George Steinbrenner's Concerto tuned up for the Kentucky Derby with a leisurely win yesterday at Pimlico. But the music swirled off track with rumors of an impending sale of the horse.
Before and after Concerto's victory in the $155,500 Federico Tesio Stakes -- one of five stakes comprising the Maryland Spring Breeders' Challenge -- the colt's trainer, John Tammaro III, deflected questions about events behind-the-scenes.
They created a mystery more compelling than a horse race.
First, a veterinarian from Kentucky was flown yesterday by private jet to Maryland to examine Concerto for an unidentified prospective buyer.
But the veterinarian, Dr. Bob Copelan, got stuck in traffic between the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Laurel Park, where Concerto is stabled. By the time he arrived at the barn, Tammaro and the horse had already left for Pimlico, said Dr. Bob Vallance, a Maryland veterinarian who met Copelan at the barn.
Then, Steinbrenner, who owns Concerto, was to have attended the race. But yesterday morning, Tammaro said, he was told the Boss wasn't coming.
One, Steinbrenner's other Derby horse, Acceptable, trained by Nick Zito, broke a bone in his left front foot yesterday morning during a workout at Keeneland, Ky. The break was diagnosed as a condylar fracture. Runner-up to Pulpit in the Blue Grass Stakes, Acceptable was to be operated on today. He could return to the races after several months convalescence.
Perhaps Steinbrenner was upset about that.
Two, Tammaro said, one of Steinbrenner's daughters-in-law had a baby Friday, giving the Boss a grandchild. Perhaps he was elated about that.
Three -- and this was the hottest speculation -- Steinbrenner didn't come because he was selling the horse.
Steinbrenner or his son, Hank, who supervises the family horse business, could not be reached yesterday despite repeated phone calls to their office, farm and a close friend.
Tammaro could not clear up the picture.
"I'm part of the Steinbrenner team -- and happy to be," said Tammaro, who lives in Howard County. "But I'm not part of the part that makes those decisions on what horses are bought or sold."
Copelan, the vet from Kentucky, works for, among others, Overbrook Farm. Overbrook owned last year's Derby winner Grindstone, but lost its top Derby contender this year when Boston Harbor was injured in California.
D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the past two Kentucky Derbys but has no prospects this year, is Overbrook's trainer.
Last night, Lukas told the Louisville Courier-Journal that two of his major owners, neither of whom he would identify, had been trying to buy Crypto Star, winner of the Arkansas Derby, and Concerto.
"For a couple of days there was a lot of conversation between myself and the Steinbrenners," Lukas said.
He told the newspaper that the deal would have been a partnership, with Steinbrenner retaining partial ownership. And he said everyone involved was rushing to complete the deal before yesterday's race at Pimlico.
When Copelan got caught in traffic and missed the exam, that was the last straw.
"Things got too tangled up. There is no deal," Lukas said. "I don't think it will come back together. I didn't even look to see how he ran."
Concerto ran well. And as long as he remains in the barn of Tammaro, who has never saddled a horse in a Triple Crown race, that is good news for the trainer and for Maryland, which has two Derby contenders. The other is Captain Bodgit, trained by Maryland native Gary Capuano.
Concerto's superiority was evident yesterday on the tote board, where he opened at 1-9 and never budged. He raced into the lead despite desperate restraint by his jockey, Carlos Marquez Jr., who also has never participated in a Triple Crown race.
"I had to hold him down," Marquez said. "I had my hands full all the way around. I didn't want him to overdo it, because we have to save some horse for later."
Around the far turn Bleu Madura, stabled at Philadelphia Park, stuck his nose in front. But Marquez shook his hands along Concerto's neck, and the Chief's Crown colt hurried along to win by half a length.
His time of 1 minute, 49 1/5 seconds was a stakes record -- the fastest since 1992 when the race was changed from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles.
Asked how he'd rank his horse with other Derby contenders, Tammaro said: "I think we rank right on top."
He said the horse will depart Laurel Park tomorrow and travel by van to Louisville, where he'll be stabled at Churchill Downs and began training for the Derby on May 3.
After interviews in the winner's circle, he and Marquez -- on the verge of their first venture to the Kentucky Derby -- hugged.
"One more, huh?" Tammaro said.
"Yes, sir," Marquez said.
In other stakes yesterday, Mary's Buckaroo won the $100,000 Jennings Handicap, and Churchbell Chimes captured the $100,000 Geisha Handicap.
"I'm ecstatic," said Mary JoAnne Hughes, trainer of Mary's Buckaroo, one of the most versatile runners in Maryland. "We foaled him out and raised him on the farm. He's like part of the family."
Bill Boniface, trainer of Bonita Farm homebred Churchbell Chimes, said the 6-year-old mare seemed stronger this year than last. This was her first start since December, when Boniface gave her a vacation.
Weather Vane led all the way to win the $75,000 Caesar's Wish Stakes, and Original Gray, a first-time starter for Tammaro, dominated the $60,000 Star de Naskra Stakes.
Tammaro said he had never thrown a first-time starter into a stakes race. But Original Gray trained last summer with Concerto, beating him occasionally, the trainer said. The removal of bone chips in both knees delayed the 3-year-old's debut.
Pub Date: 4/20/97