THERE are many great Flat races worldwide – but nothing quite compares to the Kentucky Derby. The first leg of the American Triple Crown is dubbed ‘The Run for the Roses’ by many, but I prefer the term NBC anchor Bob Costas used: ‘The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports’.
Here are my top five Kentucky Derbies…
1989 – Sunday Silence
The 1989 renewal may not have been the most exhilarating, but it was the race that kicked off an intense six month rivalry between two future greats of the game in Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.
On a muddy afternoon at Churchill Downs in May, the troubled but talented Pat Valenzuela – best known for being a passenger on Arazi in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – gave Pat Day (rider of Easy Goer) a riding lesson.
Sunday Silence – trained to perfection by hall of fame trainer Charlie Whittingham – was always in the perfect position in fourth, sitting comfortably off solid early fractions of 23 seconds for the first 1/4 mile and 46.3/5 seconds for the first half mile.
His rider had the dangers in behind and he knew that all he had to do was point and his mount would deliver for him. The favorite Easy Goer had managed to get himself close enough after some barging and bumping during the first quarter mile, but his dislike for the conditions – and what many felt was a poor ride by Day – saw him three-wide on the first turn, struggling with the pace and passed by rivals as the home turn approached.
With the winning post in sight, Valenzuela kicked on aboard Sunday Silence, unleashing his mount’s potent turn of foot to bound clear and win by a comfortable two and a half lengths. “If ever a horse could win the Triple Crown, this one could.” remarked Whittingham, who had also sent out the great Ferdinand to win the race three years earlier. “He was green today and he still won. He’s learning all the time.”
Easy Goer may have been well-named when hacking up in the Belmont Stakes later on, but at Churchill Downs he was anything but! He looked unlikely to place down the back stretch, but his superior stamina got him back into it and over the line to just take second.
The performance may not have been a vintage one, but it’s historical significance makes it a must for any best of Kentucky Derby list. It was the start of a battle royal between the pair that would go on for the remaining two legs of the Triple Crown.
Their Preakness stretch duel is obviously etched in the hall of fame, with Sunday Silence just getting the better of an game Easy Goer in a real thriller for the ages.
Three weeks later Easy Goer proved his class when clocking unbelievable fractions to bolt up in the Belmont Stakes – old rival Sunday Silence was a clear second and came short in his quest for the Triple Crown.
Easy Goer and Sunday Silence faced off one final time in a vintage Breeders Cup Classic with the latter given a perfect ride by super sub Chris McCarron, just getting the better of another ill judged ride by Pat Day at Gulfstream Park.
The head-to-head between the pair may read Sunday Silence 3, Easy Goer 1, but the debate as to which was truly the better is one that will never be resolved.
1999 – Charismatic
An emotional success for 31-1 longshot Charismatic and ill-fated jockey Chris Antley – who had temporarily retired in 1997 due to drug and weight problems.
The unconsidered Charismatic – trained by master handler D.Wayne Lukas – was far from your ideal Triple Crown prospect with defeats in claimers, but connections were adamant that he had something and their persistence in keeping him running finally paid off when he booked his Derby ticket in a Stakes race at Keeneland less than two weeks before the big race.
Jerry Bailey had ridden him last time, but the Hall of Fame jockey switched to Godolphin’s expensive purchase Worldly Manner for the Derby leaving Antley to reap the rewards on the outsider. “I didn’t think I was going to be back.” Antley said about his retirement in 1997. “I told my dad, ‘The Derby’s coming soon, wouldn’t it be neat if I could ride in it?’”
Given a confident ride by Antley, Charismatic was held up in mid division for the first half of the race until making stylish headway around the outside to take third on the turn. He had a length and a half or two to make up on stablemate Cat Thief and the Bailey-ridden Worldly Manner, but there was a strong sense that they were sitting ducks, waiting for the inevitable with Charismatic breathing down their necks.
It took him most of the stretch to do it, but he picked them up comfortably in the end and held off the fast-finishing Menifee to win by a neck. “Miracles were made to come true.” beamed Antley after winning his second Derby. “This is the greatest sport there is. It is the sport of kings.”
Considered a fluke, Charismatic was allowed to go off at an insulting 8-1 for the Preakness two weeks later and he made a real statement by increasing the distance between him and the remainder when winning by a length and a half from Derby runner-up Menifee.
He was on the verge of being the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, but sadly injury cost him in the final leg as he could only finish third behind Lemon Drop Kid.
Antley had sensed something was wrong in the final furlong and eased him up to dismount before grabbing hold of and hoisting up the colt’s left front leg – actions that probably saved his life given the severity of the fractures.
Charismatic went on to recover and have a successful career at stud, but the man who rode him to his greatest triumphs sadly passed away the following year at the age of 34.
There’s a fantastic documentary about Antley and Charismatic as part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series and it’s well worth a watch.
2001 – Monarchos
The pre-race talk was dominated by Bob Baffert’s hot favourite Point Given, but that was before anybody knew he would be hot on the heels of some of the hottest opening fractions in Kentucky Derby history!
Having subsequently won the Preakness, Belmont and the Travers before retirement later that year, Point Given was clearly unfortunate not to be that year’s Kentucky Derby winner – but take nothing away from the horse that did win it.
