If the Kentucky Derby is truly "the most exciting two minutes in sports," as Kentuckians have claimed for years, the aimless hour that precedes it is unquestionably the dullest. On Derby Day the first seven races are run off with a half hour separating each, but between races seven and eight the management of Churchill Downs has decreed that 130,000 people should do nothing but bet, drink, sit, stand, squat or lie down for a full 60 minutes. Silly? Of course. But the Derby gets away with it simply because it is the Derby. Should you want to affix blame for that, blame Regret.
In 1915, when the race was already 41 years old, Regret became the first of two fillies to win the Kentucky Derby. (Genuine Risk won in 1980.) In the two years before Regret, when the Derby lacked its current prestige, the winners were, respectively, Donerail, still the biggest long shot ever (91-1), and Old Rosebud, the first nationally known horse to win the Derby. But it was Regret who finally catapulted the race into national prominence. Colonel Matt Winn, who was vice president of Churchill Downs at the time, said, "The race needed only a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity and really put it over. She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution."
The Derby is still that, and neither the empty hour leading up to it nor the greedy doubling of all ticket prices over 1984 levels for this year's running of the race will detract from the race's lure or lore. Thanks to Regret, the country catches Derby fever every spring; indeed, 70 years after her victory, the strains of My Old Kentucky Home will be heard in almost every tavern in the land on Derby Day.
Strictly from a racing point of view, the Kentucky Derby has its drawbacks, the most notable one being the recent trend whereby owners flood the field with the maximum of 20 entries. No matter what anyone may tell you, there are not 20 top 3-year-olds ready to run 1¼ miles on the first Saturday in May—and with such a crowd of horses the bad ones can always get in the way of good ones. But enough owners usually are willing to put up the $20,200 entry fee.
When it comes to added money—funds put up for a race by the track's management—the Derby's $250,000 purse is cheap. Heck, when it comes to added money, the Derby isn't even the richest 3-year-old race in its own state; the Jim Beam stakes at tiny Latonia Race Course in Florence tops it by $50,000. The Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park has $500,000 added, and the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, N.J. on May 27 will carry a purse of $1 million guaranteed. That's four times as much as the country's premier race. Both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes have $350,000 in added money; the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Santa Anita Derby have $300,000 purses. And, the last we had heard, those tracks had not jacked up their admission prices.
Of course, winning the Derby means a lot more than a nice check from Churchill Downs. "When you run a horse in the Kentucky Derby," says Laz Barrera, the Hall of Fame trainer who won the race with Bold Forbes (1976) and Affirmed (1978), "you really aren't running for the purse. If a horse wins the Derby he should be worth a minimum of $10 million in today's market."
The 20 horses allowed to start the race are those that have the highest accumulated earnings. Before 1981, all a horse needed to get into the Derby was four legs. The "money rule" has fostered a huge list of prep races with jackpots large enough to earn passage to Kentucky. This year, on April 20, four prep races will be run at tracks scattered across the country: the $500,000 Arkansas Derby, the $300,000 Garden State Stakes, the $250,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the $200,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. As many as eight horses could qualify for the Derby by either winning or running second. Wild. The Kentucky Derby, you see, has a lot of other tracks working for it.
Swale, Sunny's Halo, Gato Del Sol and Pleasant Colony have won the last four runnings of the Derby, and each arrived in Louisville from a different direction. Swale got to Churchill Downs by way of Florida and a stop-off at Keeneland racetrack where he lost to He Is A Great Deal in the $50,000 Lexington Stakes. Sunny's Halo made only two starts in 1983 before becoming the first horse in 47 years to win both the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies. Gato Del Sol raced in California, then lost the Blue Grass to Linkage, a horse that skipped the Kentucky Derby and jumped to the Preakness. After a mediocre winter in Florida, Pleasant Colony earned his way to the Derby by winning Aqueduct's Wood Memorial, at odds of nearly 13-1.
None of them used Regret's route. Regret ran only three times as a 2-year-old, winning all three races against colts in a two-week period at Saratoga. That was it. She had never started as a 3-year-old before the Derby. She was trained in New Jersey, vanned to Churchill Downs and won the Derby over a field of 15 other starters, all males. Regret passed up the Preakness and Belmont and, three months after her Derby victory, resurfaced in the Saranac Handicap at Saratoga, where she dusted off Belmont Stakes winner The Finn. Her entire 3-year-old campaign consisted of those two races.
Contrary to general belief, no one prep race regularly stamps out Kentucky Derby champions. For instance, no winner of the California Derby, which was first run in 1873, has ever won the Derby. The Blue Grass Stakes has had 16.7% of its victors (10 winners from 60 races) later win at Churchill Downs, but seven of those triumphs occurred between 1959 and 1972, when the Blue Grass held a hot hand. Only Black Gold in 1924 ever parlayed wins in the Louisiana and Kentucky derbies, and this year will mark the 60th running of the Louisiana race. Sunny's Halo made the Arkansas Derby 1 for 47. Ten of 65 Wood Memorial winners have subsequently run away with the roses. The Florida Derby has yielded seven winners from 33 runnings (21%), while the older Flamingo (56 races) has given the Kentucky Derby nine winners (16%). The Santa Anita Derby has had 47 winners, but only six won in Kentucky. In his only "major" prep for the Derby, it should be recalled, Secretariat lost the Wood Memorial to his stablemate, Angle Light.
