Off the Pace: The, err… less good Kentucky Derby winners
It has been 50 years since Secretariat won the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Arguably the greatest horse of the last half-century, it is fitting that he won America’s premier race. There have been other great horses that have won “the run for the roses” since Secretariat, among them were Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and Justify.
What about those that were, let’s say, less great?
The Derby is a unique challenge for a 3-year-old. Going the mile-and-a-quarter distance is perhaps the greatest obstacle. Having to do so against a crowded field in front of a large and boisterous crowd versus the best horses makes it even more daunting.
I would argue that the distance and other challenges also add a greater amount of luck to winning the Derby than perhaps any other race. I am not saying that there have been any Derby winners that are nags, but I would say that not all winners were great horses. For your consideration here in my opinion are the very good but less than great horses that were in the Derby winner’s circle in the last few decades:
Pace makes the race, and Monarchos, who was far back after a first half-mile that went in a blazing 44.86 seconds, closed to win in large part because of that pace. The first four leaders at the first quarter all finished near the back of the field, and both 9-5 favorite Point Given and show horse Congaree were also hurt by the fact that they ran much closer to leaders for most of the race. Monarchos was winless in three races after the Derby, including being defeated in an allowance-optional-claimer to end his career.
The first half-mile of this Derby was run in 45.38, and Giacomo, who was a deserved long shot, was in the 18th position at that point. Those suicidal fractions enabled him to win, defeating, among others, Afleet Alex, who got a brutal trip but proved his greatness by subsequently winning the Preakness and Belmont. Giacomo, on the other hand, won only one of his final eight starts in his career, finishing with three wins from 16 lifetime outings.
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MINE THAT BIRD (2009)
At 50-1, Mine That Bird surprised everyone — including announcer Tom Durkin — when he closed a ton while mainly skimming the rail under jockey Calvin Borel. He ran competitively in the Preakness (finishing second to Rachel Alexander) and Belmont, so I vacillated including him in this list. On the other hand, he lost all nine races after the Derby, and I just could not get past my opinion that the Derby win was just a freak performance on an off track that he liked.
SUPER SAVER (2010)
Off track, Calvin Borel, good trip. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. If Lookin At Lucky had gotten a better start, this race might have ended differently. Meanwhile, Super Saver finished out-of-the-money in his only three starts after the Derby.
It took Orb 4 races to break his maiden, but then he ran off five straight victories, culminating with scores in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. He relished the slop and was the best Derby day on the off track. The five race win streak appeared to take something out of him, though, and although he had a big heart, he physically did not look the same after the Derby. He went winless in all four career races following that race, including an 8th place finish in the Jockey Gold Cup to end his career. A very good horse that peaked at the right time on a surface he liked.
COUNTRY HOUSE (2019)
Besides being the only horse ever to win the Derby by a race day disqualification, his resume is extremely weak. His only other win came when he broke his maiden in his third time out and he never ran again after his Derby win.
RICH STRIKE (2022)
Maybe he will prove me wrong down the road, but to date his only win besides the Derby was his maiden breaker. He was fortunate to draw into the field on Derby day because of a late scratch. His Derby win at over 80-1 has all the looks of an aberration, especially since he closed like a freak in the lane. Has not won since.
Part of what makes the Triple Crown so hard is that the three races tend to reward different horses. With its smaller field and closer-to-normal distance, the Preakness is the race most similar to what most contenders have done and will do, while the Belmont is all about the horses that can stay the distance.
With its oversized field, frequent pace meltdowns, and over-the-top atmosphere, the Kentucky Derby is a different kind of beast. Racing luck, good (or bad) trips, track conditions and pace meltdowns in my mind all play critical roles. So on this list, you’ll note that several of these benefited from a particular set of circumstances, most often from an insanely hot pace that let them unleash their closing kicks.
One lesson here for bettors: beware the Derby winner who benefited mightily from a particular set of circumstances. They’re often horses to avoid, mostly at short prices, going forward.
These horses aren’t the best Kentucky Derby winners. Still, to their credit, they were good enough to take advantage of the beneficial circumstances to win the run for the roses. It’s safe to say Rich Strike is no American Pharoah – or even a Sea Hero, for that matter – but he’s still a member of pretty elite club, that of winners of the Kentucky Derby.