Off the Pace: Thankful for the Kentucky Derby memories

The Kentucky Derby is like opening day in baseball or the Masters in golf.

Each of these occurs in the spring, the season of renewal. They have long histories and, especially for a senior citizen like me, evoke remembrances of the signposts of a life that is heading down the stretch.

But in a sense, it’s less the Triple Crown winners or greats that stand out. Here are some of the major, and minor, moments that have stood out, ones that I recall from the nearly 60 years of Kentucky Derbies I have watched.

Of all the wods of tongue and pen…

In 2005, Afleet Alex finished 3rd in the Derby, a length behind the winner. The chart comment ends with a very cold “…wasn’t quite good enough.” If you watch the replay or scour the chart, though, you will see he got the textbook bad trip. He did not see the rail on either turn, he ran in cramped quarters, and he chased a blistering pace before taking the lead in deep stretch. Although he did not win, he never quit. Of all the horses who lost the Derby but came back to win the Preakness and Belmont, Afleet Alex is the horse who I feel should have been a Triple Crown winner.

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From Riches to Rags and Back

That same 2005 Derby produced a tale straight out of a movie. With the winner Giacomo going off at over 50-1 along with two other double-digit odds horses in the top four positions, the $1 superfecta payoff exceeded $864,000. There were only seven winning tickets sold in the United States. According to the Associated Press, one of those tickets was sold at Turf Paradise but the winning bettor could not find the ticket after the race. Management literally shut down the track and conducted a search of the facility in an effort to reunite the bettor and the ticket. The search failed and the bettor left the track that day knowing he had lost the life-changing ticket.

The final crazy twist was that after what had to be a sleepless night, the bettor received a call from the track the next day alerting him that the ticket was found next to the teller machine of the clerk who had sold it to him.

You’re Going to Win The Derby

Another movie-script moment occurred in the 1990 Derby. The owner of the winning horse, Unbridled, was 92 year-old Mrs. Frances Genter. Since her failing eyesight limited her ability to see the race from the stands, trainer Carl Nafzger provided her with a play-by-play description as the horse took the lead on the way to victory.

“He’s a winner, he’s a winner,” Nafzger shouted as Unbridled crossed the wire. The moment was captured on national television only because ABC had a camera and microphone on Nafzger to get some pre-race comments. The emotion on Mrs. Genter’s face mirrored that of a young child who had just been given a pony at Christmas. The iconic moment says everything not only about horse ownership and winning the Derby but also about life itself.

[See Mrs. Genter win the Kentucky Derby]

Pace Makes the Race

The 2001 Derby produced a ridiculous half mile split of under 45 seconds. The six furlongs was run in just over 1:09 seconds. That pace was set by Songandaprayer. He and the other horses that occupied the top four positions at the six-furlong mark all faded badly, finishing 11th or worse.

The winner, Monarchos  came from way back to win at double digit odds. Place horse Invisible Ink also closed a lot of ground at 55-1. Congaree and Point Given ran big that day but finished third and fifth respectively. Both had better overall careers than Monarchos, but on the first Saturday in May…

An Impossible Result 

Sent off at more than 50-1, Mine That Bird was not on most people’s radar coming into the 2009 Derby. Going into the first turn the horse was so far behind that announcer Tom Durkin failed to pick him up in his initial call of the field; after a quarter-mile, he was 21 lengths off the pace, and some six lengths behind any other horse.

Still last at the six-furlong mark, jockey Calvin Borel began a charge that culminated in the horse taking the lead on the rail near the furlong gournds. Durkin, who was one of the greatest race callers, did not pick up on the fact that the horse was in the lead until he was well clear of the field. Tom then gave a little chuckle, which sounded to me like bemusement at the winner, as well as a self-depreciating critique of his own race call.

America, Land of Immigrants

Prior to Mine That Bird the most unlikely winner of The Derby in my lifetime was Canonero II, who captured the race in 1971. He was part of a six-horse entry consisting of the horses thought to have no chance by the odds makers. The other five finished in the last 5 positions, but Canonero II, who had run in lesser  races in Venezuela as a 2 year-old, charged through the stretch to win. Because he was part of a betting entry, supporters only got back $19.40 for a horse that would have gone off much higher had he been a solo betting interest. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Disqualification

Medina Spirit was not the first horse DQed from a Derby victory for a medication positive. That notoriety belongs to Dancer’s Image, who crossed the line first in 1968 but had to forfeit the purse after traces of phenylbutazone showed up in his post-race drug test. The results of the test were not known until a few days after, so bettors of Dancer’s Image were not impacted. The ruling was challenged in court two times but upheld. Forward Pass ultimately was declared the official winner.

The 1966 Kentucky Derby

This Derby has personal significance for me because I placed my first ever bet on a horse in this race. More accurately I risked $1 on a horse in a betting pool with my relatives. I remember a few things from this day even though more than half a century has passed. The selections were randomly assigned out of a hat, so no handicapping was involved. I don’t recall who I was assigned, but it was not the winner of the race, Kauai King.

I have to be honest and say I would be financially richer had I not picked up handicapping as a pursuit. I would not have as many rich memories, however, and that is what I will think about most when I hear the call to the post this Saturday. 

Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit held off Mandaloun to win the Kentucky Derby. Photo Coady Photography/Churchill Downs.