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Blog - POP CULTURE

Thoroughbred racing is not unlike professional football in the way talent is distributed. The NFL has a draft in which all teams attend and select players in one of multiple rounds with the blue-chip prospects being scooped up early and the late rounds reserved for players that teams take a shot on based on untapped potential.

Thoroughbred racing auctions are a similar atmosphere, especially yearling sales and 2-year-olds in training sales when compared with the NFL Combine, where talent evaluators look for everything from speed, athleticism, competitive makeup, and pedigree before deciding which players (or horses at auction) are the top targets.

History has shown us that Kentucky Derby winners can come from just about anywhere as this list is represented by a Derby winner who sold for $1,200 and one who brought a final bid of $4-million as a yearling.

The same goes for Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the NFL. For every Peyton Manning, who was drafted 1st overall in 1998, there is a Joe Montana or Tom Brady who plenty of teams missed on during the evaluation process and ended up haunting them for years.

This piece matches 12 Kentucky Derby winners who sold at public auction with a Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the NFL draft. The horses and players aren’t listed in exact order by auction price or draft position because both auctions and drafts have changed throughout the years. I just tried to find a fitting match.

Hope you enjoy! Or, if you prefer, you’re also free to call me an imbecile in the comment section below.

Fusaichi Pegasus, 2000 Derby winner, $4-million price   
Peyton Manning, 1998 NFL Draft, 1st overall pick

Fu Peg Peyton

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

This was an easy match. Fusao Sekiguchi purchased Fusaichi Pegasus for $4-million at the 1998 Keeneland July sale of selected yearlings, the highest price from 149 yearlings sold, and he went on to win the 2000 Kentucky Derby. Peyton Manning was the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Manning reached the Super Bowl three times, winning the game’s MVP in 2007 when he guided the Indianapolis Colts to a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears. Both have impeccable pedigrees: Manning’s dad was the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft and became NFL star and FuPeg was by breed-shaping sire Mr. Prospector. 1998 was a good year to have the top choice of yearlings or college quarterbacks. FuPeg won six of nine career races and earned nearly $2-million on the racetrack and far more at stud. Manning has enjoyed a much longer career and earned roughly $200-million playing the game as well as a boatload of cash in endorsements. Hey, it was pretty nice to be at the head of your class in 1998, too. 

Big Brown, 2008 Derby winner, $190,000
Aaron Rodgers, 2005 Draft, late first round

Big Brown -Rodgers

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

Paul Pompa Jr. plucked Big Brown out of the 2007 Keeneland April Sale of selected 2-year-olds in training for $190,000. His price probably was held down by the fact that he was by a somewhat obscure sire better known for turf runners. He made his debut later that year as a 2-year-old and won easily by 11 ¼ lengths in a turf sprint, after which IEAH Stables purchased a majority interest. Big Brown did not return for six months but when he did he was incredibly impressive. Big Brown strung together four straight victories, including the Grade 1 Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Belmont Stakes. Aaron Rodgers was projected to be one of the top picks in the 2005 NFL Draft but his stock slipped and he dropped to the Green Bay Packers with the 24th selection. After a stellar career at Cal, Rodgers was forced to bide his time behind Hall of Famer Brett Farve and like Big Brown spent a good portion of his early career on the sidelines while playing only sparingly from 2005-2007. But when Rodgers got his chance to play full time in 2008, the results were immediate. He threw for 28 TDs and more than 4,000 yards in his first season as a starter. He made the Pro Bowl the following season and led the Packers to a 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011 as the game’s MVP. Big Brown won seven of eight starts in a nearly flawless career; Rodgers ranks first all time in the NFL in career passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

Silver Charm, 1997 Derby winner, $100,000
Joe Montana, 1979, 3rd Round

SIlver Charm Montana

Photos by Horsephotos.com, San Francisco 49ers

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert remarked after Silver Charm’s heartbreaking Belmont Stakes defeat, “That’s the only way you can beat Silver Charm, if he doesn't see you coming.” His determination and will to win was unquestioned as he won 11 of 22 starts, including the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the 1998 Dubai World Cup. Joe Montana’s heart and drive to win probably is unmatched among quarterbacks in football history. Montana was simply golden on the big stage, winning four Super Bowls in four tries. Montana was drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. From a big-name college in Notre Dame, Montana lacked the size, speed and arm strength of some of his peers but fit perfectly in Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense and the rest is history. Silver Charm, who earned $6.95-million in his career, was also overlooked as he sold multiple times for modest prices - $16,500 as a yearling, $30,000 and $85,000 privately as a 2-year-old and $100,000 as a 2-year-old at auction. At $16,500 as a yearling, Silver Charm would have to be considered one of the great bargains of all time and the same can certainly be said for Montana. The Cincinnati Bengals, by the way, picked Jack Thompson of Washington State with the third overall pick in 1979. Doh!

