Very often it is not the Kentucky Derby itself that provides the greatest memories as much as the road leading to the Derby. That is the time when hopes and dreams are still alive. And in many cases the Derby fails to provide much drama, with stirring stretch battles a rarity. You really have to go back to 1997 to find an exciting stretch duel to the wire, although American Pharoah was under pressure the entire stretch before easing clear late. So instead of devoting this column to the most memorable Derbys, we’re going to focus on the Derby trail instead, going back to 1969.
This may have been the greatest regional showdown ever. It was just a matter of waiting for the three worlds to collide on the first Saturday in May. Florida, which was the epicenter of the Derby trail back then, with the stakes series at Hialeah followed by the series at Gulfstream, produced two major stars in 2-year-old champion Top Knight, impressive winner of the two premier stakes, the Flamingo and Florida Derby, and Arts and Letters, upset winner over Top Knight in the Everglades Stakes, second to Top Knight in the Flamingo and Florida Derby, and then a 15-length winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, equaling the stakes record. Up in New York, Claiborne Farm’s stretch-running Dike, a bust in Florida, found a home in the Big Apple, scoring back-to-back thrilling victories in the Gotham and Wood Memorial coming from far back. Finally, there was the California golden boy, the strikingly handsome Majestic Prince, the highest-priced yearling of all time who was undefeated, culminating his string of stakes victories with an impressive romp in the Santa Anita Derby. The East Coast experts cited his lack of competition, but were silenced when the Prince came to Churchill Downs and blew away his opposition in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone in track-record time. So strong were these four horses, only four others showed up at Churchill Downs, and in the end it was Majestic Prince who beat Arts and Letters by a neck with the late-running Dike another half-length back in third. The Prince eked out another victory in the Preakness over Arts and Letters, who came back to easily win the Belmont Stakes and eventually Horse of the Year and induction into the Hall of Fame, as did Majestic Prince.
It looked as if this year’s Derby trail would be the all-time bust when 2-year-old champion and budding superstar Hoist the Flag suffered a career-ending injury training for the Gotham Stakes and the regally-bred His Majesty, winner of the Everglades Stakes, fractured a coffin bone in the Flamingo Stakes, won by Executioner, who also passed the Derby. That left the indestructible Santa Anita Derby winner Jim French and California Derby winner Unconscious as the remaining Derby favorites in what looked to be a grab bag in the Kentucky Derby. But from the unlikely launching pad of Venezuela came the most unlikely Derby winner of all time, Canonero II, who had to fly to Kentucky with a planeload of chickens and ducks, losing 70 pounds en route and being stuck in quarantine in Florida when no one bothered to send his papers. Once he finally arrived at Churchill Downs one week before the Derby he became a laughing stock. No one in their right mind could have predicted that this ragamuffin would soon become known as the Caracas Cannonball and would turn out to be a national hero on two continents, performing amazing feats in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, setting a track record in the latter, and luring a record crowd to the Belmont Stakes. You can still hear the cries of “Viva Canonero” that followed him everywhere.
No horse captured the imagination of the public so early in life as Secretariat after being named Horse of the Year at 2 and being syndicated for a world-record $6,080,000 before he even started at 3. When he scored relatively easy victories in the Bay Shore and Gotham Stakes there was little doubt he would capture the roses. That is until a colt named Sham emerged in California, scoring an impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Much to the shock of everyone, both colts were beaten in the Wood Memorial by Secretariat’s stablemate Angle Light, which threw a major monkey wrench in the Derby picture. Just like that Secretariat had been exposed and it was believed that being a son of Bold Ruler, he would be not be able to get the mile and a quarter. Rumors of unsoundness surfaced, and Sham’s trainer, Frank Martin, felt strongly about his colt’s chances to rebound in the Derby. So, an air of uncertainty hung over the Derby as the big day approached. But no one was aware of the nasty abscess in Secretariat’s mouth that had been bothering the colt in Wood, preventing him from grabbing hold of the bit. Well, with the abscess cleared by Derby Day, we are all aware what happened after that. Nearly 50 years later, the name of Secretariat is still a part of our vernacular, with his name continuing to crop up as an example of true greatness and his records still untouched.
Just like the previous year with Foolish Pleasure, this year’s Derby trail looked as if it belonged to 2-year-old champion Honest Pleasure, winner of 10 of his 12 starts and nine in a row. He roared into Louisville having won the Flamingo Stakes by 11 lengths in a near track record 1:46 4/5 followed by victories in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. But at Keeneland he looked vulnerable for the first time, winning by only 1 ½ lengths at 1-10 over a 100-1 shot. Meanwhile, as Honest Pleasure appeared to be getting slower, a Puerto Rican flash named Bold Forbes was getting faster. He was perceived as a sprinter in Puerto Rico and then in the U.S., with his first 10 starts ranging from five furlongs to seven furlongs. He did raise a few eyebrows when he stretched out to a mile to win the San Jacinto Stakes, but then returned to sprinting, romping in the seven-panel Bay Shore Stakes in a blistering 1:20 4/5. He then burst into Derby contention by winning the Wood Memorial by almost five lengths in 1:47 2/5, two-fifths off the track record. Although Honest Pleasure was sent off as the 2-5 favorite in the Derby, the lowest-priced favorite in the history of the race, it was Bold Forbes who outran him from the start, turned back several challenges, and won by a length. Both colts were upset in the Preakness by Elocutionist, but Bold Forbes out a victory in the Belmont Stakes, while Honest Pleasure skipped the race and later set a new track record winning the Travers and then was nipped at wire by Forego in the Marlboro Cup.
