04/08/2003 11:00PM

Brumfield's fateful break

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The best 3-year-olds of 1966 included horses of tremendous ability such as Buckpasser and Graustark but neither was available for the classics. Buckpasser was sidelined with quarter cracks and Graustark broke down nine days before the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby favorite was Kauai King, a son of Native Dancer. The Dancer won 21 of 22 starts and the only race he lost was the Derby, so perhaps the family had some good fortune coming to it. In any case, Kauai King, with Don Brumfield in the irons, led all the way. His early fractions were fairly fast - the first six furlongs run in 1:10.40 - but he had enough left to hold off late challenges and Brumfield, a native Kentuckian, was quoted as saying he was the happiest hardboot in America.

"Henry Forrest, who trained Kauai King, had him at his best for the Derby," Brumfield recalled the other day. "He worked him between races on the Tuesday before the Derby, which was Derby Trial Day. But he didn't want to risk taking too much out of the horse in a race, so he worked him a mile in [1:39.40] and got the job done."

Kauai King, who was owned by Mike Ford of Omaha, Neb., had a relatively easy time of it, winning the Preakness, and there was considerable speculation about the chances of completing the Triple Crown in the Belmont.

"They were building a new Belmont Park and the race was run at Aqueduct," Brumfield noted. "Kauai King was rank during the early stages and finished fourth with Amberoid the winner. It may have been that the stress of the Derby and Preakness finally got to him. No matter how easy a race may appear, there is a lot of tension to the Triple Crown and the horses absorb it."

There is a lot of tension to riding races, but Brumfield was able to do it for 35 years until his retirement in 1989. He made his debut in 1954 at Monmouth Park, riding for a stable trained by his father, Edgar. He was successful from the outset, accumulated 4,573 winners, and was elected to the Hall of Fame.

"I rode some nice horses," Brumfield said. "There was Just a Game and Gold Beauty, and there were several stakes wins with Old Hat. My father trained a pretty good sprinter named Duc de Fer that I rode, and one of my favorites was Coraggioso for Bwamazon Farm. She was a tiny filly but she was all heart."

Brumfield broke a leg during the summer of 1965 as events transpired to give him his finest hour. Loyd Gentry, training a public stable that included Kauai King, was named head trainer of Darby Dan Farm, a private post. He recommended Henry Forrest as his successor with Mike Ford's horses. Eddie Rice, Brumfield's agent, was a close friend of Forrest, and when Brumfield was ready to return to action, Rice asked Forrest to help him get started again. Forrest mentioned a nice 3-year-old prospect named Kauai King.

Brumfield, once retired, became an official and worked at River Downs for two seasons. He served in the stewards stand at Bandera Downs in Texas and at the new Sam Houston Race Park which opened in Houston in 1994. Later he was an agent for his close friend, Earlie Fires, but for the past few seasons he has been a racing fan, splitting the year between his homes in Louisville and Hollywood, Fla.

A keen observer of the racing scene, he is pleased to see today's riders taking better care of themselves physically than they did when he was active. He also feels modern riders are superior strategists on the track. But no one, then or now, could have improved on his performance the day Kauai King got the roses.