By C. Ray Hall
Let’s start with the scariest odds of
all: It’s even money that Louisville could be known the world
as the home of horse racing’s most famous event, the Kentucky
Bun … bury.
If not for the flip of a coin, that could be our fate: Home
of the Bunbury. Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1779, Edward
Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, and Sir Charles Bunbury
saw the first running of the Epsom Oaks in England. They were
incited to start their own race the next year. They flipped a
coin for naming rights.
Lord Derby won. So did the rest of us. When Kentuckians
stoked up their own version of the race in 1875, they used the
Epsom Derby as the model for a race they called the Kentucky
Herewith, some longer, but less scary, odds….
Odds that any one thoroughbred born in North America this
year will run in the 2008 Derby: 1,700-1 or greater. There are
about 34,000 thoroughbreds born annually in North America. And
an untold number born in the rest of the world. At most, 20 will
run in the Derby.
Odds the crowd will get it right and pick the winner: 2.6-1
They’ve run 130 Derbys over the semi-sacred sod of Churchill
Downs. In 50 of those races, the favorite won. So the crowd’s
hitting .385 — big-league numbers.
But most of the people who put up the big numbers are dead.
The crowd hasn’t been good at this since the 1970s.
From 1875 to 1979, the crowd hit almost half the time: 48 for
105. Since then, it’s 2 for 25 (a 92 percent failure rate).
From 1980 to 1999, the crowd had a perfect record: 0 for 20.
Twenty straight years of picking losers. That changed in 2000,
when a favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, finally won.
The 1990s, in particular, were the pits for prognosticators.
From 1990 to 1995, the crowd favorite finished, on average,
eighth, a dozen lengths behind the winner.
Odds that Kato Kaelin would be among the celebrities on
Millionaires’ Row: 65-1 It happened twice. Once more than it
happened to, say, Jack Nicholson. Or two more times than it
happened to Madonna.
Odds that Richard Nixon would be in the house the only time
the Derby winner is disqualified for cheating: 1-1 It happened
in 1968, when Nixon was a presidential candidate making his
first Derby appearance.
Dancer’s Image finished first but was disqualified because of
illegal medication. Forward Pass was declared the winner.
Oddsthe winner will go wire-to-wire: 6-1
It’s happened 22 times, most recently in 2002, when War
Emblem was content to lead by a length or two most of the race,
then surged for a four-length victory over Proud Citizen.
Odds the Derby winner will be adorned in a blanket of
carnations and ferns: Infinity, now. It was not always so.
That’s allegedly what the 1902 winner, Alan-a-Dale, wore.
Odds a horse will run dead last from wire to wire: 146-1
Eleven of the 1,616 Derby starters have achieved this dubious
distinction. It hasn’t happened since 1941, when Swain swooned.
In 1896, a horse going by the misnomer of Ulysses was a
steady eighth all the way. Ulysses was the
only opponent that an equally misnamed horse — The Winner —
managed to defeat. Odds the winner will be a filly: 43-1
Three fillies have won: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980
and Winning Colors in 1988.
Odds a black horse will win: 33-1 Four black horses have won:
Halma (1895), George Smith (1916), Black Gold (1924) and Flying
Odds that the Derby winner is as likely to be from, say,
Montana, as from, say, New York: 1-1
Each state has had one: Montana’s Spokane (1889) and New
York’s Funny Cide (2003).
Odds the winner and trainer will have the same name: 130-1
It happened in 1929, when Clyde Van Dusen, the horse, won for
Clyde Van Dusen, the trainer. The
trainer did not name the horse in a fit of vanity. The horse, a
son of Man o’ War, was named by Herbert Gardner, its breeder and
owner. “Clyde is a little horse, and that is why Mr. Gardner
named him after me,” said Van Dusen, a former jockey. Van Dusen
ended up owning his namesake after his racing career, using the
Derby winner as an exercise pony.
Odds the winning margin will be a nose: 16-1 It’s happened
eight times, most recently when Grindstone got a nostril ahead
of Cavonnier at the wire in 1996, turning trainer Bob Baffert’s
hair a whiter shade of white.
Odds a horse who enters the Derby undefeated will leave
undefeated: 3.6-1 Eighteen horses have brought perfect records
into the race. Only five left undefeated. They are: Regret
(1915) Morvich (1922) Majestic Prince (1969) Seattle Slew (1977)
Smarty Jones (2004) Odds the Derby winner was born in Kentucky:
1.3-1 Ninety-seven of the 130 winners were born in the Bluegrass
Odds (since 1919) that the Derby winner will win the
Preakness and Belmont to complete racing’s Triple Crown: 8-1 (11
Triple Crowns in 85 years) The last time a horse won the Triple
Crown: 1978 (Affirmed) Odds that the Derby winner will win the
Preakness but not the Belmont: 4-1 (21
Odds that the Derby winner will lose — or not enter — the
Preakness and win the Belmont: 8.5-1 (10 times) Oddsthat a Derby
jockey is more likely to be nicknamed “Tiny” than “Shorty”: 9-1
Frank “Shorty” Prior, rode winner Elwood in 1904. George B.