There has never been a more widely anticipated Kentucky Derby than the showdown between Affirmed and Alydar. When the year began, with Affirmed heading to Santa Anita and Alydar going to Florida, all fingers were crossed that these two brilliant antagonists would be able to continue their memorable 2-year-old rivalry at Churchill Downs. No one had ever seen a rivalry like it, with the pair meeting six times and Affirmed finishing on top in four of them, although Alydar had won the prestigious Champagne Stakes. You couldn’t have asked for a better script for the Derby trail, as Affirmed won all four of his starts, including the Santa Anita Derby by eight lengths, Hollywood Derby, and San Felipe Stakes, and Alydar won all four of his starts, including the Flamingo, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes by 11 lengths. Despite Affirmed dominating their rivalry, winning the Hopeful, Futurity, and Laurel Futurity by a half-length or less, Alydar was sent off as the 6-5 favorite at Churchill Downs with Affirmed at 9-5. Also on the Derby trail were Believe It, the Wood Memorial winner who had beaten Alydar in the Remsen Stakes, and the swift unbeaten colt Sensitive Prince, trained by Allen Jerkens. Affirmed went on to become racing’s 11th Triple Crown winner beating Alydar in all three races by a combined margin of 1 3/4 lengths, including neck and head victories in the Preakness and Belmont. To this day there has never been a rivalry like that of Affirmed and Alydar.
This was the Triple Crown trail that changed the course of history. Right from the start the Derby looked to be Chief’s Crown’s Derby to lose. The unanimous 2-year-old champ, winner of the grade 1 Hopeful, Cowdin, Norfolk, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile had no trouble continuing his excellent form at 3, winning the Swale, Flamingo, and Blue Grass. The first historical event of the year came when Chief’s Crown was disqualified from first in the Flamingo Stakes only to have the Florida Racing Board reverse the steward’s decision and reinstate Chief’s Crown as the winner. This was an excellent crop of 3-year-olds, with Proud Truth, Tank’s Prospect, Gotham and Wood Memorial winner Eternal Prince, and the distance-loving Crème Fraiche. This was such a talented group that two members of the crop – Proud Truth and Skywalker – would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. While all looked pretty cut and dry heading to the Derby, with Chief’s Crown clearly the horse to beat, there was a series of races run at the newly built Garden State Park (that had been destroyed by fire) that at first seemed insignificant, but would prove to be the launching pad to a Kentucky Derby victory and a complete overhaul of the Triple Crown. The lightning-fast Spend a Buck, by winning the Cherry Hill Mile by 10 ½ lengths and the Garden State Stakes by 9 ½ lengths in a blazing 1:45 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles, made himself eligible for a new $2 million bonus offered by Garden State head Robert Brennan. All Spend a Buck had to do now to earn this record prize of $2.6 million with the purse money was to capture the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby, which was scheduled to be run at Garden State on Memorial Day, nine days after the Preakness. When Spend a Buck opened a huge lead at Churchill Downs, setting blazing fractions, and went on to romp by 5 ¼ lengths it left his owner Dennis Diaz with the decision of running in the Preakness or skipping the second leg of the Triple Crown and going for the big bonus. As a newcomer to the sport, and a rebel at heart, Diaz went against tradition and ran in the Jersey Derby, barely winning over eventual Belmont Stakes winner Crème Fraiche. His decision caused such a major uproar it brought about a major change in the Triple Crown, uniting all three tracks, which then instituted their own bonus incentives. Both Garden State Park (and Robert Brennan) and the Triple Crown bonus eventually faded into oblivion.
Once again we had not only a clear-cut favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but a horse to which most people were already conceding the race. Easy Goer looked to be the biggest lock in the history of the Derby and racing’s next superstar. When the 2-year-old champ romped in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes and then missed Dr. Fager’s world record of 1:32 1/5 for the mile in the Gotham Stakes by one-fifth of a second while winning eased up by 13 lengths, you might as well have given him the Derby trophy right then and there. But from California emerged a new star that won the San Felipe Stakes in modest fashion, but then demolished his opponents by 11 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby. Unlike the regally bred Easy Goer, Sunday Silence was more of a lunch pail horse who was moderately bred, unwanted at the sale, and who survived a van accident when he was 2. What developed was a fierce East vs. West battle between fans and the media. The Easterners were convinced Easy Goer was unbeatable, especially after he added an easy victory in the Wood Memorial, while the Westerners cried East Coast bias and stood by their jet black hero. Well, the Derby turned into a mess with the track a quagmire. Sunday Silence, despite running like a drunken sailor in the stretch, still was able to defeat Easy Goer, who never seemed to handle the wet track. The Preakness then produced one of the great stretch battles of all time with Sunday Silence outdueling his rival to win by a nose. Returning to his home track, Easy Goer denied Sunday Silence the Triple Crown by coasting to an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. But it was Sunday Silence who got the last laugh when he nailed down Horse of the Year honors by defeating Easy Goer by a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, ending one of the most heated rivalries in history.
