Neil Drysdale could have sat in his office at Churchill Downs, consumed by thoughts of what might have been. The Kentucky Derby was over and the mighty Arazi had launched another missile of a move, only to run into the proverbial brick wall, finishing eighth. A 16-1 shot named Lil E. Tee had pulled off the upset, defeating 29-1 shot Casual Lies by only a length. This was the same Casual Lies that was no match for Drysdale’s colt A.P. Indy in the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Futurity.
It was A.P. Indy who was the main hope of the home forces who were looking to derail the Arazi Express and prevent a repeat of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile annihilation.
But while the Kentucky Derby drama was being played out on the racetrack, A.P. Indy was in his stall in Barn 41, nursing a foot bruise and quarter crack that forced him to miss the race. Drysdale had the unpleasant task of making the announcement in the backstretch recreation building the morning of the race, along with owner Tomonori Tsurumaki, as Drysdale’s wife Inger stood nearby attempting in vain to hold back her tears.
Considering how close Casual Lies came to winning the Derby, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t totally convinced that A.P. Indy not only would have won the Run for the Roses, he would have proven much the best.
But for Drysdale, there were no “what might have beens.” His only thoughts were of A.P. Indy’s foot and getting it to heal in time for the Belmont Stakes.
As he sat in his office with darkness descending on Churchill Downs, a torrential rain whipped through the stable area, with flashes of lightning illuminating the rooftops of the barns. An unperturbed A.P. Indy peered out of his stall, as Drysdale, looking emotionally drained, emerged from his office to check on the colt. A loud crash of thunder sent Casual Lies, who was stabled at the other end of the barn, reeling toward the back of his stall.
The Derby runner-up’s owner and trainer, Shelley Riley, was at the post-Derby party at the museum, so Drysdale walked down the shedrow to see how Casual Lies was doing and congratulate Riley’s husband Jim on the outstanding performance turned in by their rags-to-riches colt from the Northern California fairs.
“Fantastic race,” he said sincerely, grabbing hold of Jim Riley’s hand and patting him on the shoulder. “That was just fabulous. Give Shelley a big hug for me.”
Thoughts of what might have been had to have crept into his head at this time, but he showed no signs of it. He just said he was happy that the California form had held up so well.
“I’m just happy for Shelley and Jim,” Drysdale said. “They put a lot into this and went out on a limb. I think they deserve all the credit they get. I really do.”
The British-born Drysdale had been training on his own for 18 years after working as an assistant for Charlie Whittingham, so he had learned to deal with the disappointments and frustrations of racing and to never look back. The Kentucky Derby was history and the only thing that concerned him now was evaluating A.P. Indy’s condition and looking to the future.
While most of the Kentucky Derby horses were shipping out, some to Pimlico for the Preakness, Drysdale remained at Churchill Downs, working on A.P. Indy’s foot.
“I was too busy being concerned with his foot to wonder what would have happened in the Derby,” Drysdale said. “And if you want to know the truth, when we found out it was nothing more than the foot, I was relieved. We were 95-percent sure, but you can never be completely certain there isn’t some other injury. We finally diagnosed it as a blind quarter crack in his left front foot. All you can do is write the Derby off and start worrying about the next one – what procedures to carry out, how it’s going to affect your training plans, where you’re going next and how long it’s going to take to get you there. I was too busy looking after the horse and do the correct thing for him to show any emotions.”
Because it was a blind quarter crack, they first had to pinpoint the area that was affected. After they accomplished that they went ahead and equipped the colt with bar shoes and put a fiberglass patch on the foot, which helped protect it. There were even brief thoughts they could make the Preakness if A.P. Indy was able to turn in a scintillating work with the bar shoes and patch. But Drysdale didn’t feel the foot had stabilized enough to run him.
A.P. Indy was sent to Belmont to prepare for the Peter Pan Stakes. Drysdale, who admitted it was the fiberglass patch that made a big difference, switched to conventional shoes and ran the colt in the Peter Pan on May 24. Sent off as the 1-2 favorite, he rated beautifully in fifth, and when jockey Eddie Delahoussaye asked him heading into the far turn, A.P. Indy made a powerful three-wide run and was already a half-length in front turning for home. After shaking off a seemingly strong bid from Colony Light, rallying from last, he drew off in the stretch, crossing the wire 5 1/2 lengths in front in a sharp 1:47 2/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.
This was not a typical victory for A. P. Indy, who had a unique grinding style of running, with his head down, making it look as if he wasn't running fast at all. You never saw an explosive burst. He just seemed to appear on the lead. It was like, 'How did he get there?" For him to win the Peter Pan in such brilliant fashion showed just how sharp he was.
If anyone had any doubts who would have won the Kentucky Derby, they were erased in the Peter Pan, especially after Lil E. Tee came up empty in the Preakness, finishing fifth, beaten five lengths by the Kentucky Derby fifth-place finisher Pine Bluff, with Casual Lies again running a solid race, finishing third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
There was no doubt that A.P. Indy would be a heavy favorite in the Belmont Stakes. Everything was falling into place. All that was left was for the colt to have his all-important major work. Unfortunately, the night before the work it poured at Belmont, turning the track into a quagmire.
Very few horses dared to train over the track. A visit to the receiving barn, where A.P. Indy was stabled, accomplished nothing, as the horse and trainer were nowhere to be found. With A.P. Indy’s stall empty and no sign of Drysdale, the only assumption was that he had decided to brave the conditions and was working A.P. Indy anyway. But that did not seem like something Drysdale would do. No one had a clue where they were, as the mystery began to grow. Perhaps he was grazing on the small patch of grass behind the barn, as unlikely as that also seemed. The horse, as expected, wasn’t there, but his groom was, casually going about his chores. When asked about the whereabouts of his horse and trainer, he surprisingly said, “He’s at Aqueduct.”
In one of the boldest and out-of-the-box training moves seen in a long time, Drysdale, on a hunch, had driven to Aqueduct at the crack of dawn before the mad Belt Parkway rush hour, just to see if it had rained as hard there and how the track was. Sure enough it had hardly rained there and the track actually was listed as fast. So Drysdale returned to Belmont, put A.P. Indy on a van, and brought him to Aqueduct to work.
While all the other Belmont starters scheduled to work that day, except for longshot Montreal Marty, remained in their barn, A.P. Indy got in his six-furlong work without a hitch, and on a dry, safe track.
A week later, A. P. Indy, the even-money favorite, hooked up with Preakness winner Pine Bluff in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, and the pair battled to the wire, with A.P. Indy easing clear late to win by three-quarters of a length, with European invader My Memoirs, recently purchased by Team Valor, closing fast to snatch second in the final strides. A. P. Indy’s final time of 2:26 flat equaled the second fastest Belmont ever run, along with Easy Goer, with only Secretariat having run faster.
In an ironic twist, Casual Lies, who was highly regarded in the Belmont, pressed the pace, only to tire and finish fifth. It was discovered back at the barn that he, too, had suffered a quarter crack.
A.P. Indy, of course, would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and be voted Horse of the Year, eventually being inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame. He also became one of the most dominant sires of all time.
Neil Drysdale did get his Kentucky Derby victory eight years later when Fusaichi Pegasus captured the roses. The horse he beat, finishing a strong second, was Juddmonte Farm’s Aptitude…a son of A.P. Indy.
Three months later, Drysdale was inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining the horse who helped put him there.