Animal Kingdom, 2011 Derby winner, $100,000
Russell Wilson, 2012 Draft, 3rd Round

Animal Kingdom Russell Wilson

Photos by Eclipse Sportswire, Wikimedia Commons

Animal Kingdom and Russell Wilson are perfect reminders that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Animal Kingdom was entered into the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale by his breeder, which was a partnership organized by Team Valor. While some of the members of the breeding group were willing to let him go, others really liked him and preferred to hang on to the Leroidesanimaux colt. They formed a different partnership group under the Team Valor International banner and bought him for $100,000. Likewise, coming out of college there was much to like about Russell Wilson – leadership, on-field performance, intelligence – but at only 5 feet, 11 inches tall and lacking the howitzer arm many pro football evaluators crave, Wilson slipped all the way to the 3rd Round in the 2012 NFL draft. Wouldn’t you know, Wilson stepped right in for the Seahawks and led them to a Super Bowl in only his second season. Animal Kingdom also won a championship in his second season, taking home champion 3-year-old male honors after winning the Kentucky Derby in 2011. 

Unbridled, 1990 Derby winner, $70,000
Joe Theismann, 1971 Draft, 4th round

Unbridled -Theismann

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

Both Unbridled and Joe Theismann were products of traditional powerhouses in their respective sports who somehow were overlooked by prospective owners. Unbridled was a product of Tartan Farms, which bred among others Hall of Famers Dr. Fager and Ta Wee, and was a son of Fappiano, a Grade 1 winner owned and bred by Tartan’s longtime trainer John Nerud. Unbridled was part of a Tartan-Nerud dispersal in 1987 at Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky and sold for $70,000 to Frances Genter. (Another Fappiano colt sold at the dispersal for $300,000 - later named Quiet American - sired 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet). Unbridled went on to a distinguished racing career for Genter and trainer Carl Nafzger. He won the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. Theismann was selected in the 4th Round by the Miami Dolphins in the 1971 NFL Draft despite finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1970 at college football powerhouse Notre Dame. Rather than sit behind Bob Griese, Theismann opted to play football in Canada until the Dolphins traded his rights to the Washington Redskins in 1984. In Washington, Theismann eventually took over the starting job and led the Redskins to a Super Bowl win (27-17 over the Dolphins in 1983) and two NFC Championships. 

Spectacular Bid, 1979 Derby winner, $37,000
Roger Staubach, 1964 Draft, 10th round (note military obligation)

The Bid Staubach

Photos by Horsephotos.com, NFL.com

This feels like a perfect match … from The Bid’s steel grey coat compared with the silver of Staubach’s Dallas Cowboys helmet to the class both exuded while competing in the same era. Spectacular Bid could punch a hole in the wind he was so fast and likewise Roger “The Dodger” used his feet exceptionally well on the football field. Spectacular Bid sold at auction for a modest $37,000 at the 1977 Keeneland September yearling sale to Harry and Teresa Meyerhoff, so he certainly turned into a bargain. Staubach dropped to the 10th round in the 1964 NFL Draft. Teams understood he would be expected to fulfill a military responsibility to the Naval Academy and he served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. Staubach did not join the Dallas Cowboys until 1969 but he was well worth the wait, winning Super Bowl MVP in the Cowboys 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins in 1972. He led the Cowboys to three other Super Bowls, including a win over the Denver Broncos in 1978. Staubach played his final season in 1979, the year The Bid captivated racing fans with dazzling wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and set career highs in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes. Spectacular Bid also went out with a bang, winning his final 10 races, including all nine of his starts in 1980 en route to Horse of the Year honors.

Lil E. Tee, 1992 Derby winner, $25,000
Mark Rypien, 1986 Draft, 6th round

Lil ETee Rypien

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

Quite a few people might expect this to be a one-hit wonder comparison. On the contrary, this is a couple of talented athletes who probably were undervalued and underappreciated. This is two athletes who went on to perform at an elite level for an extended stretch that including a defining moment on their sport’s biggest stage in the same year. Rypien led the Washington Redskins to a 14-2 record during the 1991 regular season. The ’Skins hammered the Atlanta Falcons and throttled the Detroit Lions in the playoffs before Rypien took home MVP honors for the 1992 Super Bowl by leading the Redskins past the Buffalo Bills, 37-24. That’s a heckuva run from a 6th Round draft choice. Likewise, Lil E. Tee sold for $25,000 as a 2-year-old in training and went off at 16.50-to-1 odds in the Derby despite never having finished worse than third in eight previous starts. The Grade 2 winner and Arkansas Derby runner-up charged past Casual Lies to win by a length on the first Saturday in May 1992, cementing his spot in the history books just a few months after Rypien did the same on the gridiron.

