Distinctly different Derbies

Run four months late, the 2020 Kentucky Derby will be very different. Here, Nicholas Godfrey highlights some of the other unusual renewals of the race.

  • Wednesday 02 September
  • Blog
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AS the first Saturday in May becomes the first Saturday in September, this is a Kentucky Derby like no other.

Indeed, given that Saturday’s race is taking place after the Belmont – itself run at three furlongs shorter than usual – and four weeks before the Preakness, this is a Triple Crown like no other.

But if this is arguably the most bizarre Kentucky Derby there’s ever been, America’s most celebrated race has a weird-and-wonderful history.

As I had a look at Tiz The Law in my blog before the Travers Stakes – and with apologies to Mine That Bird – here we’ll remember some of the stranger editions. 

And as for the Kentucky Derby of 2020 … well, Tiz The Law had to be drawn 17, didn’t he? What could be more appropriate in this topsy-turvy year than a winner from a gate that has never produced one in the past.

Watch the 2020 Kentucky Derby live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 5th September.

Just try winning this Triple Crown (1917 and 1922)

To listen to certain folk, you’d think the US Triple Crown five-week Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont sequence had been handed down on a tablet of stone. OK, that has been the format for 50 years (since 1969 to be precise) but it hasn’t always been like that. In fact, the term ‘Triple Crown’ had never been used when Sir Barton became the first horse to win the three races in question in 1919; and these three independent events certainly weren’t linked in any meaningful way. 

For example, the Preakness has been run before the Derby 11 times, most recently in 1931. However, perhaps the oddest sequence of all came in both 1917 and 1922, when it would have been a struggle for any horse to complete the Triple Crown. Because the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were run on the same day. For the record, the Derby victors were Omar Khayyam (1917) and Morvich (1922).

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The ‘Fighting Finish’ Derby (1933)

Also known as the ‘Rodeo Derby’, a notorious finish more about the jockeys than the horses. Reckless riding is one thing, but what happened here in a stretch drive destined for racing infamy was deserving of an entirely new category of offence.

Herb Fisher on the leader Head Play left a seam up the rail, where Don Meade brought Broker’s Tip to make his move. Fisher guided Head Play into his rival, and it was no-holds-barred stuff thereafter as the pair tangled, grabbing arms and whips in a series of tugs and blows. How they stayed aboard is anyone’s guess – and the fight was immortalised in a famous image by photographer Wallace Lowry showing Meade grabbing Fisher’s shoulder while his rival held his saddlecloth. Fisher hit his rival in the face with the whip after the wire; in tears after a foul claim was dismissed and Broker’s Tip announced the winner, Fisher attacked Meade again in the jockeys’ room with a bootjack. They were both banned for 30 days.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website



The Streetcar Derby (1943)

There was opposition to the Kentucky Derby taking place in any shape or form during the war, when travel restrictions meant no out-of-town tickets were sold for Churchill Downs and commercial train travel was virtually non-existent. As a result, a 65,000 crowd was nearly entirely local – and they arrived mainly by (you guessed it) streetcar. Not a bad race, either, as it was the first leg of Count Fleet’s Triple Crown.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website



The second Saturday in June (1945)

Never has the Kentucky Derby been run as late in the year as the first Saturday in September but 2020 is not the first time the race has missed its traditional May slot. During World War II in 1945, the 71st Kentucky Derby was delayed until 9 June after racing was suspended for more than four months amid the final war push in Europe. 

In front of an estimated crowd of 75,000, second favourite Hoop Jr made all at a muddy Churchill Downs to give jockey Eddie Arcaro his third Derby victory. In an abbreviated Triple Crown schedule, the Preakness following a week later (Hoop Jr. bowed a tendon near the finish and never ran again) on 16 June and the Belmont on 23 June.


Racing’s wildest controversy (1968)

 According to a Sports Illustrated cover story, “racing’s wildest controversy” was “the year’s major sports story”.

Calumet Farm’s blue-blooded Forward Pass was favourite for the 1968 Kentucky Derby but he was beaten into second by Dancer’s Image – only for the latter to be disqualified several days after the race after he failed a post-race dope test when traces of phenylbutazone (bute) were found in his urine. 

But this was no clear-cut DQ: Bute was legal in many states at the time, and Dancer’s Image had been administered the anti-inflammatory substance under veterinary advice owing to sore ankles six days before the race and should have left his system. 

There were other issues too. Forward Pass represented the Establishment, whereas Dancer’s Image plainly did not. His jockey Bobby Ussery looked like a hippie; his owner Peter Fuller was a Massachusetts businessman who had donated prize-money from one of the Derby preps to recently widowed Coretta Scott King. He was also pretty brash.

Be that as it may, connections of Dancer’s Image appealed, alleging skulduggery, and the interminable legal case made it all the way to Kentucky’s highest court before Forward Pass’s promoted victory was confirmed – five years after the horses had passed the post at Churchill Downs.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website



Smoke gets in your eyes (1976)

Five years after ‘Caracas Cannonball’ Canonero II won the Kentucky Derby, the record books show that the legendary Angel Cordero scored in 1976 on Bold Forbes, the horse he described as “my Puerto Rican Rolls Royce”.

What is receding into history, though, is how social unrest spilled onto Churchill Downs amid racial tension over ‘busing’ policies, Louisville court orders having decreed that students should be ferried to schools outside their own neighbourhoods in the interests of diversity.

Riots, boycotts and KKK-inspired unrest followed. On Derby Day, a helicopter flew over Churchill Downs with an antibusing banner; potentially more dangerous, a green smoke grenade was thrown onto the track from the infield during the race. Fortunately, the horses had already passed the stands for the first time, and a National Guardsman carried the object away with his helmet.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website



The most stressful 22 minutes in sports (2019)

The Kentucky Derby is often billed as the most exciting two minutes in sports; the 22-minute stewards’ inquiry in 2019 was probably the most tense before Maximum Security was disqaulified over alleged interference at the head of the stretch.*

Country House, an apparent 65-1 no-hoper, was promoted to first place and duly became one of the luckiest winners in the history of the race, given that he had not suffered in the incident.

This is the only time the Kentucky Derby winner has been thrown out on the day of the race, and insult was added to injury for jockey Luis Saez when he copped a harsh 15-day ban,

The final result was the subject of litigation from Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West. Their lawsuit was dismissed – and they soon had rather more to worry about as trainer Jason Servis was indicted for systemic doping offences.

*In 1959, the stewards weren’t much quicker after a bumping match between Tomy Lee (Bill Shoemaker) and Sword Dancer (Bill Boland). After 17 minutes, the placings remained unaltered and Tomy Lee was confirmed the winner.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website


Distinctly different Derbies
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