Has any horse—aside from Regret—won a Kentucky Derby without winning an earlier 3-year-old race of any kind? Yes indeed. Sir Barton (1919) used the Derby to break his maiden, and just three years ago Gato Del Sol won after losing his four previous 1982 starts. Also, several pre-Derby starts don't seem to affect a really good horse. Before being put into the starting gate in 1958, Calumet Farm's Tim Tarn had run a remarkable 10 races that spring.
But times and trainers have changed, and looking for a winner in the '80s is a whole different horse race than it was back in the '50s. In its April 25, 1984 issue, The Thoroughbred Record presented an interesting study of Derby winners from 1950 to '83, which showed that in the '50s horses ran an average of 5.7 races leading up to America's gaudiest animal act. The five winners in the '80s have averaged only 3.2 pre-Derby starts, reflecting a major change in attitude by trainers. The last three Triple Crown winners, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat, had four, three and three pre-Derby starts, respectively. In many regards Seattle Slew's inexperience entering the Kentucky Derby was remarkable. He had only six career starts before the Derby, two fewer than War Admiral and three fewer than Gallant Fox. By the way, the next time anyone tells you that the Kentucky Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May and the Preakness is two weeks later, tell them about Sir Barton, who won the Derby on May 10, 1919, four days before the running of the Preakness. Gallant Fox won the Preakness on May 9, 1930, and used that race as his prep for the Derby, which was run eight days later. Hoop Jr. won the Derby in 1945 on the second Saturday in June, because of restrictions invoked during World War II.
The list below reveals the number of pre-Derby races of the 11 Triple Crown winners and also suggests that many conditioning strategies have merit:
Sir Barton (1919)
Gallant Fox (1930)
War Admiral (1937)
Count Fleet (1943)
Seattle Slew (1977)
Because of the vast media coverage of the Derby, many people assume that the winner is automatically the nation's top 3-year-old. Myth, all myth. The American Racing Manual shows that since championships were made official in 1936, only 19 of the 49 3-year-old champions were Derby winners, and seven of those had to be because they were also Triple Crown winners.
Strange trends have helped make the Derby a fascinating, if unpredictable, event. For instance, in the eight runnings of the race from 1972 to '79, six betting favorites won, while the other two finished second. Unlike the '80s, the '70s seem to have been filled with excellent runners. You could almost bet the farm that the top 2-year-old of one December would show up in the Churchill Downs' winner's circle the following May. It seemed almost rigged. And in 1978 the top-ranked 2-year-olds of the previous year, Affirmed, Alydar and Believe It, ran one-two-three in the Derby. Then the picture changed drastically (see chart page 10).
Last year's Derby crop seemed to be rich with promise because the top graduating 2-year-olds looked special. Devil's Bag was the hot winter book Derby favorite off his undefeated 2-year-old record of five very fast victories. He won his first start in 1984 before running fourth in the Flamingo. He never won another major race, and his final appearance was a ho-hum victory in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby. His disappointing performance caused his owners to withdraw him. He was sent to stud with his image vastly tarnished. Fourth-ranked Dr. Carter caught a virus not long after running second in the Florida Derby to Swale and didn't run again until Christmas Eve. Fali Time, the third-best male of this crop, got to the Derby but was bothered during the running of it by Gate Dancer; the stewards awarded him fourth money. During the summer, however, Fali Time got a bacterial infection and nearly died. He hasn't won a race since. Swale, rated behind only Devil's Bag as a 2-year-old, won the Derby and the Belmont Stakes but died suddenly after a morning workout on June 17. Althea, the champion among 1983's fillies, won the $500,000 Arkansas Derby and was sent off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. She ran 19th in the 20-horse field, never won another race and was retired last fall.
This year seems to have started out in the same strange fashion. Top-ranked Chiefs Crown went to Florida as the 2-year-old champion and contracted a cough. Second-ranked Saratoga Six, who broke a leg at two, was sent to stud. No. 3, the undefeated Smile, had arthroscopic surgery for bone chips in both knees, and Spend A Buck, also third-ranked, is recovering from arthroscopic surgery for bone chips as well. Two of this spring's most highly regarded Derby hopefuls, Proud Truth and Rhoman Rule, were not even ranked as 2-year-olds.
But there will be a Kentucky Derby on May 4. Some 130,000 people will bet, drink, sit, stand, squat or lie down in that empty hour that precedes the race, and then 20 or so horses will show up and parade nervously on the track. Most of the folks at Churchill Downs and those watching on TV in homes and bars around the country will appear to be happy about the whole thing. In other words, no—ah—regrets.
FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF RACING, INC., SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.
Favored Regret won in 1915, but a high ranking is not a sure bet.