Thursday, 02 May 2019 00:00

America's Greatest Horse Race Part 2

By Joseph Raucci | Winner's Circle


Last week we took a look at some of the more interesting runnings of the Kentucky Derby from its inception through the swinging sixties. Where better than the seventies and Secretariat to begin part two.

This was the decade that the Racing Gods decided to bombard the Kentucky Horse Farms with the creme de la creme of the Thoroughbred Racing Breed. 

Let's begin with His Royal Highness,  the immortal  Secretariat. He was owned by Penny Chenery and her Meadow Stable. From north of the border, Lucien Lauren was responsible for his conditioning. Ron Turcotte, a fellow Canadian, had the mount on the Big Chestnut for most of his career. Secretariat was so good that he was named Horse of the Year at two. At three he would shake the racing universe to its core. He not only took the Derby, in doing so he set a new track record in winning the event. "Big Red" as he was fondly called continued his dominance through the Triple Crown events. He wrapped it up with a devastating thirty-one length romp in the Belmont Stakes. Secretariat was on his way to a second Horse of the Year title and a stall secured in "The Pantheon of Champions."  Charles Hatton who witnessed them all including Man O' War had this to say about him: "I never saw perfection before. I absolutely could not fault him in any way." Pure poetry from the premier turf writer of the twentieth century. 

Four years later lightning struck Louisville again. An unbeaten dark brown colt by the name of Seattle Slew thrilled the Derby crowd as he easily dominated his competition. He went on to become the second TC Champion of the decade. 

If Secretariat and " The Slew" were not enough, 1978 brought thunder to Churchill Downs on a sunny day. Harbor View Farm sent out their Derby hopeful Affirmed to combat Calumet Farm's Alydar. Calumet was looking to nail down its ninth Derby trophy. Affirmed, with  seventeen year old sensation Steve Cauthen in the saddle had other plans. The combo was too much for Alydar. They met again in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Affirmed prevailed by the slimmest of margins both times. The Warriers  faced off against each other a  total of eight times in their Hall of Fame careers.  They are forever  linked.  When one thinks of Affirmed, Alydar comes naturally as the next thought.  The seventies had now produced three Triple Crown winners after a twenty-five year drought. 

Next up was 1975 and Spectacular Bid. He was trained by Grover G. Delp better known as "Buddy." He took his highly talented  specimen to Kentucky with no doubt that he would win the Derby...and he did just that. Bid added the Preakness. He came to Belmont Park seeking the fourth TC in seven years. The powerful gray stepped on a pin the night before the race. That along with jockey Ronnie Franklin's sophomoric ride ended the dream. Only a blip in his tremendous career, Spectacular Bid went on to reach dizzying heights...a Champion of the highest order. 

The 1970's had produced four Kentucky Derby winners who found themselves among ten or so of the greatest racehorses of all time. What a decade it was for "The Sport of Kings."


On the first Saturday in May, 1980 it would be Ladies Day at Churchill Downs. Leroy Jolley, at the top of his training skills, sent out Filly Genuine Risk and jockey Jacinto Vasquez to test the boys in "The Run For The Roses." She stunned her male counterparts and headed home with the Derby Trophy and a blanket of roses befitting a queen. It was the first time that a member of the fairer sex had taken the Derby in eighty-six years. 

Four years later Swale came to Louisville and got his Derby with ease. At the Belmont Stakes Swale took on the look of a champion, as he toyed with the rest of the field. A week later his life ended when he collapsed after a morning workout. A autopsy showed a flawed heart. That may have been his only flaw. We can only wonder how great Swale's career could have been. 

For the older set, the 1986 Derby was a dream come true. Bill Shoemaker flew into Louisville seeking his fourth Derby. This one would be special, very special indeed. "The Shoe" had the mount on Ferdinand. With all the great skills in his arsenal he waited for the perfect time to make his move. At the top of the stretch Shoemaker weaved through traffic. Then out of nowhere he came flying on the inside with his mount. He blew past the leaders and won the race. At age fifty-four the "Shoe" had become the oldest jockey to take the Derby...the Immortal Bill Shoemaker.

Let's move ahead to 1989. This one was one to remember. Ogden Phipps had Easy Goer in this rendition. "The Goer" came into the race with an impeccable resume. Charlie Whitingham, a topnotch West Coast trainer brought a formidable challenger, Sunday Silence to test the big horse. The California upstart drew clear and won the Derby by two lenghts over Easy Goer. The two went on to become arch rivals, contesting some of the most thrilling races in memory. 

The nineties was the decade of three great trainers  on Derby Day. The brilliant  Nick Zito got the first of his two in 1991 with Strike The Gold. Three years later he would  "pardon the pun"...Strike again with Go For Gin. 

Derby slayer Bob Baffert got his first with Silver Charm in 1997. He followed with Real Quiet the next year. Both of his steeds took aim on the Triple Crown. Silver Charm came close in his attempt. Real Quiet came closer. He was lengths clear of the field at midstretch in the Belmont Stakes.
His nemesis Victory Gallup came toward him like a Concorde in full throttle. At the wire they were inseparable. The photo finish showed Victory Gallup the winner by a hair. Baffert was denied the Crown for the second time. As we shall see, the worm would turn in his favor seventeen years later. 

