Little Current far from Triple crowd

Horse racing: In 1974, the Preakness and Belmont winner rallied from far back. Today, the oldest living winner of a Triple Crown race lives a life of leisure off racing's beaten path.

May 14, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

MONROE, Wash. - Regal in bearing and regally bred, a late-flying dynamo named Little Current reigned over the Preakness and Belmont in 1974.

He might have been forever revered among Triple Crown winners of that decade - linked with Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - had it not been for a fluky field in the 1974 Kentucky Derby.

The centennial edition had attracted 23 horses, the most in Derby history. After finishing a frustrating fifth in that impenetrable crowd, Little Current won the second and third legs of the Triple Crown with such ease that racing changed its rules. Because an apparently deserving Triple Crown winner had been denied, Churchill Downs, site of the Derby, limited the field of its glamour race to 20.

"If I'd gotten any break at all, I could have won the race," says Bobby Ussery, the jockey who rode Little Current in the Derby. "He was good enough to win the Triple Crown - with a break."

Now 30, Little Current is the oldest living winner of a Triple Crown race. Next is Seattle Slew, 27, the oldest living winner of the Triple Crown.

Seattle Slew resides at Three Chimneys Farm in the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country. About 10,000 people visit Three Chimneys every year, nearly all asking to see Seattle Slew.

By contrast, Little Current lives northeast of Seattle, so far off racing's beaten path that fewer than a dozen people each year go out of their way to see him. Here in his remote paddock, Little Current remains a proud and personable horse, the one who in 1974 electrified thousands with his dramatic bursts of closing speed.

Ussery, 65, retired and living in Florida, foresaw what likely would be Little Current's greatest obstacle in the Kentucky Derby. The colt's style was to break slowly, lag behind the field and then shift into overdrive and pass horses as if they were stuck in mud.

For the 100th Kentucky Derby, 23 horses and 163,628 patrons - both records that still stand - descended upon Churchill Downs. And sure enough, when the starting gate opened, Little Current broke last.

Twenty-two horses raced in front of him. The traffic was thick. Ussery hoped the field would spread out. He hoped to find seams through which he could thread Little Current.

"I never got the chance to make my move with him," Ussery says. "I just couldn't get him going. Every time I started to get him in full stride, I had to wait for an opening. I certainly couldn't fly over anybody. There was just nowhere to put him that day."

Around the final turn, astride an eager horse unable to break through, Ussery jerked Little Current to the outside. He went practically to the middle of the track. Clear, Little Current charged down the homestretch. He passed a dozen. He would have passed four more, but he ran out of ground.

Little Current crossed the finish line fifth, 6 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Cannonade.

For the Preakness, Little Current's trainer changed jockeys. Lou Rondinello chose Miguel Rivera to ride the horse in the field of 13. Little Current beat just one horse out of the gate, and that was Buck's Bid, who had stumbled and dropped his jockey. Little Current was last again.

This time, however, when Rivera searched for an opening in the homestretch, a crack appeared along the rail. Little Current barreled through like a bully and surged home like a sprinter. He won by seven lengths. Cannonade, the Derby winner, finished third.

Little Current matched Nashua (1955) for the third-fastest Preakness (1 minute, 54 3/5 seconds) at the time, behind Canonero II in 1971 and Secretariat in 1973.

The '74 Derby and Preakness winners met again in the Belmont. And again, Little Current with Rivera prevailed by seven lengths, dropping far back in the nine-horse field and roaring wide for the victory. Cannonade again was third.

The commanding triumph clinched divisional honors for Little Current. At the end of the year, he was named champion 3-year-old colt or gelding.

A second career

The Belmont was his last victory. After a two-month break and two narrow losses - one by a nose, one by a head - he raced on soggy turf at Belmont Park. He finished sixth, 19 lengths behind, and emerged from the race with a chipped bone in his right front ankle. He was retired.

After 15 races on dirt, Little Current competed that last time on grass because his owner and breeder, John W. Galbreath, wanted to see how the colt took to turf. He had hoped to fly Little Current to Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, one of the world's great races. Instead, Little Current returned to Kentucky to Darby Dan farm, his birthplace, to begin a career as a stallion.

Galbreath, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and Hialeah Park racetrack, had built Darby Dan into a pre-eminent breeding farm in part by leasing stallions from Europe. One, Sea-Bird, was regarded as Europe's best racehorse of the 20th century. Sea-Bird sired Little Current.

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