Sunday Silence, 1989 Derby winner,  $32,000
Johnny Unitas, 1955 Draft, 9th Round

SSilence Unitas

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

Johnny Unitas became the benchmark by which all future NFL quarterbacks would be measured; Sunday Silence became the benchmark by which all future stallions in Japan will be judged. Both came from humble beginnings. Unitas was drafted out of the University of Louisville in the 9th Round of the 1955 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers but Head Coach Walt Kiesling cut him before the season started. He worked in construction for a year before a tryout with the Baltimore Colts landed him a gig in the NFL that allowed him to build an amazing legacy. Sunday Silence, an unsightly yearling, also did not have suitors lining up for him as he neared the start of his career. Arthur B. Hancock III tried to unload him at a yearling sale in 1987 but bought him back for just $17,000. He later entered him in an unraced 2-year-olds sale but the Halo colt didn’t come close to his presale reserve of $50,000. There were countless horsemen who passed on Sunday Silence and later lamented their mistake when he posted nine wins and five seconds in 14 starts, including victories in the 1989 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic. A 3-time NFL MVP, Unitas went on to win the Super Bowl with Colts in 1971, defeating the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, in a game in which Unitas was knocked out with an injury. Unitas retired in 1974 as the all-time NFL leader in victories and consecutive games with a touchdown pass. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1979. Sunday Silence took his spot in the Racing Hall of Fame in 1996.

Funny Cide, 2003 Derby winner, $22,000
Brad Johnson, 1992 Draft, 9th Round

Funny Cide Brad Johnson

Photos by Horsephotos.com, NFL.com

The funny thing about both Brad Johnson and Funny Cide is that both were vastly underrated in their careers up until their signature win – the 2003 Kentucky Derby for Funny Cide and Super Bowl XXXVII for Brad Johnson. After that both got the respect they deserved. Funny Cide was purchased for a paltry $22,000 by Tony Everard at the 2001 Fasig-Tipton New York-bred preferred yearling sale and later sold privately to Sackatoga Stable. His talent was evident from the start as he swept his three races as a 2-year-old, including a stakes race for New York-breds. After finishing second to Peace Rules in the 2003 Louisiana Derby and to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial Stakes, Funny Cide sailed into the Kentucky Derby under the radar. But he was the horse on every racing fan’s lips after winning the Derby at 12.80-to-1, and once he blew away the competition in the Preakness, the Triple Crown hysteria swelled as this New York-bred, owned by a group of New York high school buddies, came home for the Belmont. The dream trip came to a halt at the hands of Empire Maker in the Belmont, but oh what a ride it was! For Brad Johnson, he never could seize the starting job full time while at Florida State, but after being drafted in the 9th Round by the Minnesota Vikings he developed into an efficient if underappreciated quarterback until former Vikings assistant coach Tony Dungy brought him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He took the reigns and led Tampa to a Super Bowl win, 48-21 over the Oakland Raiders, in his second season with the team. 

Seattle Slew, 1977 Derby winner, $17,500
Tom Brady, 2000 Draft, 6th round

Seattle Slew Tom Brady

Photos by Horsephotos.com, Wikimedia Commons

There are so many similarities between Seattle Slew and Tom Brady, where to begin? Few thought much of either of them at an early age — Seattle Slew sold for just $17,500 to Mickey and Karen Taylor as a yearling at a Fasig-Tipton sale and Brady was a 6th Round flier in the NFL Draft by the New England Patriots after a solid career at University of Michigan. Both performed well above expectations right from the start, with Slew winning his three races as a 2-year-old by a combined margin of 18 ¼ lengths and Brady dazzling early in his second pro season after replacing an injured Drew Bledsoe, who absorbed a ferocious hit from linebacker Mo Lewis of the New York Jets and never regained the starting job. Seattle Slew put together an amazing 9-race winning streak to begin his career that was capped by a victory in the Belmont Stakes that made Slew the first-ever undefeated Triple Crown winner. Brady won his first ten playoff games, including nine in a row in 2001, 2003 and 2004 en route to three Super Bowl victories. Both Seattle Slew and Tom Brady developed into absolute superstars who were (or are in Brady’s case) simply dominant on the biggest stage. You could also make a case that Seattle Slew and Tom Brady were the best of their generation but overshadowed by another superstar with lesser credentials – Secretariat for Slew and Peyton Manning for Brady. OK, don’t queue up the nasty comment in defense of Secretariat, I’ll grant you he was the best of his generation. But apologies to all of the Manning fans out there, Super Bowl rings absolutely matter. 