“Tiny” Quantrell rode in 1882 and ’83. Robert “Tiny” Williams
rode seven Derby mounts from 1891-1902.
Jockeys who rode only once in the Derby and made the most of
it, winning the race
1875: Oliver Lewis, Aristides
1879: Charlie Shauer, Lord Murphy
1880: George Garrrett Lewis, Fonso
1893: Eddie Kunz, Lookout
1895: James “Soup” Perkins, Halma
1897: Fred “Buttons” Garner, Typhoon II
1904: Frank “Shorty” Prior, Elwood
1908: Arthur Pickens, Stone Street
1910: Robert “Fred” Herbert, Donau
1911: George Archibald, Meridian
1921: Charles Thompson, Behave Yourself
*1935: William “Smokey” Saunders, Omaha
*1946: Warren Mehrtens, Assault
*1978: Steve Cauthen, Affirmed
1979: Ronnie Franklin, Spectacular Bid
2004: Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones* Triple Crown winners And
that goes double for Willie Simms.
Willie Simms rode in two Derbys, and won them both — aboard
Ben Brush in 1896 and Plaudit in 1898. Simms is the only
African-American rider to win all three races that became the
Triple Crown. “He has beautiful hands and is especially quick
and clever in an emergency,” The Thoroughbred Record said of
Simms, who was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 1977.
The Earl of Derby came to the Kentucky Derby in 1930. The
Duke of Windsor came in 1951. Other royalty has come and gone,
outfitted with big hats and big titles. But the Derby has been
host to just one Duke.
John Wayne’s all-American persona made him the logical — and
emotional — choice for the 1976 Derby, when the country was
awash in bicentennial bluster. Wayne was grand marshal of the
Pegasus Parade, waving a 10-gallon hat at the crowd.
He was ensconced on the 25th floor of the Galt House, where
he eschewed the local favorite, bourbon, for his own drink,
tequila. Jack Guthrie, who was executive vice president of the
Kentucky Derby Festival, accompanied Wayne around town. In
“Derby Fever,” a 1995 book by racing historian Jim Bolus,
Guthrie told about Wayne’s crowd-management style. In public, he
wanted to be nice, but keep moving.
Guthrie recalled Wayne’s words: “I don’t mind meeting and
talking to anybody, but I don’t like the crowds to form because
we don’t have control of the situation.” Even in places where a
man might reasonably expect privacy, the Duke still had some
crowd control issues.
“When we’d go someplace and he’d go in the restroom, he’d go
in the stall,” Guthrie told the author. “He’d never stand there
at the urinal…. At times he would explain why he did something,
and he said, ‘I’m sure you’ve noticed I don’t go up to the
urinal. I go into the stall….
Well, let me tell you, years and years ago, after people
began to know who I was, on three different occasions I’d go up
and I’d be standing there and somebody would look up to me and
say, ‘My God, you’re John Wayne.’ ”
The author takes it from there: “Wayne proceeded to explain
that, in these situations, the person noticing him would turn to
his direction and — well, you get the picture. Needless to say,
three such experiences —and several dry-cleaning bills — were
enough to convince Wayne to head for the stall when he entered a
Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown — the Derby,
Preakness and Belmont. And only one inspired such scant faith in
the betting public as Assault, who went off at 8-1 in the 1946
Derby. (Maybe it was his Texas roots; nobody could imagine a
Texas horse winning the Derby. Or maybe not. Assault had never
been favored in any race.) The entry of Lord Boswell, Knockdown
and Perfect Barham was an odds-on favorite, but Assault brushed
them aside and handily won over other horses whose names had
been inspired by the war: Spy Song, Marine Victory and Wee
Admiral. Assault’s 8-length victory matched the record held by
three other horses, including 1941 Triple Crown champion
There have been 26 U.S. presidents since 1875, when the Derby
started. Only once did a sitting president appear, when Richard
Nixon came in 1969. Candidate Nixon had come to the 1968 Derby
as a guest of Gov. Louie Nunn, vowing to return if he won the
White House. It was a campaign promise he kept.
At 91-1, Donerail was the longest shot ever to win the Derby,
in 1913. But his victory created buzz, or whatever folks called
it in those days, and the Derby was on its way to becoming the
world’s premiere horse race. Donerail’s victory was so far off
the charts that the next-closest winning long shot was
Gallahadion, at 35-1, in 1940.
They changed the Derby distance to 1¼ miles in 1896. It took
12 years to set the enduring record for the slowest winning time
— Stone Street’s 2:15 1/5 in 1908. He was three lengths faster,
so to speak, than Sir Cleges. Stone Street’s record has stood
for 97 years, and appears unassailable.