There is only one shot to win the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the horses that are peaking on the first Saturday in May are ones you look for, and what all trainers strive for, but we always have to remember that luck – good and bad – also plays a big part in who gets the roses and who goes back to the barn a loser.
When you think of hard-luck horses in the Derby, the first horse that comes to mind is Native Dancer, who was interfered with early and came up a head short of not only winning the Derby, but also retiring undefeated.
We have had other hard-luck horses in the past 50 years for whatever reason who might have been cost a victory or at least a far better placing. There no doubt are others that I am missing, but here is a list of those who come to mind who had their one chance at Kentucky Derby immortality compromised because of bad luck.
1968 – DANCER’S IMAGE: Can there be a more hard-luck loser of the Derby than Dancer’s Image? He won going away, only to be victimized by a controversial Butazolidan positive that many claim was the result of nefarious activities by parties not connected to the horse. Despite books and articles on the subject, that DQ and the subsequent years of court battles, costing owner Peter Fuller $250,000 in legal fees, will remain a mystery and a black mark on the Derby.
1973 – SHAM: Although very few, if anyone, believes Sham would have beaten Secretariat in that year’s record-setting Derby, it still was unfortunate that Sham banged his head on the starting gate at the break, knocking out two teeth and running the race with a mouthful of blood. When he returned to be unsaddled, his two teeth were dangling, held together by only a thin strip of his gum. Back at the barn, it took three-quarters of an hour to stop the bleeding and cauterize the wound. To this day, Sham still has run the second-fastest Derby of all time along with Monarchos, who ran 1:59 4/5 in 2001.
1974 – LITTLE CURRENT: When the 1974 Triple Crown was completed you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who did not firmly believe that Little Current should have swept all three races. A horse who always came from the clouds, Little Current was unfortunate to have been stuck in the largest Derby field ever with 23 runners. Racing dead last, more than 20 lengths off the lead, Little Current and his new jockey Bobby Ussery found themselves stuck behind the entire field approaching the quarter pole. Ussery had no choice but to swing wide just as the horses began to fan out in front of him, forcing Little Current way out past the middle of the track, at least 15-wide. No one could recall a horse going that wide in the Derby. He was about seven or eight paths wider than the horse closest to him. And that horse was very wide. He closed from 17th at the quarter pole to finish fifth and then went on to romp by seven lengths in both the Preakness and Belmont.
1975 – AVATAR: Just when it looked as if this California invader, dueling with fellow Californian Diabolo, was about to put away his rival and upset the heavily favored Foolish Pleasure, he was slammed into hard by Diabolo, knocking him completely off stride and turning him sideways. By the time he recovered and got back in stride, Foolish Pleasure had passed him and went on to win by 1 ¼ lengths, with Avatar second. To show his race was no fluke, Avatar went on to upset Foolish Pleasure in the Belmont Stakes.
1985 – ETERNAL PRINCE: This year’s Derby looked to be a speed duel between the brilliantly fast Spend a Buck and the Gotham and Wood Memorial winner Eternal Prince. The entire complexion of the race changed when Eternal Prince broke poorly and had to steady shortly after the break. He never even got close to the lead and dropped out of contention as Spend a Buck opened a huge lead and never looked back, winning by more than five lengths.
1986 – RAMPAGE: The ’86 Derby was there for the taking. A gaping hole opened the head of the stretch and two come-from-behind horses moving fast went for it at the same time. Bill Shoemaker aboard Ferdinand just barely beat Pat Day on Arkansas Derby winner Rampage to the hole. Ferdinand, with the rail all to himself, charged through and went on to win comfortably with not a horse near him. Rampage, on the other hand, found himself blocked badly in the stretch behind a wall of horses. Day had to check hard and then swing him to the outside where he closed fast to finish fourth, beaten a length for second. One can only speculate what would have happened had Day beaten Shoemaker to that hole.
1987 – DEMONS BEGONE: One year later and Pat Day’s luck still hadn’t changed. Aboard another Arkansas Derby winner, the brilliant Demons Begone, who also romped in the Southwest and Rebel Stakes and actually was the 2-1 favorite in the Derby, Day felt something wrong down the backstretch and eased Demons Begone who was gushing blood from his nostrils. It was one of the worst cases of bleeding in a race seen in a long time, With Demons Begone out of the race, Alysheba wound up defeating Bet Twice, beginning one of racing’s great rivalries and propelling Alysheba to a Hall of Fame career. Demons Begone raced only four more times and was eased again in the following year’s Oaklawn Handicap, ending a once promising career.
1990 – MISTER FRISKY: Was there ever a more intriguing Derby horse than Mister Frisky? The 9-5 Derby favorite won all 13 of his starts in Puerto Rico before coming to America, where he won all three of his starts under new trainer Laz Barrera – the San Vicente, San Rafael, and Santa Anita Derby. Never before had a horse been 16-for-16 going into the Derby. Most everyone was shocked when Mister Frisky struggled home in eighth behind Unbridled. It wasn’t until after the race that it was discovered the colt had a grapefruit-sized growth in his throat that was removed by Dr. Scott Palmer of the New Jersey Equine Clinic. He fortunately survived, but we’ll never know just how special Mister Frisky might have been and how long he could have extended that incredible winning streak.