Mine That Bird, 2009 Derby winner, $9,500
Kurt Warner, 1994 Draft, undrafted

Mt BWarner

Mine That Bird photo by Eclipse Sportswire

This was an obvious one in that each of them came from nowhere to win the biggest prize in their sport. Raise your hand if you were one of those fans that asked, “Who was that who just won the Kentucky Derby?” after Mine That Bird rallied from last to first on a surface the consistency of peanut butter at 50.60-to-1 odds in 2009. There was the same reaction in fantasy football leagues across the country in 1999 when the St. Louis Rams starter, Trent Green, tore his ACL in a preseason game and Head Coach Dick Vermeil named former Arena League and NFL Europe QB Kurt Warner the starter. Same reaction again when he threw for 309 yards and 3 TDs in his first regular season game. Warner chucked it for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns that year, led the “Greatest Show on Turf” to a Super Bowl win, and was named regular season and Super Bowl MVP. Not bad for a guy who, as every football fan old enough to remember that season knows, went undrafted and was stocking shelves in a grocery store just a few years earlier. Mine That Bird’s tale is likewise one so unbelievable that it inspired a movie to be made about it — go see “50 to 1” when it comes to a theater near you. A little gelding who was purchased at auction for $9,500 at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale, Mine That Bird finished fourth in his final prep race for the 2009 Kentucky Derby. He then was driven from New Mexico to Louisville by his trainer, Chip Woolley, who was hobbled by a broken leg, and earned his first win of the year in the first jewel of the Triple Crown at enormous odds. Five years later, it still sounds too good to be true. Mine That Bird ran a huge race in the Preakness to finish second to eventual Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and then was third in the Belmont, but after that he could not maintain the level of excellence at which Warner was able to compete in the NFL. But the best part of the story is always the climb to the top of the mountain, so we’ll leave it right there.

Canonero II, 1971 Derby winner, $1,200
Bart Starr, 1956 Draft, 17th Round

Canonero Starr

Canonero II photo by Horsephotos.com

This was another match that jumped off the computer screen — a Derby winner purchased for twelve-hundred bucks and the MVP of the first two Super Bowls plucked out of the NFL Draft in the 17th Round in 1956. In Starr’s case, his career changed when the Green Bay Packers hired legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who was impressed by Starr’s throwing mechanics and decision-making. Starr led the Pack to five NFL Championships and the two Super Bowl wins. He earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Canonero II is widely regarded as one of the most shocking winners of the Kentucky Derby. It was a crooked leg that led to his paltry purchase price and an uninspiring record that led to Canonero II being lumped in with five other horses as part of the “mutual field” entry for betting purposes in the 1971 Kentucky Derby. Canonero rallied from 18th after a half-mile to win by 3 ¾ lengths. The other five that made up the mutual field were the last five home in the 20-horse field. His Derby win dismissed as a fluke, Canonero, like Starr, doubled up in the Preakness Stakes before finishing fourth in the Belmont. The story of Canonero cannot be done justice in a few sentences, so if you’d like to read more about one of racing’s most intriguing stars, check out Steve Haskin’s Blood-Horse feature on him from 2011.

Image Description

Mike Curry

A native of Philadelphia who grew up in nearby Wilmington, Del., Curry was editor of Thoroughbred Times TODAY before joining the America's Best Racing team in May 2012. He credits his grandfather for the inspiration to repeatedly sneak off to Delaware Park as a 16-year-old and the 1989 rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer for his passion for horse racing. Curry graduated from the University of Delaware in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a concentration in Journalism. He worked for the Wilmington News Journal and was Sports Editor of the Cecil Whig before moving to Lexington in 2005.

Image Description

Mike Curry

A native of Philadelphia who grew up in nearby Wilmington, Del., Curry was editor of Thoroughbred Times TODAY before joining the America's Best Racing team in May 2012. He credits his grandfather for the inspiration to repeatedly sneak off to Delaware Park as a 16-year-old and the 1989 rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer for his passion for horse racing. Curry graduated from the University of Delaware in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a concentration in Journalism. He worked for the Wilmington News Journal and was Sports Editor of the Cecil Whig before moving to Lexington in 2005.

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