Nothing says “May” like the running of the Kentucky Derby, this year to be held May 4th at Churchill Downs. People will be standing at the track rail, and glued to their TV sets and computers urging on their favourites in the first leg of The Triple Crown of Racing.
But, for every winner, there are always losers and sometimes the sure bet, the horse with the pedigree, the speed, stamina and ace jockey topside just aren’t good enough. There are a myriad of factors that can turn a winner into a loser in an instant: a bad start, getting bumped, rider error, tripping, or the dread of every trainer, owner and jockey, doping. Let’s look at some past Derby favourites and see what caused them to lose in their quest for the Run for the Roses.
Gallant Man: The Power of Suggestion
The night before the 1957 Kentucky Derby, the people who trained and raced Gallant Man had a meeting at Brown’s Hotel to discuss their race strategy. Amongst them was the famous jockey Willie Shoemaker, who held the world record for number of professional victories for 29 years. Also in the group was trainer Johnny Nerud who said that the horse’s owner, Mr. Ralph Lowe had had a dream in that Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and lost the race.
The next day at 4.33 p.m. the Derby was in full swing and Gallant Man was in the lead ahead of Iron Liege in the stretch. Then, Shoemaker, in a nightmarish split second error, did misjudge the finish line and stood up in his stirrups. He realized instantly that he had made a terrible error and regrouped but it was too late. Iron Liege beat Gallant Man by a “dirty nose.” In the YouTube video you can actually see him rise up in his stirrups just before the finish line.
As time went on Iron Liege campaigned well but it was clear that Gallant Man was made of better stuff; he won the Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths and also won the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Gold Cup. Later he was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Blue Larkspur: For Want of Mud Calks
Col. E.R Bradley felt that another Derby win was close at hand. His horse Behave Yourself had won the 1921 Derby, and his other horse Bubbling Over took the 1926 win. In 1929, it was time for another victory and Blue Larkspur looked like the horse to do it but, Lady Luck was out of town that week for the Bradley stable.
The rains poured in torrents just before the Derby and the track was slick and mucky. Then, to add to the problems, H.J. “Derby Dick” Thompson, the head trainer was in hospital with appendicitis. The assistant who took over didn’t have the gumption to insist that the horse be shod with calks (also spelled caulks) for added grip in the mud when the blacksmith came around. Bradley must have been fit to be tied as his horse slithered and slid over the greasy track and came in fourth, beaten by five lengths by Clyde Van Dusen – a gelded son of the famous Man o’War – who did have calks on his shoes.
Larkspur was later able to prove himself in the Belmont when, once again, the track was a wet mess but, this time, he had his calks on and won. He also won the Withers Stakes and after a layoff won the Arlington Classic by five lengths. He was later unofficially named Horse of The Year in 1929. But, Col. Bradley wanted more wins and he got them in the 1932 Derby with Burgoo King; and the 1933 Derby with Brokers Tip.
Native Dancer: Twenty Two Wins, One Loss
The 1953 Derby seemed like a foregone conclusion as Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s grey colt Native Dancer, who was sired by the 1945 Preakness Stakes winner, Polynesian was in the field. The race goers loved him and the American public adored him; he could do no wrong. Best of all, a new invention called the television meant that if you couldn’t be at the race, then it came to you in fabulous snowy black and white. Of course, like many star equines he had his quirky side; he was a difficult horse who pulled exercise boys off him, tossed people around if he didn’t get his way and would only come in at night for his dinner when he felt like it often leaving his groom waiting for hours. However, the ‘sometimes’ gentle giant adored his travelling companion, Black Cat and her kittens and he played with them in his stall.
Sadly, the Derby win was not to be for Native Dancer that day and after the race his jockey Eric Guerin was taken to task by the press; one reporter writing, “he took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies’ room” But, to be fair, the horse was given a rough ride during the race and was bumped twice. Going into the first turn Money Broker bumped him and The Gray Ghost of Sagamore raced wide down the backstretch trailing Dark Star who was setting the pace by 10 lengths. In the stretch, jockey Eric Guerin steered him to the outside and into second place.
Following his loss at Churchill Downs, Native Dancer won the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, and the Travers Stakes. He never lost again that season and was named Champion Three Year Old Colt. He was voted United States Horse of The Year in 1952 and 1954, appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, was the first thoroughbred TV star and TV Guide rated him as top icon of the era.
Native Dancer’s exceptional genes were passed onto the famous Canadian racehorse and sire Northern Dancer by Nearctic whose dam Natalma was by the Native Dancer.
Holy Bull: Dreaded Doping Demise
In 1993, Rachel Carpenter, heir to the A&P fortune, left her trainer Jimmy Croll 19 horses in her will when she died. He sold all but one, keeping Holy Bull and the horse thanked the man for his faith in him and went on to win the Florida Derby, the Met Mile, the Travers Stakes, the Haskell, and others.
In 1994 on Kentucky Derby day the odds on the horse were 11-15 and people thought he was a sure winner but something was obviously very wrong. He was dopey and lethargic and lagged behind the field finishing a disappointing 12th out of 14 runners. Croll insisted that the horse had been drugged with Halcion which is a sedative. “They got to my horse,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Croll said he knew who’d done it but refused to name names, and no blood sample was taken. He also said that he knew a man in Kentucky who had 4,000 pills and was somebody who was in a position to get to the horse. Croll said he was interviewed by the FBI, but nothing ever came of his suspicions that the Derby horse was sabotaged.
Holy Bull went on to dominate several more big races and was named 1994 Horse of the Year. He was retired in 1995, and Giacomo, one of Holy Bull’s sons, won the 2005 Kentucky Derby.
In this year’s Kentucky Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher has Verrazano, Palace Malice, Revolutionary, Overanalyze and more than likely Charming Kitten in the mix so his chances of a walk to the winner’s circle are good….very good! But, before we count our chickens and anticipate a walk to the cashier’s window with our winning tickets, we have to remember that nothing is ever a foregone conclusion in racing. On May 4th we’ll once again watch with bated breath to see if the preferred horse wins without fail or fails to win and goes down in history as another favourite loser.