By Mark Coomes
Secretariat was incomparable but not unbeatable. He lost to
a plug named Onion.
Six years ago, The Blood-Horse magazine published an
ambitious volume titled “Thoroughbred Champions: The
Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.”
Meticulously researched and artfully written, it is a concisely
encyclopedic tour de force. Yet the opening sentence
is a virtual apology for every line that lies within.
“One approaches (the list),” turfwriter William Nack wrote in
the foreword, “with a nagging sense of its folly as a rational
exercise and of the maddening arbitrariness of its outcome.”
We at The Courier-Journal, chock full of folly and
arbitrariness, have decided to pursue this irrational exercise
to the nth degree.
Instead of whittling 100 years down to 100 horses, we boiled
130 Kentucky Derbys down to a single question: “Who is the
greatest winner of America’s greatest race?”
The answer is … There is no definitive answer. “Even if you
could actually rank these horses from different eras against one
another,” Daily Racing Form publisher Steven Crist said, “having
so many good ones in one starting gate would create bizarre
dynamics within the race — unlike any race any of them ever had
We asked Crist, Nack and two other sharpies — Washington Post
columnist Andrew Beyer, inventor of the Daily Racing Form’s
revolutionary Beyer Speed Figures; and Louisville native Marty
McGee, the Form’s chief correspondent at Churchill Downs — which
great Derby winner would capture the ultimate roseate run.
They know what you know: That no expert panel or computer
program can predict with certainty which horse would win such a
contentious race. By mixing our experts’ input with facts,
fiction and fun, we came up with a winner nonetheless.
Let the arbitrary folly begin. Our Fantasy Derby will have 14
entrants — enough to fill one starting gate
— and they will be the Derby winners who ranked highest on The
Blood- Horse’s Top 100. At No. 42, Alysheba was the
lowest-ranked Derby winner to make the cut. Northern Dancer
(43), Silver Charm (63) and 12 others did not. The resulting
field included six horses who preferred to run on or near the
Affirmed, Citation, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew, Swaps and War
Admiral. Wise handicappers know that pace makes the race. They
also know that speedy horses, like mischievous children, tend to
bring out the worst
in each other.
“The front-runners (would) cook one another early,” Crist
said. “So wonderful horses such as Swaps, Seattle Slew and
Affirmed have zero chance.”
Ditto for War Admiral and Count Fleet. The great Citation,
however, was content at times to let others seize the early
lead. As a 3-year-old, he won four major stakes races, the 1948
Derby included, in which he trailed by three to six lengths
after the first quarter-mile.
Most Derby winners rally from off the pace. Our fantasy
winner will, too.
At the end of the profiles is a chart that reveals our
winner, with footnotes that tell how the race was won — and
(Second in The Blood-Horse’s top 100) Lifetime record:
21-16-3-1. Claims to fame: Won the 1973 Triple Crown. Owns the
world record for 1½ miles on dirt (2 minutes, 24 seconds) and
the Kentucky Derby
record (1:59 2/5).
Why he should win: Secretariat is arguably the greatest
racehorse ever born. On the morning of the 1973 Belmont Stakes,
Hall of Fame trainer Hollie Hughes, who won the 1916 Derby with
George Smith, told Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte, “Believe
me, boy, you are riding the greatest horse of all time, and I
have seen them all.”
That was before Secretariat won the Belmont by an astonishing
Why he shouldn’t: Great as he was, Secretariat lost five
times in 21 starts, most memorably to a plug named Onion. If
Secretariat can lose to Onion, he could certainly lose to these
Lifetime record: 45-32-10-2. Claims to fame: Won 1948 Triple
Crown and 16 consecutive races from 1948-50, tied with Cigar for
the modern record.
Why he should win: Citation was one of 18 champions and eight
Derby winners that Ben Jones and his son, Jimmy, trained for
Calumet Farm. They saw every great horse of the 20th century.
Both believed Citation was the best.
Citation’s record as a 3-year-old is probably the best in
racing history: 20 starts, 19 wins, one second.
Of Citation’s lone defeat, a one length loss in a minor stakes
race, legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro said, “I could have caught
(the winner), but I wasn’t about to burn up that horse for an
$8,300 pot with all those $100,000 races ahead.”
