In a way, you can argue Bert and Diana Firestone took a “genuine risk” when they elected to enter star filly Genuine Risk in the 1980 Kentucky Derby.
So the belief went, fillies weren’t cut out to win the Kentucky Derby. In the previous 105 editions of the run for the roses, only one filly, Regret in 1915, had managed to beat males at Churchill Downs. Until Genuine Risk came along, none had even attempted the feat since 1959. Why bother with the Kentucky Derby when fillies could contest the Kentucky Oaks one day before and vie for a substantial purse of their own?
But the Firestones were game for the challenge. In Genuine Risk, they knew they had a filly with the talent, pedigree, and fortitude to excel in the Derby.
Their acquisition of Genuine Risk ranks as a remarkable tale in and of itself. When the filly came up for sale at the 1978 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky summer yearling sale, it was the Firestones’ son Matthew – just 14 years old at the time – who singled her out as a promising prospect.
Although they required a bit of convincing, the Firestones eventually agreed with their son’s assessment and purchased Genuine Risk for $32,000, sending her to the care of future Hall of Fame trainer LeRoy Jolley.
“I knew I wanted a filly to use as a broodmare,” Matthew Firestone explained in the May 4, 1980 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal. “Her pedigree looked very good. She had the distance and she had the speed. I went to look at her and found she had beautiful conformation and good legs. She was just put together right.”
Indeed, from a pedigree perspective, Genuine Risk was bred to excel at classic distances. She was a daughter of Exclusive Native, the sire of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, out of a mare by Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man, a stamina-oriented pedigree perfectly suited to the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby.
She also had the support of jockey Jacinto Vasquez, famed as the rider of super filly Ruffian and 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Genuine Risk showed so much potential as a juvenile, going 4-for-4 with two graded stakes wins, that Vasquez told Jolley “this filly’s got a chance to win the Derby next year,” according to the May 4, 1980 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.
With her connections dreaming of the Derby, Genuine Risk dipped her toes in the water with a run against males in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes, a prominent prep race for the Derby. At first glance, her third-place finish could have been considered a disappointment; it was her first defeat from seven starts. On the other hand, she was gaining ground through the homestretch and finished just 1 ½ lengths behind the winner – couldn’t she turn the tables on her Wood Memorial conquerors while tackling the longer distance of the Kentucky Derby?
Jolley was initially hesitant to continue on the road to Churchill Downs, but as the field for the Derby came together, he and the Firestones reconsidered.
“It looked like there would be a field of 20,” Jolley said in the Wisconsin State Journal. “But when the field was reduced to about a dozen and we saw the competition in the Blue Grass [Stakes], we kicked it around and changed our minds.”
This fortuitous decision proved to be a piece of history in the making.
When entries were drawn for the Derby, 13 horses passed the entry box, and Genuine Risk was assigned post-position 10. Bettors weren’t in any great hurry to support the filly, sending her off as the sixth choice at 13-1. Blue Grass Stakes winner Rockhill Native was favored at 2-1, with Wood Memorial victor Plugged Nickle the second choice at 5-2.
When the gates opened and the field raced past the stands for the first time, Vasquez patiently reserved Genuine Risk in seventh place, as many as seven lengths behind slow fractions of :24 flat and :48 flat set by Plugged Nickle and Rockhill Native.
But as the Derby runners entered the far turn, Vasquez encouraged Genuine Risk to accelerate, and the filly swept past one rival after another with a bold rally. At the top of the stretch, Genuine Risk’s dramatic burst of speed carried her all the way to the lead, and down the lane she gamely held off a late rally from Rumbo to win by a length.
Genuine Risk’s victory so excited the 131,859 racing fans in attendance that Jolley and the Firestones had difficulty reaching the winner’s circle. But once the dust had settled, the Firestones lavished praise on their star filly.
“I knew she had it in her,” Diana Firestone remarked in the May 4, 1980 edition of Louisville’s The Courier-Journal. “I watched her train all week and she got better all week. Did you see her in the paddock? She never turned a hair.”
“I thought she was in a good position most of the race,” added Bert Firestone. “I thought Jacinto gave her a wonderful ride. And when she made her move in the turn for home and started to pass horses I had a good feeling that we … had the race won.”
Some might have considered Genuine Risk’s victory to be a fluke. Others wondered how quickly she could bounce back from such a strenuous race. Genuine Risk promptly put these doubts to rest with admirable runner-up efforts in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, becoming the first, and so far only, filly to hit the board in all three Triple Crown races. She might have even won the Preakness if she hadn’t been carried extremely wide on the far turn by eventual winner Codex, a controversial tactic that caused an uproar among racing fans.
Following her Triple Crown exploits, Genuine Risk came down with an illness and did not run again until the fall. Upon Genuine Risk’s return, her status as division leader was briefly shaken, for she came up a nose short against Kentucky Oaks winner Bold ’n Determined in the Grade 1 Maskette Stakes. Considering how Bold ’n Determined would count seven Grade 1 wins to her credit by the end of the season, Genuine Risk’s defeat could have shifted support in favor of the Oaks winner.
But Genuine Risk made amends in the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park 17 days later, battling to victory over five-time graded stakes winner Misty Gallore and champion It’s in the Air. This hard-fought triumph gave Genuine Risk a second Grade 1 victory for the year, and coupled with her unprecedented Triple Crown run, she garnered enough support to receive the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.
The Ruffian proved to be Genuine Risk’s last major hurrah. She was kept in training as a 4-year-old and won two of her three starts in minor races, with her lone defeat coming on grass. But although she looked sharp in an Aug. 10 allowance race going seven-eighths of a mile at Saratoga – scoring by 8 ¼ lengths in a quick 1:21 2/5 – she suffered a minor injury while training for the Woodward Stakes and was retired.
“It was nothing serious, but with her we didn’t want to take any chances at all,” Bert Firestone explained in the Sept. 4, 1981 edition of the Wilmington Morning News.
Although racing fans received only a taste of Genuine Risk’s potential as an older female, even a season for the ages wouldn’t have significantly enhanced her legacy. She had already entrenched her name in the annals of racing history with her historic triumph against males in the coveted Kentucky Derby.
- Genuine Risk was the first horse bred by Sally Humphrey, who purchased Genuine Risk’s dam, Virtuous, for $31,500 as part of a birthday gift from her husband G. Watts Humphrey Jr.
- Genuine Risk retired with a career record of 10 wins, three seconds, and two thirds from 15 starts. She never finished out of the top three and accumulated $646,587 in earnings.
- Although Genuine Risk excelled as a racehorse, her broodmare career was less productive. She produced only two named foals (Count Our Blessing and Genuine Reward), and neither of them reached the races.
- Genuine Risk was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1986.
- Genuine Risk passed away in 2008 at the age of 31. Prior to her death, she ranked as the oldest living winner of a Triple Crown race.