1991 – HANSEL: After easily winning the Jim Beam and Lexington Stakes, Hansel was sent off as the 5-2 favorite in the Derby. He was looking good coming to the head of the stretch, but threw his head up and stopped running, eventually finishing 10th. Trainer Frank Brothers decided to pass the Preakness and send the horse to Arlington Park. But when he worked a fast half-mile and did it with great energy, Brothers decided to go for the Preakness after all, and Hansel romped by seven lengths and then followed that up by winning the Belmont Stakes. So what happened to him in the Derby? There has been a great deal of speculation that the colt had a reaction to Lasix, which made him come up empty. If so, he certainly has to be considered a hard luck loser.
1996 – CAVONNIER: Way back when Bob Baffert was a virtually unknown trainer, he came to the Derby with Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier, who hit the wire together with Grindstone. Because Grindstone was so wide, Baffert thought for a second he had won the Derby and began to celebrate only to see Grindstone’s number come up by the scantest of noses. Baffert also had to wonder what the outcome would have been had Cavonnier not been struck across the face with jockey Craig Perret’s whip (riding fourth-place Halo Sunshine) turning for home. It definitely startled and no doubt stung the horse, as he flung his head up before recovering and storming to the lead at the eighth pole, only to lose it in the final stride.
1996 – UNBRIDLED’S SONG: Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Unbridled’s Song, who battled a foot bruise and quarter crack and had to run in the Derby with two cumbersome egg-bar shoes, and also drew post 19 and acted up before the race when the band started up during the post parade. Despite all that, he pressed fast fractions of :46 flat and 1:10 flat and opened a clear lead on the far turn. But as soon as he changed leads turning for home, he began to shorten stride. He still ran on gamely and was beaten a neck and a nose for third in one of the best losing performances ever in the Derby.
2003 – EMPIRE MAKER: Although he had a clean trip in the Derby, other than losing some ground into the first turn, who knows what the outcome of the Derby would have been had the favorite Empire Maker not suffered a bruised foot early during Derby Week, causing him to go into the run for the roses with no training. He did go out for one gallop late in the week, which he aborted early, bolting to the outside rail. Despite not being able to train all of Derby Week, Empire Maker still finished second to Funny Cide, a horse he had handled relatively easily in the Wood Memorial, the race in which he suffered his bruised foot.
2005 – AFLEET ALEX: To this day, most people can’t figure out how Giacomo was able to defeat Afleet Alex in the Derby. What no one knew at the time was that Afleet Alex, who came out of the Rebel Stakes with a very bad lung infection before romping in the Arkansas Derby, also came out of the Kentucky Derby with another lung infection, although not as severe. Considering that Afleet Alex still was beaten only one length and then went on to destroy his field in the Preakness, despite nearly falling on his face, and the Belmont Stakes, there is little doubt that Alex’s performance was hampered in the Derby. And on top of that he didn’t have the smoothest of trips. He would go on to trounce Giacomo in both the Preakness and Belmont.
2010 – ICE BOX: This year’s Derby won by Super Saver will always be remembered as Todd Pletcher’s first victory in the Run for the Roses. But if there was a more unlucky horse than Ice Box, I can’t recall it. Rather than try to describe his trip, here are the comments in the chart footnotes: “ICE BOX steadied early in traffic, was outrun for six furlongs, made a bold inside run leaving the three furlong marker, steadied when blocked nearing the stretch, angled out, steadied for a sixteenth of a mile once in the stretch, swung out near the furlong marker for a clear path then closed a late gap to be steadily getting to the winner late.” You can decide for yourself who was the best horse in that Derby. All I can say is that if Ice Box hadn’t checked badly along the rail, he would have run right over top of horses, he was moving that fast.
2010 – LOOKIN AT LUCKY: As bad as Ice Box had it late in the race, Lookin At Lucky had it just as bad early in the race. Breaking from the rail. he was bumped around and squeezed and then was almost put over the rail after being rammed into hard, causing him to take up sharply. That last incident cost him any chance as he dropped back to 18th and actually ran a decent race to finish sixth. He got a clean trip two weeks later in the Preakness and won impressively, so at least there was some redemption after his Derby disaster.
2012 – BODEMEISTER: Despite not having run as a 2-year-old and having only four starts prior to the Derby, Bodemeister, a 9 ½-length winner of the Arkansas Derby, nearly pulled a historic victory and might have done it had he not had the misfortune of hooking up early and then being dogged every step by a 44-1 sprinter named Trinniberg, coming off victories in the seven-furlong Swale and Bay Shore Stakes. Bodemeister, after setting blistering fractions of :22 2/5, :45 1/5, and 1:09 4/5, still was able to open a five-length lead in the upper stretch only to be run down late by Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another. That race prompted Churchill Dows to institute a points system, basically eliminating all pure sprinters from getting in the Derby.
2013 – PALACE MALICE: We’ll never know what Palace Malice might have done in the Derby had Todd Pletcher not decided to experiment by putting blinkers on the colt. Racing totally out of character, Palace Malice became uncontrollably rank and burst to the lead, setting the same exact sizzling fractions as Bodemeister before faltering to finish 12th. To show what an unfortunate fluke that was, Pletcher removed the blinkers for the Belmont Stakes, and Palace Malice won by 3 ¼ lengths at odds of 13-1.
2014 – DANZA: Who knows how good this colt could have been. He shocked the world by winning the Arkansas Derby in only his fourth career start by nearly five lengths at odds of 41-1. Then in the Derby, he was rammed into hard passing the stands that knocked him three paths in and almost into the rail. He recovered from that, but bumped with Medal Count in the stretch while looking for room. He finally found a seam and closed fast to finish third, beaten three lengths. He was injured training for the Belmont Stakes and never raced again.