There was nothing exceptional on the Derby trail this year, yet it still was one of the most riveting ever. And that was not because of what happened on the track, but what didn’t happen. What didn’t happen was that we never saw the red-hot Derby favorite, Arazi, who was in France sitting on his reputation, which had been built the previous fall when he turned in one of the most explosive moves ever witnessed on an American racetrack, blowing away his opposition to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in devastating fashion. No European invader had ever made such an impact on American racing, leaving jaws dropping and everyone grasping for superlatives. So, all we could do during the winter and early spring was wait. Other than emergence of Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy as major Derby contender, this year’s Derby trail was all about waiting…and waiting. Occasionally there would be an update from trainer Francois Boutin’s yard in Chantilly. What was lost in all the excitement was the fact that Arazi had undergone knee surgery following the Breeders’ Cup and would have only one prep in France, which came in the one-mile Prix Omnium at Saint-Cloud, a race he won easily against inferior competition. Regardless of all that, Arazi remained the center of attention, and when he finally arrived at Churchill Downs he was greeted by a huge welcoming committee of reporters, who stood out in the cold for over an hour waiting for him and getting a quick look before he was whisked away into a makeshift quarantine area in an old warehouse across the street from the track. Each morning, Arazi was followed to the track by hordes of people chasing after him like some rock star. They would line up eight or nine deep along the rail to watch him gallop. As everyone knows, Arazi, who had to be a short horse, made another spectacular move in the Derby only to falter in the last quarter mile. A.P. Indy was scratched the morning of the race with a quarter crack, allowing longshot Lil E. Tee to charge down the stretch to victory. Regardless of the result, the 1992 Kentucky Derby will always be remembered as the year of Arazi.
What made this Derby trail so special were the dominating performances in most of the major preps and the surprising conclusion. This year’s Derby looked to be a showdown among three horses who looked to be on the verge of stardom. They were Wood Memorial winner Bellamy Road, who was coming off the most spectacular Derby prep in memory, romping in the Wood Memorial by 17 ½ lengths in a stakes record 1:47 flat, earning a monster 120 Beyer figure. Then there was Afleet Alex, who had overcome a lung infection in the Rebel Stakes to win the Arkansas Derby by eight widening lengths. And finally you had Bandini coming off a six-length romp in the Blue Grass Stakes, defeating High Limit, who had won the Louisiana derby by four lengths. There was also interest in Greeley’s Galaxy, who won the Illinois Derby by 9 ½ lengths. This Derby also featured five horses trained by Nick Zito, for five different owners. Coolmore, who owned Bandini, also had a speedball named Spanish Chestnut, who had finished far back in his two final preps. Even though Bandini was trained by Todd Pletcher and Spanish Chestnut was trained by Patrick Biancone, the Coolmore braintrust decided to run Spanish Chestnut as a rabbit for Bandini to help kill off Bellamy Road, who many felt was unbeatable. He did his job setting blazing fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5, which set it up for 50-1 shot Giacomo, who had won only a maiden race in seven career starts and was coming off a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. Giacomo just got up in the final strides to defeat 71-1 shot Closing Argument in one of the most shocking finishes in Derby history.
What made this year’s Derby trail so special was the emergence of a horse who would re-write the history books. On Feb. 17 no one ever heard of Justify. But when the colt made his debut on Feb. 18 and blew everyone away with his spectacular 9 ½-length romp in 1:21 4/5 earning a 104 Beyer figure it turned the whole Derby picture around, even though no horse since 1882 had won the Derby without having started at 2. He would also have to go into the Derby off only three career starts. After that maiden win, an offer was made to buy minority interest in Justify, with another party wanting to buy into the impressive Holy Bull Stakes winner Audible, both colts owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing. The only way they would sell part of each horse was to package them. So, the people who wanted Justify had to take Audible and the people who wanted Audible had to take Justify. Audible then romped again in the Florida Derby, while Justify ran off with an allowance race and the Santa Anita Derby. Another fascinating aspect of this year’s Derby trail was that the impressive Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso grew up in the same fields as Justify at Glennwood Farm near Versailles, Ky. and the two went off to the sales together. Of course, Justify, despite having only three career starts, wound up winning the Derby with Audible a fast-closing third, and then captured the Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, never to race again. As a side note, Vino Rosso, who finished ninth in the Derby, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic the following year.