Monarchos may not have had the consistent ability and career that Point Given did, but on that day he was a match for anyone and his Derby victory is one of the most spectacular in the race’s 145 runnings to date.
There aren’t many horses that can keep tabs on a hot pace and come through it tanking like he did and he had already proved his liking for that scenario when winning the Florida Derby in similar style seven weeks earlier.
Held up off a blistering early pace set by Songandaprayer, John Ward’s Monarchos made stealthy headway approaching the turn as it became clear the frontrunners had gone off like a shaken can of coke.
The Baffert pair Point Given and Congaree took the lead as they turned to face the wire, but Monarchos was tracking them through, motoring under the drive of his rider Jorge Chavez.
“Monarchos sweeps to the lead.” screamed race commentator Tom Durkin. “He’s pulling away by two, he’s pulling away by three, Jorge Chavez and Monarchos have won the Kentucky Derby. And the final time was 1 minute and 59 and 4/5 seconds. He was as fast as Secretariat!”
Connections had to survive a stewards’ inquiry before celebrating the win, but the minor interference suffered by the runner-up was clearly offset by the distance beaten the pair at the line. Monarchos failed to show up in the Preakess and Belmont afterwards and was retired the following winter, but maybe running the race that he did took too much out of him.
It takes a lot for a horse to be at their peak for each of the Triple Crown races – especially after clocking a Secretariat time in the first of them.
He may not have won again after his Churchill heroics, but Monarchos was something special the day that he took home the ‘Run for the Roses’.
1997 – Silver Charm
This was the start of the Bob Baffert domination with teak-tough grey Silver Charm prevailing by a head under a powerful ride from Gary Stevens.
In what was not the quickest Derby ever run, Silver Charm was given a positive ride and produced to lead inside the final furlong.
He was quickly challenged in the straight by flying closer Captain Bodgit, but Stevens always looked comfortable, keeping the same posture and left-hand drive to keep his mount up to it’s work. It was a fantastic finish – one of the very best in Derby history.
“I pointed him towards the Derby.” said Baffert. “I really drilled on him.” A heavy horse that could be lazy at times, Silver Charm was made to work with a lot of horses to keep him in shape and that sharpness clearly paid off in the stretch, as he repelled the challenge of the race favourite to notch a memorable win as Baffert’s first Kentucky hero.
Never one to win by far in his career, Silver Charm went on to win the Preakness by another head from Free House with Captain Bodgit also a head back in third.
He wasn’t as fortunate when losing out in the Belmont Stakes by a short margin next time, but that trio of colts really dominated the Triple Crown series that season – they were the first three home in the Derby, the first three home in the Preakness and the two of them that ran in the Belmont were second and third.
Preakness fourth Touch Of Gold took the victory that day – robbing Silver Charm in the dying strides over the extra quarter mile trip and making him one of many to land the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but come up short in what’s classed as the ‘test of a champion’.
“Silver Charm could’ve easily won the Triple Crown. He just had a little bad luck there.” added Baffert.
With the Dubai World Cup in it’s infancy and the prize money so good, Silver Charm was sent over to Nad Al Sheba the following season to take on Godolphin’s Swain.
There was only a short head between them at the line, but the plan came off and Silver Charm notched another first for Baffert. The legendary American trainer has now won the Kentucky Derby five times and the Dubai World Cup three times, but his first winner in both was Silver Charm. That more than guarantees the grey’s spot in the history books.
2004 – Smarty Jones
This year was not the deepest of Classic crops, but the story behind winner Smarty Jones made the Triple Crown more memorable.
As a yearling ‘Smarty’ endured a fractured skull with the bones around his left eye so badly damaged vets thought they would have to remove the eye.
He quickly recovered under the talented but unproven trainer John Servis and he was soon clocking sizzling speed figures over six furlongs under journeyman jockey Stewart Elliott.
Swiftly stepped up in class, he won the Arkansas Derby in impressive fashion and went into the Kentucky Derby with an unbeaten record.
On a muddy track, Smarty Jones broke fast and tracked front runner Lionheart before being produced on the home turn to win by two and three quarter lengths. A first Kentucky Derby for both, Servis and Elliott created history by combining to win the Classic on their debut appearance.
“It is just unbelievable.” said Elliott after winning on his first ride. “I crossed the wire and I can’t explain it. There aren’t words to describe it. We bunched up a bit on the first turn, but things turned out great. At the three-eighths pole, I knew I had a loaded gun underneath me. I was just going to sit until he straightened up and switched leads. He really went to running.”
Smarty Jones went on to follow up in the Preakness by a record 11 and a half lengths and was sent to the Belmont as a hot favourite with the Triple Crown in sight.
Due to his increasing popularity, he raised track attendance at New York and caused the highest television ratings for the race in the previous 14 years.
The fairytale ending was not to be though as Smarty Jones would not relax early and raced far too keenly under pressure from non-contenders. He finished a clear second, but was outgunned by stout stayer Birdstone with the crowd in a stunned silence.
Injury stopped him from competing in the Travers and the Breeders Cup Classic, but connections retired him to stud and he can currently be found back home in Pennsylvania, where his career began. A home-bred of his owners and one of only two horses they kept after the loss of their previous trainer, Smarty Jones was indeed a horse of a lifetime.