Exploring the Curse: Apollo’s Derby Bears Faint Resemblance to Modern Classic

Always Dreaming powered to victory in the 2017 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Apollo holds a prominent position in the lead up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, his name summoned for his historical standing as the only winner of the run for the roses who did not race as a 2-year-old.

Steeped in tradition and history, the Derby will be run for the 144th time on May 6 at Churchill Downs, and Apollo’s novelty status has been revitalized in recent years as horses increasingly come into the race with less experience. Two of this year’s leading candidates, Justify and Magnum Moon, are in Apollo’s meteor category, having debuted after New Year’s Day.

But just how much does the Derby that Apollo conquered in 1882 relate or pertain to the modern blockbuster event of today? Besides the name of the race and its location, not much at all.

Granted, the Kentucky Derby by its eighth edition in 1882 was solidified as a major fixture for 3-year-olds on the American racing calendar and a significant happening in Louisville. According to the coverage of the day, a record crowd turned out and packed the grandstand and parts of the infield, but whereas a full house at Churchill Downs in 2018 would approach 160,000 people, the crowd in Apollo’s day was estimated at 15,000 and there was good reason for an imprecise figure as admission was free, which must have contributed to the idyllic atmosphere described in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“No Kentucky racecourse has ever before seen anything like it,” the following day’s front page story read. “It was simply an ovation to the spirit of the Jockey Club, a joyous outpouring of worshipers at the shrine of the Thoroughbred.”

Perfect weather greeted the worshipers on the third Tuesday of May, not the first Saturday, at the Louisville Jockey Club grounds, as it would be for a few more years before the name Churchill Downs came into common parlance.

The Derby distance at the time was a mile and a half, in line with the English Derby. The purse was $1,500, equivalent to about $35,000 today.

Depending on the source, Apollo had cost either $800 or $1,200 the previous fall when owner-trainer Green Morris bought him in a private deal. Also unknown is the exact identity of Apollo’s sire: since his dam had been bred to two stallions in the season in question, Apollo was almost always listed as being by Ashtead or Lever.

Morris did not debut Apollo until April 11, five weeks out from the Derby, at what is now known as Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and he finished second by two lengths going 1 ¼ miles in the Pickwick Stakes. A week later, Apollo competed in a New Orleans race determined by two heats, and he was exposed for a claiming price of $900. He finished second overall and went unclaimed. On April 26, he broke through with a victory in the Cottrill Stakes but not without drama as a spill wiped out half of the six-horse field.

Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin ran third in 2007 Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Interestingly, even though the Derby was less than a decade old, the Apollo “rule” was already in play.

“Public form at 2 years old is, as a rule, the best guide to a Derby winner, but the important question of stamina is still in abeyance, and can only be tested by an actual race over a distance of ground,” declared a preview in Nashville’s The Tennessean, published the morning of Apollo’s big day.

Apollo was let go at 10-1 odds in a field of 14 horses, one of whom was unnamed and went down in Derby history as “the Pat Malloy colt,” referring to the horse’s sire. Apollo prevailed with a long drive carrying 102 pounds, including African American jockey Babe Hurd, by a half-length over heavy favorite Runnymede. None of the runners carried more than 107 pounds. Six days later, Runnymede turned the tables with an easy victory in the 1 ¼-mile Clark Stakes, contested on a very wet Louisville track, with Apollo finishing 13 lengths adrift in third.

Apollo went on to win four more stakes races at 3 and, all told, racked up 24 victories in 55 career starts through his 5-year-old season in 1884. A gelding, he retired to a farm in Charleston, S.C., and died there in November 1887. His claim to renewed fame came more than 100 years later as horses like Curlin, Bodemeister, Verrazano, and Atswhatimtalknbout have challenged and come up short of duplicating his feat, and thus created the “Curse of Apollo,” of a horse who won a big race only vaguely resembling the Kentucky Derby of 2018.

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