Why he shouldn’t: The only discernible reason why Citation
would lose — other than being flat outrun — is that he’s one of
six horses in this field who preferred to run on or near the
early lead. But in the ’48 Derby, he spotted Coaltown a
six-length head start and still drew off to a 3 ½-length
SPECTACULAR BID (10)
Lifetime record: 30-26-2-1. Claims to fame: Owns the world
record for 1 ¼ miles on dirt (1:57 4/5); set or tied eight track
records at five different distances.
Why he should win: Versatile enough to win on the lead or
from behind, The Bid was a truly spectacular
3-year-old who won his first seven races by a combined 44
lengths. The 1979 Triple Crown was a foregone conclusion until
he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont.
Why he shouldn’t: A tactical error by Spectacular Bid’s
jockey, 19-year-old Ronnie Franklin, contributed
to The Bid’s Belmont defeat. A similarly youthful mistake would
spell doom in this tough field.
Lifetime record: 60-32-15-9. Claim to fame: Won 1941Triple
Why he should win: Whirlaway excelled at making one big, late
run, the ideal style for winning races in which the early pace
projects to be scorchingly fast.
Why he shouldn’t: Whirlaway won only half his starts and had
a bad habit of losing ground by veering
toward the outside rail.
GALLANT FOX (28)
Lifetime record: 17-11-3-2. Claims to fame: Won 1930 Triple
Crown; lost 1930 Travers to 100-1 shot Jim Dandy, perhaps the
biggest upset in U.S. racing history.
Why he should win: Gallant Fox owned such special talent that
Hall of Fame jockey Earl Sande came out of retirement to ride
the colt — and waived his customary retainer fee in lieu of 10
percent of the Fox’s earnings.
Why he shouldn’t: Yes, the Travers was run over a sticky,
muddy track. And, yes, Gallant Fox all but beat himself by
engaging a rival in an early speed duel. But a fantasy Derby
winner simply doesn’t lose by eight lengths to Jim Dandy, who
won just seven races in 141 starts.
Lifetime record: 100-50-17-17. Claim to fame: Last horse to win
the Derby off just four career starts.
Why he should win: Former Churchill Downs president Matt
Winn, who witnessed the first 75 Kentucky Derbys, called
Exterminator “the greatest all-around thoroughbred in American
Why he shouldn’t: Pre-World War II thoroughbreds were more
durable but not nearly as fast their latter-day kin. What’s
more, Exterminator lost eight of his 15 starts at age 3,
including five consecutive races after his 1918 Derby win.
SUNDAY SILENCE (31)
Lifetime record: 14-9-5-0. Claim to fame: Only horse to win two
Triple Crown races (Derby and Preakness) and the Breeders’ Cup
Classic in the same year.
Why he should win: Sunday Silence was a fighter who hated to
lose. Only one of his five defeats was by more than ¾ of a
Why he shouldn’ t : As a 3-year-old in 1989, Sunday Silence
was a good horse in the spring but not great until the fall.
Lifetime record: 42-18-6-7. Claim to fame: Won the 1946 Triple
Why he should win: It’s hard to count out a horse that was
tough enough to overcome stepping on a surveyor’s spike as a
weanling, an injury so severe that Assault was nearly
euthanized. “The Clubfooted
Comet” was left with a limping walk that belied his swift,
smooth running stride.
Why he shouldn’t: The great Eddie Arcaro, Assault’s jockey,
admired the horse greatly but believed Citation was better.
Lifetime record: 26-11-8-2. Claims to fame: Won the 1987 Derby
and Preakness and the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic; second horse
ever to run three 1 ¼-mile races in less than 2:00.
Why he should win: Alysheba excelled at the classic distance
of 1 ¼ miles: 12 starts, eight wins, two seconds — all in Grade
1 events. Why he shouldn’t: Alysheba threw some real clunkers on
He lost nine of his first 10 races and was soundly trounced
in the Belmont, Travers, Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup.
A bad hoof very likely cost Spectacular Bid, with jockey
Ronnie Franklin, the 1979 Triple Crown.
And the winner is...Spectacular Bid
The Bid scored a mild upset by racing in perfect striking
position throughout the fastest first mile in Derby history. He
stayed far enough from the early leaders to avoid exhausting
himself yet close enough to get the jump on rivals who rallied
from farther back in the pack. Secretariat, who finished a
half-length back in third, was hindered by a rough start in
which he was bumped by War Admiral and pinched back by Swaps.
In the chart below, PP equals post position.
The first number in each subsequent column shows each horse’s
running position at various stages of the race. The second
number reflects the length of his lead over the horse
immediately behind him.