Zito and Baffert had both struck twice in the nineties. D Wayne Lucas would outdo them both. Lucas was at the top of the heap in the final decade of the twentieth century. He had scored his first Derby win with filly Winning Colors in 1988. She was only the third damsel to get the roses. When the nineties rolled around Wayne Lucas was about to own Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The roll took some time to get started. Halfway through the decade it began. He nailed down the 1995 version with Thunder Gulch. It was back to back when Grindstone charged home the winner the following year. Lucas had one more up his sleeve. In the last year of the twentieth century he pulled the hat trick with the ill fated team of Charismatic and his jockey Chris Antley. Charismatic broke down after a valiant effort in his quest for the Triple Crown. Antley passed away a year later. Racing fans will never forget his heartfelt cradling of Charismatic's injured leg moments after the Belmont Stakes loss. 


Lightning struck home in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. A Saratoga area partnership led by Jack Knowlton and Gus Williams owned Funny Cide. The gelding hit his stride at the exact right time to make him a Derby contender. Racing enthusiasts were ecstatic as the fan favorite took the roses. Funny Cide became the first gelding to win the race in seventy-four years. He went on to demolish the Preakness field by almost ten lengths. He was always a tough competitor and can be considered something of a folk hero for his exploits on the racetrack. 

Next up was Smarty Jones. He like Funny Cide the previous year had a huge fan base. He had a loveable name and was bred in of all places, the State of Pennsylvania. Despite being bred in a state that was far removed from the Kentucky Bluegrass, he could outrun any three year old on the planet, save one. He headed for Louisville unbeaten and stayed that way. He easily won the Derby, then moved onto Baltimore where he exploded to an eleven length romp in the Preakness.  He was off to Belmont and a shot at glory. Saratoga's great benefactor Mary Lou Whitney sent out a distinct outsider named Birdstone to test his luck in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Nick Zito had the thirty to one shot prepped and ready to run... and he did just that. Birdstone caught Smarty down the stretch and drove past him to the finish line. In a grand gesture  Mrs. Whitney apologized to Smarty Jones'  connections for ending their dream of taking the Triple Crown. Birdstone had one more gift in his shopping bag for Mary Lou. He came to the Spa that August and garnered a  much deserved Travers Stakes Trophy for The Grand Dame of the Saratoga Racing Scene.

There was one more running of the Derby that decade worth a look. This time it was Big Brown...and big he was. In 2008 the lightly raced and unbeaten colt came to Churchill Downs and toyed with the rest of the field. He continued his success with an easy score at Pimlico two weeks later. The Big Guy had aspirations of glory. Nick Zito put that dream to rest with another long shot as Da'Tara  romped home in the Belmont Stakes.

The decade had produced four Kentucky Derby winners that failed in their attempts to take the Triple Crown. Things were about to change.

The last decade is not over just  yet. This weekend's Derby will see the end of it. It has been one for the ages. Let's take a look.

We can start with 2014. It was the year of trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome. The first time  Art had made the trip to the Derby, he rode in a boxcar with 1955 Derby winner Swaps. At the time he was the exercise rider for the "California Comet" as the great Swaps was known. This time he flew first class to Louisville on a jet plane and was ushered to a box seat to watch his horse win The Kentucky Derby. To quote the great one, Jackie Gleason, "How Sweet It Is." Chrome went on to win the Preakness and reaped Horse of the Year Honors for 2014 and again in 2016. 

Next up it was Amercan Pharoah.  This beautiful bay colt would have made Ramses ii proud. He won The Derby in a driving finish. Bob Baffert had captured his fourth Derby and it was about to get better. he rolled home in The Preakness. His next stop was Elmont, New York and a shot at immortality. Baffert's horses had failed in two previous attempts at Triple Crown glory. This time he would not be denied. Pharoah devastated the field. He was all by himself at the wire. Baffert finally had his Triple Crown, the first in thirty-seven years. 

Last year Bob Baffert was back at Louisville with a lightly raced, highly talented colt named Justify. He had gone to the post only three times before The Derby. Given  the same task that Big Brown had faced a decade earlier, Justify too got the roses despite his lack of experience. Unlike Brown, he went on to capture The Triple Crown, Bafferts second in four years. The thirteenth TC winner was retired shortly after taking the series. 

The decade has seen the likes of California Chrome, American Pharoah, and Justify thrill racing fans across the country with breathtaking efforts. They  as so  many before them, raced to fame at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Many that we have discussed went on to beome great champions. A select few entered the gates of immortality. Others had their brief moment of fame, then faded into relative obscurity. Then there were the Derby losers who forged on to great careers. They include Native Dancer, Damascus, Point Given, and Nashua to name a few. Last but not least is Man O' War. This icon plain skipped The Derby. His "Out Of This World" exploits need no introduction here. 

This Saturday will mark the end of fifteeen decades of Kentucky Derby history. We don't know what the outcome will be. We do know that when the band strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home" we are about to witness the one hundred and forty-fifth consecutive running of "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports."

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