretch run, Sunrise County drifted just enough for Roman Line to see daylight. Into the gap he went, and, to the amazement of almost everyone, out of it he came with his head in front as the three-sixteenth pole flashed by.
With just three hundred yards to go, Roman Line was edging away from Ridan and the thought must have flashed to Combest as he urged his colt on, “Hey, we can win this thing.”
But as soon as the thought came, it was gone, as to the far outside, Decidedly surged past on his way to a 2¼-length victory.
Roman Line held on for second and it was probably some time later that it dawned on the Grissom contingent – Roman Line had not only finished second, he had run the second-fastest Kentucky Derby in history.
Decidedly had broken Whirlaway’s 21-year-old track record for 10 furlongs by a full second. A length being held to equate to a fifth of a second, Roman Line had eclipsed Whirlaway’s record by two-fifths of a second.
In the modern era, trainers like to have five weeks between starts for horses under their care and most want that much of a gap between a final prep for the Derby and the big race, itself. When Wright saddled Roman Line for a third-place finish in the Preakness two weeks after the Derby, the dark bay colt was making his fifth start in one month and, in every one of them, he was competitive with the best of his generation.
To the casual observer, a racehorse is simply a horse that runs in races.
But to a handicapper or a hardboot, the term “racehorse” is rarely used and means something more. A “racehorse” is game, tough and durable. He’s hard to pass when ahead and hard to hold off when he’s closing. He can be depended on to give everything he has whenever he goes to the post. When he doesn’t, he has something wrong with him physically and it’s time to stop for a while.
Roman Line was of that ilk. He was a racehorse.